24 February 2011 10 Comments

For Arabs: democracy, then crime fiction

Crime fiction may not be the first thing on the minds of the protesters taking to the streets for democracy across the Arab world. But one of the offshoots of the downfall of Arab dictators is sure to be an explosion of thrillers and mysteries.

Until now there has been almost no crime fiction written in Arabic. A couple of little-known writers in Egypt and Morocco have contributed old-fashioned Agatha Christie-style cosies (“One of the people at this oasis is the killer.”) The best Arab detective writer has been Yasmina Khadra, whose series about Inspector Llob is supremely gory and noirish. But Khadra writes in French from exile in France.

I believe Arabs have eschewed crime writing because it’s a democratic genre. One man wants to find out something that a big organization – the CIA, the mafia, the government – wants to keep secret. It’s easy to see why Hosni Mubarak probably wasn’t a fan of Raymond Chandler.

For people who live in democracies, it’s easy to find fiction credible that suggests a man can investigate – and once he fingers the bad guy, the bad guy will be punished. That’s why Scandinavian crime fiction by Henning Mankell et al is so popular: the Nordic societies have us all convinced that an eruption of violence, crime or murder, will soon enough be resolved and life can go back to its usual extreme orderliness.

Not so for the Arab world. Arabs have a deep sense of fatalism. Not only do they lack faith that the bad guy will be punished, they’re quite sure the bad guy will prosper. He’ll drive his Mercedes to his villa directly from the government offices or state-run companies where he rakes off his big take. The ordinary guy will be left to live on $2 a day.

When I came to write my series of Palestinian crime novels, one of the challenges was to make the format of the crime novel work in an environment where law and order didn’t really function or protect ordinary citizens. I did it by demonstrating that while my sleuth, Omar Yussef, might nail one bad guy at the end of the book, he would be left with an awareness that there were many other guilty men who had escaped him. As one German reader put it to me at a book festival, “I like your books because, in the end, everyone’s guilty.” The reason people across the Arab world are rising up is because they don’t want to share the guilt and shame of their broken, repressed societies any more.

These observations are true even for countries where there isn’t what we’d call a Western-style democracy – which I’d characterize as a democracy where corruption is either extremely well-hidden or disguised as a stock market in which all can supposedly participate. Take Russia, for example. Clearly not the democracy its people might dream of. But nonetheless one in which opposition journalists – at considerable risk to themselves – do function in the face of the state apparatus and its corrupt overlords.

In South Africa, there was almost no local crime fiction under apartheid. When that changed, there was an explosion of crime writing.

The situation in the Arab world is changing now. Which shows that there’s a thirst for democracy, for accountability – and, therefore, for crime fiction.

10 Responses to “For Arabs: democracy, then crime fiction”

  1. Selene 25 February 2011 at 3:35 am #

    A very interesting sociological viewpoint.

  2. Vernon 25 February 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Hello Matt,An interesting thesis.It’s good to see someone say something good about democracy even if it’s only an increase in decent fiction.I had some friends in communist Poland and on my visits this idea of oppression leading to creativity that some people profess seemed to me to be a bit dubious to say the least.They were too involved in the everyday activites of getting bye and being worn down by it.Anyway it’s p***ing down in Neath but I’m ok I’m in a sand storm on the Saladin Road.

  3. Matt Beynon Rees 28 February 2011 at 9:35 am #

    Thanks, Selene. Glad it gave you something to mull over!

  4. Peter 5 April 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    Yasmina Khadra’s reason for writing in French rather than Arabic may say something about the state of culture in the Arabic world. His French teacher encouraged him to express himself through writing, he says, but his Arabic teacher discouraged him. And that’s why he writes in French.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  5. Peter 5 April 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    If not Chandler, maybe Hammett. You don’t think Palestinian leadership would like, say, Red Harvest or “Nightmare Town”?
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  6. Matt Beynon Rees 5 April 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    You’re right, Peter, that Red Harvest’s “Poisonville” is about as grim as you can get without having an intifada, all its consequent violence and racketeering, and getting invaded by Israeli tanks…

  7. Matt Beynon Rees 5 April 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    As for Yasmin Khadra, Peter, there’s the issue of initial expression and a different kind of reverence for language in Arabic. It may be that noir is difficult to write in a linguistic culture that’s so very, very poetic. Not just in that Arabic poetry is still a force in the way that poetry in the West isn’t, but also that Arabic prose tends to be “flowery” compared to what we write in the West. Noir has a certain grim, terse poetry of its own, of course. But it may be that Khadra needed a “Western” language, in his earlier crime novels, to be noir. His later novels, it seems to me, are a little more “Arabic” in their use of language…

  8. Peter 7 April 2011 at 12:26 am #

    I’ve read just one of his books other than the Brahim Llob novels. It’s grim, though I’m not sure it’s noir. As for the poetry of Arabic, one of my duties at work is to post a list ot pages each evening for use as a proofreading checklist. Generally I will post under the heading “A- [or B-] section page list.” But I accidentally discovered a work of Moroccan history whose Arabic title I now use روض القرطاس
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  9. Peter 7 April 2011 at 12:31 am #

    I forgot to mention that I think Khadra wrote his memoir as well as his crime novels in French. So something other than the languages’ suitability for noir may be at play. But let’s let the author have his say:

    A la question “Pourquoi le français?” Yasmina Khadra répond : “Je n’ai pas choisi. Je voulais écrire. En russe, en chinois, en arabe. Mais écrire! Au départ, j’écrivais en arabe. Mon prof d’arabe m’a bafoué, alors que mon prof de français m’a encouragé.” Boutade? On peut le penser. Elle paraît pourtant dire l’essentiel. Une langue est choisie pour devenir l’outil d’une exigence : écrire. Le plus souvent, c’est la langue natale qui devient cet outil. Mais on compte nombre d’exceptions. Et ainsi l’Algérien Mohamed Moulessehoul, après avoir écrit en arabe, devient Yasmina Khadra, écrivain de langue française, après et avec quelques autres. Oui, mais voilà : il y a l’histoire.


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