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Ahlem Mosteghanemi in London

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.

Ahlem Mosteghanemi - Alef Bookstore - London 28 April 2016 - 1a.jpg

Photo credits: Machaho Tellem Chaho

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.

Heat, Flesh & Trash: London launch

At some point on my way to this, I missed a turning. I was walking from Blackfriars station along Queen Victoria Street and needed to hang left onto Bread Street to hit Cheapside, but I was obviously preoccupied. Before I knew it, I was standing below the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange beside it in all its neo-classical glory, the Gherkin and Cheesegrater looming beyond in a rising sea of glass-fronted office blocks. It was strange to think that a few minutes later I would be in a cosy bookshop with wooden floors – Daunt’s of Marylebone’s smaller outpost in the City – waiting for the launch of Fixi Novo’s first UK publication.

Which is not to belittle the event, because it was one of my favourites ever. It felt very relaxed, helped along by the good humour of founder @amirmu – who quipped, after a slightly delayed start, that if the launch had been run by Singaporeans it would already be over. There was fizzy wine with no-nonsense nibbles provided by @mangolisa, celebrated for being the first woman ever to take a trolley out of the local Tesco, and a crowd that proved a perfect fit for the space.

Rather than messing around with publishing a lone anthology, Fixi Novo – the English-language imprint of Malaysian publishing house Buku Fixi – has seen fit to publish three. They’re strikingly named (apparently after the trilogy of films produced by Andy Warhol in collaboration with filmmaker Paul Morrissey, which in my ignorance I’d never heard of) and include contributions, primarily fiction but with some non-fiction, from writers from across Southeast Asia. They’re beautifully packaged, too, with illustrations of durian (again, new to me) in various states of undress to match the titles.

There were a range of contributing editors and writers present, some in London for the first time for the event. The editors’ speeches were a highlight. They spoke about the difficulty of deciding what to include in each volume (Flesh, apparently, received around 170 submissions), picked out a couple of their favourite pieces, and defended the policy of not italicising words that weren’t English (see this piece, on a related note). One of the writers spoke about her contribution and what had inspired it, and there was a short reading from one of the more “visceral” offerings in Flesh. The only downside was that no-one was there to represent Trash!

The more formal part of the event wrapped up there and we were left to mingle. This was a privilege, considering how many interesting people seemed to be around – including OurStories contributors @mailbykite (see her recommendation here) and @zenaldehyde (and hers here). I picked up a copy of Flesh, Rhianna a copy of Heat, and we’ll get back to you with thoughts on both at a later date. In the meantime, if you’re interested in buying a copy of any of the anthologies, hit up the Buku Fixi website. Or, if you’re in London, Daunt Books Cheapside and Rough Trade East both stock them.

Written by @lewisalloyd.

For more features, events and book recommendations, follow @ourstoriesbooks!

Why OurStories Exists

The idea behind OurStories is a simple one: we want to make it easy to discover great fiction set around the world. Fiction fosters empathy. It can take you inside the thoughts of another person, and show you around. It can start conversations, and build bridges between cultures. We’re working towards featuring books set in every country in the world, and here’s why.

We’re both avid readers, and always have been. Books seem to us a natural way of learning about life and the world beyond our personal bubbles. So when, last September, we were both set to move abroad for a while – Rhianna to New York and Lewis to Tokyo – we turned to fiction as a way of starting to understand these new places and the lives of the people living in them.

Finding solid book recommendations wasn’t straightforward, though. Goodreads felt overwhelming. The Guardian’s “top-10 books” lists focused mainly on popular capital cities. There were great websites hidden away promoting contemporary international fiction, but they sometimes felt a bit intellectual. There was no obvious place where you could find fiction by location, curated and recommended in an approachable way.

When we were both back from our travels, we decided to put that right. We agreed on three things. 1) We wanted our book recommendations to be warm and personal, about books that individuals have simply loved. 2) We wanted our website to be truly global, not limiting ourselves to one region. And 3) we wanted to organise the books through the setting of the story, rather than the nationality of the author.

We’d have to start building the collection ourselves, so we turned to our bookshelves. Although we’d like to think we read widely, we were shocked to find few books set outside the UK and US. Why had we only ever read one book set in South America – One Hundred Years of Solitude? Why had we never read a book set in Southeast Asia? Where are these books in our local bookshops? In school curriculums?

We began to think about the website differently. It was no longer just about finding books to take with you on holiday, but also about helping people – ourselves included – read more widely in their day-to-day lives.

There has been a lot of discussion over the past year about diversity in media, including the lack of minority voices in literature and publishing. Often the debate focuses on the identities of authors and their protagonists, and these are important conversations to have. But the individual act of reading books about the lives of people in different countries around the world has sometimes been overlooked.

Since starting this project, our reading has taken us to brothels in Indonesia, hospitals in South Korea, reservations in Canada, and haunted rivers in Nigeria. Next up, Rhianna is going to Argentina and Lewis to Angola. We have attended events and met people from all over the world, who have excitedly told us about their favourite books. We have worked with a brilliant illustrator, Andy Carter, who captured OurStories perfectly in his world map made of books.

So far, creating OurStories has been such a fun and thought-provoking experience. We’ve learned that, whatever the setting, it is often the relationships that shine through. Most of the books recommended to us have been stories of people and families simply making their way in the world. At a time when politicians peddle xenophobia, those stories can break down barriers and help us recognise the similarities between us all.