Monday, December 01, 2008

abdelillah hamdouchi's police novel 'the final bet'

Watching the Detectives Moroccan Style
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette December 1 2008

The picture of British actor Kenneth Branagh on the cover of the latest issue of the London-based weekly Radio Times reflects the public’s abiding appetite for crime drama, and the hope of the BBC that this will extend to crime fiction in translation. The picture shows a rumpled-looking Branagh in his latest role as Swedish detective Inspector Kurt Wallander, the central figure in a series of novels by Swedish author Henning Mankell.

The three 90-minute Wallander dramas, shot on location in the southern Swedish seaport of Ystad, are a highlight of the BBC’s end-of-year schedules. Mankell’s books have been published in 33 countries and his books have been bestsellers in Europe. He has won several international prizes for his Wallander series.

Mankell is just one of a growing number of crime writers from Europe and beyond whose books are, partly through translation into English, widening the vistas of crime fiction. Now Arabia Books of London is hoping that the Moroccan author Abdelilah Hamdouchi (pictured below) will prove a worthy addition to ranks of crime writers in English translation with the publication of “The Final Bet” translated by Jonathan Smolin.

“The Final Bet” is being promoted as the first Arabic detective novel to be translated into English. Hamdouchi, who lives in Rabat, is described as one of the first writers of detective fiction in Arabic. He has written eight novels, and is an award-winning screenwriter for Moroccan TV and cinema. All his police novels, including “The Final Bet”, have been produced for Moroccan TV.

“The Final Bet” was published recently as a hardback by the American University of Cairo (AUC) Press. It was recently issued as a paperback by Arabia Books, which was founded earlier this year by Haus Publishing and Arcadia Books in close cooperation with AUC Press.

The story opens with the stabbing to death of a rich old Frenchwoman Sofia who lives in a swanky area of Casablanca with her much younger Moroccan husband Othman. She was 73 and Othman not yet 33, younger than her son by her first marriage. Sofia owned a restaurant on the coast managed by Othman who, thanks to her wealth, wears expensive Italian clothes and drives the latest BMW.

Othman married Sofia for the material benefits she would bring him and his family, but feels trapped by this marriage to a far older woman who physically repels him. He is having a passionate affair with Sofia’s beautiful young Moroccan aerobics teacher Naeema, who despairs that he will ever leave Sofia. Othman is the prime suspect in Sofia’s murder, especially after it emerges that Sofia had changed her will to make him her sole beneficiary.

On one level “The Final Bet” is a conventional police procedural, and not a particularly sophisticated one. What adds to its interest of the novel is the light it sheds on changes in wider Moroccan society and their impact on policing.

We are in a Morocco of mobile phones and aerobics classes, a society that is in some ways modernizing but which is failing to provide its young people with the opportunities they desperately need. Othman was a bright law graduate who like many other educated Moroccans found himself joining the ranks of the unemployed. He had considered emigrating illegally to Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar, but could not afford to pay the boat smugglers, and had even contemplated suicide.

Sofia’s first, French, husband had been killed in a car crash and her second husband, from whom she was eventually divorced, was a young Moroccan immigrant in France who had persuaded her to open a restaurant in Morocco. Knowing Sofia’s proclivities for young Moroccan men, Othman had set out to woo her and his marriage to her had seemed his last chance. “When he met Sofia he thought Europe immigrated across the Strait to him.”

The characters of the policemen are drawn with touches of humor. There is Allal ben Alawaam, known by those under his command as Alwaar or “rough guy”. He and like-minded cops opposed the recent reforms curbing police violence.

The novel is set at a time when the government is calling for an end to torture-related deaths in police custody, is launching investigations into police misconduct and is arresting police implicated in human rights violations. Alwaar has found it hard to do his job without using brutality, and he has become addicted to betting on racehorses.

At one point Alwaar releases Othman after questioning him. When Boukrisha protests, Alwaar asks him what he wants him to do in this age of democracy and human rights when there is “no more falaqa, no more shock treatment, no more beatings or torture.”

Alwaar’s sidekick is the impulsive younger Inspector Boukrisha, and their team includes the hopeless Asila who dozes off in his old car while supposedly keeping Othman under surveillance.

The role of the good guy of the story is taken by lawyer Ahmed Hulumi who studied law at university with Othman, and who has taken a public stand in support of human rights. He picks holes in the police investigation of Sofia’s murder, and discovers some clues vital to Othman’s defence.

The book’s translator Jonathan Smolin is assistant professor of Arabic at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. In his afterword he puts the novel in its political context. The so-called Years of Lead, in the 1970s and 1980s, had been a period of grave human rights violations in Morocco. At that time reference to the word ‘police’ was virtually taboo, and the police almost never appeared in Moroccan fiction. The growing liberalization of the 1990s produced new forms of fiction, and genres such as literature on illegal immigration and prisons started to appear.

It was in the mid-1990s that the first modern Arabic police novel was born. “The Final Bet” was first published in Arabic in 2001, and dealt with themes of police reform and legal rights. All the evidence relating to Sofia’s murder seems on the surface to point to Othman as the guilty party, and Hamdouchi shows how the police make no effort to look for new leads. In addition, he criticizes the way in which an individual arrested in Morocco cannot have a lawyer present during initial police questioning.

Given that crime fiction is a thriving area of the British book market, “The Final Bet” will surely attract interest from aficionados of the detective genre, as well as from those with an interest in Moroccan and Arab fiction. And who knows, maybe it will be turned into a drama for British TV: even if there is no role for Kenneth Branagh there are plenty of Middle Eastern actors in Britain who could play Othman, Alwaar et al.

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