The Summer 2020 issue of ArabLit Quarterly — our issue of summer insight & delight — is now available as PDF and EPUB. The print edition is available via Amazon (US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and elsewhere), and in a searchable online edition for Exact Editions subscribers:
By M Lynx Qualey
For thousands of years, crime has been an essential element of human storytelling. There is no Osiris myth without his murder by Set; no Agamemnon without the killing of both the king and Cassandra. But contemporary crime fiction is given a start date of 1841, its invention generally attributed to Edgar Allen Poe, who (it’s alleged) kicked off the genre with the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” From there, the contagion of crime writing spread quickly to England, France, Italy, Spain, and Egypt.
By the mid-twentieth century, the genre had taken hold in Egypt. As our crime-writing consultant Christiane-Marie Abu Sarah notes, the 1930s launched a Golden Age of Arabic pulp fiction. By 1937, she writes, “the genre was so popular, Majallat al-Risalah dedicated an article to ‘The Development of the Police Story,’ and dubbed crime and detective fiction ‘the most loved type of popular story’ in Egypt.” The magazine further noted that “the police detective—once a villainous character—had evolved into a hero and moral role model for Egyptian youth.”
Popular magazines such as al-Ithnayn wa-l-Dunya—which had a 1947 circulation of 120,000—ran true-crime stories and crime fiction on a weekly basis, as well as original locked-room mysteries and crime puzzles, of which we include one in this issue, translated by Doaa Hafez.
These stories had wide impact among authors. Naguib Mahfouz has said that his first literary inspirations were detective novels by Hafiz Najib. A generation later, Sonallah Ibrahim declared himself a fan of Arsène Lupin. Indeed, Ibrahim’s story in this issue of ArabLit Quarterly, translated by Emily Drumsta, is titled for the popular gentleman thief, and it moves between the excitement of narrative crime-writing and the dull, overbearing nature of state-enforced justice. Moreover, the story “Arsène Lupin” was written in al-Wahat Prison Camp, where Ibrahim was being held, ostensibly for committing a crime against the state.
By the time Nael Eltoukhy was reading The Five Adventurers books as a boy in the late 1980s, he says, he imagined himself in the role of detective. He remembers scolding his brother for not apprehending another child he’d seen stealing bread. In his essay about crime and crime-writing, “Some Advice on Avoiding Censorship,” Eltoukhy explores the changing relationship he’s had with the idea of crime.
Pre-modern writers often approached the topic of crime with much less emphasis on apprehension and punishment. The poet Abu Dulaf, who lived nearly a thousand years before Poe, wrote about the Banu Sassan criminal network in a long poem, part of which Brad Fox has here adapted to English. A generation later, al-Tanukhi (d. 994) wrote what may be the most wonderfully weird crime story from the whole of the tenth century, about a young woman with a shroud-stealing fetish. Melanie Magidow translates it for this issue.
From the early thirteenth century, we have a crime dictionary based around al-Jawbari’s Book of Charlatans, edited and translated by Humphrey Davies, whose translation of the whole Book of Charlatans will be out later this year. The book covers the efforts of fake miracle-workers, dodgy horse copers, quack doctors, astrologers, alchemists, and all manner of sneak thieves.
By the fourteenth century, one of the medieval world’s most popular tales of murder and crime-solving, “The Three Apples,” was in circulation as part of The Thousand and One Nights. And while it’s a bit too late to go detecting in Poe’s subconscious, the Nights surely shaped his story-craft. In 1845, Poe published a satiric short story called “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade.” In it, he works out his demons—and perhaps his profound professional jealousy—by having Scheherazade killed by King Shahryar.
As the Shahryar regime makes clear, states often cannot be trusted as fair or reasonable arbiters of justice. Two of the stories in this issue from Iraq—Raghad Qasim’s “Hair or No Hair,” translated by Zeena Faulk, and Azher Jirjees’s “The Limping Couch,” translated by Ranya Abdel Rahman—involve the criminalization of ordinary behaviors. We also explore state-led crime. In this issue’s Literary Playlist, Maha Elnabawi sets music to the stories in Palestine + 100, an anthology of future fiction that imagines Palestine 100 years after the 1948 Nakba.
It’s also important to say that crime stories—like all stories—are never merely entertainment. They’ve also been a means of justifying mass incarcerations, in Egypt as in the US. Crime stories can turn ordinary people into slightly more extraordinary ones, as Abdallah Kamal does in “Counterfeit Cash,” translated here by Karim Zidan. But crime stories can also turn ordinary people into monsters, thus aiding and abetting societies as we justify abrogating the rights to health, freedom of movement, and safety for millions.
And so: May the next waves of crime writing include many radical re-visionings of policing, crime, justice, and punishment.
The full table of contents: