Baker Street. I joined the back of a queue of women calling out in excitement. They had just spotted Ahlem Mosteghanemi, the bestselling author of the Arab world, through the windows of Alef Bookstore. I was at the book launch of the English translation of The Dust of Promises, Mosteghanemi’s concluding novel to a world-famous trilogy. Boosted by the energy of the women surrounding me, I eagerly anticipated what laid in store.
The lady in-front, a junior doctor from Iraq, began chatting to me. I’m so excited for this, aren’t you? I’m absolutely addicted to her books. Do you usually read Ahlem in Arabic as well?
I confessed that, in truth, I speak only English and nervous French. And I haven’t actually read her books…yet. Eyes shocked, a brief smile. She retrieved her iPhone to take more photos of the Algerian novelist walking throughout the bookstore, entourage in tow.
My prior research had taught me a few things, however. Ahlem Mosteghanemi was the first Algerian woman writer to publish a novel in the Arabic language. Her father was a French teacher turned Algerian liberation fighter turned major politician in the first independent Algerian government. Born into exile, Ahlem and her family returned to Algeria after independence in 1962. She attended the first Arabic school in the country; she was among the first within the nation to study in Arabic rather than French. Today, Ahlem’s novels and poetry have touched millions across the world.
We entered the shop and took our seats. A respectful hush fell as Ahlem started to speak. She began by reading an extract from her new novel, followed by an intimate Q&A with her fans.
Sadly, I didn’t understand a word. The entire event was in Arabic. Oh. So I sat peacefully, eyes closed. Letting her answers simply flow over me. I felt sad not to participate in the laughter or understand the words behind Ahlem’s confident and graceful manner. But it was okay.
Suddenly, the event stopped. My eyes opened. The event manager took the microphone and said-
Wait. Wait. Does anyone here *not* speak Arabic?
I decided to stay quiet, not wanting to disturb the event. No-one else said a word. Until my new friend, the lady from the queue, said-
We’ve got one over here
and pointed emphatically at me.
Don’t mind me, I’m enjoying just being here!
Everyone turned their head to take a look, sympathetic laughter rising. Ahlem looked me up and down, clearly unimpressed.
Please, no worries! Just ignore me.
A translator was shuffled onto stage. The event continued. After every question, everything paused. Looking directly into my eyes, the translator proceeded to translate the conversation into English. The event slowed. Oh.
I felt deeply embarrassed, but at least I gained understanding. I learned how the women around me sense that Ahlem’s novels have empowered them, changed them. I learned how Ahlem has struggled to overcome the many censors of her writing: society, family, friends, the reader and herself. I learned how I really need to learn a new language.
After the event, my new friend gave me a beautiful book recommendation for the OurStories bookshelf: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I left the bookstore pretty soon after that, leaving her to happily queue for Ahlem’s autograph.
Walking home, I wished that the event description had warned that it would be entirely in Arabic. It was the English-translation book-launch, after all. But then again, if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have turned up. I’m so glad I did, because I have never seen an author so openly loved by her readers. I’m so glad I did, because I rarely feel the alienation of simply not understanding the words around me. Something I take for granted. I have bought the first book of Ahlem’s trilogy, The Bridges of Constatine, awarded the 1998 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. I can’t wait to read it; I want to discover for myself why Ahlem is so widely revered by women across the Arab world.
Written by @rhiannakemi.