By Abdelilah Hamdouchi
When an ill-fated, young prostitute and her lover are killed in a gruesome double murder, seasoned i…Read more
By Angelica Maria DeAngelis
Dar Beida (Casablanca) and Tanja (Tangiers)—these two Moroccan cities are thick with atmosphere. They are also, according to the neo-noir novels of the Moroccan author Abdelilah Hamdouchi, the perfect milieu for murder, as he has located several of his police thrillers in these cities. Tangiers, an international zone from 1912 until Morocco’s independence in 1956, in the past attracted artistic and often libertine foreigners who enjoyed its relatively open and accepting atmosphere. The city has long been a major smuggling port for hashish grown in the nearby Rif Mountains, and more recently, a site for the smuggling of people—sub-Saharan Africans and harragas (North Africans who burn their identification cards)—drugs, and migrants all heading across the Mediterranean to Europe. Like Tangiers in the past, Casablanca today has become a playground for foreigners, this time primarily from the Arab Gulf states, who seek to indulge in behaviors not permitted at home.
Casablanca is the financial heart of the country, the favorite haunt of the rich local and foreign bourgeoisie—and also the site of the most extreme class divides in the country, where luxury hotels and upscale neighborhoods are surrounded by unspeakably impoverished and dangerous bidonvilles, or shanty towns. In fact, the word bidonville (which translates from French as “tin-can town”) was actually coined about an area near the port in Casablanca in the 1920s.
In the pages of Hamdouchi’s detective noir fiction, these iconic Moroccan cities are no longer tourist destinations or the backdrop of Hollywood movies. Instead, they have become settings in which the novelist and his Moroccan audience can safely explore some of the nation’s most troubling contemporary social issues: police corruption, poverty, harragas, religious radicalization, and neo-liberal globalization. While social critique is not new in Moroccan literature, the move to the noir genre is a phenomenon that literary scholar Tahani Alghureiby (2015) argues has been growing generally in Arabic literature since the Arab Spring, and is one that suggests a new critical tone and experimental narrative style. It is less poetic or literary and more cynical and realistic, which more accurately reflects a post-Arab Spring ambiance and attitude of protest and disgust with the status quo.
Today I would like to consider two of Hamdouchi’s texts, Whitefly (2000) and Bled Dry (2009), as novel forms (in both senses of the word) of cultural “soft power” that build networks and communicate a compelling narrative among segments of the population that are often left out of official and elite conversations, but that also desire and most desperately need economic, gender, and political reforms. Both novels have been translated from the original Arabic by Hoopoe, making these important contributions to a growing literary sub-genre available to a wider audience. The paper will be structured as follows: first I will situate Hamdouchi’s work within a Moroccan literary and political context, then I will focus on the novels themselves and the way they exploit a neo-noir style to contribute to the national dialogue of critique and reform.
The earlier period of Moroccan literature, from at least the 1950s through the end of the twentieth century, falls within the category of postcolonial literature. Much of the writing in this earlier period is autobiographical, or at least semi-autobiographical, and deals with issues such as modern versus traditional society, the oppression caused by Moroccan patriarchal society to both men and women, and the racist mistreatment of immigrants in France.
Criticism of Moroccan society, and especially of the state, was greatly hampered during much of the reign of the previous king, Hassan II, who ruled from 1961 until his death in 1999. This period, called the Years of Lead (سنوات الرصاص), is marked by brutal state suppression of democracy activists, political dissidents, and intellectuals, which resulted in many being imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared” or forced into exile. The police were seen during this period as the brutal arm or fist of the regime, something to be feared—and this fear lingers today within the Moroccan population and in Hamdouchi’s novels, despite efforts by the state to change the reputation of the police through reforms.
The year 2004 saw two watershed events in Moroccan society—the first was the reform of the Mudawana, or personal status codes governing such matters as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, which finally occurred after decades of civil society demands; and the second was the 2004 Equity and Reconciliation Commission, held to reconcile victims of the Years of Lead with the state, and allowing the voicing of loud brutal truths which had until then been unutterable or silenced. The opening up in Morocco of dialogue and societal reform, including reforms of the police, gained energy from the larger regional movement called “The Arab Spring.” Although Morocco did not have a revolution on the scale of Egypt or Tunisia, huge protests took place throughout the country in 2011 and 2012, with many demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands.
Unfortunately, in Morocco as elsewhere throughout the region, the heady promises of increased openness and democratization have not come to fruition and have even resulted in renewed authoritarianism, albeit in the form of hegemony being used to produce the public’s consent, rather than using the violence and force of the past. A major way the state renegotiated its power into what is called the “new” or “durable” authoritarianism is by changing the role and image of the police from being agents of systematic repression to ones of public relations and opinion management, for example through community policing, using for its ads images of “beefcake” young policemen enacting their motto: “The Police Are at the Service of the People.”
Now that I have set the literary and political scene, I turn to the novels themselves and very briefly explore how they use their neo-noir style for artistic and ideological purposes. In Whitefly (whose name refers to an insect) the detective uncovers a complex global criminal plot to poison and destroy Morocco’s tomato exports. This global plot, however, is uncovered accidentally while trying to identify the drowned bodies of four young men presumed to be harragas, which is the motivating action of the first part of the novel. The novel opens with two simultaneous demonstrations taking place in the center of Tangiers—one of unemployed college graduates (or chômeurs) who are desperate for jobs, and the other of migrant farmers who have been scammed through the promise of non-existent jobs in Spain. The novel, without feeling pedantic or didactic, raises many social and economic issues, including domestic violence, poverty, racism of Europeans toward Moroccans and Moroccans toward sub-Saharan Africans, Morocco’s struggle with Spain over Melilla and Sebta, the drug trade, which has been taken over by international cartels, and the societal scars left by police involvement in the Years of Lead.
The title of the novel Bled Dry suggests the desperation of its citizens, for they, like the country, have been “bled” dry, completely disillusioned by the failures of political and economic reforms. And the title is also a play on the Moroccan pronunciation of the word bled (بلد), often used to mean “homeland” in Morocco. This novel tells the story of a murder investigation that was botched because of the two separate instances of corruption by the police investigating the crime, resulting in the execution by the state of an innocent man. The story takes place in the crowded medina and port areas, as well as in the demimonde of Tangiers, including a nightclub where the dancer Fifi, who is a police informant, works.
The atmosphere of Casa in Bled Dry is not only dark, but also claustrophobic. The apartment where the brutal murders took place (two young people were hacked to death with a sword as they slept) stinks of rotting flesh and putrid blood, and is crowded with police who “play” with their crime-solving technology as if detectives on the American television program CSI, while simultaneously failing to secure the crime scene and thus allowing for it to be contaminated. We also spend a lot of time in the claustrophobic alleyways of the “Kandahar” bidonville, where the self-proclaimed Imam (who turns out to be the murderer and does this because he finds Nezha, with whom he has been obsessed for years, in bed with another man) and his Salafi followers—including Nezha’s brother and others who were drugged-out criminals not that long ago—hang around. The third site where much of the action of the novel takes place is the bar where one of the murder victims, Nezha, works as a prostitute. Here, the narrator describes the violent and grotesque relationship between Nezha and her pimp:
Firqash was the one who broke her into the nightlife. He told her how to drink, smoke and flirt like a professional. He also enjoyed beating her with his belt if she got out of line. When she refused to have anal sex with him, he smashed a liquor bottle over her head, leaving a deep scar, and sodomized her savagely. From that point on, she didn’t dare disobey him and carried out all his desires without the slightest hesitation.
It is here that the new style, both realistic and cynical, can be clearly seen. A similar style can be found in recent films like Nour-Eddine Lakhmari’s 2008 Casanegraor Nabil Ayouch’s 2015 Much Loved, although the latter was set in Marrakesh.
While the gritty, dark, and claustrophobic atmosphere sets the tone for these texts, it is the character of the cop in both of Hamdouchi’s neo-noir novels who intrigues the reader. No longer the villain of Years of Lead novels, nor the hero in the counter-narratives offered by the state—and even in some of Hamdouchi’s own detective novels written during an earlier and more hopeful period of police reform—this character has increasingly become more flawed, more dark, and, especially in the case of Bled Dry (written almost a decade after Whitefly), more unsympathetic. One critic compares Whitefly’s detective, Laafrit, to the “hardboiled detectives” of American noir classics. I would argue that he is a character who much better represents a twenty-first-century neo-noir transformation. Here is how Hamdouchi describes him:
He was, to be more precise, of medium height and had a belly that protruded more than it should. His skin was fair, tending to pale, thanks to his incessant late nights. His eyes were melancholic and troubled, with that provocative look you’d expect to find on a cop. It was a look that seemed somewhat ambiguous . . . His real name was Khalid Ibrahim and he got his nickname “Laafrit,” meaning “crafty,” from his professional and linguistic aptitude . . .
Noir protagonists are, for the most part, failures, or perhaps more generously, tragic heroes who fail. This failure is not a result of a lack of hard work or gumption, but rather bad luck in the case of Laafrit, combined with corruption in the case of the detective from Bled Dry, Hanash, whose nickname means “snake” in Moroccan Arabic (clearly a step closer to the gutter than “crafty”). Film critic Ken Hillis claims that the noir toughness is a “recognition of an individual’s powerlessness” and that “the protagonists are often out of step with elites,” opening a critique on American Capitalism (in the case of Hollywood cinema), or corruption and authoritarianism in Morocco (in the case of Hamdouchi’s neo-noir fiction).
In an early scene when we meet the cop in Bled Dry, he is shaking down prostitutes and their customers in a hotel that is being busted. We find out that he has made his fortune through trafficking hashish (كيف) when he had been a police officer in the Rif region. And he is not the only dirty cop on the beat, for his right-hand man steals money from an active crime scene, which happens to be the murder scene of Nezha, described above through her relationship with her pimp, and also one of the prostitutes from whom the cop had taken money in the hotel. So the crime is never investigated properly because of these dirty cops, and the young prostitute’s murder is attributed to an innocent man who is imprisoned and sentenced to death. While noir protagonists (whether classic American or contemporary neo-noir) do not allow full identification on the part of the audience, their growing popularity in Morocco signals the population’s desire to contend with the country’s dirty secrets of poverty and prostitution, and of police violence and corruption. While the hope so recently experienced by Morocco’s insurgent population may have to some extent been drained dry, this emergent noir genre is not afraid to gaze, even stare, directly into this darkness and give voice to the country’s malaise.
Angelica Maria DeAngelis earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She currently teaches in the English Department and the First Year Experience Program at the American University of Kuwait, specializing in literature, cinema, and composition. Her research interests include race, gender, and identity in contemporary and global (especially North African) literature, as well as politics and popular culture.