A New Life for Arabic Noir?

Oum Cartoon blogger Jonathan Guyer has a piece up at the Paris Review this week about “The Case of the Arabic Noirs.” In it, he argues that — in Egypt, at least — the crime novel might be coming back:

tumblr_n7vmu4VAnV1suv6ero2_250As Guyer well knows, thrillers are not, as one reviewer stated, “unknown” in Arabic.

Instead, as Guyer writes, “the golden age of illicit crime fiction translation” — translations of Hammett, Chandler,  Hitchcock, and hundreds more — ran from the 1890s through the 1950s or 1960s. In Guyer’s view, “These translated thrillers captivated Egyptian readers in part because they shined a torch on the contested legal system of colonialism.”

He likens their appeal to that of Egyptian-penned novels about crime, such as  Tawfik Al-Hakim’s Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1947), which takes on the country’s failed system of justice. A later crime novel, Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs (1961) focuses on his disappointments with post-colonial failures.

But much of the thriller genre that washed through Egypt was not locally written, but was instead in translation. And, as Guyer writes, “The remains of that vast canon are still strewn across the country”:

On a recent trip to Alexandria, I watched a hardened bookseller, a cigarette dangling from his lip, unload three grimy suitcases packed with English thrillers: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Kiss-off,Casino Royale, House Dick, and dozens more. At the next stall, a table offered Arabic titles, with monikers like The Corpse, Floozy from Paris, Secret of Radium, and Lust for Murder. Each cover is more craven than the last: gun-slinging babes, gambling sexpots, smoking revolvers. The back covers offer red-hot teasers. “A police story of fantastic events … ” “The life of a French prostitute … ”

Guyer adds that it’s “too soon to speak of Arabic noir’s resurgence,” although he’s really talking about a resurgence of Egyptian noir. The books he cites — Magdy al-Shafie’s censored graphic novel Metro and Ahmed Mourad’s thriller Vertigo — have been both eye-opening and influential. The latter has been tremendously popular, and Mourad’s more recent thriller, The Blue Elephant, got him a spot on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shortlist. The film version of The Blue Elephant recently opened.

In an earlier interview with ArabLit, Mourad said that he believes that more crime novels aren’t being written in Arabic because “it’s a new genre of writing and anything new is usually accompanied by a lot of attack and criticism. However, it is not really new because Naguib Mahfouz wrote The Thief and the Dogs decades ago.”

Another graphic novel also makes Guyer’s list: The Apartment in Bab El-Louk, by Donia Maher, Ganzeer, and Ahmed Nady. It’s a book that this website earlier called a  “fabulous noir poem.” But as Ganzeer told Guyer:

“The cops are not the heroes in this story … That’s not the way things roll in Cairo. You don’t have an investigator; you don’t have a private eye, or whatever. You’re totally on your own.” … He emphasized the pervasive antipolice violence that climaxed during January 2011 uprising: “People went and burned down every single police station.”

Guyer discusses exclusively Egyptian work, although Algeria is perhaps the Arabic-writing nation that has the strongest tradition of crime and detective novels. Anouar Benmalek’s Abduction, trans. Simon Pare (from the French), is a terrifying novel wherein the victim must also be the detective, and lines between criminal and victim are blurred.

Certainly, with crime and policing so much at the forefront of the Egyptian imagination, it’s seems the time would be ripe for more novels that tackle this in various ways. Readers will surely be interested.

Read Jonathan Guyer’s whole essay: The Case of the Arabic Noirs