Why are gentleman-thieves and murder mysteries making a comeback in Arabic popular fiction?
So many Agatha Christie novels were published in Arabic in the mid-20th century that Hercule Poirots and Miss Marples overflowed handcarts and bookshelves from Algiers to Cairo to Amman to Muscat. These original editions, as well as reprints, are still widely available.
Just how many Christie novels were published in Arabic translation? Because many appeared in unauthorised editions, the exact numbers will remain a mystery. UNESCO statistics suggest that Christie vies with Shakespeare for the title of most-translated writer from English into Arabic. GoodReads puts Christie far in the lead, with 62 separate titles.
In any case, during the second half of the 20th century, many Arab writers came of age reading translations of Christie’s page-turning mysteries, which offered thrilling plot twists and satisfying resolutions.
“When I was a kid living in Amman [in the 90s],” writer and translator Ibtihal Mahmood says, “Arabic translations of Agatha Christie’s works were available in abundance in most bookstores. In fact, the first book I bought with my own money was Appointment with Death.”
Many well-worn copies of Christie novels now languish in Cairo’s second-hand book stalls, and Christie no longer tops the region’s bestseller lists. Still, an appetite for the classic whodunnits persists. In Dearborn, Michigan, which has one of the United States’ largest Arab populations, librarian Isabella Rowan says that “Arabic translations of Agatha Christie novels are extremely popular”.
It wasn’t a one-way relationship: The Middle East was also important to Christie. In the winter of 1910-11, Agatha, then aged 20, had her formal coming-out party in Cairo.
Her time in Egypt inspired Snow Upon the Desert, which became her first, unpublished, novel. As in many of Christie’s works, it drew on the lives of the wealthy – people she had seen in a hotel dining room.
Fans have highlighted the ugly racial and cultural stereotypes in Christie's novels, with superstitious Arabs, courtly sheiks, and 'dirty dark-yellow' Iraqis...
Christie wrote several more novels before she returned to the region in the late 1920s. That was when she met her second husband at an archaeological dig in Ur, Iraq.
Throughout the 1930s, Christie and her husband spent months at a stretch in Syria and Iraq, where she participated in archaeological work and wrote some of her most popular books. Hercule Poirot, Christie’s beloved Belgian detective, rode on the Orient Express, holidayed in Jerusalem, and solved the mystery of a murder in Petra, Jordan.
Although Christie’s daughter Rosalind said in a 1990 interview that her mother was “sympathetic to the Arabs”, fans have highlighted the ugly racial and cultural stereotypes in Christie’s novels, with superstitious Arabs, courtly sheiks, and “dirty dark-yellow” Iraqis.
Indeed, it seems that she put more effort into humanising the ancient Egyptians than the 20th-century people she met and worked alongside at dig sites.
Still, Arab readers eagerly consumed Christie’s novels, as they had earlier detective stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Maurice Leblanc.
But despite her popularity, Christie’s mark on Arabic fiction is hard to find.
At the Emirates LitFest in 2011, Kamal Abdel Malek, the Egyptian scholar, and Matt Rees, the Welsh crime writer, gave a talk entitled: “Could an Agatha Christie emerge from the Arab World?“
“As far as I know, we do not have in the Arab world the private investigator,” Abdel Malek said in an email, “either as an individual or as an institution. I recall Matt Rees saying … that the private investigator could function only in a democracy, and that was why it was possible to have him in the West and not in the Arab world, where all aspects of the law are squarely in the hands of the government.”
Certainly there are Arabic thrillers and detective novels. Still, most don’t follow classic Christie style. Ahmed Mourad, the Egyptian novelist, author of the popular Vertigo, has gone out of his way to say that he doesn’t consider himself an Agatha Christie.
Nadia Ghanem, the Algerian scholar and detective-novel connoisseur, echoed Abdel Malek’s observations, saying: “In Agatha Christie, it is usually a private detective that acts, whereas in Algerian detective novels it’s a policeman, retired or still active.”
In Christie’s novels, Ghanem says, the story typically wraps up with the killer being found, whereas in Algerian detective fiction, things only get worse at the end.
“I always read Christie for comfort, knowing that at least in some parallel dimension, the world is a just place. Algerian detective literature is never comforting!”
Other Arab detective stories, such as the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury’s White Masks, have similarly discomforting ends.
Ghanem added that, nonetheless, Christie remained a benchmark and an aspiration. When the young Algerian writer Nassima Bouloufa’s first detective novel came out, reviewers called her an “Algerian Agatha Christie”.
One of Algeria’s first female detective novelists, Zehira Houfani, quit writing detective fiction during the county’s “black decade” of the 1990s. In a recent interview with Ghanem, Houfani – who now lives in Canada – recommended that others read “Agatha Christie, whose sense of intrigue I so admired. I read her hoping I would learn from her to one day become an Algerian detective novelist.”
Marcia Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and literary translation for a number of publications. She blogs daily at www.arablit.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.