Friday Finds: ‘The Strange Case of the Arabic Whodunnit’

On BBC4 online, you can listen to Jonathan Guyer’s new radio program, “The Strange Case of the Arabic Whodunnit“: 

In this hardboiled half-hour show, Guyer focuses on the role of the noir novel in Cairo, taking us from “The Three Apples” of The Thousand and One Nights to what Guyer calls the “neo noir” film The Nile Hilton Incident, the screening of which was recently prevented in Egypt.

In between those poles, Guyer rides around Cairo, visiting booksellers, crime writers, scholars, journalists, novelists, and graphic novelists, including the man Guyer calls “the greatest novelist alive writing in Arabic,” Sonallah Ibrahim.

Ibrahim and Guyer talk Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, saying, “They were popular because they were more modern. They have a very lively simple, and direct, and — in my opinion, in the case of Raymond Chandler — a kind of poetic style.”

Guyer also visits the world of Cairo’s book stalls, noting that there’s, “More Agatha Christie in Arabic everywhere we look.” Authors’ and booksellers’ voices layer over each other, along with the sounds of the city.

Both American and Arab noir share similar concerns, Guyer tells us: “life in the modern city, among capitalist and technological advance; they share concerns about institutions like banks; and of course, the police.”

Guyer talks to scholar-translator Jonathan Smolin about Naguib Mahfouz’s crime novel The Thief and the Dogs, which Smolin calls “a police novel in reverse.”

Guyer talks to Egyptian novelist MM Tawfik, who argues that the current wave of Egyptian genre novels is a reaction against the 1990s generation who were focused on their “innermost selves,” not accessible writing. “Nobody was reading any more, because of that.” Tawfik started writing his Murder in the Tower of Happiness, which has since been published in the author’s translation by AUC Press, in the late 1990s, as a reaction to more impressionistic, internal novels.

Now, he says, things have changed, and, “Writers are trying to reach out to readers. That’s what makes this period so interesting.”

Guyer talks to Magdy al-Shafee, whose Metro “says everything that the police don’t want to be said,” and was yanked from shelves soon after it was published. He also talks to novelist, scholar, and activist Basma Abdel Aziz, who writes about power and authority.

Guyer even has a noir-ish encounter with bestselling Egyptian novelist Ahmed Mourad, whose thriller Vertigo has been translated into English by Robin Moger, and whose The Blue Elephant was made into a popular film. Mourad notes that, recently, new crime-novel-focused publishing houses have opened in Egypt, and that these works are appealing to teens and nontraditional readers.

The title’s focus on “The Arab Whodunnit” is perhaps misleading — this isn’t about noir across all of Arabic or Arab literature. But as a portrait of Cairo noir, it’s a wonderful short trip across the cacophony of modern crime writing in the Mother of the World. Listen now.