Bestselling Algerian novelist and poet Ahlam Mosteghanemi began publishing in the 1970s and remains one of the most popular and beloved authors writing in Arabic. She is also winner of the 1998 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for her Memory in the Flesh, also translated as The Bridges of Constantine by Raphael Cohen. Her Chaos of the Senses (tr. Nancy Roberts) and The Art of Forgetting (tr. Raphael Cohen) are also in English translation. Here, she talks about her long literary career and the reasons why she wrote not in French, but in Arabic:
Part of this interview also appeared in Arabesque magazine*.
-Karima Belghiti and Jonas Elbousty
You belong to an earlier generation of writers who were lucky to learn Modern Standard Arabic, as it was not allowed by the French colonizer. It seems that your preference for Arabic has a literary and political significance in your journey as a person and as a writer. Is that right? If so, could you please explain your motives behind this preference? What does it mean to you?
AM: Arabic was my father’s choice, not mine; he wanted me to avenge him, as he was deprived of learning it by the French colonizer, who declared war on the Arabic language as a way of stripping Algerians of their identity. My father was very fluent in French; he loved French literature and philosophy, but he always felt alienated because he did not learn Arabic. In the sixties, after independence, when my father enrolled me in the first Arab school for girls in Algeria, it never crossed his mind that he was choosing my destiny. For my father, choosing Arabic was a conscious political decision, but for me, it was my father’s will that I was keen on fulfilling.
Although I have a great command of French, Arabic is the language of my heart and the voice of my faith. I do not know how else to say ‘I love you’ except in Arabic. I also love French poetry, but I can only write a poem in Arabic. Likewise, I love French songs, but I only enjoy listening to classical Arab music. Arabic is the language of love; unfortunately, this is what people in the West ignore. No other language has 90 synonyms for love, differentiating its degrees. It is also the language of meticulous description because of its rich lexicon.
Would you say that your choice of writing in Arabic was an important factor behind your success as an Arab woman writer? Are there any other factors?
AM: Let’s be honest, luck can sometimes play an important role in achieving success, no matter how talented the person might be. Time and circumstances might have helped me at the beginning of my career. In the seventies, an era abounding with poetry, I was the first Algerian woman to write poems in Arabic. Back then, while most themes in literature revolved around war casualties, I, unlike others, decided to write love poetry, which was a challenge I was willing to take up. Moving to Beirut at the beginning of the nineties was another significant time in my career, as I managed to publish my first novel, Memory in the Flesh, whose success, engulfing the Arab world, was unexpected. Arab readers and literary critics were astonished, wondering how an Algerian woman could have such a talent in publishing a work of fiction, given that France had deprived Algerian citizens of their right to learn Arabic for more than a century.
I think Memory in the Flesh paved the way for a new genre in writing, combining fiction and poetry and becoming a vehicule for voicing untold stories, eschewing the machine of censorship. This premeditated strategy has made my work accessible to a wider readership.
You and Assia Djebar are considered two of the most important writers in Algerian fiction in the 20th century; however, unlike Djebar, who immigrated to France as her way to protest against the Arabization policy — a decision taken by President Boumedien to Arabize humanities and social sciences in the Algerian universities — you have kept writing in Arabic. You have also launched a literary prize in the name of the late Algerian novelist Malek Haddad, who decided to stop writing in the French language after the independence of Algeria. Hasn’t this decision decreased your chances from achieving worldwide success?
AM: I have spent many years in Paris. I got married there, started my small family there, and received my PhD at the Sorbonne. Thus, I am very familiar with the issues that could have attracted French and Western media, and paved the way to my fame at the international level; however, I am not interested in that fame. Glory and fame do not mean much to me. I understand that many Algerian writers might have a different attitude, which I respect. But for me, nothing equals the glory of being close to your people and heritage.
I was the founder of the Malek Haddad Literary Prize to commemorate his career. He made numerous sacrifices for his love of and admiration of Arabic. He was a successful Francophone writer, but he made the decision to stop writing in French, right after independence, because he refused to address his people in a language that is not theirs. His decision, however, jeopardized his career as a writer, since his level in Arabic was not strong. I personally do not see anything wrong with using the language of the colonizer in writing, but I cannot judge his decision because, unlike him, I did not experience the unfair treatment of the French colonizer.
My decision to keep writing in Arabic has paid off, as it has been confirmed by many critics. When my novel Memory in the Flesh came out 30 years ago, I believe it rekindled a new readership, and an unparalleled desire for voracious reading. I have managed to turn my readers into writers. Anyone who reads my work feels the urge to start writing. My interactions on Facebook are a testament to this. My followers write and post their own literary texts to impress me as well as other followers. Something that I always say is: “I am the writer whose readers are writers.”
Your novels deal with issues related to the relationships between men and women and citizens and Arab rulers. Could you speak a bit about the role that themes play in your narratives?
AM: Politics is one of the issues that I am very interested in. Following Algeria’s independence, the incoming government considered Algeria as a mere property. Its tactics of deceit and corruption reigned supreme (lies, political assassinations, oppression, etc). There are Arab countries that have been completely destroyed for the sake of one family—for the sake of one person to be able to govern millions of citizens. That person would always have his hands on the wealth and resources of the nation, and rob and displace citizens as he wishes without any accountability.
In addition to politics, I like writing about love and desire—feelings many people wish to experience but cannot. For me, the driving force behind writing is imagination and the longing for what we cannot have in real life. This is why the first sentence I wrote in Memory in the Flesh comes out as: “what happened between us is beautiful, what has never happened between us is beautiful, and what will never happen between us is beautiful.”
Your father was one of the Algerian heroes fighting for independence, and this is also a theme that often recurs in your novels, especially in Memory in the Flesh, Chaos of the Senses, and Passer by a Bed. Could you tell us what role your father played in your personal and professional life and how his fight for independence affected your writing?
AM: I grew up in a household where talking about and being involved in politics was a common practice. My father was a representative of the workers’ union and one of the founders of the Human Rights League in Algeria. After independence, he launched a literacy campaign in a country which was stripped of its right to education by the colonizer attempting to enslave its citizens. From an early age, I became aware of the importance of education as a human right and an essential key to freedom.
Although I was living in a patriarchal society that did not acknowledge that I, as a woman, have the right to learn and be free, my father played a major role in my life, always supporting and encouraging me. I could not have made it if it were not for him. The start of my career as a writer was difficult; I was one of the few Arab female writers in the Arab world, but the support I received from my father sustained my endeavors.
The atrocities my father underwent had a huge impact on me. After independence his friends were imprisoned and/ or killed. He himself was also a constant target, and he was fortunate to escape an assassination attempt, which resulted in a severe nervous breakdown and his admission to a mental health facility. These tragic events have, forever, shaped me and my writings.
Do you think readers have a role in the success writers achieve? And do you think readers should be involved and taken into consideration while writing novels or any other literary work?
AM: In the past, literary critics could either make writers or break them. Today, the only critics that exist are the readers; they are the ones who hold the keys to the writer’s success. They are the ones who can make the text famous and who can evaluate writers, regardless of the prizes and the number of publications they might have. They are looking for writers whose writings they can relate to. They buy a book, hoping to read about themselves, not someone else. Successful writers are those whose readers identify themselves in their works. Readers should be viewed as partners in the process of writing. Their experience and cultural backgrounds should be taken into consideration; that is why I always keep readers in mind while I’m writing; it is my way of making them feel that what I write is theirs as well. My dream is to write a book with one of my readers; we would be like musicians playing a symphony.
Given that you are writing for Arab readers in particular and that your novels usually raise controversial issues, how do you manage to avoid censorship?
AM: While writing for Arab readers, it is very important to think about how to get your ideas across. In order to reach everyone, you should make sure to transmit your messages without provoking or drawing the attention of political, religious, and social censorship. Skilled writers are skilled smugglers of ideas. They encrypt their ideas to get their message across smoothly.
Given your special style in Arabic, what do you think about the translated versions of your works? To what extent do you think translation is faithful to your work and the language you use? And what is your relationship with the translators you work with around the world?
AM: While I am aware of the importance of translation, I am not obsessed by it because I firmly believe that it cannot remain faithful to my texts, which are full of poeticity and linguistic quirks, making even the translation of its titles and what they imply very challenging. When I write الوردة (in Arabic), for example, and someone translates it as flower (in English), such literal translation does not reveal the implicit meaning of the word, which in this case is an aura. I have always had this fear of losing the aura of my words between two languages. That is the reason why I have not been interested in becoming an international figure, nor have I been on the hunt for translators. I do not even have an agent who publicizes my work. The great success I have achieved in the Arab world has been enough for me. My novels have had a lot of success when they were translated into English and French, in particular. This is what I have noticed through the feedback I receive from students and readers who study my novels in different European and American universities.
As far as my relationship with translators is concerned, I would say that it is good overall; I have not mastered many of the languages they translate my novels into; thus, I am usually not able to read the translated versions of my novels. Trust is the key, and it is built through the conversations I have with them. I have even learned a lot from some translators. My dear Francesco Leggio, who translated Memory in the Flesh into Italian, is a case in point. He drew my attention to the fact that I tend to repeat certain words, and he provided me with great pieces of advice. The only translators with whom I usually have heated, yet fruitful discussions are the French, as I have a great command of the French language. I bombard them with feedback, asking them to make multiple revisions to save the soul of my texts. I’d rather not have my novels translated than have them be poorly translated. This would really make me sad.
I believe that communication between writers and translators is essential in producing a superb translation. If translators do not have a close relationship with the writers, they will more than likely fail in their task, ending up producing literal translations.
As a woman and a writer, what are your future projects?
AM: I have many future projects, one of which is related to my mission as a UNESCO ambassador for peace. I believe that promoting justice costs less than being engaged in wars, and that fighting poverty is better than fighting terrorism. Billions of dollars have been spent for two decades under the pretext of combating terrorism, which has only worsened the situation, creating inequity, poverty, ignorance, and sectarianism. All of these things have led to more terrorist attacks.
Spreading peace is a project to which I have wholeheartedly devoted myself and my writing. I have 13 million followers on my Facebook page, through which I have been trying to fight extremism and sectarianism. Although my followers belong to different races and ethnic groups and come from countries beset by civil strife and unrest, they all coexist in peace in that virtual world I have created for them.
Another project that consumes my time is promoting my Facebook page as a platform for victims of war, expatriates, (forced) migrants, and those who are caught in limbo between their host and home countries. This virtual space gives them an opportunity to express, in writing, their pain and narrate the tragedies that befell them. I believe that the act of writing is therapeutic, allowing people to voice their agonies and overcoming traumatic experiences.
What advice would you give novice young writers?
AM: I would, first, advise them to start writing about what they know best (i.e. themselves, their immediate environments, feelings, etc.). Writers should also hone their craft by constant practice, producing many drafts, as haste is a detriment to a writer’s success. My last piece of advice is that, when they achieve success, they should not become arrogant; arrogance can incapacitate writers. Voltaire rightfully says that “the writer dies suffocating under bouquets of flowers.”
Karima Belghiti is a writer and academic. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Part of this interview also appeared in Paolo Gonzaga’s Italian translation in a 2021 issue of Arabesque, in: “Ahlam Mostaghanemi: L’arabo e la lingua dell’amore. »