White­fly’s Laafrit adds colour to Ara­bic noir

Four bod­ies wash up on a beach in Tang­iers, and so be­gins Ab­delilah Ham­douchi’s Moroc­can de­tec­tive story. M Lynx Qua­ley is hooked

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“Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture” and “guilty plea­sure” are two phrases not of­ten paired in English, at least not since trans­la­tions of One Thou­sand and One Nights took Vic­to­rian Eng­land by heart-flut­ter­ing, red-cheeked storm. But a new im­print from the Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Cairo Press, Hoopoe, is look­ing to change that.

One of the first books is­sued, Ab­delilah Ham­douchi’s White­fly needn’t be blush-in­duc­ing. But it is de­cid­edly a plea­sure.

On its face, the book is a tra­di­tional de­tec­tive story. Four bod­ies wash up on a Tang­iers beach, and De­tec­tive Laafrit of the city’s Crim­i­nal In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit must un­ravel who they are, why they died, and who – if any­one – is to blame.

Much about Whitef ly is the stuff of clas­sic de­tec­tive writ­ing: Laafrit is a griz­zled but like­able depart­ment vet­eran who’s stuck amid less-than-bril­liant col­leagues. He trav­els down nu­mer­ous dead-ends, which are filled with beau­ti­ful women, a gun-tot­ing drug lord and small-time crim­i­nal in­for­mants.

But this is also con­tem­po­rary Morocco, so CSI Tang­iers it ain’t. The foren­sic sci­en­tist who ap­pears at the beach doesn’t even want to touch a dead body, much less ex­am­ine it. “No need to dirty your hands,” he tells Laafrit.

And for­get bal­lis­tics re­ports or DNA. No­body even seems to take a fin­ger­print. The in­for­ma­tion gleaned from the au­topsy is what the vic­tims had for a last meal, and this comes only af­ter a spe­cial re­quest from Laafrit, whose nick­name is trans­lated as “Crafty”.

Whitef ly does give us a sense of late-20th cen­tury Tang­iers. In this, Ham­douchi’s novel fol­lows in the tra­di­tion of Matt Rees’s Omar Youssef nov­els or Yas­mina Khadra’s In­spec­tor Llob se­ries, but with­out the tough so­cial crit­i­cism.

It starts by throw­ing us in the deep end of con­tem­po­rary Moroc­can polic­ing. In the open­ing scene, ev­ery of­fi­cer in the city has been called out to keep two demon­stra­tions apart: the first protest is staged by un­em­ployed col­lege grad­u­ates, and the se­cond by non- grad­u­ates. “Hid­den hands” are bring­ing them to­gether, Laafrit says, and a vi­o­lent clash be­tween po­lice and demon­stra­tors seems in­evitable.

But Laafrit man­ages to defuse the grad­u­ates’ demon­stra­tion by play­ing on their hopes and fears. We hear lit­tle about the pro­test­ers af­ter that, but this open­ing un­der­lines the tense at­mos­phere in the city.

It also tells us why many Moroc­cans would choose to “hrig”, or head to Spain in rick­ety, il­le­gal boats.

Most of the depart­ment thinks that’s why three of the four vic­tims died – they were flee­ing to Spain. Only Laafrit is not sat­is­fied with rubber- stamp­ing them as drowned mi­grants.

By and large, Whitef ly takes the part of the ed­u­cated, sec­u­lar, middle-class Moroc­can de­tec­tive. We see the world not as it ap­pears to a pro­tes­tor, a crim­i­nal or a mi­grant, but along­side Laafrit.

Still, he is not one- sided: he and his wife were anti-regime in their univer­sity days, when his wife was ar­rested and tor­tured. We read in­ti­mate de­tails of her sex­ual tor­ture and en­su­ing self­hate, but then her painful sec­tion wraps up quickly and tidily when we’re told, “Fate smiled on her, and in­deed ev­ery­thing changed once she had [ her daugh­ter] Reem”.

Out­side of this, we never see po­lice tor­ture first-hand. Laafrit does threaten a roomful of noisy chil­dren who are throw­ing stones, but the scene is played for a laugh.

The book never forces its dis­parate el­e­ments to en­gage one an­other: Laafrit’s polic­ing work, his wife’s bro­ken­ness, the an­gry un­em­ployed, his col­leagues’ in­com­pe­tence and or­gan­ised crime. In­stead, the novel takes a sud­den and in­trigu­ing turn and heads in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion en­tirely.

The plott ing is t ight and watch­ing the story’s res­o­lu­tion un­fold is a de­light. It doesn’t end neatly, like a Her­cule Poirot novel might. But that’s all right: we didn’t re­ally ex­pect that the Tang­iers polic­ing sys­tem would be able to wrap up the case.

The reader un­der­stands the out­lines of what hap­pened, and that’s enough. Jonathan Smolin’s English trans­la­tion is read­able, but oc­ca­sion­ally clunks, hew­ing too closely to the Ara­bic in­stead of craft­ing a sep­a­rate, col­lo­quial English. Ham­douchi’s book also has missed op­por­tu­ni­ties – it fails to push on Laafrit’s re­la­tion­ship with his wife or on the re­al­ity of tor­ture and cor­rup­tion in­side the Moroc­can polic­ing sys­tem. But as a guilty-plea­sure read, it is a win­ner.

M Lynx Qua­ley is a free­lance writer based in Cairo who blogs at arablit.word­press.com.

Lu­dovic Maisant / Cor­bis

White­fly is an in­trigu­ing thriller set in con­tem­po­rary Tang­iers, with a middle-class de­tec­tive as the sleuth.

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