Friday, April 25, 2008

Who will be the next Samir Spade? Or the first one? (Crime fiction in the Arab world)

An article earlier this month from the London Book Fair (hat tip to Sarah Weinman) touched on issues that crop up from time to time at Detectives Beyond Borders. The subject was a speech by Amr Moussa, secretary general of the League of Arab States, on the "immense challenges" facing the Arab books world.

"The Arab League recognizes the shortcomings of education in the Arab world," he said, highlighting issues that included the inability of many would-be readers to afford books. But all was not negative. Moussa cited positive signs, including what he said was a decline in censorship, and more translation abroad.

Both the positive and the negative judgments dovetail with matters that have arisen on this blog. One of my early posts concerned a trip to Tunisia, where I found no crime fiction. Our local guide suggested an explanation that tallies with one of Mussa’s: that many Tunisians simply earned too little money to afford books.

Some time later, the questions of poverty and censorship arose in an exchange of e-mails with Matt Rees, who sets his novels in the Palestinian territories. Though the subject was crime fiction, the discussion touched on subjects Moussa raised in connection with Arabic literature in general.

“There are two separate issues,” Rees wrote. “One is that the book market is very small … My theory is that the Arab world is very prone to conspiracy theories, but the uncovering of the truth is generally not encouraged by governments or religious establishments – in political terms. Though the detective novel grows out of situations of corruption (Hammett's San Francisco or Chandler's Santa Monica), it also depends on a conception that when right is uncovered, it can also be carried through. Unfortunately the Arab world suffers from a lack of that freedom."
Rees also said crime fiction was virtually unknown in the Arab world, in part for reasons outlined above. What does this all mean? Perhaps that if Amr Moussa is right, and if a measure of liberalization does come to Arabic culture in general and publishing in particular, a new Arabic crime fiction might result.

There might be a way to go, though, at least in some Arab lands. The Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra, author of the searing Brahim Llob crime novels, writes in French because "I wanted to write. In Russian, Chinese, Arabic. But to write! At the beginning, I wrote in Arabic. My Arabic teacher ridiculed me, whereas my French teacher encouragd me." And Khadra, who lives in voluntary exile in France, once told an interviewer that:

"Algerian readers like me a lot. They read me in French because I am not translated into Arabic. I am translated into Indonesian, Japanese, Malayalam, in the majority of the languages, except in Arabic. But that has nothing to do with the Arab peoples. It is the leaders who seek, as always, to dissociate the people from the elites so they can continue to reign and cultivate clanism and mediocrity."
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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