The White Fly (2000) is the first Arabic detective novel translated into English. Set in contemporary Tangier, Morocco, the narrative follows Detective Laafrit as he investigates the case of four dead bodies that have washed up on the city's beaches. While the victims initially appear to be harraga-or illegal immigrants-who regularly drown in the Straits of Gibraltar trying to reach Spain in small fishing boats, Laafrit quickly discovers that one of them has been brutally shot dead. Guns are illegal and impossible to obtain in Morocco, so the mysterious shooting has shaken the entire police force. Laafrit begins his investigation searching for the murder weapon and soon uncovers a spiraling conspiracy of international sabotage. In this early scene in the novel, Laafrit, hoping for a lead, goes to a chic bar to meet with Fifi, a famous belly dancer and a secret informant for the police.
Laafrit looked at Fifi closely as he struggled with the awkward lump in his throat.
"Thanks for coming," he said in an unsettled voice.
Fifi looked at him and moved her face closer to his, relishing his nervousness.
"Thought I wouldn't?"
"No, no, it's just I haven't seen you in three months," he stammered.
Nadia brought the drinks and then gently backed away, a sort of apology for bothering them, although they hadn't even noticed her.
Laafrit filled Fifi's glass and lifted his own.
"Still dancing at Macarena?" he asked.
"Every day," said Fifi looking into his eyes, "and at Club East on Saturday and Sunday. But why are you asking? You know where I dance."
Laafrit remained silent and stared at her lips. It was difficult for him to ignore her seductive delicateness, burning sensuality, and penetrating perfume. She was ravishing as she sat strikingly upright on the barstool. Her smooth, soft shoulders emanated tenderness and her hand, with its long polished nails, moved in an even rhythm as she lifted the glass to her lips.
Laafrit was irritated at his weakness for her and to regain his self-control, he remembered her in front of him, crying and kissing his hand, begging for mercy. That was three years ago at the Golden Castle, the private club for human smugglers, hash emperors, and big-time traffickers. Fifi raked in three grand on the dance floor that night but she also caused the downfall of a millionaire smuggler who rudely ordered her to pick up a wad of cash from off the ground with her ass. As soon as Fifi's escort heard that, he pulled a knife and plunged it in the smuggler's stomach. During the investigation, Fifi's treasure-trove of information about organized crime in Tangier-of which she was fiercely proud-shocked Laafrit. After getting the OK from the captain, he decided to release her on the condition she work as an informant. But Laafrit, now intoxicated by her beauty, thought she would have been better cast as a spy in a James Bond movie instead.
Laafrit faced her and struggled not to drown in her deeply seductive eyes.
"I know you dance at Sheherazade tonight," he said.
"You're a cop," she said in a low voice, winking at him. "But I don't know why you guys beat around the bush about every little thing instead of just saying what's on your mind."
Laafrit finished off his drink in two gulps. As soon as he put the glass on the counter, Nadia rushed to refill it.
"It's the business," confessed Laafrit, smiling. "We play dumb to make the other guy feel smart. That way he offers up what he's got."
"Strange," said Fifi, biting her lip. "I thought it's because you're attracted to me. Why don't you come see me dance tonight? There won't be anyone in the club except for tourists."
"There's a conference, right?"
"Not exactly," she said disdainfully. "A group of Spanish businessmen are here to invest in Tangier . . . if you know what I mean."
Fifi let out an insolent laugh that didn't amuse Laafrit.
"That reminds me," she added, "what's going on with Luis? Does he call?"
"He's fine," Laafrit replied tersely.
The detective paused while she emptied half her glass. He then leaned toward her.
"I asked you to come because I need you," he whispered.
Fifi pulled away and looked at him carefully. Laafrit glanced around the bar and then leaned over his drink. He took a sip and left the whiskey in his mouth for a bit before swallowing it.
"Heard of any pateras recently?" he asked.
Her lovely hand took a pack of cigarettes out of a purse that probably cost the equivalent of Laafrit's monthly salary. She placed a cigarette between her lips and waited for the detective to light it. Laafrit didn't move. Fifi smiled at him perplexed.
"Human smugglers aren't welcome at discos or nightclubs anymore," she said. "Their golden age's over and done, especially in this area. These days, hrig's bustling in Sebta."
Laafrit lit the cigarette for her.
"What do you have on Sebta?" he asked taking another sip from his glass.
"Interested in what goes on there?"
"Tell me what you have and we'll see."
"Last week," revealed Fifi, "I was with Essabtawi."
"Wald Lakbirah?" said Laafrit, surprised.
She nodded and took a few languid sips.
"He scored big time," she said almost bragging. "He made it past the coastguard on a patera with thirty harraga. They all got to Spain safely except for three or four who drowned."
Laafrit emptied his drink in a single gulp. Nadia suddenly appeared in front of them and took the glass and empty bottle of beer. Fifi stopped her.
"No more beer. I'll have a whiskey."
Laafrit tensed up. Despite the stiff drink, he needed one of his menthol mints to get a grip on himself.
"Wald Lakbirah's still in Tangier?"
"He spent two days with me," she said, "and went back to Sebta."
"Sure about the number of drowned he told you about?"
"I told you three or four. Even he doesn't know for sure."
Laafrit fell silent. He wondered if the four bodies that washed up in Tangier could have been the same ones Wald Lakbirah told Fifi about. How much distance would a corpse have to cover between Sebta and Tangier?
Nadia brought the drinks and left. Laafrit and Fifi were speaking so seriously Nadia thought there wasn't much affection between them. For his part, Laafrit knew his dry style was clashing with Fifi's delicacy. She wasn't a man and he had to stop treating her like one if he wanted information.
Laafrit let out a laugh, wrapped his arm around her, and massaged her soft, tender forearm. Fifi was taken by surprise and stared at him confused.
"Let's not attract attention," he said.
She chuckled but then made a face when Laafrit dropped his hand from her.
"Put it back!" she gasped, feigning protest.
Laafrit couldn't keep from laughing. He thought how sweet it was to embrace this warm gazelle. Laafrit knew if he kept this up, he wouldn't be able to resist her. He took a big sip from his glass and went back to work trying to keep up as relaxed an appearance as possible.
"Does Wald Lakbirah have an arm?"
Fifi shook her head.
"What do you mean? A gun?"
"I don't know."
"He has a place here in Tangier?"
She shook her head no.
"Where does he stay when he comes to town?"
"The posh hotels."
"Ever notice any kind of weapon on him?"
"He has a special knife and a small electrified club he uses to paralyze harraga."
Laafrit looked at her insistently.
"Who else did Wald Lakbirah see here in Tangier?"
She took a small sip from her glass.
"He visited his aunt in Marshan and gave her some money. He spent the rest of his time with me. He was only here for two days."
"Even during the day," Laafrit continued, "you were together?"
"We were up all night and spent the day sleeping," she revealed with a coy smile.
Laafrit remained silent and looked at her coldly. A sudden feeling of jealousy erupted from deep within. He found himself imagining what Fifi would look like if she stripped off her clothes. Laafrit began to wonder if he were forgetting work and getting dangerously close to her. Would he respond to the appeal of her eyes or keep his desire under wraps? As if she wanted to help him decide, she let him know she understood his burning dilemma by pushing her thigh forward and resting it on his. A sweet ache he had never experienced before reverberated though his body. Laafrit knew if he continued to sit and drink whiskey like this, he'd definitely cave in. He decided to put off his deliberations and return to reason.
"You know most of the big shots here in Tangier," he said, moving his thigh away gently. "You've been to their houses and danced at their parties. Ever seen anything like a gun at their places?"
Fifi kept quiet for a few seconds and looked at Laafrit cautiously. She shrugged her shoulders and took out another cigarette. This time, Laafrit lit it instantly. Fifi let out a deep breath and, looking somber, finally shook her head.
"Stop, please," she pleaded nervously. "You know I never stiff you for information."
The heat began to flow in the bar as more people came through the entrance. Nadia changed the music to something livelier. She peered at the two sitting in the corner and moved to the other side of the bar. Nadia sat with a guy at the counter, trying to distract him from paying too much attention to Fifi. Laafrit put his arm around Fifi again.
"A body just washed ashore . . . shot dead," he whispered softly in her ear.
She pulled away from him astonished.
She leaned forward again.
"Is this why there are so many patrols in the streets? I danced for only ten people yesterday."
"It's best you take a vacation," suggested Laafrit, half joking. "The situation won't calm down until we find that gun."
Fifi sat up suddenly with a cryptic expression on her face and gazed in Laafrit's eyes as if she were afraid of saying a word.
"Remember something?" he asked, louder than he wanted.
"I don't know," she backtracked, collecting her thoughts. "Maybe I have heard something about a gun."
Laafrit jerked forward but stopped himself from interrupting.
"Remember Fawzia? The girl they arrested doped up on pills?"
"Yeah, you asked me to let her off," said Laafrit impatiently, trying not to get too excited.
"She immigrated to Italy last month on a fake passport."
Laafrit coaxed her back to what he wanted to know.
"You said you heard something about a gun?"
"She's the one who told me about it, unintentionally, before she took off. But I don't remember where she said she saw it."
Laafrit wrapped his arm around Fifi again and instead of messaging her tender forearm, he pressed firmly on it as if he were trying to compel her to remember. Fifi didn't like it but she also didn't object. Her eyes suddenly widened with fear, however, as she remembered her interrogation three years ago at Laafrit's hands.
"If you can't remember," he threatened, "we'll have to go to the station to talk this over in peace and quiet."
"I don't have anything more to tell you," she said imploringly.
Laafrit took a deep breath and looked around the place. No one was paying them any attention. He checked the scene again and then went back to business.
"Sit back and calm down," he said. "I'll make it easy for you. Where did your friend tell you about the gun?"
Fifi was smoking nervously as if she just fell in a trap.
"At La Lambada, I think. She was drunk. We ran into each other in the bathroom. I remember her standing in front of the mirror, pointing at it with her hands, and saying: *Šñbang . . . bang . . . bang*Š!' She asked me if I ever held a real gun. I said no and she told me she had. She said it was heavy."
"Where was she when she held it?" demanded Laafrit, grilling her. He was just about in full control of himself.
"Martil. It was last August, I think, but I don't know if she saw the gun there or if she was joking."
Laafrit felt he still wasn't getting anything useful from Fifi.
"Who was she staying with in Martil?"
"Didn't ask her," Fifi replied, coughing.
She took out a tissue and put it on the counter in front of her.
"There's this guy," she continued. "When I find him, he'll save us all this trouble."
Laafrit looked at her hopefully.
"His name's Fuad. Fawzia loved him insanely. When I get the chance, I'll find him and ask about it."
"He was with her in Martil?
"I don't know."
"What's his full name?"
"Don't know. She was always telling me about this Fuad but I only saw him with her a couple times."
"Always at the same spot. Probably La Lambada."
"What about his address? The places he goes? His friends?"
She shook her head with a hint of regret.
"Give me some time, I'll ask around for you. He goes out every night."
"Has Fawzia called you from Italy yet?"
Laafrit stopped a second to think.
"Who'll you ask about him?"
"I have my ways," she said, dodging his question.
"I want to know."
She put out her cigarette and twisted the tissue between her fingers.
"You want to know everything," she mumbled, trying to hide the aggravation in her voice. "Fine. I have my own informants, the guys who wander through all the Tangier bars and nightclubs selling food and cigarettes. When I want to know how things are in other places or where one of my customers is hiding from me, I pay these guys to find out. They know Fawzia and remember her well. They know her lover Fuad too. I'll have them look in all the bars and clubs. When they see him, they'll tell me and I'll tell you."
"But you're dancing at Sheherazade tonight," Laafrit countered, pleased with her idea.
"Don't worry. Trust me."
As if asking for sympathy, she squeezed his hand warmly and motioned she wanted to go. Laafrit hesitated, afraid he was letting her escape.
"I'll call you," she insisted.
"Wait," Laafrit stopped her, grabbing her by the arm. "I don't want him to know the cops are behind it."
He looked down at his watch.
"If you don't find him," he added, "I'll have to take you downtown to make a statement. Call any time, even the middle of the night. You have my number." She nodded she understood and then asked for her coat. Fifi rushed off, as if she had just made a stupid mistake.
Laafrit finished off his drink in a single gulp. When Nadia appeared in front of him, he motioned with his hand to stop her from taking his glass but she ignored him and brought a double.
"Want to get me drunk tonight?" Laafrit joked.
She leaned toward him and smiled sweetly as her full breasts pressed forward. "If only I could*Š"
Nadia placed a cigarette between her lips and Laafrit lit it. She touched his hand gently and then brought her glass over.
"You're not going to drink alone," she said. "Cheers!"
Translator's Note: Many people have made this translation possible. I would like to thank William Granara and Jessica Callaway of Harvard University, as well as Michael Henry Heim and everyone at the UCLA Babel Study Group for Translation Studies for their comments and suggestions. A generous grant from the American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS) enabled me to travel to Morocco, where I completed a full translation of the novel. Finally, I would like to thank the author himself, Abdelilah Hamdouchi, for his warm spirit and endless generosity in all aspects of this project.
From al-Dhababa al-Bayda'. Copyright by Abdelilah Hamdouchi, 2000. Translation copyright Jonathan Smolin, 2005.