Monday, April 11, 2011

When does the Arabic crime-fiction boom start?

(Blogger's paragraph formatting is malfunctioning yet again. I hope what follows is readable.)

Matt Rees, who sets his crime novels amid the corruption and violence of the Palestinian world, suggests that the current unrest throughout the Arab world will give rise to crime fiction, if not now, then later. "One of the offshoots of the downfall of Arab dictators," he writes, "is sure to be an explosion of thrillers and mysteries." Why?

"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. ... 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."

I wonder when such an explosion of thrillers and mysteries will begin (if it has not done so already) and how we will know about it in today's atomized publishing world.

Much short crime fiction in English is published on the Internet these days, particularly on the darker, more violent end of the spectrum. I suspect that little of this work is translated into other languages. Will such be the case with any future boom in Arabic crime fiction? Will the boom happen on the Web, in Arabic, untranslated and under the noses of the outside crime fiction world? Has it started already? Is someone sitting in Tahrir Square or Benghazi at this moment typing and circulating dark tales of crime, justice and corruption?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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50 Comments:

Anonymous kathy d. said...

This is a very interesting question.

Maybe there are mysteries written and published in Arabic, that the English-speaking/writing world doesn't yet know about.

April 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Precisely. And if they don't exist now, perhaps they will exist soon, untranslated, before most of us know about them.

I intended this more to provoke thought than to seek answers, though if Matt or anyone else knows of any any Arabic equvalent to English-language crime fiction e-zines, I'd be happy to hear about them.

One intermediate step might be more translations of crime fiction from other languages into Arabic.

April 11, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Likewise, if mysteries written and published in Arabic aren't known in the English-writing/speaking world, do they still exist?

This calls for investigating; will ask some Arabic-reading friends about this.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It may be less a tree-falls-in-the-forest thing than a salutary lesson in humility. Even in this day and age, we can't know everything.

April 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There's M.M. Tawfik of Egypt and Yasmina Khadra of Morocco; both are written about in DBB.

There are many books by English-speaking/writing authors set in the Middle East and Northern Africa, just at a glance on global fiction blogs, but that doesn't mean these books don't exist -- just that they're not on the lists accessible here, but it certainly merits investigation.

April 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

This is an interesting website, which has many genres of Arabic literature. Found "Vertigo," a mystery, but there may be others here; didn't have time to look at every entry.

http://arablit.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/why-do-arabic-readers-need-their-own-agatha-christie/

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Yasmina Khadra is from Algeria, though he writes in French from his voluntary exile in France. In addition to M.M. Tawfik, I also mentioned The Final Bet by Abdelilah Hamdouchi, who is from Morocco.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that article. Here it is in handy one-click form.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think Rees's premise is a bit dodgy. Its not that Arabs have eschewed reading crime fiction, in fact they hardly read anything:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year

I remember well a bookshop I visited in Nablus that sold half dozen titles in Arabic and among those were How To Win Friends And Influence People and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

If there is an Arabic publishing boom I suspect it'll be mostly self help books, business manuals and the like.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

And here's that Unesco link in one click form.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Kerrie said...

what about Zoe Ferraris?
THE NIGHT OF THE MI'RAJ
CITY OF VEILS

April 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There are actually a lot of books at that website which can be accessed with one click, not mainly mysteries, but all types of fiction.

It's quite interesting.

And, yes, the books by Zoe Ferraris are excellent mysteries and give some interesting background on life in Saudi Arabia.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

If they are writing in these revolutionary times, as we post here, authors will be working within a very long tradition.


What have we done to you death/ that you treat us so
is a cry of pain by al-Khansa that reverberates from the
7th century.
I wonder if poetry, rather than fiction, might not be the chosen form?

April 12, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, Matt makes an interesting point, but Adrian does also. There appears to be very little reading of fiction in the Arab world -- if I got that straight from Adrian's post -- and that is most probably related to the non-democratic society. Cultures ruled by fundamentalist religions discourage education and frivolous pursuits. There, you are both right. :)
Matt is translated into a number of European languages, but there you have an interested reading public. Foreign contracts depend on expected sales in that country.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Joe Barone said...

I read A Grave in Gaza and realy liked it.

April 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Check out the website posted above, either the longer link or the one-click that DBB posted.

It's amazing what books are listed. There is a book challenge of Arabic books, with lots I certainly have never heard of, and which look interesting.

It appears that many people, including youth, do read fiction.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I thought there was some sort of Arabic representation in one of those two noir series that's come out over the last few years, but can't find it, at least not from home.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I commented on the lack of crime fiction in Tunisia when I there, and a local (from the euphoniously named city of Sfax) suggested that the price of books was an obstacle to reading. If I recall correctly, Leighton Gage, who lives in and writes about Brazil, commented on low readership in Brazil. I don't remember if he tied this to wide income disparities between rich and poor.

So you think our man Matt may be overly idealistic about crime fiction prospects, do you? He's harsh on violence and corruption within Palestinian society, and maybe he hopes to hard that Palestinians will take up that cause in the form of writing.

What I wonder, and that's the substance of this post, is what sorts of stories are being circulated at this moment below the radar of publishing.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kerrie, someone mentioned Zoe Ferraris on one of the chat strings I consulted for this post. I have one of her books lying around, and maybe I'll move it up on my list. But I think Matt's subject is crime fiction from within the Arab world written by natives and residents of that world.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kerrie, I wonder if authors such as Matt Rees and Zoe Ferraris will attract significant public attention in the countries about which they write.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Photographe, if I get my connection back, I'll look for that poem. Poetry might be the chosen form, and it's a commonplace to note that Arabic might lend itself especially well to poetry. Rees makes that point in the discussion thread that follows the post to which I link in my post. I also found my way to a discussion that mentions a book of crime stories from Abbasid times (eighth through thirteenth centuries).

But they, and al-Khansa's poems, are from ages long past. I wonder how useful and vital they would be to writers trying to protray realities in today's world. It's not as if writers dishonor their own culture by taking inspiration from the literary forms of another. Naguib Mahfouz read detective stories, after all, and it's hard to read Yasmina Khadra's crime novels without suspecting that Raymond Chandler was part of his background.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Of course, Islamic extremists tried to kill Mahfouz, and I have read that his books were banned in many Arab countries because he supported the Camp David accords. Make of that what you will in speculating about the possible future of Arabic crime writing.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., Matt acknowledges in his post's total that democracy is a precondition of crime fiction. But he doesn't speculate about how long he thinks it will take for a crime-fiction boom to happen. Perhaps it will be many years.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Joe, Rees' most recent book, The Fourth Assassin, is also worth reading.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

The realities in today's world are stark, as all reader's of crime fiction know.

Tahrir Square is a centrepoint for rappers and graffiti artists and a search for "egypt square revolution rap poetry" helped me to find my way round this difficult subject.

News from Egypt is of torture and reprisals at the moment, as well as of women being sent home to "wash the clothes" but in such times as ours I regard Western media with a gimlet eye.

Propaganda is everywhere and there are many Twitter posters who lead to insights.

I'll send you some posts there, given time.
(At the moment I'm supposed to be scrubbing the cooker.)

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I'll look for that challenge. Two questions I'd ask are to what extent reading of fiction is a property of elites in the Arab world, and what to the educated young professionals who lead the revolutions read.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, the editor of Akashic Books' Mumbai Noir is a Muslim (which I learned from the editor of Delhi Noir), and there is or will be a Lagos Noir. But the Akashic Web site shows nothing in the series from the Arab world.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales: Scrub the cooker here, wash the clothes there. Some tasks cross cultural boundaries.

As with the French Revolution, it's probably too early to tell where the Arab world's upheavals will lead. Reactions such as the ones you cite in Egypt may worthy of suspicion. But they may also be a salutary anecdote to giddy optimism about social media's power to change the world.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Kerrie said...

Peter, you apparently can't buy Zoe Ferraris' books in the UAE, so I guess she has attracted attention of a sort

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kerrie, isn't there a big book fair in one of the emirates? I wonder if publishers are circumspect about what they exhibit there.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Your original question about what the literature of the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East will be has reminded me of how different the cultures are from one country to another and the ability of the "West" to weld them all together shows a great lack of insight.

The question of a a coherent body of work that will emerge might be predicted by examining the language used in the various countries and the traditions of expression that already exist there.

We tend to forget that we are all bound in linguistic conventions and the idea of "freedom of expression" is worth scrutinising.

This is useful:

"http://www.arabic-language.org/arabic/literature.asp"

April 13, 2011  
Blogger Kerrie said...

There is a big annual book fair in Abu Dhabi Peter but I didn't see a lot of crime fiction :-)

April 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales, I was going to mention that very point, but my post ran the risk of growing too long. I probably had the Palestinian territories in mind, since that's where Matt Rees sets his books. I would say that such generalizations as "the Arab world" and "the Islamic world" have some historical validity, since they share common descent from the caliphate and then the Ottoman Empire. The countries may constitute different cultures, but they are arguably part of the same civilization.

To what extent this affects the questions under discussion here is open for argument, of course.

April 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kerrie, who are the exhibitors there? Who are they buyers? And if you didn't see lots of crime fiction, what kind of popular literature was there?

April 13, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter: the Akashic website shows that they have "Jerusalem Noir" in the works (edited by Israeli Arab Sayed Kashua) -- and I've heard that they're signing up other volumes in cities across the Middle East.

April 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Many thanks. I missed Jerusalem Noir on the site, though I have heard Akashic's Johnny Temple talk about the problems of putting together such a volume.

What other books do they have planned from the Middle East?

April 13, 2011  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

In terms of how long it'll take for the revolutions to produce crime fiction, how long was it after democracy took root in the West that crime fiction emerged? A couple of hundred years?

And then there's the kicker: there's no guarantee that the 'democratic revolutions' will eventually result in democracy.

Cheers, Dec

April 14, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I'm beginning to wonder about the usefulness of all the tin pot democracies that hark back to 19th century style nationalism.

"http://moderntwist2.blogspot.com/2011_03_27_archive.html"

Writers now are involved more in film scripts, multi-media, graffiti and rapping, it seems to me. Collabarative work and recognising "the death of the author" is much discussed among younger friends, who see team activity as the way forward in their own professional lives.

I continue to be amazed at the number of crime writers who are coming onto the field and wonder what they have in common, if anything.
Analysing this could give some insight, perhaps? The solitary nature of the crime protagonist, pitted against an alien society, is Orwellian and very much part of Western culture. The group phenomenon that is the Lotus Revolution is what makes it so impressive.

It might be worth looking at the average age of crime writers as well?

Also it's worth noting that for years, Barbara Cartland was the top author being read in the Arabian world.

Makes you wonder...

April 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales, I thought "the death of the author" expired several years ago, at least as a critical notion. Young people may see team activity as the way forward in their professional lives, but what will this activity mean for those of us outside their circle -- for readers, that is?

I'm sometimes amazed by the breadth of writing that comes under the rubric "crime fiction." In fact, that very term is an indication that the field has grown beyond mystery in the U.S. and detective stories in the U.K.

As to the ages of crime writers, I've read in the past year crime novels by authors ranging in age from late twenties to mid eighties.

And, while I'm no student of revolutions, I have to believe that all revolutions must be group phenomena. The question of whether the current batch differs from its predecessors in this respect may remain unanswered until it becomes apparent what sorts of societies emerge from these revolutions.

April 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, that's part of what I meant when I wrote earlier that, as with the French Revolution, it's too early to tell with this latest batch of uprisings.

April 14, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

This is interesting on the subject of revolutions:

"http://www.britannia.com/history/euro/1/2_2.html"

Everything here links up with my reading of Conrad's "Lord Jim" where a small skirmish rather than a full scale revolution in the jungle brings temporary peace.

It's possible that, as seems to be the case in Egypt, the new leaders will be quite as harsh as the deposed ones. However, there have been formal apologies on T.V. there in relation to the treatment of people held in custody.

Rather than wondering about what sort of literary form might emerge from all this, I think it must be extremely difficult for ordinary people in such times and and the effect on tourism is very dampening. Also, a bit book fair has been posponed indefinately.

As for the "Death of the Author", this might be a good title for a crime novel?

April 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, I don't necessarily expect that anyone will have time to sit down and write crime novels when he or she is busy trying to set up a society. But it's not reasonable to expect some sort of popular fiction to emerge. To what extent this will be similar to our familiar form of crime fiction, I don't know.

It may be worth mentioning again that Naguib Mahfouz loved detective stories and that he wrote a novel that to my mind qualifies as noir.

April 15, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Thank you for that. Here is a good biography of Naguib Hahfouz.

I'll continue to post useful links, as found, on the Twitter Anouilh site, as I don't want to clutter up your comment box.

April 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's not clutter, it's traffic.

I wrote about Mahfouz's novel The Thief and the Dogs here in November 2008, if you'd care to look.

April 15, 2011  
Blogger zoe said...

I know this is about whether Arabs are or will be writing from their circumstances, but just wanted to mention Joseph Koenig's Brides of Blood--a harrowing noir set in Iran.

April 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I had not heard of that book. It's a novelty to see words like "noir" and "thriller" in the same sentence as "Iran."

April 15, 2011  
Blogger Matt Beynon Rees said...

The Emirates Airlines festival in Dubai was last month. I was on a panel with Tess Gerritsen and Mark Billingham. Well attended, though of course none of us are Arab or have books in Arabic, so it's not so apposite here. ...As for there being few books of any kind published in Arabic, per an earlier comment. For one thing, God bless them, Arabs read poetry and have an appreciation for poetry that's missing in many Western societies. A broader publishing market depends in many ways on freedoms that have been lacking -- in just the way I describe in the post you cite, Peter. There's also the problem of illiteracy. That's a broader problem of course than one effecting crime fiction. However, most of the illiterates in the Arab world are women, because their education isn't always valued. And who reads crime fiction? Women predominate... Arab publishing markets are also often localized. You might not see a Saudi writer on the bookshelves in Tangiers. But even at the Dubai festival it was clear to me that there are a lot of important new writers emerging in the Arab world. Khaled al-Khamissi described to me in detail how he had ventured into Tahrir Square, which is just outside his front door. Muhammad Hassan Alwan read a rather racy section about his lust for a lover, which was quite a revelation given that he publishes in Saudi... So the literary scene in the Arab world is diverse and fascinating, even if not everyone's reading. ...Which leads me to believe you could be writer, PR, about ezines being the site for new crime fiction.

April 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Matt, I knew that spoken Arabic differs widely throughout the Arab world, but I did not consider that such linguistic localization might be factors in publishing as well.

(A Moroccan taxi driver, commenting on that diversity, told me recently that "There's no such thing as `Arabic,'" just different local and national varieties.)

My point about e-zines, of course, was that interesting things could be happening in Arabic crime fiction without anyone non-local knowing about it.

April 18, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Yasmina Khadra is a big hit in France. We have less contact with "Arabic" culture in Ireland, but Algeria is such a major part of the French consciousness.

Polarnoir.net has a good interview where this statment seems to clinch what has gone before herre:

"Oui, j’essaye d’aller un peu plus loin. J’essaye de faire du « beau texte » aussi… d’y mettre de la poésie…"

Happy Easter from Dublin.

I'm taking a break from the Internet, except for Twittering.

April 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose his Brahim Llob novels do contain some harsh poetry.

April 18, 2011  

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