Nadia Ghanem’s interest in Algerian crime fiction was sparked when she was told it didn’t exist.
Although Ghanem’s scholarly focus is ancient Sumerian and Akkadian texts, she has spent the last decade documenting contemporary crime fiction in Algeria and, to a lesser extent, in Morocco. Her journey started when she attended a lecture at SOAS, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, in the early 2000s.
“They were talking about Arabic literature and genre fiction in the MENA region,” she said. “And then one of the leading experts was saying that there was no crime fiction whatsoever that had come out of Algeria, with the exception perhaps of Yasmina Khadra. And I felt really, really annoyed at that.”
Ghanem said that she didn’t have a strong enough background in crime fiction to respond. But, after that lecture, she began systematically reading from the SOAS library’s Algeria section.
It is true that Maghrebi writers weren’t at the center of the “Golden Age” of Arabic crime fiction in the 1940s and ’50s, when Egyptian magazines such as Akhir Saʿah and al-Ithnayn churned out crime writing for hundreds of thousands of eager readers. Yet Ghanem did find crime novels by Algerian writers starting in the 1970s. That was also the decade that crime writing seems to have first appeared in Tunisia.
Opening the Doors to Detective Novels
In 1970, Ghanem says, the Algerian government-run publishing house SNED Editions brought out four detective novels by Youcef Khader, the pen name of Catalan novelist Roger Vilatimo. “This editorial decision seems to have opened the doors to the genre in the country, so that, within 10 years, crime novels written by Algerian novelists became part of a publishing house’s repertoire.”
Most of the Algerian crime fiction from the 1970s and ’80s was written in French, Ghanem believes. Publishing was interrupted in the ’90s, with the onset of the Algerian civil war. Still, crime novels continued to appear. The ’90s was also when crime fiction came to neighboring Morocco.
Moroccan Crime Novels: Hamdouchi and Hamdouchi
Individual crime novels may have appeared sporadically in Morocco in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1963, Muhammad ibn al-Tuhami published a police procedural called Dahaya Hubb (Victims of Love). According to the scholar Jonathan Smolin, there was also a mid-twentieth-century Moroccan police journal that published some fiction. Yet for the most part, Smolin says, Morocco’s repressive “Years of Lead,” which started in the 1960s and continued through the ’80s, did not inspire authors to make police officers their novels’ heroes.
In French, the acclaimed Moroccan novelist Driss Chraïbi took up the detective form in 1991 with his sharp-witted Inspector Ali series.