On Arabic Crime Fiction

Tuesday 13 October 202004:04 pm
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When S.S. Van Dine, pen name of an art critic and editor named Willard Huntington Wright, decided to publish his own set of criteria for detective fiction in a 1928 issue of The American Magazine under the title “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, the genre was at its “golden age” in the English speaking world. By that time, Edgar Allan Poe's “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) had already been a great success, and the famous character of Sherlock Holmes (1887), had been created by Arthur Conan Doyle, a British writer and medical doctor. This, had paved the way for the emergence of other writers of the genre, including female writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, among others.

Despite the fact that awareness of the detective dimension itself was shaped into the modern genre known today only in the 19th century, crime/ punishment narrative can be traced back to the 13th century, during the Islamic golden age, in the story of “The Three Apples”, one of the stories narrated by Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. The story fits to the standards set by Wright, exhibiting “the occurrence of a murder, a murderer, a victim, and the detection process surrounding the incident”, denotes professor Tahani Alghureiby, in her “Mapping Crime Fiction in Arabic Literature” (2020).

Despite the fact that awareness of the detective dimension was shaped into the modern genre known today only in the 19th century, crime/ punishment narrative can be traced back to the 13th century, in Arabian Nights

Detective fiction, however seems not to have made its way to the Arabic world until the early 20th century, when translations of Maurice Leblanc’s famous French comic detective novel, Arsène Lupin (1910) and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes started to appear, mostly by Lebanese publishing houses. These translations, states Marcia Lynx Qualey, in her “The Mysterious Fall and Rise of the Arab Crime Novel” (2014), were not just widely read, but influential in triggering the Arabic literary imagination.

In Turath

The relative modernity of the genre does not preclude the presence of characteristics or components that announce, what could specifically be marked as crime novels in Arabic Turath. The detective character under the Abbasid Caliphate, was ṣaḥib al-shurṭa (the chief of police of Baghdad) holding the responsibility of law and order maintenance in the capital. In her, “The Classical Arabic Detective” (1988), Fadwa Malti- Doglass, denotes that many early works in Arabic literature demonstrate an interest in thieves, criminals, courtly procedures and punishment. This can be found in some akhbar in Kitab alaghani of al-Iṣfahani, or Kitab al-adhkiya' of Ibn al-Jawzi, or al-Faraj ba'da al-shidda of alTanukhi.

Malti- Doglass mentions that the character of the ninth-century caliph, al-Mu’tadid bil- Lah, found in Ibn Al-Jawzi’s medival narratives, Akhbar al- Adhkiya’, clearly possesses the qualities of a detective. The story she discusses is what she calls “The Case of the Painted Hand”. The essential components of the anecdote are: A part of a corpse is discovered in the Tigris, which urges al-Mu’tadid to give a set of directions to his agent, who dutifully follows them, and the guilty party is discovered. Al-Mu’tadid confronts him with the evidence, the hand and the foot, and the culprit confesses. Al- Mu'tadid then gives everyone his due, including payment to the victim's owner and punishment to the evil doer. In other words, says Malti- Doglass, “we are dealing with the apprehension of a criminal”, and the directions of the caliph are “steps to uncover the murderer”. So, the caliph’s behavior is similar to that of a detective. “What we have here is, indeed, a detective story”.

The presence of the corpse, the detective, the detection, and the murderer, in stories from Arabic Turath shows how the medieval Arabs developed a detective figure similar to his modern Western counter-parts

Containing the standard elements of a whodunit: the corpse, the detective, the detection, and the murderer, shows how the medieval Arabs developed a detective figure whose methods of detection were not dissimilar from those of his modern Western counter-parts. What makes these narratives differ from the modern detective story does not lie in their plots, however, but in their “length”. Malti- Doglass explains that this is not for the lack of a detective element but because “the novel, as a literary form, was foreign to the aesthetic concerns of the medieval Arabs”. So, instead of making their detective the hero of a lengthy narrative, “the Arabs characterized him in concise anecdotal narratives”.

“The Case of the Painted Hand” intersects in many of its details with “The Three Apples” narrated by Scheherazade, in which the caliph vizier Ja’far acts as the detective. Nevertheless, these stories, among others, do not seem to have developed into a specific genre in Arabic literature.

In Modern Arabic Literature

In his book Crime Fiction in and around the Eastern Mediterranean (2016), Boerte Sagaster argues there are many works in modern Arabic literature dealing with criminal cases, questioning the motives of crime or leading to the prosecution of the culprit. However, “the logico-deductive inquiry as well as the judicial inquiry are almost absent”. An example of this can be found in Najib Maḥfuẓ’s The Thief and the Dogs (1961) and Room Number 12 (1973), or Ghassan Kanafani’s “Who killed Layla al-Ḥayik” (1966), or Abdulaziz Binabdullah’s The Blonde from the Countryside (1980), and The Convincing Spy (1984).



Film noir and hard-boiled films seem to have had a better chance in the Arab world than classical detective novels, argues Alghureiby. For example, Bab Elhadid (Iron Gate) (1958), a film written by Abdulhayy Adeeb and directed by Youssef Chahine, is among the earliest attempts to bring film noir to the Arab cinematic experience. The film was a great success, and is considered an Egyptian classic. Mahfuz’s novel The Thief and the Dogs, was also adapted into a film in 1962 in Egypt, only a year after publishing his novel.



Moreover, crime novels may seem to have witnessed a revival with the uprisings which started in 2011 in the Arab region. In his article in The Guardian, Jonathan Guyer considers that this revival should not come as a surprise since crime fiction offers an alternative form of justice: “the novelist is the ombudsman; the bad guys are taken to court. but it allows writers to act as ombudsmen in the current political climate” Examples of this can be found in Mohammed Moulessehoul’s The African Equation (2012) under the pen name Yasmina Khadra, Jabbur Dwayhi’s Printed in Beirut (2016), or 'Abdu Wazin’s The Blue House (2017).

A Mystery to Be Solved

Detective literature in the Arab world, hence, raises several questions, starting with an interrogation concerning its difficult emergence, its specificities and its sudden comeback.

Since some of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels were inspired by her trips to the Middle East, according to Alghureiby (Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Death on the Nile (1937), and They Came to Baghdad (1951), it wouldn’t be convincing to assume that the Arab world fails to inspire writers with stories of crime and injustice. It also wouldn’t be right to say that detective fiction couldn’t mature as a genre because the Arab societies are free of crime- utopias. In fact, American Arabist Ursula Lindsey, states the opposite. She thinks that the streets of Cairo are perfect to inspire crime fiction “sleaze, glitz, inequality, corruption, lawlessness. It’s got it all”.

So, what is it that caused the genre to be considered as too lowbrow for Arabic scholarship, both locally and internationally?

Alghureiby argues that many Arab writers expressed that they do not particularly find crime fiction enticing while their countries are suffering political and economic instabilities. They believe that within such circumstances, writing about human experience and suffering seems more like a patriotic duty or humanistic obligation. In comparison with novels constantly occupied with the political turmoil, crime fiction seemed to be considered a “luxury”.

Palestinian writer Mahmoud Shugair, quoted by Alghureiby, believes that “many writers across the Arab world dedicate their time to portray the misery, poverty, oppression, and hardships of the people, next to which, writing a crime novel seems insignificant”.

Another argument by Amir Tajussir proposes that since the literary scene in the Arab world is inhabited by writers who race to “parade their rhetorical and syntactic abilities”, it wouldn’t motivate them to write crime novels “for the mere purpose of entertaining the reader”.

It also seems that the Arabic judicial system, which still unofficially abides by the law of the tribe and the sect in most countries in the region, has reflected itself negatively on the genre. Furthermore, the system, being marked by the absence of a civil jury that complements the role of the detective in the process of implementing social justice, has affected the Arab writers’ appetite to write detective fiction, argues Alghureiby.

In her doctoral thesis Emergence of the Detective Novel in North Africa and the Middle East (2019), Iziar De Miguel points out other forms of crime that Middle Eastern societies have had to confront in the last decades. Along with the fight against terrorism, crimes such as corruption, nepotism and misappropriation, both at low and high levels of society, appear as the background of crime novels exposing political or social conditions (Yasmina Khadra’s Dead Man’s Share and Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love).

In addition to this, Alghureiby mentions that what widens the gap between crime fiction and the literature of the region, is that most investigation departments were established well into the second half of the twentieth century (e.g. 1963 in Egypt, 1976 in Jordan, 1980 in Saudi Arabia, and 2001 in Qatar). Much of the work in these departments is geared towards crimes threatening national security, rather than common crime. This can only mean that the example of the detective for Arab authors is alien to their real experience, which makes it hard to relate to in readers’ imaginations.

Arab spring movements have contributed to creating a clash with the system more than ever, which reflected negatively on crime fiction. The police are no longer perceived as a protective power, but rather an oppressive one

The Arab spring movements have also contributed to creating a clash with the system more than ever. The police are no longer perceived as a protective power, but rather an oppressive one. Qualey quotes Donia Maher Ganzeer, who discusses this: “Of course one can relate to someone opposing the government or the police, more so than to this idea of a noble police officer or detective who has to solve crimes for the greater good”.

The Current Scene

The last decade have witnessed novelists’ turn into the adventure, despair and paranoia prevalent in genre fiction to tell stories that transcend the present, as pointed out by Guyer. Thus, a variety of new cinematic production, fiction and graphic novels – address crime, impunity and law’s incompetence currently. He believes that novelists today are looking to Baghdad, Cairo and beyond as archives of memories. In these places, where corruption has prevailed, the crime fiction becomes a vehicle for finding social justice.

In Egypt, A number of short graphic novels can be found in the collection "Autostrade" (2011) were crime-novel inspired by co-founder Marwan Imam. Also the graphic novella, "An Apartment at Bab al-Louq" (2014), was published in English in 2018.

Ahmed Mourad's The Blue Elephant (2012) had a sequel just last year and were both adapted into films. Mourad won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shortlist in 2014, which was controversial, as some observers said that a thriller could not be serious literature, Qualey points out. His new novel The Motel of Beer el-Wataweet (2020) has been recently released, and the novel depicts the Egyptian neighborhood in Beer el-Wataweet as the crime scene.



In Lebanon King of India by Lebanese author Jabbur Dwayhi (2019), takes place in the Lebanese countryside. For Douaihy, Arab critics’ reluctance to the detective genre is because they’re unfamiliar with it. He argues that the absence of genre is related to the social composition of the Arab world, the underdevelopment of criminal investigation agencies and the absence of “mystery” crimes. In Lebanon, for example, adds Douaihy, “police reports simply say that all crimes have been solved and all the perpetrators were arrested”.

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