Ahlem Mosteghanemi – The Bridges of Constantine

There are bridges which we cannot burn down after crossing them, because they stay inside us, like a memory. There are countries which we live and countries which live in us, so says Khaled. The one he lives in is France, against whom he fought in order the break her chains from Algiers, which is the one living in him. His language is French, the manacle he cannot free himself after all those years while Arabic is almost forgotten. Even his mistress is French, but the France gave him everything that Algiers didn’t.

He left it more than two decades ago, disappointed in the corruption and what was left from the homeland for which he lost his hand in the revolution. Now, he’s a renowned painter. An exile in a foreign land, whose canvases reflect the longing for the fatherland even though he doesn’t speak out loud about it, and then, one night on his exhibition, she appears. Last time he saw her, she was a baby on his lap, daughter of a friend and commander, now a sensual woman who stirred his passion.

It’s a stream of consciousness novel told completely in second person in which Khaled talks to her, after all it is because of her that he writes this novel, in order to kill her and be liberated from here as she once told him: „we write novels to kill those whose existence has become burden. Those who we love“. ‘The Bridges of Constantine’ are much more than just a love story, it goes beyond that. That story about the unconsumed love, passion between the painter and writer, desire he feels for her, it’s only a metaphor for yearning after homeland because Hayat is not only a young woman in his life. She’s the Constantine, the city of his birth, Algiers, Arabian world, postwar generation. A mother. Bridges of Constantine which connects the cliffs and gorges on upon which the city was built. She’s the sum of his longing, desires, disappointments, sorrows, lies and hatred.

Just as Ahmed Nurudin thinks of his brother, and along the way tumbles through his mind certain questions and doubts, so is Khaled thinking about the homeland and all of that which is burden to him, and because of that, this novel evokes memories of ‘Dervish and Death’, a novel by Meša Selimović, mainly because of the Oriental approach to certain topics. Through Khaled’s thinking’s, Ahlem discusses about women rights and politics, intertwined with subtle erotic in a way only a poet can do, but also talks about hypocrisy of a culture, paradox in which they live and double standards. That’s clear from the chapter in which Khaled returns to Constantine for the first time in order to be on her wedding and he walks through the streets of his home town and stops in front of the brothel which was visited by all men, in which the women hid, and then he hears the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. As Khaled brings his story to the end, due to his brothers tragic death and the miserable life he led, he realizes that he must go back and that the bridges of Constantine, eternal motif of his painting, calling for him and they will continue to do that, as long as he lives in foreign land.

It’s been a while since I read a novel powerful as this, in which the man in his fifties has represented himself so convincingly but is written by woman, at that time, in her thirties. Maybe because there’s a lot of Ahlem’s father in the character of Khaled, but her also. He was the part of that generation that fought for freedom only to get disappointment while she’s the part of the postwar generation.

At the time of publishing, Ahlem had difficulties to prove that it was, indeed, her novel due to how convincingly it was written. Because of her poems, published in the collections before ‘The Bridges of Constantine’, and themes she dealt with, she lost the ability to continue her studies in Algiers so she went to Paris to graduate.

With her poetic style, she wrote an elegy of a generation which fought for the ideal, vanished under corruption and hypocrisy. A novel that must be read.

  • Original title: Dhakirat al-Jasad
  • Translator: Raphael Cohen
  • Pages: 320
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • Date of publishing: 2013.

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