A rare thriller from the Arab world
Lisa Kaaki | Arab News
Crime fiction is not popular in Arabic literature; in fact a number of Arab writers and scholars do not even consider it a noble genre.
This restricted opinion, however, has not prevented the Egyptian author and diplomat, M.M. Tawfik from penning a thriller, “Murder in the Tower of Happiness.” Tawfik is the author of two novels and three volumes of short stories in Arabic, from which a selection was made and then published in English in 1997 under the title, “The Day the Moon Fell.”
“Murder in the Tower of Happiness” takes place in Cairo, in a high-rise building located on the banks of the Nile. Ahlam, a young and beautiful actress is found murdered in one of the lifts: “Not a trace of blood. A clean crime... Under the newspapers, Ahlam’s corpse was rolled on one side. She was petite but her feminine curves could not be camouflaged. Her skin was like fresh cream; her ink-black hair fanned over her bare back and onto the elevator floor... Islah felt embarrassed just to be there, to witness the young star in this state, to invade her privacy, the privacy of death, the ultimate privacy.”
The circumstances surrounding this gruesome death and the people involved in the crime are reminiscent of a number of high-profile murders which have recently shaken Egypt. In 2003, Zikra, a Tunisian singer was killed by her business husband, Ayman El Sweidi at their stylish apartment in Zamalek. El Sweidi also gunned down his business manager and his wife before shooting himself. In 2008, the media covered extensively the sadistic murder of the beautiful Lebanese singer Susan Tamim which involved Egyptian business tycoon Hisham Mustafa Talaat. And just recently, the daughter of Moroccan pop singer, Laila Ghoufran, was murdered in a compound for wealthy residents. The mix of money and fame with murder, conspiracy and power has attracted widespread interest all over Egypt and this might also explain why Tawfik was tempted to weave these themes into his novel:
“I use different techniques and genres depending on the subject matter. In this case a thriller was the best vehicle for the complex and multilayered work I was trying to put together.”
According to Tawfik, the lack of an organized book industry in the area of general reading has prevented the development of literature in the Arab world. The main function of a book industry is to cater for the needs of the consumer, in this case, the reader, by selecting the works expected to have a broad appeal; its absence means that the writers gradually ignore their readers’ preferences.
The author also decided to translate his own novel: “It can be read as a whodunit, a ghost story, a social and political parody, or a spiritual work. I was worried that some of this texture would be lost in translation.”
The satirical tone of the novel is enlivened with funny descriptions and biting remarks. The author casts an outsider’s look inside the decadent and lavish lifestyles of a certain class of rich Egyptians. The growing gap, between the rich and the poorer classes in Egypt, is sparking feelings of resentment, envy and injustice and this comes out, albeit subtly, in the novel. In the following extract, Tawfik criticizes the way certain people give money:
“Sometimes, they would show him charity without looking him in the eyes. When they gave, it was not out of the goodness of their hearts but to relieve their conscience of their own philandering and immorality.”
The writer also shows the cultural gap separating Egyptians of different classes. In this excerpt, a simple minded, traffic police, Sgt. Ashmouni, can hardly understand the sophisticated language spoken by a pompous Dr. Mahgoub who proudly announces that he is preparing a study on the psychological roots of Egypt’s traffic problems:
“It is a fact that the traffic problem reflects a civilizational crisis, the product of stress and the psychological imbalances that affect the Egyptian people. The taxi driver who blows his horn for no reason, the self-important yuppie who gesticulates to the traffic sergeant to speed up a green light, the drivers who crawl past a red light half a meter by half a meter until they’ve blocked half the intersecting street: All forms of behavior that, despite their everyday familiarity to the sergeant, sounded strange in the doctor’s manicured language.”
A continuous chain of profound changes is occurring in Egypt. Its profound impact on society offers an almost endless as well as a rich source of raw material. The literary scene in Egypt is presently brimming with talented writers. But how many will keep on writing and most of all, will they find a good publisher?
Tawfik deplores the Arabs’ general lack of interest in reading literature. He acknowledges that Arabs have an oral culture and regrets the fact that Arab countries have entered the digital age although most of the population has still not understood that reading leads to self-improvement. It should also be recognized that the high number of readers in developing countries is the result of efficient educational institutions as well as effective cultural policies:
“These are sadly lacking in the Arab world. Our educational systems make students hate reading. There is a lot of money being spent on culture in the Arab world but it is not designed to take culture to the masses but rather to create cultural bubbles for the elites,” explains Tawfik.
Tawfik, a diplomat by profession, admits that both careers require 24 hours a day and seven days a week of dedication. The secret is not to waste time: “Most people waste most of their lives in completely mundane activities and are only compensated for that by a nagging sense of boredom. The extra effort I put in is certainly worthwhile. My diplomatic life has afforded me a scope of experience that is beyond what most writers can hope for. I think this is reflected in the breadth of the scope of my novels. On the other hand, my literary background gives strong cultural depth to my diplomatic activities. This can be very effective in carrying through Egypt’s message,” concludes the author.
Murder in the Tower of Happiness by M M Tawfik
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Mohamed Tawfik is an Egyptian author. Click on his name to visit his personal page.
The arabic version of this novel published under the title “A naughty boy called Antar” was our readers club selection for January 2004.
Click here for links to our readers discussion on his novel and our special dossier on him.
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