Why Do Arab Readers Need ‘Their Own Agatha Christie’?

True: It’s tiresome to hear how the Arabic reading world needs its own Janet Evanovich or its own Martin Luther or its own Margaret Mitchell, as though—to achieve legitimacy—cultures must be dead-on mirrors of the Western experience.

So, when I first saw references to an Emirates LitFest discussion of “Could an Agatha Christie emerge from the Arab world?” or “why no Arabic Christie-style crime fiction” I wanted to curl up in bed and take a long winter’s nap.

But, while reading Kamal Abdel-Malek’s comments via Tess Gerritsen, I also had to admit that there is a need for more Arabic genre fiction. That said, I’m dead certain the prejudice against genre fiction is not among readers, but among the mostly-calcified institutions that publish Arabic literature and promote and reward authors.

Abdel-Malek apparently said in his LitFest talk that “Arabic literature has always emphasized poetry and beautiful language,” but—beautiful or no—al-Mutanabbi was popular, as were the stories of 1,001 Nights. Arabic literature has moved away from its base of readership not because of its love for beautiful language, but in large part because of stultifying cultural and publishing mechanisms.

When given the chance, many readers are thrilled to find a Vertigo (Ahmed Mourad)  or a Metro (Magdy al-Shafee), a 1/4 Gram (Essam Youssef)  or an I Want to Get Married! (Ghada Abdel Aal). And in discussions of a possible post-Jan25 revolution in Arabic reading, prominent literary authors Khaled al-Berry and Ibrahim Farghali both hoped for a return and renewal of genre fiction: crime writing, graphic novels, science fiction, and romance.

More genre fiction might well equal more, and better, readers.