Author Profile: Ahlam Mosteghanemi
(Mosteghanemi.com; Mosteghanemi.net; Al Ahram Weekly – 24-30/12/98; "Khalleek Bil Bayt," Future Television – 20/01/03)
In a career spanning over 25 years, the Algerian Mosteghanemi authored best-selling novels such as "Memory in the Flesh," "Chaos of the Senses" and "Passer by a Bed." She became the first Algerian woman to write a novel in the Arabic language and the first contemporary Arab author to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of her work and dominate book charts for years in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Tunisia, and the UAE.
In 1998, Mosteghanemi received the Naguib Mahfouz prize for "Memory in the Flesh," a novel about Algeria's struggle against foreign domination and the problems that plagued the emerging nation after its independence. The committee granting her the prize described the author as "a light that shines bright in this dense darkness. She was able to break out of the linguistic exile that French colonialism banished Algerian intellectuals to."
Mosteghanemi's father Mohamed El Cherif, a native of Constantine, Algeria, struggled against the French occupation and lost his two brothers in an anti-French demonstration in the mid-1940s. Wanted by the French police for his resistance activities, he fled with his family to Tunisia, where he worked as a French teacher. His first child, Ahlam was born in an atmosphere charged with politics a few years before the Algerian revolt in 1954. Her father's house in Tunisia was a halfway house for Algerian resistance fighters.
After independence in 1962, the family returned to Algeria to settle in Algiers. The father sent his eldest daughter to the first Arabic school in Algeria, making Ahlam one of the first of her generation to receive instruction in her native tongue.
El Cherif suffered a mental breakdown shortly before Ahlam's 18th birthday, forcing her to work for the Algerian radio service to support her family. Her late-night show "Hamsat" (Whispers) established her as a promising poet. Mosteghanemi's first poetry anthology "Ala Marfa' Al Ayam" (On the Harbour of Time) was published in 1973 in Algeria. She followed up in 1976 with the "Kitaba Fi Lahzat Ory" (Writing in a Moment of Nudity) anthology.
Mosteghanemi left Algeria in the 1970s for Paris, where she married a Lebanese journalist and became a full-time mother. After earning a PhD from the Sorbonne in the 1980s, she published her first novel "Zakirat Al Jasad" (Memory in the Flesh) in 1993. The book is currently in its 19th edition and has sold over 130,000 copies. Her success continued with "Chaos Of The Senses" (Fawadal Hawass, Beirut 1997) and "Passer by a Bed" (Aber Sarir, Beirut 2003), both of which continue the story Mosteghanemi started in "Memory in the Flesh."
"Zakirat Al Jasad" is a stream-of-consciousness novel dedicated to Mosteghanemi's father and to the late francophone Algerian novelist and poet Malek Haddad (1927-1978), who decided to no longer write in foreign languages after independence, but ended up not writing anything. As Mosteghanemi points out in her dedication, Haddad "died a loving martyr of the Arabic language."
Mosteghanemi's writings evoke nostalgia for a nation "that lives in us but that we don’t live in." Now a resident of Beirut, her works express passion for an Algeria that the author misses and disappointment in a generation that could not build a strong nation after 130 years of colonialism. Her novels reach beyond the borders of their setting to tell a story of unrealized dreams and tragic becoming, making her tales significant to readers from across the Arab world.
Subscribe to our newsletter and get Magharebia's latest articles delivered to your inbox.