She’s been called a literary phenomenon and her novels have sold more than a million copies. Yet, despite being the best-selling female author in the Arab world, the Algerian writer Ahlem Mosteghanemi might very well be the biggest Arabic novelist English readers have never heard of.
Perhaps it was her misfortune to be a trailblazer at a time before headline-grabbing awards such as the International Prize for Arab Fiction came along. Certainly there wasn’t the same kind of global critical gaze on Arab fiction when her debut, Dhakirat Al-Jasad, was published in 1993. But as Bloomsbury offers a new translation 20 years on, Mosteghanemi has another reason.
“I never sought fame or the spotlight,” she says. “I rarely accept interviews or make appearances on TV shows. And when I began to get a following on Facebook, the initial flattery gave way to a huge sense of responsibility and inconvenience. A writer needs some solitude and peace to concentrate.”
Calling her Facebook presence a “following” is putting it mildly. Mosteghanemi’s page has a staggering three million likes, and the official site is only scratching the surface – there are 40 other fan pages. And actually, the inconvenience is understandable: she says some of the unofficial pages take a stand in her name, “without consulting me, which is not good at a very delicate time for the Arab world”.
Hopefully, the English-speaking readers likely to arrive at her website after reading Raphael Cohen’s faithful translation of Dhakirat Al-Jasad – which goes by the title of The Bridges of Constantine (pictured left) – will cause less trouble. Telling the story of an Algerian revolutionary, Khaled, who returns from self-exile in Paris to find he is falling in love with the child of his old commander, it’s a vivid portrait of Algeria in the second half of the 20th century. Why does Mosteghanemi think it struck such a chord at the time?
“Well, it addressed two themes close to people’s hearts: political disillusion of a whole generation, and love. Actually, it was a word-of-mouth phenomenon at first. The critics couldn’t believe that an Algerian writer – and a woman – could achieve such a feat in Arabic.”
Incredibly, Mosteghanemi reveals that when The Bridges of Constantine was first published, it was attributed to a famous male novelist, and it took her three years and five lawyers to prove she wrote it. Obviously there were sociological and political issues at play, but in a way she was also a victim of her own writing. Mosteghanemi successfully portrayed the life, loves and obsessions of Khaled as he approaches old age, despite being a woman in her late 30s at the time.
“All those issues nearly drove me to depression, there was such a huge media backlash,” she says now. “And though people think the situation is getting easier for women novelists, I actually think it’s more difficult. We are a nation afraid of words – my books have sometimes been prohibited just for including the words ‘body’ or ‘bed’ in the title. So we’re experiencing a resurgence in extremism, and when you write in Arabic you’re very much under scrutiny in a way you’re not if you’re writing in French or English. And, of course, being a woman and successful compounds the problem and tends to create a lot of enemies.”
But a million sales don’t lie. And while she’s diversified – her non-fiction guide to “moving on” after relationship failure, The Art of Forgetting, was described as “chatty and heartwarming” by The National – it’s the poetry of The Bridges of Constantine that has made her name.
“I was a poet before I was a novelist, and yes, I think it is a kind of long poem. Unfortunately, that also makes it difficult to translate,” Mosteghanemi admits. Certainly, The Bridges of Constantine will be something of an acquired taste for English readers more accustomed to less florid, “western” novels. But then, in some ways, that’s the point of this new translation from a major publisher. It’s an insight into not just a different style of writing, but a different world, too.
“I hope it opens a window,” the author agrees. “It will certainly satisfy the curiosity of people who wonder how Arabs think, feel and experience a passion for a homeland – or a woman.”
• The Bridges of Constantine (Bloomsbury) is out now