In July 2003, the “Sex and the City” character Miranda received some uncensored advice that was to change her perspective on dating forever: “He’s just not that into you.”
The following year Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo took those refreshing words of wisdom, slapped them on the cover of what would become a New York Times bestseller and finally disclosed to the tormented, phone-watching women of the world in blunt, unapologetic terms the truth that they needed to hear: Stop making excuses; if he doesn’t call you, he doesn’t care for you.And women loved it.A year later, Behrendt, this time co-authoring with his wife, Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt, once again told women what they needed, and secretly wanted, to hear. “It’s called a Breakup because it’s Broken” is a no-holds-barred wakeup call for ice-cream-scoffing, endlessly sniffling, naively hopeful, desperate women. Telling them to spurn their disingenuous friends who assure them of the likelihood of reconciliation and reunification, the book, like the culture it comes from, is blunt and irreverent. And its teachings likely speak most potently to an audience of the same culture. Yet, its subject matter – the broken heart – is uni
ersal, no less so in the Arab world than anywhere else.
In a notable departure from her usual style, the Algerian poet and novelist Ahlem Mosteghanemi has just published the English-language translation of “The Art of Forgetting” – a book intended, by its own proclamation, to help women “love him as no woman has loved and forget him like a man forgets.” In short, she’s written the East’s equivalent to Behrendt’s breakup book.
“I think the Arab woman is more fragile than the Western woman with regard to breakups,” Mosteghanemi told The Daily Star by email.
Women suffer in a unique way “in countries where it is shameful to be a spinster, where divorce is taboo and where many women do not work to occupy their minds and distract themselves from their misery,” she says, adding: “Unlike in the West, Arab readers do not have books like this to comfort them.”
Mosteghanemi’s book aims to fill this gap, but it’s certainly less ostentatious than its Western counterpart.
Instead of a series of blunt, almost derisive imperatives applied to reality through the deranged testimonies of assorted females who specialize in stalking and email hacking, the Algerian writer uses subtle prose and calls upon an arsenal of ancient and modern – Arab and Western – poets, philosophers and celebrities in order to illustrate her cause.
Her cause, simply stated, is that she wants the “women around me to stop kissing frogs believing they will turn into Prince Charming.” Women are victims, she argues, “of their illusions and their belief in fairy tales.”
She posits, with ironic humor, that “if you want eternal love you should love an Arab head of state; this way you’ll be that sure you’ll have him for life. This is the only case where longevity can be guaranteed or assured because in ordinary cases love lasts no more than three years in the best case scenario.”
What this means is that women need to learn how to forget. And while much of the text is meditative, some practical advice on how to stop obsessing over a man is offered, such as abandoning wearing the perfume he bought you or finding an alternative person to call you at the hour he previously telephoned. Indeed it is this latter trick that forms the basis of the sole narrative thread that runs through the book. Mosteghanemi takes on the task of calling her lovelorn friend each morning a 9 a.m. and through the performance of this duty she charts her friend’s efforts to get over her lost lover.
With this exception, narrative is largely absent from Mosteghanemi's text, disabling the prose from building the momentum required to hold a reader’s attention. What this may mean is that the book is more of a “dipping” read than an “engrossing” read – it’s best suited for opening and closing at random, taking in short sections in a unregulated series of isolated bursts.
In those bursts, the sickening weakness of the women addressed may be infuriating, but there remains much to amuse and enjoy: the quotes peppered throughout the short chapters are diverse, sometimes witty and regularly touching, while the occasional analogy of love to Middle Eastern politics makes Mosteghanemi’s voice both of its time and place.
She, for example, compares a man’s infiltration of a woman’s memory to the war victories secured by Israel through its abundance of collaborators and spies.
“The Art of Forgetting” is the first in a quartet Mosteghanemi intends to write. Best-known for her novels, the first of which, “Memory in the Flesh,” is convincingly told from a 50-year-old man’s perspective, the author’s latest work may unsettle her long-term fans. Not only is this book almost certainly set to be catalogued in the “self-help,” “positive living” or “relationships” section of bookstores, it also explicitly states “not for sale to men” on the cover.
Mosteghanemi, however, says she does not want “to lose my big male readership,” and the preface to the text does include a section headed, “Clarification to the men who steal into this book.” She acknowledges to The Daily Star though that men have contacted her since the book’s publication, saying that she was “unfair to them” and that “not all women are saints.” To compensate for this she intends in the second volume of the quartet to address “both sexes, although women still hold a big place in my heart as they continue to pay the highest price, with men not just stealing months, even years, of women’s lives but after the breakup leaving women depressed and out of use for a longtime.”
“The Art of Forgetting” does not demarcate a complete break with the genres which Mosteghanemi has previously inhabited. “I am not nurse,” she says, describing the writing of this book and adoption of the agony aunt’s role as an “accident.”
“I am first a novelist and I have a lot to say, especially amid the current changes in the Arab world. I will, however, be happy to write the next three seasons [volumes] of the cycle of love,” she says.
Writers should, she says, endeavor to change readers’ lives. “I always thought that a writer who fails to change the lives of readers should change jobs. Real literature is measured by its impact.”
On the market in Arabic since 2009, “The Art of Forgetting” has already proven its success in this regard. An accompanying website, www.nessyane.com, is intended to unite and empowered brokenhearted women to be honest with themselves and in the process recover their self-esteem and dignity. The site has, Mosteghanemi says, “prevented many suicides among young girls through communication and the mutual support they give each other.”
However, she notes, the provision of such a service comes at the cost to the writer.
“I do not know how I came to become the Mother Theresa of Arabic literature before writing ‘The Art of Forgetting,’ she says.
“I think the readers felt they could count on me because ... my readers are my family and my tribe. But when you have 49 groups that carry your name on the Internet and your fans [are] more than a million, you do not know how to handle it all. You feel your writing life escapes you, and you lost the raw material for a writer: time and solitude.”
But nonetheless Mosteghanemi proceeds, saying: “I always keep in mind the words of Voltaire: the writer was suffocated under bouquets of roses.”
“The Art of Forgetting” is published by Bloomsbury Qatar.