Emily Drumsta on Translating Mahfouz’s ‘Sufi Noir’

In the latest issue of Asymptote, Emily Drumsta has translated Naguib Mahfouz’s “Culprit Unknown,” a story that was originally published in his 1962 short-story collection God’s World:

Although Roger Allen did publish a collection of Mahfouz’s stories called God’s World in 1973, which he co-translated with Akef Abadi, Drumsta said this is not a re-translation:

“So Roger Allen did produce a volume of translations called God’s World in 1973,” Drumsta said over email, “but when I consulted it several months back, it seemed to be a collection of translated short stories from across Mahfouz’s oeuvre, rather than a translation of all the stories in the original Dunya Allah. ‘Culprit Unknown’ wasn’t part of the [Allen-Abadi] collection.”

Drumsta, who is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University but has been in Cairo this summer, said she ran across the story as she’s reading all of Mahfouz’s writing from the 1960s, “from The Thief and the Dogs through Miramar, in preparation to write the third chapter of my book manuscript, Ways of Seeking: The Arabic Novel and the Poetics of Investigation.” In particular, she writes, “I was trying to explore what I’ve been calling ‘Mahfouz’s Sufi Noir,’ to see how and why he was drawn to both crime-writing and Sufi storytelling and the same time. When I read ‘Culprit Unknown,’ I couldn’t believe how much it was like a detective story—and that it hadn’t been translated yet!”

Drumsta got in touch with Mahfouz’s daughter, who gave her “enthusiastic” permission to translate the story.

In her translator’s note that accompanies the piece, Drumsta writes:

Though it may not abide by all the dictates of the “classical” detective story (for one thing, the killer is never identified), still it features a series of mysterious murders and follows its detective-protagonist, Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari, as he attempts to solve the crime. There is something unusual about Detective Muhsin, however. Unlike most of his colleagues, he has a passion for Sufi poetry, including the work of Saʿdi, Ibn al-Farid, and Ibn ʿArabi. Paradoxically, where the mystery surrounding the serial murders in “Culprit Unknown” nearly suffocates him with frustration, the more cosmic mysteries of life, death, and divine truth explored in Sufi poetry bring him pleasure and release. Mahfouz masterfully interweaves elements of noir with mystical storytelling in this piece to ask larger questions about the meaning of death in life and eternity in mortality.

Indeed, Mahfouz’s The Whisper of Stars, published last year in Arabic and this month, as The Quarter, in Roger Allen’s translation, also has a strangely Sufi murder mystery. In it, we know everything about the crime in the first few sentences. After that, our certainty about the murder unravels.

As for Drumsta’s favorite Mahfouz: “Oh boy… I just love ‘Zaabalawi.’ I also recently re-read the Trilogy as part of my research, and I still find it masterful and brilliant at moments (if long-winded and overly psychological at times). But for stylistic economy, dialogue brilliance, and Cairo-realness, Midaq Alley has my heart.”

Culprit Unknown” is over at Asymptote. It opens: “There was nothing noticeably unusual in the apartment, nothing that might help the detective with his investigation. It was an unassuming place, just two rooms and an entryway. The most surprising thing about it, in fact, was how ordinary it looked, given that it had just been the scene of a heinous crime. Even the bed was only as ruffled as you might expect after a good night’s sleep. But the man lying there wasn’t asleep. He was dead.” Keep reading.

You can also hear novelist Mohamed Rabie read an excerpt of the original. And, if you’re focused on the Arabic detective novel, Bilal Orfali and Maha Abdelmegeed are looking for your contributions.