Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Cairo begins with a hashish smuggler called Ashraf sitting at his mother's grave as he relates to her how his day went.
"So today I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck."
He tells her the Bedouin have fields of marijuana out in Sinai. The camels graze on the stuff. He tells her about the Israeli border guards who nearly catch him smuggling hash hidden inside bulbs of Smelly Beet. He tells her not to worry, that's just life in the City Victorious. It's a deft and assured way to start the story off, introduce a major character and set the tone. The other pieces of the mosaic follow on soon after: A female Israeli special forces soldier, injured and rescued ironically by the very Bedouin that Ashraf curses for not securing their camels; in the sky above is a passenger jet with two Americans on board, one of Lebanese extraction called Shaheed with an idea to live up to his name, the other a naive girl trying to broaden her Orange County boundaries; dating Ashraf's sister is a journalist/activist who amusingly knows more about Peter Parker and Spiders Man (that wasn't a typo) than some Americans; and Shams who lives in a hookah.
The cover blurb cites the book as belonging to a genre called magical realist, which I've never heard of before but suits the book. Primarily it's a book set in a Cairo, before the people's revolution, but not an overtly fictionalised Cairo or one seen filtered through western preconceptions. Sure it's full of magic and mysticism with a plot about a magician gangster trying to recover a powerful artifact guarded by a Jinn but it's all authentic Egyptian mythology and the writer G. Willow Wilson, though American, is heavily committed to Cairo and its people, having lived there for many years to this day and formerly a regular contributor to the now defunct Cairo Magazine. I loved all the idiomatic Arabic expressions, though I suspect in respect to the colourful cursing, the translation into our woefully inadequate English doesn't quite do it justice.
The art is excellent too. Turkish artist M.K. Perker delivers some extremely expressive and detailed shaded black and white pencils, bringing the characters and locations to life.
It all ends a little too soon and if the concluding tone is one of hope and perhaps wishful thinking, in the land of the Jinn anything is possible.

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