Who is Ahlam Mosteghanemi?
Ahlam Mosteghanemi is a contemporary Algerian poet and novelist. She is also arguably the most successful Arabic writer of her time. She was born in exile and during a time of great turmoil in Algeria. Her experiences as the daughter of a French teacher, turned Algerian liberation fighter, shaped her vision and provided inspiration for her writing. As one of the first students in the new Arabic schools in independent Algeria, she puts tremendous value in being able to write and express herself freely in Arabic. When her father was unable to provide for the family, she decided to take care of the family. But her father was against her working. He wanted her to study Arabic; that is what he had fought for. Somehow she managed to do both. She was first noticed for her bold Arabic poetry which had, until then, always belonged to Algerian men. As her boldness was expressed in Arabic, it sent a shock wave through the Algerian writing community. She was eventually forced to do her graduate studies abroad. She gracefully made the switch from poetry to novels over many years. When she finally released her first novel, it became an instant best-seller in the Arab world, as did her next four novels. Delving into human tragedy and unfulfilled dreams, her novels have universal appeal
Childhood & Early Life
She was born on April 13, 1953 in Tunis, Tunisia while her family was in exile. Her father, Mohamed El Cherif was wanted by the French government for his involvement in the Algerian liberation war.
In 1962, Algeria gained its independence. The family returned to Algiers where her father took on a major role in first independent Algerian government, and Ahlam attended the first Arabic school in the country. She and her classmates were among the first Algerians to be educated in Arabic rather than French.
In 1970, she worked as a daily poetry show host on the national radio to help take care of her family. Her father had been hospitalized for a nervous breakdown after an attempted coup; she had promised to help take care of her family. She was only 17 years at the time and was preparing for exams.
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In 1973, she graduated from the University of Algiers with a B.A. in Arabic literature and published the first collection of poetry written by a woman in Arabic, ‘On the Harbor of Time’.
Shortly after graduating from the University of Algiers, she was refused admission to the university’s master’s program and dismissed from the Union of Algerian Writers. As a woman writing in Arabic, she had upset the status quo by writing too frankly and freely about topics such as women’s rights.
In 1976, she moved to Paris and published her second collection of poetry called ‘The Writing in a Moment of Nudity’.
In 1982, she was awarded a PhD in sociology from La Sorbonne in Paris. Her thesis looked into the complexities of men and women in Algerian society and their frequent discomfort and misunderstanding of each other.
In 1993, she relocated to Lebanon where she published her first novel, ‘Memory in the Flesh’, created from writings collected during her time in Paris. With its release, she emerged as the first female Algerian novelist to write in Arabic.
In 1997, she released, ‘Chaos of the Senses’, the highly acclaimed sequel to ‘Memory in the Flesh’ which ended up winning an important literary award later on.
In 2003, ‘Bed Hopper’, the final book in the trilogy was released. It has been reprinted more than 20 times.
In 2009, the Governor of Beirut presented her with the Shield of Beirut in front of an audience of about 1500 people. Her book, ‘The Art of Forgetting’ was also released during this year.
In 2012, more than 200, 000 copies of her 5th novel, ‘Black Suits You So Well’ were sold in 2 months.
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Her collection of poems, ‘On the Harbor of Time’ shocked the newly independent Algerian society. An Algerian woman was not only writing poetry in Arabic; she was freely sharing her thoughts and ideas on subjects such as, women’s rights and romance.
The Trilogy including ‘Memory in the Flesh’ (1993), ‘Chaos of the Senses’ (1997), and ‘Bed Hopper’ (2003), which explore human tragedy and unfulfilled dreams made her a best-selling sensation in the Arab literature world. ‘Memory in the Flesh’ alone sold more than 1.2 million copies.
Awards & Achievements
In 1998, she was awarded the literary Naguib Mahfouz Prize for her first novel, ‘Memory in the Flesh’. This led to its translation into English in 2000.
In 2004, she was honored for her complete works with the Pioneers of Lebanon Committee Medal.
In 2006, the President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika presented her with a medal of honor. The Arab Women Studies Center Paris/Dubai named her The Most Distinguished Arab Woman of 2006.
From 2006–2008, Arabian Business Magazine listed her as one of the 100 most influential individuals in the Arab world. In the final year, she appeared at number 58 on the list.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1976, she married Lebanese historian and journalist, Georges El Rassi, who has a deep interest in Algerian history. They have 3 sons.
Her novels have been translated into several languages as well as incorporated into the curricula of secondary schools and universities around the world.
Her father told the critics at her first poetry recital, “That is my daughter. She writes as she wishes. She is free.” She attributes her strength years later to his words.
Speaking of why she switched from poetry to novels, she said, “When we lose a love, one writes a poem, when we lose our homeland, one writes a novel.”