Birth in exile and return to Algeria
Ahlem was born in Tunis. She is the daughter of a militant political activist who was forced into exile during the Algerian liberation war. In 1962, on the wake of independence, her family moves back to Algeria, where her father, an intellectual and a humanitarian, occupies high functions in the first Algerian government, He will launch an alphabetization campaign all over the territory and supervise the distribution of agricultural lands to the poorest.
In the 70s, following the assassination attempt during the Boumediene coup d’état and the consequent hospitalization of her father who was also targeted, Ahlem, as the eldest sibling, takes up the responsibility of providing for her family as a radio host. At the age of 17, she becomes a household name in Algeria with the poetic daily show Hammassat (Whispers) on national radio.
While publishing in 1973, Ala Marfa al Ayam (To the days’ haven), Ahlem also becomes the first woman to publish a compilation of poetry in Arabic, which puts her on a thorny and untraveled path. It will be followed in 1976 by the release of Al Kitaba fi Lahdat Ouray (The writing in a moment of nudity). At the time, she is part of the first generation to acquire the right to study in Arabic after more than a century of prohibition by the French colonization.
The minefield of the Arabic language
The Arabic language, encouraged by her French-speaking father as if in revenge, provided her with a sense of liberation since her family had not mastered the newly reacquired Arabic language. But, at the time, the Algerian society was rebuilding its identity and recovering from a colonial past that resulted in the death of over a million and a half. It was not prepared to see a girl express herself freely on subjects such as love and women’s rights. It was even less prepared to see her do it in the sacred Arabic language. This is where Ahlem’s battle begins against sexism. During the revolution, women fought alongside men. Now relegated, women were denied their rights to express themselves and to aspire to success. After she received her B.A in Literature, the board of directors of the University of Algiers refused her enrolment for a Masters under the pretence that her freedom of expression had a negative impact on students. She was also expelled from the Union of Algerian Writers for not conforming to the political line of her time.
Mariage and life in Paris
Ahlem meets in Algiers Georges El Rassi, a Lebanese journalist and historian with a deep knowledge of Algeria who was preparing a thesis about “Arabization and cultural conflicts in independent Algeria”. They get married in 1976 in Paris where they settle. Ahlem then pursues her university studies at the Sorbonne, where in 1982 she obtains a doctorate in Sociology. Her thesis explores the misunderstanding and malaise between both sexes in the Algerian society. The doctorate is under the guidance of Jacques Berques, an eminent orientalist, who also writes the preface of her thesis (published in 1985 by L’Harmattan as Algérie, femmes et écriture)
During the fifteen years she spends in Paris, Ahlem contributes to various magazines, and during time stolen from her new role as a mother of three young boys, writes fragments of what turns out after four years to be a novel. Ahlem justifies her transition from poetry to prose by saying: « When we lose a love, one writes a poem, when we lose our homeland, one writes a novel». Algeria is never far from her mind: «There are countries that we live in and countries that live in us».
Settling in Lebanon and revelation
Once she settles down in 1993 in Lebanon, she presents her novel "Zakirat el Jassad" (Memory of the Flesh), to the editor of the renowned publishing house Dar Al Adab. Excited, the editor will declare: «This is a bomb». It will be the revelation. This novel, written in a style highly poetic and with political bravado, will have a phenomenal success throughout the Arab world. The love story is set between an armless painter and the daughter of his former commander encountered in Paris 25 years after the war. The novel evokes the disappointment of the post-war generation, which echoes the disappointment of a generation of Arabs. In a famous letter to the author, Nizar Kabbani, the great contemporary Arab poet, declared: «This novel gave me vertigo; had I been asked, I would have signed it». The director Youssef Chahine, winner of the Palme d'Or, purchases the rights to the film shortly before his death. Meanwhile, the famous Hollywood director Mustafa Akkad said that one of his dreams was to adapt "Zakirat el Jassad" into a movie. Moved by his reading, President Ben Bella will say from his exile: «Ahlem is an Algerian sun that illuminates the Arab world». To date, more than one million copies have been sold across the Arabic-speaking world (excluding pirated editions which vastly outnumber the legal editions in the Arab world). This novel also has the merit to reconcile the Arab reader with the Arabic language and reading.
Ahlem continues her literary success by giving two sequels to her novel: “Fawda el Hawas” (The chaos of senses) in 1997 and “Aber Sareer” (Bed Hopper) in 2003. Each part of the trilogy, now a classic, is a bestseller in its own right throughout the Arab world.
In 1998, Ahlem receives the Naguib Mahfouz literary prize for “Memory of the Flesh". This prize was founded by the American University of Cairo, which will translate the novel in English and publish it in 2000. The jury will say about the author: «Ahlem is a light which shines in thick darkness. She was able to get out of the linguistic exile in which French colonialism had relegated the Algerian intellectuals».
In 2010, Nessyan.com (The Art of Forgetting) is published. It is a break up manual for women, which will bring Ahlem closer to a female audience (Nessyan.com’s humorous reference on the cover is that it is banned from sale to men).
In 2012, Ahlem’s latest novel, El Aswad Yalikou Biki (Black Suits You so Well) is published. The novel confirms Ahlem’s status as a major Arab novelist. The story evokes the struggle of a young Algerian teacher whose father, a singer, is killed in the nineties by the terrorists who stand against any form of art and joy in society. Singing at her father’s funeral, the girl, previously forbidden to speak to, carries away the crowd with her dreamy voice. Defying terrorism, she embarks in a singing career. She then has to flee her country and during her exile she meets a wealthy and mysterious man who tries to seduce her. The novel addresses the challenge of standing up not only to terrorism but also to the crushing power of money and the media.
The launch of the novel will turn out to be a huge literary and media frenzy event (the writer will join on this occasion the group Hachette, which acquires the rights to publish her entire work in Arabic).
Fights and influence
For over 35 years, Ahlem’s contribution enriched the Arabic literary scene with her highly acclaimed sentimental and poetic work. Furthermore, through her writings she led the fight against corruption, injustice, totalitarian regimes, fundamentalism, new forms of colonization and the denigration of women's right. Her quotes, on love as well as politics, are widely used and broadcasted by the Arab public. As of the spring of 2015, the author is followed by more than 8 millions fans on Facebook and 600,000 on Twitter.
Her Literary Work in the Curriculum
Ahlam Mosteghanemi's novels have been adopted in the curricula of several universities and high schools worldwide, and dozens of university theses and research papers have been based upon her work. The French Ministry of Education has used parts of Memory of the Flesh for the French baccalaureate tests in 2003 in 15 countries where students chose Arabic as a second language. Her work has been translated into several foreign languages by prestigious publishing houses, including pocket books in French and English.
She lectured and worked as a visiting professor in many universities around the world including: The American University of Beirut, 1995 - University of Maryland, 1999 - University of Sorbonne, 2002 - Montpellier University, 2002 - University of Lyon, 2003 - Yale University, 2005 - MIT Boston, 2005 - University of Michigan, 2005.
Awards and Honors
Identified by Forbes Magazine as: The most successful Arabic writer, having exceeded sales of 2,300,000. One of the ten most influential women in the Arab world and the leading woman in literature.
Awarded The Shield of Beirut by the Governor of Beirut in a special ceremony held at Unesco Palace attended by 1500 people at the time her book “nessyane.com” was published in 2009.
Received the Shield of Al Jimar Foundation for Arabic Creativity in Tripoli – Libya, 2007.
Named the Algerian Cultural Personality of the year 2007 by Algerian News Magazine and the Algerian Press Club.
Selected for three years in a row (2006, 2007 and 2008) as one of the 100 most powerful public figures in the Arab World by Arabian Business Magazine, ranking at number 58 in 2008.
Named The Most Distinguished Arab Woman of 2006 (selected from 680 nominated women) by the Arab Women Studies Center Paris / Dubai.
Awarded a medal of honor from Abdelaziz Bouteflika the President of Algeria in 2006.
Received the Medal of Appreciation and Gratitude from Sheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis Foundation, Constantine, 2006.
Received the Pioneers of Lebanon Committee Medal for her overall work 2004.
Received the George Tarabeh Prize for Culture and Creativity, Lebanon, 1999.
Received the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Memory of the Flesh in 1998.
Received the Nour Foundation Prize for Women's Creativity, Cairo, 1996.