A dark political crime novel from Egypt

Ahmed Mourad's new novel asks whether evil is an unavoidable route to good, and how much violence is necessary in the fight against the corrupt and the unscrupulous. Sonja Hegasy on a literary slice of Egyptian life before the revolution

By Sonja Hegasy

Egypt too has its super-cool police inspectors with unorthodox investigation methods, best friends in the red-light district and rivals removed via promotion to Upper Egypt.

But this one has a certain something on top: whenever Walid Sultan arrives at the police station, he leaps out of his car, responds to the salutes from his cordon of subordinates with a brief wave, and dives into his office, "where a recruit, hearing that the Pasha was on his way, had sprayed air freshener five minutes previously." Air freshener?? What would Inspector Columbo have had to say about that?

German readers are now familiar with the subversive scenarios outlined in Egyptian literature in the years before Mubarak was toppled in 2011. Be it Khaled Alkhamissi's "Taxi", Alaa Al Aswany's books "Friendly Fire" or "The Yakoubian Building" or "Cairo Swan Song" by Mekkawi Said, all of them are read primarily from the perspective that literature can herald radical social change, and that writers can put inner turmoil and decay into words sooner than others (e.g. academics).

Since then, the West has been increasingly discovering this writing and has been astonished at what it reads. While not all of it is of outstanding literary quality, German readers are fortunate enough to now have access to the highlights of modern Egyptian literature in the form of very good translations.

A portrait of Egypt's darker side

Cover of the German edition of "Diamond Dust" by Ahmed Mourad (source LENOS)
"Diamond Dust" was recently published in German translation. It has not yet been translated into English

Although Ahmed Mourad's novel "Diamond Dust", which was published in Arabic six months before the end of Mubarak's rule, has just as much to say about the decline of Egyptian society as about subversion, the focus here is on the book's other merits. The novel draws its tension from the dark atmosphere between a father and son and the outcasts outside their front door. Mourad's hefty descriptions, paired with Egyptian lightness of being are two of the delightful features of this novel. Nothing is impossible in the land on the Nile.

The plot evolves in a restricted setting. The main locations are the home of the wheelchair-bound suspect and his son Taha, the villa opposite, which belongs to the legendary millionaire Machrus Berga, and the pharmacy where Taha, a qualified pharmacist, has a night job to earn some extra cash. By day, he visits local doctors' surgeries as a pharmaceutical sales rep.

Taha is a classic antihero. His profession as a pharmacist brings him in contact with criminals (be they doctors or addicts), and he loses his voice and unfortunately also his mind at the sight of his beautiful neighbour Sara, who once saves his life. Hashish and Tramadol rid him of the last vestiges of common sense. Sara is a journalist, blogger and protester. Taha plays the drums in his free time, but that doesn't impress Sara much – at least not at first. His mother left her husband and son for reasons that emerge in the course of the novel.

It is this very presentation of the five key characters in their small cosmos in Cairo's Dokki district that makes Mourad's book an exciting drama about Egypt as it was and is. In the end, it turns out that nothing is the way it seems. Moreover, it seems as if the perfect murder is indeed possible.

Evil for good purposes

Ahmed Mourad, born in Cairo in 1978, began working on the novel by researching murders by poisoning. Diamond dust is said to be the "queen of the poisons". The book turns on the questions of whether evil is an unavoidable route to good, how much violence is necessary in the fight against the corrupt and the unscrupulous, and what this violence does to individuals. How much disparagement can a person take and what happens when they set themselves up as avengers? Between the lines, readers find out a lot about popular culture in Egypt, from the Free Officers' military coup in 1952 to the present day.

This is the first of Mourad's novels to come out in German, although his 2007 "Vertigo" was much more successful in Egypt and was adapted into a TV series in 2012. "Vertigo" and "The Blue Elephant" are set for German publication soon. Thus far, only "Vertigo" has been translated into English.

"Diamond Dust" is a taut crime novel, which turns slightly bloodthirsty towards the end. Its outstanding feature is the author's very precise eye for detail. In his previous life, Ahmed Mourad was Hosni Mubarak's personal photographer.

Sonja Hegasy

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire