Each of Akashic Books' many noir collections, set in cities around the world, illuminates a new urban terrain and its literary tics. Beirut Noir (2015) was the first Arab-majority city to feature in the series and its stories are often avant-garde, circling around Lebanon's civil war.
Baghdad Noir (2018), released in August, is full of grim realist and magical-realist war stories. Marrakech Noir, from Morocco's flashiest city, was also released in August. This last collection stands out for its sense of humour, ranging from screwball to wry.
The introductions to Baghdad Noir and Marrakech Noir both suggest local writers had to be coaxed into crafting noir, a crime genre inspired by Hollywood films, often characterised by hard-boiled cynicism, sleazy settings and seductive women. Editor Yassin Adnan's introduction, which he titles "City of Joy and Grit", suggests his less-than-hard-boiled approach.
The 15 stories in Marrakech Noir are translated from Arabic, French and Dutch, and the crimes within are suited to a city where extreme wealth and poverty brush shoulders. There are women fleecing men, youths fleecing elders, guides fleecing tourists, and stories where everyone is trying to cheat everyone else.
Foreigners proliferate, yet these are not exotic invaders. Instead, they come from various backgrounds and form part of the tapestry of this joyous and gritty city.
The collection's editor, himself a prominent Marrakeshi author, convinced some big names to participate, including Prix Goncourt-winning author Fouad Laroui; Beirut 39 laureate Abdelkader Benali; International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning novelist Mohammed Achaari; and renowned artist and best-selling author Mahi Binebine.
Laroui's story, The Mysterious Painting, deservedly heads off the collection. Translated by Katie Shireen Assef, this well-paced and witty mystery has an unsolved crime at its centre. The crime is tackled by an exhausted and obsessive-compulsive police chief, Hamdouch, with Laroui's characteristic language-bending humour. Hamdouch shifts amusingly between tongues, and even "knew a few Latin expressions of great practical value that had circulated at the École de police".
Hamdouch is a wonderfully rigid character. He hates dreams, in which the dreamer loses control, and wakes from them feeling “degraded, humiliated, and suddenly unable to cope”.
The story joins light humour with political bite, as when the chief suggests that, back when the crime was committed, the poor couldn’t trust the police. His interlocutor head-shakingly laments: “What a vile era.”
Most of the stories give a glimpse into local politics. Allal Bourqia's A Noisy Disappearance in an Ill-reputed Alley follows the mysterious disappearance of fictional Spanish film director Enrique Aldomar, which becomes a crisis for the hapless mayor of Marrakech and for Moroccan-Spanish relations.
Abdelkader Benali's Looking at Mars in Marrakech is part-science fiction, part-noir. Although it's set in the future, the opportunists are not unfamiliar. At its centre is a man who went abroad to Mars to earn money, but whose earnings then disappeared because of inflation.
A few stories focus on historical crimes. The Mummy in the Pasha's House, by Ipaf-winning author Mohammed Achaari, takes us back to 1938. That is when an American woman and her friend decided to travel to Marrakech "after a crazy week that had started when Patti opened an old newspaper and found a picture of a pasha riding horseback on the front page". In the 1930s, France was waging war against Morocco, and many crimes were afoot.
But at the heart of the story is the disappearance of young Anais, an incident explained only decades later by a Marrakeshi storyteller. Interestingly, this storyteller could unravel many such mysteries. But, because of the global tourist trade and the storytellers' Unesco status, he is compelled to sit in the square and tell toothless tales about pre-Islamic heroes mixed with Hollywood films.
Another notable story is Mahi Binebine's Delirium, also translated by Assef. In it, two young men make a small fortune spinning lies for tourists "with remarkable eloquence, a penchant for anecdote, and an absolute conviction". But this does not form the crime at the centre of the story. Indeed, did these men commit a crime, or only imagine it?
Perhaps the collection's most enjoyable story is Hanane Derkaoui's A Way to Mecca, ably translated by Jennifer Pineo-Dunn. It's a particular delight, because much of Derkaoui's work has not been translated into English.
This story follows twin narratives. The first is the moving story of Hmad, who moved to Marrakech from an Amazigh village close to Ouarzazate. The other is the story of two “reformed” criminal brothers, Ali and Ibrahim, who are aiming to rob or blackmail Hmad.
After all, Ali rationalises: “We’ve been diligent about going to prayer for a month now and nothing has changed; besides, we’ve squandered the last of our money.”
When Ibrahim reminds him that they’ve repented, Ali rejoins: “God guides the steps of those who are educated and who have a university degree, or at the very least those who have a trade.”
So the two follow Hmad, who they think is a waiter. In fact, Hmad is a cross-dressing singer at one of the mansions outside town. When Ali and Ibrahim trail Hmad to the party where he's performing as Marilyn Monroe, tragedy and comedy collide.
Not every story in Marrakech Noir is an immortal gem, but there are enough enjoyable ones to make the collection fun. And what better way to get to know a city than to meet its criminals?
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