The first graphic novel by journalist G. Willow Wilson, Cairo is a rather well-crafted retelling of the Aladdin story set in contemporary Cairo. With a riff that will please fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Ernest Hogan’s Smoking Mirror Blues, here too are very old gods who find themselves confronting humans who are very much of the modernity. Here, residents of Cairo, human and otherwise, several Americans, a Leftist journalist and a djinn meet in a journey from the streets of Cairo to Undernile, the fabled river said to run deep below the Nile, in the opposite direction.
Ashraf is but a simple hash smuggler and a low-level thief to boot, scraping together a living from the streets of Cairo. But when he sells a magic hookah stolen from a mob boss (aptly described as a ‘baby-eating Nile-toad’ though it’s likely it’s the Cane Toad he means) the mobster kidnaps Ashraf’s friend, rabble-rousing journalist Ali Jibreel and an American female tourist who is an obsessed follower of Arabic radical politics. Throw in an Israel female soldier who got seriously lost while on what she says was a deep desert patrol who Ashraf has, at gun point, agreed to smuggle back into Israel, and a djinn who is now free from that hookah and who’ve got a Hell (perhaps literally, as you will see) of a great tale.
Elsewhere in the city, a young American calling himself Shaheed (martyr in Arabic, which he speaks, as does the American tourist mentioned before) discovers that the hookah he bought at a really cheap price ($20 to be exact) from Ashraf is inhabited by a smart- dressing, Rumi quoting djinn named Shams who warns him to be careful of not losing ‘his house’. When the mob boss sends more demons than you care to know about and stay sane, all with nasty tempers and even nastier teeth to retrieve the hookah, Shams becomes hell-bent on turning Shaheed from an inept hacker for an Islamist terrorist group and martyr to a poet-warrior, including learning how to use a magical, demon-killing sword. Oh, did I mention Shams isn’t to be trusted either? Indeed I’m not at all convinced that anyone in this story should be taken on their word.
With gritty, realistic black-and-white illustrations by New York City based illustrator M.K. Perker (and a wonderful color sketch by the same artist on the back of the dust jacket!), Cairo is an amazing look at a city and all its inhabitants. Despite bloody historic grievances, the streams of myth and storytelling are never far from the surface. The writer’s Web site describes her this way: ‘G. Willow Wilson is an American author and essayist who divides her time between Egypt and the U.S. Her articles about modern religion and the Middle East have appeared in publications including the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine and the Canada National Post.’ Based on Cairo, this is a writer I will keep an eye out for, as this novel of magic realism is simply superb!