Emergence of the Detective Novel in North Africa and the Middle East


I. De Miguel, PhD candidate, City University of New York




Even though classical Arabic proto-detective fiction written in the 13th century [1] preexisted the appearance of the modern detective novel (usually attributed to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841), detective novels located in North African and Middle Eastern countries need to be contextualized. Since society and criminality are central to crime fiction, regional and cultural particularities must be taken into account when reading North African and Middle Eastern detective novels.


Within this context, Silvia Tellenbach’s interesting article “Law, Crime, and Society in the Middle East” provides a comprehensive analysis of the cultural and sociological background that needs to be considered. In an interview to the magazine Horizons in 1987, the writer Rachid Boudjedra (1941-) explained the late emergence of the detective novel in Algerian literature, attributing its cause to Algeria’s mainly rural development and to “the lack of a criminal tradition[2]”:

There isn’t at all a tradition of crime in Algeria. Algeria’s society is a rural one. Urban areas barely started to develop fifteen years ago. In rural societies, there’s crime among peasants, but there’s almost never an investigation, because this sort of crime is always covered. Or then, it’s a crime that takes place in broad daylight as a vengeance or some sort of vendetta. The silence of the village decides of the lawfulness of such an act. Algeria’s war of Liberation brought some changes to this situation. As a matter of fact, the first crime novels located in Algeria are strongly rooted in that event.

As Silvia Tellenbach 2016’s research shows, Boudjedra’s claim not only proved to be correct, but it is also applicable to other North African and Middle Eastern countries. In fact, Tellenbach’s article brings to the fore the often-disregarded connection between specific characteristics of North African and Middle Eastern cultures, and their literatures, and the nature of criminality in these countries.

Tellenbach’s interesting analysis confirms a lack of tradition of homicides in Arab societies. While “all over the world, we can observe that criminal behavior is much more frequent among men, especially young men”, Tellenbach observes that even though the population of “most Middle Eastern countries is very young” (33) this does not translate into a higher crime rate as compared to Western societies. According to Tellenbach, Head of the Section “Turkey, Iran and Arab States” at the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, several factors contribute to crime prevention: social control by families, social control in the public sphere (for example, in the neighborhood), and control of the population by the police and the secret services. Tellenbach also contemplates the difference between rural and urban settings where clannish or tribal systems of mediation or restorative justice may apply without the intervention of the police.

In light of the statistics provided by international organizations such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s homicide statistics, Tellenbach concludes that the most common crimes are thefts and bodily injuries and that homicide rates are very low. When murders take place, the crime usually happens within the victim’s family or within the victim’s close environment. These crimes are often honor killings and, more often than not, the perpetrators confess their own crime. On this particular point, one might certainly want to challenge Tellenbach’s opinion that “such crimes are not of very much interest in criminal novels” (37). While the perpetrator’s confession might take away much of the interest in a whodunnit, such criminality is certainly within the “noir” tradition and could be explored in novels or films.

Furthermore, Tellenbach points out other forms of crime that Middle Eastern societies have had to confront in the last decades. Along with the fight against terrorism, crimes such as corruption, nepotism and misappropriation, both at low and high levels of society, appear as the background of crime novels exposing political or social conditions (Yasmina Khadra’s Dead Man’s Share and Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love) Tellenbach also notes an increased awareness about organized crime by national and transnational groups trafficking with humans, money or drugs. Still, such a dangerous topic has been less dealt with in criminal fiction.

Concerning criminal investigations and prosecutions, and to a certain extent, the figure of the detective, Tellenbach underlines that “most Middle Eastern states adopted criminal laws and laws on criminal procedure are influenced by the French law” (39). Thus, a warrant is most often needed to search a suspect’s domicile. Secret services and the “police politique” along with the existence of secret prisons also alter the criminal landscape and fiction of Middle Eastern countries. Feared by the population, secret and political police might not have offered the best image so as to give birth to a popular hero.

To conclude, I would add that censorship, first, and exile later on (as in the case of Yasmina Khadra (1955-) or Abdelkader Djemaï (1948-)) also needs to be taken into account when examining the emergence and evolution of crime novels written in Arabic or French in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Self-censorship, for instance, might have contributed to limit the production of detective novels to a form of entertainment, often recurring to settings in foreign countries, like Al Sid’s Machettes, coconuts et grigris à Conakry (Tunis: Alyssa Éditions, 2000) written under a pseudonym. As Anne Griffon observes in her study of popular literature in Algeria “Romans noirs et romans roses dans l’Algérie d’après 1989” (Master’s Thesis) written under the supervision of Guy Dugas, the exile of Algerian writers after Algeria’s civil war in the nineties modified France’s and Algeria’s editorial landscapes: As the Algerian publishing houses had to face the war, the influx of Algerian authors increased largely the number of Algerian novels published in France.


Boudjedra, Rachid. Interview by Rédha Belhadjoudja. “Le polar? Je connais!” Horizons, 9 November 1987, I-IV.

Burton, Richard F. trans., The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885-1888) (Burton Club Edition, reprinted U.S.A., n.d.)

Griffon, Anne. Romans noirs et romans roses dans l’Algérie d’après 1989, Master’s thesis (mémoire de DEA), Paris : Université Paris IV- Sorbonne, 2000. Web (

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. “The Classical Arabic Detective” Arabica 35.1 (1988), 59-91.

Tellenbach, Silvia, “Law. “Crime, and Society in the Middle East” Crime Fiction in and around the Eastern Mediterranean. Ed. Sagaster, B., Strohmeier, M., Guth, S. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016, 33-44.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC): “Homicide Statistics”.

[1] In “The Classical Arabic Detective” Fedwa Malti-Douglas analyzes the figure of the detective as it appears in a specific type of Arabic medieval prose texts called adab, and used to educate and entertain. Some of these literary anecdotes emphasized the extreme sagacity of the figure of a caliph or a judge able to figure out enigmatic situations by the mere use of ratiocination. In contrast with Western detective narratives focused on solving a mystery, they would also include punishments for the culprits and the rendering of justice. Malti-Douglas examines three anecdotes, giving them the names of “The Case of the Painted Hand” (59), “The Case of the Excited Slave” (65), and “The Case of the Merry Slave” (66). She also mentions the “Tale of the Three Apples” from The Thousand and One Nights (74). “The Case of the Painted Hand” and “The Case of the Excited Slave” appear in Akhbadr al-Adhkiya’ (Stories of the Adhkiya’) of Ibn al-Jawz (d. 597/1200).  “The Case of the Merry Slave” appears in Al-Nuwayri, Nihayat al-Arab fi Funun al-Adab (Cairo: al-Mu’assasa al-Amma lil-Ta’llf wal-Tarjama wal-Tibaca wal-Nashr, n.d.), v. III, p. 150. n.d.

[2] « Il n’y a pas du tout de tradition du crime chez nous. La société algérienne est une société rurale. Cela fait à peine 15 ans qu’elle commence à s’urbaniser. Dans cette société rurale, le crime paysan existe, mais il n’y a presque jamais d’enquête, car ce crime-là est toujours camouflé. Ou alors, c’est un crime en plein jour consécutif à une vengeance, à une sorte de vendetta. Le silence du village légifère sur la justesse d’un tel acte. C’est la guerre de Libération qui a apporté quelques changements à cette situation. D’ailleurs, les premiers polars chez nous sont fortement ancrés dans cet événement »


Arabic Crime Narratives

Arabic Crime Narratives


A two-day conference organized in Paris at the Inalco  and the Institut du Monde Arabe on March 28th and 29th will discuss Arabic crime narratives, their distinctive features and their conditions of existence and reception in the Arabic world.  While a number of Literary works from the classical period represent thieves and criminals, and deal with criminal cases, crime fiction as a recognized genre is relatively recent in Arabic literature. The logico-deductive inquiry, as well as the judicial inquiry are mostly absent. The emergence and critical appraisal of Arabic Noir only really started in the past decades. International scholars from various disciplines will approach Arabic crime fiction and highlight its diversity and potential.


Full program (in French) here: