Mustaghanmi, Ahlam (1953–)

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Mustaghanmi, Ahlam

Ahlam Mustaghanmi (Ahlem Mosteghanemi), a prominent Algerian author, is probably the world's best-known arabophone woman novelist.


Mustaghanmi was born on 13 April 1953 in Tunis. Her parents were from Constantine, a historic city in eastern Algeria, which they left in 1947, moving to Tunisia following Mustaghanmi's father's release from prison by French colonial authorities. Her father, Mohammed-Cherif Mustaghanmi, was an Algerian nationalist and had been arrested following the Sétif demonstration and massacre of 8 May 1945 (Algerian civilians in the city of Sétif participating in a parade marking the end of World War II in Europe demonstrated for Algerian independence and were set upon by French police and settlers, who killed thousands, including Mohammed-Cherif's brothers). In Tunisia, Mohammed-Cherif resumed his activism, making his home a meeting place for Algerian nationalists before the war of independence (1954–1962) and for freedom fighters during the war years.

After independence in 1962, Mohammed-Cherif took prominent positions in the government of Ahmed Ben Bella. When Ben Bella was ousted in a 1965 military coup that put Houari Boumédienne into the presidency, Mohammed-Cherif became very ill. Suffering from an acute nervous breakdown, he spent most of his time in a psychiatric clinic in Algiers where Ahlam visited him at least three times a week. He was unable to comprehend or accept the political conflicts of postcolonial Algeria, which turned former comrades into rivals aiming to eliminate each other. Disillusioned and resentful, Mohammed-Cherif died in 1992, as Algeria was embarking on a decade of civil war and terrorist violence.

Ahlam Mustaghanmi attended primary school in Tunis and high school in Algiers. Her love for Arabic literature and language was stimulated by her father, who, despite his vocation as a French teacher, had his children learn Arabic, a language he himself had been unable to acquire under French rule. Because of her father's condition, she helped to support her family while still in high school by working for Algerian radio. Mus-taghanmi broadcast a radio program, Hamasat (Whispers), on literature and music, and at the University of Algiers, where she studied Arabic literature, she was one of the first Arabized graduates in the country in 1971. Two years later she published her first collection of poems, 'Ala Marfa' al-Ayyam (On the harbor of the days), dedicated to her father (who was too ill to appreciate it) for whom, in her own words, she writes in Arabic.

In 1982 Mustaghanmi earned a doctorate in the social sciences from the Sorbonne in Paris with a study of "L'Algérie, femme et écriture" (Algeria, woman, and writing). In her thesis she proposes that Algerian men must become liberated and emancipated before women can aspire to such ideals. She harshly criticizes the National Union of Algerian Women (UNFA), and calls its members "a gathering of ugly and frustrated women."

During her student years in Paris Mustaghanmi met George Rassi, a Lebanese journalist, whom she married and with whom she lived in Paris and, after 1994, Lebanon. Marriage and motherhood consumed all her time for some years. Later she made a tentative return to writing through her contributions to Hiwar (Dialogue), a magazine edited by her husband, and al-Tadamun (Solidarity), an Arabic magazine published in London. In 1993 Mustaghanmi made a forceful return to creative writing as a novelist.


Name: Ahlam Mustaghanmi (Ahlem Mosteghanemi)

Birth: 1953, Tunis, Tunisia

Family: Husband, George Rassi; three sons

Nationality: Algerian

Education: Primary, Tunis; secondary, Algiers; B.A., Arabic literature, University of Algiers, 1971; Ph.D., social sciences, Sorbonne, Paris, 1982


  • 1973: Publishes her first collection of poems, 'Ala Marfa' al-Ayyam (On the harbor of the days)
  • 1993: Publishes her first novel, Dhakirat al-Jasad (Memory in the Flesh); wins the Nour Foundation Prize for Dhakirat al-Jasad
  • 1994: Moves to Lebanon from France
  • 1997: Publishes her second novel, Fawda al-Hawas (Chaos of the Senses)
  • 1998: Wins the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Dhakirat al-Jasad
  • 1999: Wins the Professor Georges Tarabey Prize for Dhakirat al-Jasad
  • 2002: Publishes her third novel, 'Abir Sarir (Passer by a Bed)

Mustaghanmi the Poet

Mustaghanmi's career as a writer is clearly divided into two stages: before and after marriage and motherhood. In the first stage she was a poet who enjoyed the freedom of writing and wholly devoted herself to poetry. In the second she has written fiction, after a gap of fifteen years during which she did no literary writing. This period of motherhood, as she describes it, changed her approach. She testifies that writing has not become everything in her life, but "stolen moments" from her normal life. She steals time to write, she even steals her son's desk to write on. She steals words as others steal moments of joy, because writing is the only women's adventure that deserves the risks, which she takes with the avidity of one whose pleasure is both forbidden and threatened.

Mustaghanmi began her career as a poet. She published her first collection of poems, 'Ala Marfa' al-Ayyam in 1973 and her second, Al-Kitaba fi Lahzat 'Uriyy (Writing at a moment of nudity) in 1976. Akadhib Samaka (Lies of a fish) followed in 1993.

Mustaghanmi believes that the birth of the poet takes place when he or she faces the public for the first time. She was born at age seventeen when she faced an enthusiastic and critical audience in Algiers. Half of this audience, she has said, came to support her, the other half to condemn her for her femininity and her love of poetry, which they judged indecent at a time when the wounds of the war of independence had not yet healed.

Although she was the only woman poet on that occasion, Mustaghanmi claims that her main concern was not the women's question but the concerns of Algerian youth during the 1970s. "Poetry and the nation were my main concern," she writes on her Web site. "Femininity was my personal problem. This became more obvious to me once I left Algeria and became a wife and a mother, with all the social obligations that this entailed."

It was because of her marriage and children that Mustaghanmi gave up poetry. She told journalists that it was her decision to leave poetry lest she become a bad poet. For her, to be a poet meant to devote her whole life to poetry and to live outside social norms. She considers poetry a form of leisure that is not available to women in her society, since, according to its norms, their prime role is that of motherhood and housework. She has said that she was not so distressed when she discovered that she could no longer write poetry, but she would be very worried if one day she were not able to write at all.

Mustaghanmi the Novelist

As a novelist, Mustaghanmi says that she found herself in territory she had not planned to enter. She claims that through writing her first novel, she discovered her second self, a woman with whom she failed to identify at first. She explains that her journey with this second self resulted in a four hundred-page text, which she called a novel, Dhakirat al-Jasad (Memory in the Flesh). This book, published simultaneously in Algeria and Lebanon in 1993, at first went unnoticed in Algeria, but later became a best seller in the Arab world, running into twenty-two printings within a few years. In 1993 Memory in the Flesh was awarded the Nour Foundation Prize for the best work of literature by an Arab woman; in 1998 it won the naguib mahfouz Medal for Literature; and in 1999 it received the Professor Georges Tarabey Prize for the best work of literature published in Lebanon.

Mustaghanmi published her second novel, Fawda al-Hawas (Chaos of the Senses) in 1997, which reached seventeen printings, and a third, 'Abir Sarir (Passer by a Bed) in 2002, which sold more than eighty thousand copies. These three novels form a trilogy. Their main protagonist is Khaled, a painter and war veteran who fought in the war of independence, which cost him his left arm. In Memory in the Flesh Khaled is portrayed as an embittered and nostalgic exile. At an exhibit of his paintings in Paris he meets Ahlam, the daughter of Si Taher, a famous revolutionary martyr, whom he befriended during the revolution. Although much older than she, Khaled falls instantly in love with Ahlam, who for him is the embodiment of the forsaken nation and the city of his youth, Constantine (Arabic: Casantina), which itself is another character. Khaled tells Ahlam that he has condemned her to be his Casantina, and himself to be majnun (insane, alluding here to Majnun Layla, a spiritual lover who died as a result of his love). As the daughter of Si Taher, Ahlam is also a link with the revolution as a part of Khaled's life. To Khaled's disappointment Ahlam does not share his feelings and refuses to carry the burden of all the things he sees in her; she belongs to a new generation of women who refuse to confine themselves in the past and prefer to live in the present, with which Khaled fails to identify.

Khaled's sense of loss is identical to that of the liberated nation, around which the trilogy revolves. Algeria and the challenges of the present are at the core of Mustaghanmi's oeuvre, and the chaos suffered by her characters is equally suffered by the young nation, whose misfortunes only became more acute with the outbreak of civil war in the 1990s—the culmination of an identity crisis suffered by the nation since its independence.


The greatest influence in Mustaghanmi's life and writing is the Algerian war of independence. She was born in exile as a result of her father's resistance activities, and throughout her childhood she was very close to news of the war of liberation, not only through meetings taking place in her parents' home, but through the direct involvement of her relatives in the revolution. Her cousin Badia Mustaghanmi was one of the first female students to join the students' strike and the armed revolution thereafter, and became a martyr to the cause. Mustaghanmi, a self-proclaimed nonfeminist, does not make much of this aspect of the revolution in her fiction, focusing instead on male heroes, one of whom was her cousin Azzeddine Mustaghanmi, a high-ranking army officer in the revolution.

Another major influence on her was the heated debate in early postcolonial Algeria about the country's cultural identity. During the colonial period France waged a fierce war against the teaching of the Arabic language and Islam. Instead it offered limited access to French schools whose prime mission was acculturation and "civilization." At independence the illiteracy rate was a staggering 96 percent, according to some sources, while the literate elite was educated only in French. A major question during this period was whether Algeria should continue to use the French language or fully Arabize the country and its institutions. The new state endeavored to give Algeria an Arab-Islamic cultural identity through an Arabization campaign (in which Mustaghanmi's father was directly involved, leading a commission on adult literacy and the preparation of teaching materials). This debate generated hostility sometimes amounting to hatred between francophone and arabophone writers and intellectuals, and resulted in the permanent literary silence of some francophone writers, such as Malek Had-dad, the temporary silence of some others, such as assia djebar, and the shifting into Arabic by a few, such as rachid boudjedra in 1982.

Algeria had produced a very interesting corpus of francophone literature in the 1950s and 1960s, but in 1971 the first Algerian novel in Arabic, Rih al-Janub (Wind from the south) by the late Abd al-Hamid Ben Hadouga, was published. Thereafter many other (male) arabophone novelists reached prominence. Mustaghanmi came to maturity after independence and, as we have seen, strongly advocates the country's Arab identity. It is surprising, therefore, to find that she honors the francophone writers who chose to cease writing rather than write in Arabic (which they may be unable to do), calling them "the martyrs of silence." The one she most exalts is Haddad, who was known for saying that the French language separated him from his mother more than the Mediterranean Sea.

Mustaghanmi continues to view arabophone writers in Algeria as underprivileged despite the state's continued support for Arabic as the nation's language. She helped establish the Malek Haddad Literary Prize for the best Algerian writer in Arabic in 2001. In a June 2001 interview on Algerian television, she expressed her concern about the status of Arabic literature in Algeria and stated that the Haddad Prize should encourage more writers to write in Arabic. She also disclosed that the members of the jury, all of whom she invited from the Middle East, were surprised by the high level of the work submitted.

Together with her admiration for Haddad, Mustaghanmi exalts unreservedly the historic city they both originate from, Constantine, which she says she wrote about without physically visiting. "There are cities that we inhabit," she said in Algiers' Al Khabar newspaper in 2001, "and others that inhabit us." It is clear that Constantine inhabits Mustaghanmi in a nostalgic manner; it is the glorious city of her ancestors, and the city of many famous Algerian writers. Her literary, imagined Constantine is not the same as the one she eventually visited in 2001, however; she was very critical about the desolate state of the city.

The third major source of influence on Mustaghanmi's career was her father, to whom she has dedicated all her works. The father in her novels is an idealized figure, her source of inspiration. Details of his biography are found throughout her novels, though with no direct reference to him. Often the story of the father is so closely identified with that of the nation that his illness must be read as the nation's also.


Although Mustaghanmi started her literary career as a poet, she rose to prominence with the publication of the novel Dhakirat al-Jasad in 1993. This unique text resulted in a wave of praise for the author but also stimulated a certain amount of critical polemic doubting that an Algerian woman author could write a work of such eloquence and alleging that she had not in fact written the book herself, which caused her a great deal of anxiety. Such allegations suggest the doubts that many Middle Easterners have about Algeria's Arab identity. These unfounded accusations evaporated eventually, but not without leaving Mustaghanmi somewhat bitter. Her only way forward was to continue to write works of similar strength.


Zineb Laouedj (1954–), from Maghnia in western Algeria, like Mustaghanmi is among the first generation of Algerian women authors and poets to rise to prominence during the 1970s, with a corpus of poetry that is committed both to the cause of the emerging youth in the newly independent nation, and the creation of a new wave of literature that celebrates freedom and modernity. In 1990 Laouedj earned her doctorate in Syria with a thesis on "Maghrebi Poetry of the Seventies." Since 1994 her life has been split between Paris and Algiers; at present she teaches literature at the University of Algiers as well as at the University of Paris VIII. She writes both in French and in Arabic. She also translates Arabic literary texts into French.

In contrast, perhaps inevitably, Mustaghanmi's success was considered by her supporters as a proof of Algeria's "Arabness." On Mustaghanmi's Web site, former Algerian president Ben Bella is quoted saying, "Ahlam is an Algerian sun that shone upon Arabic literature. We are proud of her Arabic writings as much as we are of our Arab identity." In the same vein, the Algerian author al-taher wattar wrote, "Algeria as a whole was envied in Ahlam, like it is envied in its martyrs and its grief. The whole Algerian school is being targeted. Arabisation and good Arabic writing were also targeted." The Naguib Mahfouz Medal jury described her as "a beacon of light in the midst of darkness, she is the writer who shattered the linguistic exile imposed by French colonialism on Algerian intellectuals." She has been praised as well by prominent Arab writers such as Suhayl Idris, nizar qabbani, youssef chahine, and many others. Mustaghanmi's novels have been translated into many languages, including English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Farsi, and Kurdish, a testimony to her world status as a writer.


Mustaghanmi will be remembered as the Algerian woman who wrote excellent novels in Arabic and whose fame surpassed that of many well-established Arab writers. Her novels are an expression of many taboo subjects and contemporary issues, which made them appealing to young Arab readers.


I am a woman of paper; I am used to living among books. I am the kind of person who would love, hate, rejoice, mourn, and commit all the sins in the world on paper. I have learnt to become a person of ink, not scared to see myself naked on paper. I like this type of nudity. I like to see my naked body quivering in front of a lake of ink. I believe that the words that undress us are the only words that resemble us, while the words that wrap up our bodies actually disfigure us.



Jensen, Kim. "A Literature Born from the Wounds: Ahlam Mostaghanemi's Memory in the Flesh." Aljadid 8, no. 39 (Spring 2002). Available from

Laouedj, Zineb. "Poétesses d'expression arabe." CLIO: Histoire, femmes et sociétés 9 (1999). Available from

Littérature Algérienne. "Ahlem Mosteghanemi." Available from

                                         Zahia Smail Salhi