Crime Fiction From the Maghreb: Not So Hidden After All
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
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.
In Arabic, Smolin says, the shift toward crime writing started in 1993. That was when an influential police commissioner, Haj Mustapha Tabit, was put on trial, accused of abducting and raping more than 500 women and girls. The Moroccan press was given unexpected freedom to write about the trial of this powerful police figure. It was coverage of this trial, Smolin says, that led to a new wave of Moroccan crime journalism.
It was also around this time that the novelist Abdelilah Hamdouchi met former detective Miloudi Hamdouchi (no relation). The press had nicknamed Miloudi Hamdouchi “Columbo,” after the 1970s American TV series, and this “Columbo” was considered a rare clean cop.
“At the time, the Years of Lead were drawing to a close, and Morocco was entering into a new political period,” Abdelilah Hamdouchi said in an interview with Emily Drumsta in Le Récit Criminel Arabe, a book forthcoming from Harrassowitz. “The state was trying rehabilitate the police, and this was very fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of crime fiction in Morocco.”
The Hamdouchis co-published a detective novella, Al-Hut al-Aʿma (The Blind Whale) in 1997. From there, each went on to write more crime novels. Abdelilah Hamdouchi also wrote the scripts for several televised police serials, and four of his crime novels have been translated to English.
In Mauritania, it was 2005 when Mohamed Ould Khattatt published what he subtitled the “first Mauritanian crime novel.” Mauritanian novelist Mbarek Ould Beyrouk writes that, since then, there have been more detective novels, including Ould Zeidane’s Al Emel Road series.
Women Novelists, Women Detectives
Most Maghrebi crime novels published in the 1970s and ’80s featured male detectives—even when they were written by women.
In a 2016 interview, the Algerian detective novelist Zehira Houfani said she would have liked to write women detectives into her novels, “but at the time the context was not right, it seems to me.” Her two detective novels, Les Pirates du Désert and Rendez-Vous Fatal, were both published to acclaim in the 1980s. But when the civil war broke out in the 1990s, Houfani stopped writing. “I think I would have reached that stage” of including women detectives “if my writing experience in the genre had continued.”
In the last decade, an increasing number of Algerian detective novels have appeared in Arabic, including some led by women protagonists. The woman detective in Nassima Bouloufa’s fast-paced Nabadhat Akher al-Layl (Heartbeats in the Dead of the Night) must fight not only crime, but also misogyny.
In the opinion of the Italian translator and literary scholar Jolana Guardi, “I think the best woman detective writer at present is Amal Bouchareb. She wrote Sakarat Najma (Flutters of a Star), a wonderful novel published in Algeria in 2015.” The novel is set to appear in Guardi’s Italian translation next fall.
“I think the best woman detective writer at present is Amal Bouchareb. She wrote Sakarat Najma (Flutters of a Star), a wonderful novel published in Algeria in 2015.” The novel is set to appear in Guardi’s Italian translation next fall.Jolana Guardi
Italian translator and literary scholar
Another recent star of Algerian crime fiction is Djamila Morani. Her novel Tuffahat al-Djinn (The Djinn’s Apple, 2016) is part crime novel, part historical fiction. Set during the eighth-century caliphate of Harun al-Rashid and narrated by a 12-year old girl named Nardeen, the novel explores justice in a broken system.
Genre-Crossing in Tunisia and Libya
Crime fiction also came into vogue in Tunisia in the 1970s, encouraged by the publisher Editions Alyssa. Then in the 1980s, detective writing in Tunisia seems to have gone quiet. But in the 1990s and 2000s, Editions Alyssa kick-started the genre with two detective-novel series by authors working under pseudonyms: “Al Sid” and “Charlotte.” Al Sid has since started publishing under his real name, Chedly El Okby.
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In Arabic, readers are more likely to find genre-crossing detective novels, such as Hassouna Mosbahi’s Hikaya Tunisiya (A Tunisian Tale). This novel brings together aspects of a crime novel with the nested stories of the Thousand and One Nights. Narrated alternately by a dead woman and the son who is awaiting execution for her murder, this is less a whodunit than an exploration of why the crime happened.
Libyan writer Najwa Binshatwan is another contemporary author playing with the detective genre. In her surreal short story “The Offing,” translated to English by Sawad Hussain, a corpse enters the office of Colonel Hamid, who is in charge of Benghazi’s crime unit. There, he asks to have his own murder investigated.
When looking at detective fiction in western North Africa, each title seems to lead to another. There is surely much more to be found. One thing is certain: Yasmina Khadra is not the only crime novelist around.
A Starter Kit: Five Recommended Titles
For those looking to dip a toe into Maghrebi detective fiction, Ghanem suggests five recent titles:
- Meurtres à Adarassane (Murders in Adarassane), by Dounia Charaf. Editions Marsam, 2016.
- Whitefly (Al-Dhubaba al-Bayda’), by Abdelilah Hamdouchi, translated by Jonathan Smolin. Hoopoe Fiction, 2016.
- Kharidj el-Saytara (Out of Control), by Abdelatif Ould Abdallah. Editions El-Ikhtilef, 2016.
- Qu’Attendent les Singes? (What Are the Monkeys Waiting For?), by Yasmina Khadra. Julliard, 2014.
- Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet (Contesa per un Maialino Italianissimo a San Salvario), by Amara Lakhous, translated by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2014.