‘Protect and Serve’? Crime-fic Symposium to Include Look at Arabic Noir

On July 10, Edinburgh University will host “‘Protect and Serve’: Crime Fiction and Community,” a one-day symposium exploring how ideas of community feature in crime fiction. It’s set to include a panel focused on crime fiction in Arab-majority countries, and Annie Webster will be there:

By Annie Webster

7857617_origThe “‘Protect and Serve’: Crime Fiction and Community” conference responds to recent global events, such as the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, US. The shooting highlights tensions between conceptions of community and the role that the police assume as a part of this discourse. Overall, the “Protect and Serve” conference seeks to examine ways in which this relationship has been depicted in European and global crime fiction, with a particular focus on Anglophone and Francophone narratives.

A recently released program promises a fascinating selection of papers that will reflect on constructions of community from a range of disciplinary and comparative perspectives. Keynote speakers include Professor Mary Evans from the London School of Economics, who will present on “Detecting Enlightenment: Detection and the End of Enlightenment,” and Professor Gill Plain, whose paper is entitled, “Precarious Life? Policing Gender and Community in Contemporary American Crime Narrative.”

Panels will address a variety of themes, ranging from the ways in which concepts of gender contribute towards structures of community to the depiction of criminalisation procedures in crime fiction. A panel entitled “Arab Noir” will focus on concepts of community in texts that focus on Arabs.

That panel will consist of three papers: “Protect and Serve in Authoritarian Regimes” by Dr Meryem Belkaid from Bates College; “‘Arabs Don’t do Crime Fiction’: Writing a Noir or Neo-Noir Baghdad” by Annie Webster (University of Edinburgh); and “Jamal Majoub’s Sudanese Detective in the Makana Mysteries” by Professor Jacqueline Jondot from the Université Toulouse.

The inclusion of this panel in the conference reflects a growing interest in Arab and Arabic crime fiction. Although the genre is not new to Arab literary discourse — examples of a “whodunnit” plot can be found as far back the tale of ‘The Three Apples’ in A Thousand and One Nights — it fell out of favor in the late twentieth century. However, recent publications such as Murder in the Tower of Happiness (2008) by M.M.Tawfiq, What the Day Owes the Night (2010) by Yasmina Khadra, and The Blue Elephant (2012) by Ahmed Mourad, have contributed towards a renewed interest in crime fiction as a genre that provides a distinctive insight into shifting social structures of the Arab World.

Jonathan Guyer has suggested that this revival of crime fiction constitutes a “neo-noir revolution” across Arab-majority countries that extends to other genres, for example graphic novels.[1] Metro (2007) by Magdy Al-Shafee and the graphic novella The Apartment in Bab El-Louk (2014) written by Donia Maher and with art by Ganzeer experiment with conventions of noir crime fiction to reflect on political realities in contemporary Cairo and the region more broadly.

The region has also inspired recent crime fiction in the west. For example, Elliott Colla’s debut novel Baghdad Central (2014), a murder-mystery novel set in post-Saddam Baghdad. This text is unusual in that it was written by an American who is narrating the experience of an ex-Iraqi police officer after the military campaign launched against Iraq in 2003.

Interestingly, in an interview about his recent novel, Colla stated that, “Arabs don’t do crime fiction.”[2] This sweeping statement might be queried in light of the fact that Arabs seem to be increasingly engaged with crime fiction as both readers and writers of the genre. It begs the question: How does one “do” crime fiction?

The precise ways in which crime fiction relates to constructions of community and concepts of state authority in Arab countries is yet to be negotiated in scholarship pertaining to Arabic literature. The “Arab Noir” panel at “‘Protect and Serve’: Crime Fiction and Community” therefore promises an innovative discussion of the ways in which Arabs do, or don’t do, crime fiction.

For information about the conference, and to see its full programme, visit: http://crimefictionandcommunity.weebly.com/

Annie Webster is a postgraduate student at The University of Edinburgh. She is currently researching emigre Iraqi literature post-2003 for her MSc thesis. She will present her paper ‘”Arabs don’t do crime fiction”: Writing a Noir or Neo-Noir Baghdad’ at the Crime Fiction and Community conference in July. 

[1] Jonathan Guyer, ‘The Arab Whodunnit: Crime Fiction makes a comeback in the Middle East’, The Guardian, 3 October 2014 [http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/03/middle-east-crime-fiction-comeback-neo-noir]

[2] Elliott Colla interviewed by Henry Peck, ‘Grays in the Emerald City’, Guernica, August 15, 2014 [https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/grays-in-the-emerald-city/]