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Ferial Ghazoul
Al-ahram Weekly

The Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, awarded annually by the American University in Cairo Press for the best recent novel in Arabic went in 1998 to the Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi for her novel Dhakirat Al-Jasad (Memory in the Flesh). Ferial J Ghazoul examines the literary virtuosity of this Algerian writer


Dhakirat Al-Jasad (Memory in the Flesh), published simultaneously in Algeria and Lebanon in 1993, and presently in its tenth printing, is the first novel written by an Algerian woman in Arabic. Its author, Ahlam Mosteghanemi, received her BA in Arabic literature from the University of Algiers in 1973, and was awarded a doctorate in sociology from the Sorbonne in 1982. Her doctorate dissertation was published in Paris in 1985, under the title Alg�rie: Femmes et �criture (Algeria: Women and Writing), and introduced by Jacques Berque. Ahlam Mosteghanemi has also published other literary works, including two volumes of poetry entitled 'Ala Marfa' Al-Ayyam (On the Haven of Days) and Al-Kitaba fi Lahzat 'Uriyy (Unveiled Instant of Writing); and more recently a novel entitled Fawdat Al-Hawas (Anarchy of Senses).

Dhakirat Al-Jasad (Memory in the Flesh), is dedicated to the author's militant father and to the Francophone Algerian poet and novelist, Malek Haddad (1927-78), a literary father of sorts to Mosteghanemi, who decided after the independence of Algeria in 1962 not to write in a foreign language any more, and ended up not writing at all. As Ahlam Mosteghanemi points out in her dedication, Haddad passed away -- a loving martyr of the Arabic language -- as the white page reduced him to silence. But his verbal traces in Dhakirat Al-Jasad, whether in the name of the protagonist which is borrowed from the last novel of Haddad or in allusions and intertextual references, marked in bold font, attest to the literary kinship between the two writers. The author points out to her readers from the very first page her filiation and affiliation.

In her own way, Ahlam Mosteghanemi articulates the drama of contemporary Algeria in the language in which Malek Haddad wanted so much to create. She settles her accounts beautifully with the white page and does justice to Haddad and all the Algerian intellectuals who were denied the use of the maternal tongue in a creative way. As Ali El-Ra'i put it: "Ahlam Mosteghanemi is a writer who has banished the linguistic exile to which French colonialism pushed Algerian intellectuals.

" Her novel decolonises on two levels: it reappropriates Algerian history and presents the ravages of colonialism from the point of view of its victims; and also she writes in the language of the victims with passion and mastery. But the novel is not only about the Algerian struggle against foreign domination, it is also about the complex post-independence problems facing the emerging nation. Ahlam Mosteghanemi exposes, with a postcolonial awareness, the disappointments, deviations and displacements of revolutionary ideals. However, she does not dwell on these social and political predicaments directly; she uses them as a narrative framework for the passionate affair between Khaled, the militant middle-aged Algerian, who turns to painting after losing his left arm in the struggle, and Hayat, the fiction writer and the young daughter of his friend, the mujahid (freedom fighter) Si Al-Taher.

Hayat ends up marrying a character who embodies Algeria's new bourgeois class, set on accumulating wealth and status symbols. Hassan, Khaled's brother, on the other hand, presents an individualised case of demoralised Algerians who turn to religion for relief. Nasser, the heroine's brother rejects the marriage of convenience between his sister and the successful businessman. The Palestinian poet Ziyad, who taught in Algeria and comes to visit his old friend Khaled in Paris also meets Hayat and a Platonic mutual fascination between the younger writers takes place, disturbing the older Khaled, before he learns of the tragic death of Ziyad in Lebanon after the invasion of Israel in 1982. Each character in this novel is realistically portrayed and at the same time seems to stand for a type encountered in our contemporary world.

Building a nation proves to be not an easy task after 130 years of settler colonialism which undermined the native social structure. Disappointed intellectuals, like Khaled, look beyond national borders to make a niche for themselves abroad and thus gradually the dream of Algeria becomes a nightmare. Against this background personal passions cannot be dissociated from national dramas: Hayat personifies an Algeria that is driven away from revolutionary glory to mundane concerns, and yet Ahlam Mosteghanemi brilliantly shows that beneath the formal breakdown the revolutionary spark is alive, symbolised in the unfulfilled love between Khaled and Hayat. The writer herself explains her reluctance to represent a consummation in her work as an expression of her fascination with raghba, desire, not mut'a, pleasure. The subterranean erotic longings echo the underground political aspirations of revolutionary Algerians. Mosteghanemi's "legitimacy of madness" finds its best expression in the secret terrain of banned liberation movements and the dialectics of an impossible affair where the beloved evokes both a daughter figure and an actual mother.

The novel is narrated in the first person pronoun by the male protagonist Khaled, in a lyrical stream-of-consciousness style, with frequent flashbacks. The dialogue moves from fusha, literary Arabic, to colloquial Algerian Arabic with occasional phrases in French, none of which constitute an impediment to comprehension as the interior monologues help contextualise and elaborate the verbal exchanges. The protagonist knew Hayat, the heroine, when she was a child living in Tunis away from the war zone in Algeria.

Entrusted once by her father, who was both his comrade-in-arms and political leader, to complete the formalities for her civil registration and to give her a name, he meets her again two decades later when she is a young woman, adorned in traditional Algerian jewelry, at the opening of an exhibit of his paintings in Paris. The massive bracelet reminds him of his dead mother while the very identity of Hayat reminds him of her militant father who became a martyr -- all of which bring back to Khaled's mind the past of Algeria and the present disappointments. Hayat, on the other hand, meets someone who knew her father, whom she rarely met as he was involved in the clandestine struggle intimately, and who could tell her about him and what he was like, going beyond the national icon that he has become in the eyes of his family and his country.

It is precisely this cross-referencing of father-daughter and son-mother relations which give the work a psychoanalytic dimension and overdetermines the symbolic connotations of the novel. The return of Khaled to Constantine to participate in the fabulous wedding of Hayat to a nouveau riche points to the frustrations of a father/lover possessiveness and to the militant/artist disappointments in the course of Algerian development. Khaled's cycle of paintings of Constantine's bridges in different lights seems less a representation of natural landscapes than an effort to bridge psychological and political chasms. In contrast to his sensuous but not physical relationship with Hayat, the Algerian woman, Khaled's relationship with Catherine, the French woman, demonstrates the encounter in flesh but not in spirit. She fulfills a physical need and offers Khaled sexual satisfaction, but there is no abandonment, no madness in this pleasure.

Ahlam Mosteghanemi is able to represent more than four decades of Algerian history as they interweave with the characters' trajectories and memories, from the revolt of 1945 in East Algeria, which led to the imprisonment of the protagonist with the well-known Algerian writer Kateb Yassin, to 1988 when the protagonist-narrator is writing a memoir in the form of the novel we read. This tormenting beloved -- this Hayat who is a correlative of the East Algerian city Constantine, and by extension of the homeland Algeria -- captivates, in the words of Hoda Wasfi, "by writing the self through the nation, by the double voice of body and language, and by combining the techniques of fictionalised autobiography with documentation, thus blurring the frontiers of genres and creating intertwining meanings". The poetic flair of the work is unmistakable, as well as the confessional tone. The work also refers to actual figures in the FLN as well as invoking literary heroes, such as Zorba the Greek and the legendary Lorca, which constitute the sentimental education of the heroine.

Mosteghanemi is remarkable in her ability to embody convincingly a male voice who constructs this extraordinary tale of passion, and as Abdel-Moneim Tallima commented, "Ahlam Mosteghanemi goes beyond the common notions of the masculine and the feminine to present a humane horizon." As she said in an interview, she opted for a male narrator, partly because she did not want to be classified under the label of "womanist writing", and partly because she wanted to cover episodes in the political history of Algeria in which men were instigators. Her new novel, Fawdat Al-Hawas has a woman narrator, and is clearly a literary and historical sequel to the first, magnificent part of a trilogy.

Although the novel Dhakirat Al-Jasad is specifically Algerian in its setting with the action moving between Paris and Constantine and occasionally Tunis, its significance could be felt anywhere in the Arab World or in the Third World. The tragic sense of its unfolding, the unrealised dreams and the looming death at every corner -- that of the militant Si Al-Taher assassinated by the French, of the Palestinian poet Ziyad by the Israelis, of the protagonist's brother by the Algerians in an uprising -- constitute the fabric of life here and there in these bleak times. The difficult situation of Algerian writers today is exemplified in the physical threats endangering their very survival, just as a sense of doom threatens the rest of Arab intellectuals with impotence. What Ahlam Mosteghanemi achieves is turning our pain into a noble art and transforming our grief into majestic literature. Her light -- to borrow the imagery of Ali El-Ra'i -- shines all the more bright in the density of this darkness.

 


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