Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bloomsbury publishes new translation of Ahlem Mosteghanemi's Dhakirat al-Jasad

Ahlem Mosteghanemi signs The Bridges of Constantine at Bloomsbury's London HQ
Dhakirat al-Jasad, the debut novel of Algerian writer Ahlem Mosteghanemi, has won literary acclaim and become a bestseller throughout the Arab world in the 20 years since its publication in 1993 by Dar al-Adab of Beirut.  

Now Bloomsbury Publishing in London has published a new English translation of the novel, carried out by Raphael Cohen, under the title The Bridges of Constantine. Following its UK launch the translation is to be published by Bloomsbury USA in February.

The first English translation of Dhakirat al-Jasad, under the title Memory in the Flesh, was done by Baria Ahmar Sreir, with revisions by Peter Clark, after the novel won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 1998.

Novels winning the medal are subsequently translated and published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. Memory in the Flesh was published by AUC Press in 2003, and republished in London by Arabia Books in 2008.

Dhakirat al-Jasad was followed by the novels Fawda al Hawass (1997) and Abir Sarir (2003). The trilogy enjoyed massive sales and made Ahlem a celebrity novelist. In dedicating The Bridges of Constantine to her late father Mosteghanemi writes: "The more than one million readers of this novel will for ever lack one reader: my father." The novel has been translated into several languages and turned into a TV series.

The cover of The Bridges of Constantine carries praise for the author and her work. Forbes magazine says she is "the most successful woman writer in the Arab world" and Elle refers to her as "the literary phenomenon".

The late Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella described her as "an Algerian sun which enlightens Arabic literature," and the late Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine said: "Ahlem has carved a place for herself as one of the most important writers of the Arab world."

Mosteghanemi's popularity in the Arab world is shown by her huge following on social media. She has nearly 3.2 million followers on Facebook, and more than 316,000 on Twitter.

other English translations of Mosteghanemi's work

In addition to publishing Memory in the Flesh, AUC Press published in 2004 Baria Ahmar's translation of Chaos of the Senses. In 2011 Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) published Raphael Cohen's translation of Mosteghanemi's "guide for broken-hearted women", (Dar al-Adab 2009), under the title The Art of Forgetting (reviewed in Banipal magazine here). The book has an associated website and Facebook page.
Dhakirat al-Jasad
But these translations of Mosteghanemi's work have not made her widely known to the general English-language readership. It could be that The Bridges of Constantine will be a breakthrough in this respect. Bloomsbury confirms that it is also to bring out the UK versions of translations of Fawda al Hawass and Abir Sarir (provisional title Bed Hopper), but it is currently unable to definitely say when the translations will be published, nor who the translator will be.

The fact that The Bridges of Constantine is published at a time of Arab upheavals, revolutions and civil wars may increase interest in a novel which sheds much light on revolution and its aftermath. In some ways Algeria's revolution and its Civil War in the 1990s were precursors of the wave of Arab uprisings that began three years ago.

The Bridges of Constantine is a compelling chronicle of the obsessive love of its first-person narrator Khaled, a middle-aged veteran of the Algerian War of Independence, for the daughter of his late revolutionary mentor Si Taher. Si Taher's daughter Hayat was only four when her father was killed in battle in 1960. When Khaled meets and falls for Hayat more than 20 years later, his love for her is intimately entwined with his yearning for, and memories of, Algeria and his native city of Constantine. He identifies Hayat with that city: "I witnessed you change unexpectedly day by day as you took on the features of Constantine."

The novel's translator Raphael Cohen studied Arabic at Oxford University and the University of Chicago, and now lives in Cairo. His previous translations include Mona Prince's So You May See (AUC Press, 2011) and, for Banipal, poems by Palestinian Marwan Makhoul.

Cohen's assured translation of Mosteghanemi's The Art of Forgetting showed he has an affinity with the tone, style and humour of her writing. In The Bridges of Constantine the language is lyrical and meditative, the narrative complex and rich. Cohen translates it with verve, conveying the ironic bitterness of Khaled and the roller coaster of his emotions in a bold translation which is more idiomatic than the novel's first translation. As in The Art of Forgetting, the text is peppered with aphorisms. Khaled is merciless on himself as his emotions of love, lust and passion swing wildly into hatred, jealousy and spite.

The text includes poetry written by the Palestinian poet character Zayed al-Khalil, 12 years his junior, who had lived in Algeria and became Khaled's closest friend. He left Algeria after the 1973 October war and joined up with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP) in Beirut. When he arrives in Paris for a visit he stays with Khaled, who is not sure of the nature of his mission. Khaled has already told Hayat about the charismatic Zayed, and lent her some of his poetry, and he introduces the two. He is consumed by jealousy over their rapport, especially when  he has to go to Granada for some days leaving them in Paris. Khaled remains haunted by his imaginings of what may have happened between the two.
In choosing the title The Bridges of Constantine for Cohen's translation rather than using a translated version of the Arabic title Dhakirat al-Jasad Bloomsbury presumably wanted to avoid confusion with the first translation. The evocative new title is fully justified. Constantine, Algeria's third largest city, is famed for its ravines, gorges and spectacular bridges, and is sometimes called the City of Bridges. Images of Constantine's bridges appear repeatedly in the novel, sometimes associated with vertigo. When there are momentous meetings, such as his meeting with Hayat, Khaled writes of mountains becoming connected by bridges.

At the age of 27 Khaled lost his left arm fighting in the War of Liberation. To help him recover from trauma and depression after the amputation, his wise Yugoslav doctor advised him to "build a new relationship with the world through writing or painting."

Khaled chose to paint, and his first-ever painting, entitled Nostalgia, with the date 'Tunis, '57' , was of Constantine's suspension bridge. When Hayat is away from Paris for many weeks on a visit back to Constantine, he paints - in "my strangest ever experience of painting" - a series of pictures inspired by Constantine's bridges. One of the pleasures of The Bridges of Constantine is Mosteghanemi's depiction of the creative processes of writing and painting, and their relation to the world. Many of the conversations between Khaled and Hayat are on art and literature.

During the War of Liberation, Si Taher and other fighters had secret bases in Constantine's mountains. A decade before the war began, Khaled was at the age of 16 imprisoned for six months in Kidya prison for taking part in demonstrations. Si Taher, 15 years  his senior, was among his cellmates: "Meeting some men is like meeting one's destiny" writes Khaled. After the War of Liberation broke out in 1954 Khaled joined the FLN and fought  under Si Taher's leadership.

Elements in The Bridges of Constantine have parallels with Mosteghanemi's own life. Her father, Algerian political militant Mohammed Chérif, was imprisoned for a period under French rule. Ahlem was born in Tunisia when her family was living in exile there. In her dedication of The Bridges of Constantine to her father she describes him as "a son of Constantine who would say, 'there are cities where we live and others that live in us.' He made me fall in love with the city that lived within me and that I had not visited before writing this book."

The Bridges of Constantine explores Khaled's life and the story of Algeria from the 1940s to the 1980s. In the post-independence period Khaled was given responsibility for publishing in Algeria. "My life revolved around books. At one point I almost abandoned painting for writing." Among the literary references in the novel are numerous quotes from the work of Malek Haddad. Khaled has become deeply disillusioned with the mistakes that were being made in Algeria after the revolution, with the real needs of the people ignored in the drive for economic development. His job involved censorship and he felt he was "somehow responsible for dumbing down the population" and "spoon-feeding them lies."

Later on Khaled becomes sicked by the growing corruption he witnesses among members of the new Algerian elite. Hayat's uncle Si Sharif, Si Taher's brother, is well-connected with these circles whereas Khaled's brother Hassan, who still lives in Constantine, suffers in the system of rampant wasta and bribery. Hayat is on the one hand a free young woman, but on the other she is bound by convention and keen to safeguard her reputation. She has been kept under the wing of her uncle and is anxious that he should not find out about her meetings alone with Khaled. She is herself enmeshed within the power system.

The novel has a circular structure, with the first and final sections set in the wake of the October 1988 anti-government riots in Algeria. The first chapter finds Khaled in Constantine, where he has returned to live after his years of self-imposed exile in Paris. Surrounded by old drafts and blank pages, Khaled is trying to write a novel of his love story with Hayat. He is writing in retrospect but she is very much present through his constant addressing of “you”.

Hayat is herself a novelist, and a few months earlier Khaled had seen in an Algerian magazine an article about her latest novel The Curve of Forgetting accompanied by a photograph of Hayat. "The electric thrill ran through my body again, firing my pulse, as though I were facing not your picture but you."

we are never cured of memory

The reader knows from the start that this is a doomed love affair. Khaled recalls how Hayat once told him: "We write novels for no other reason than to kill off their heroes. To finish off the people whose existence has become a burden."

"We are never cured of memory" Khaled says on the first page of The Bridges of Constantine. "That's why we paint and why we write. And why some of us die." Later, it becomes clear this is a quote from his Palestinian poet friend Ziyad al-Khalil, speaking to Hayat in a restaurant when Khaled first introduces him to her.

After this introductory chapter, the rest of The Bridges of Constantine is Khaled's novel about Hayat.

Khaled's relationship with the adult Hayat began in Paris in April 1981, when she came to an exhibition of his paintings. He had not seen her since 1962. "... I am not fool enough to say I fell in love with you at first sight," Khaled writes. "Let's say I was in love with you before first sight. There was something familiar about you, something that attracted me to your features." He asks himself: ""Which of the women in you made me fall in love?"

After one long conversation in which Khaled reveals much about his life in Algeria she tells him she loves him. It seems though that her love for him is of a different kind from his erotic compulsion towards her.

Khaled already has a lover, Catherine, whom he meets on a weekly basis. Catherine is a woman "perpetually on the verge of becoming my true love , and this time - once again - she wouldn't." He had met her when she was posing in an art class as a life model posing and he admitted to her that  he had never seen a naked woman in daylight before. He compartmentalises his relationship with her, and later on he also has affairs with other women in an attempt to drive Hayat from his mind. At one stage his passion for Hayat renders him impotent with Catherine.

'Arabic is the language of my heart'

When he had met Hayat in Paris in 1981 she told him her first novel had been published two years earlier. She  speaks to him in French, but - like Mosteghanemi - she writes in Arabic. "I could have written in French but Arabic is the language of my heart. I can write in nothing else," Hayat tells Khaled. He had read the novel with bitterness and pain, wondering whether the male character was fictional or someone who had passed through Hayat's life.

After Khaled's initial encounter with Hayat at the exhibition she returns numerous times to see him and talk with him at the gallery and in a cafe. He sees them both as being war wounded: "They amputated my arm, they severed your childhood. They ripped an arm from my body and took a father from your arms." She wants to know more about her late father, other than the "ready-made words in praise of heroes and martyrs."

Si Taher's family had taken refuge in Tunis while he fought in Algeria the war of liberation. Khaled recalls how when he left the Front with his badly wounded arm to seek treatment in Tunisia Si Taher gave him one last mission: to get the name of Si Taher's six-month-old daughter officially registered.
This was how he came to hold Hayat on his lap.

Si Taher had instructed Khaled that the girl was to be registered with the name Ahlem. But for the first six months of her life she had been Hayat and this is the name by which Khaled continues to refer to her. "Your name as a child lingers on my tongue, as though you were still the you of decades ago."
Anthony Quinn as Zorba in the film of Zorba the Greek
Hayat does not exactly discourage Khaled's feelings for her. She tells him: "There's something of Zorba about you - his stature, his tan, his trimmed unruly hair. Perhaps you're more handsome than him, though." She says Zorba is the man "who has had the most influence on me" and that "it's amazing that someone's disappointment and tragedy can make him dance." There are other references to Zorba, and to the music of Theodorakis, in the novel.

Mosteghanemi took risks in writing Dhakirat al-Jasad. She is a female author writing as a man, and an older man at that. He is over 50 when he meets Hayat, a woman roughly half his age. A tale of obsessive love is a risky endeavour. There is a danger of overblown prose, of descending into a self-pity fest. But the novel has a strong narrative line and a sense of urgency in the telling. The plot is well constructed and has momentum. The story keeps one reading. Overall, The Bridges of Constantine is a deep and beautiful work.
Susannah Tarbush, London

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