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.


  1. Agatha Christie “emerged” from the Arab world — having lived in Iraq for a while and spent time in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. It’s not incidental.

    I know that’s not the issue here. Genre fiction is where “literature” comes from — and there’s plenty in the Arab world, though I’d love to see more, given my own reading tastes.

    1. Yes, you’re right. I suppose I just used Agatha Christie to get at the idea that I think our publishing institutions and reward systems have served to suppress genre fiction for the last 30+ years…and that I hope popular forms of fiction will now find more ways to get out there.

    2. best comment!

  2. The issue of genre fiction in the Arab world is fascinating. I will say from my own book group here in the U.S., that Zoe Ferraris’ literary murder mysteries set in Saudi Arabia are wildly popular. Through this genre, western readers seem to reach a breakthrough in awareness and engagement with Middle Eastern culture. I realize this is a side issue to your post, but wanted to chime in with this observation.

    1. True… Tess Gerritsen talks about that in her post, about how charmed Western readers would be by Arab genre fiction. (Publishers, take note….)

  3. hmmmm. i’m sitting here with “Nouvelles policières du monde abbasside” (a bilingual edition for students), so, yeah, so much for “no tradition” 😉
    there’s plenty crime stories around, i used to practise my arabic using a really bad series (which will not be named for various reasons) — so bad, that my friend would not have it in the house :-).
    i love crime fiction, and am always looking for more. there’s a bunch of noir fiction in the maghreb, i’m sure some have been translated into english.

  4. Bibi, I would love to read “Nouvelles policières du monde abbasside.” I wonder to what extent those stories continye to be a living part of Arabic tradition and culture.

    Abdelilah Hamdouchi (Morocco) and Yasmina Khadra (Algeria/France) have both been translated into English.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

Comments are closed.