#CBR7 Review #2 – Cairo
Profile: Modern Fantasy, Urban, Middle Eastern, Graphic Novel
After Action Report:
Cairo is, in many ways, a prototype for G. Willow Wilson’s later novel, Alif the Unseen. They are stories of clashing cultures. Both the complex internal clash between Islamic hardliners and the culturally diverse youth of the Middle East, and the more external, if no less complex conflict between encroaching western culture and the entrenched lifestyles of Muslims. By necessity, Cairo is more spare, crashing through a much simpler plot at breakneck pace, but it manages to hit the same powerful notes that Alif does.
The comic starts as the story of Ashraf, an Egyptian drug smuggler who makes regular runs across the border into Israel. On one such run, he wrecks his car on a stoned camel (exactly as funny as it sounds), loses his shipment and ends up stealing a hookah from his employer to make some fast cash. But the hookah is home to a jinn, Shams, a beneficent creature who owns a box that could give control of the entire Middle East to anyone who possesses it.
Drawn into this drama are Shaheed, a Lebanese-American who intends to become a suicide bomber; Kate, a privileged white girl trying to escape her Orange County roots; and Ali, a journalist who struggles to tell the truth in defiance of the Egyptian government and Western ambivalence. Wilson does an excellent job of fleshing out each of these characters, even in the relatively limited space of the graphic novel format. So much so that it’s hard to identify who the real protagonist is. Shaheed’s journey is the most transformative, but Ashraf and Kate are much more relatable. There is a fifth ‘protagonist,’ an Israeli special forces solider named Tova, but she is a much simpler character whose arc is tied up too closely with Ashraf’s to be interesting on its own.
For me, the draw of a story like this lies in the juxtaposition of contemporary cultural understanding and the mythological/historical elements. Shams isn’t interesting because he’s a jinn; he’s interesting because he’s a jinn who has fully adapted to the modern world. Rather than play up the traditional conflict between magic and all things modern, Wilson choses a more interesting course. One where the ancient and occult are actually fighting to shape the present and the future.
Wilson makes great use of her understanding of Arabic and Islamic culture to inform her worldbuilding and magic systems. Again, she uses some of the unique properties of Arabic to remind the reader that the culture of the Middle East was, and still can be, progressive and intellectual. Like in Alif, the message in Cairo boils down to a question of freedom and understanding. We in the west tend to paint all Muslim culture with the same, overbroad brush, reducing dozens of rich cultures down to a few abusive stereotypes. Wilson doesn’t deny that these stereotypes exist, but reminds us that outside of extremist groups, the people on the ground are just that; people.
Cairo unfolds quickly and succinctly in M.K. Perker’s very detailed black and white panels. While the style does fit the pacing and tone of the story, I felt that that art ultimately failed to stand out in my particular library of comic book art. It isn’t bad at all, just not particularly noteworthy. The final versions of the pages, used in my collected printing, are quite nice, but the heavy use of shading sometimes muddies the detail-rich style of Perker’s art. Perker is careful to avoid stereotypical depictions of Egyptians and other Arabic cultures, with the notable exceptions of some of the supernatural villains. These draw on those visual tropes and distort them to create the most visually impressive, and disturbing images of the whole comic.
While Cairo is an older graphic novel, I couldn’t help but note the timeliness of my reading of it. As Europe and the US struggle with how to deal with citizens leaving to join militant Islamist groups, and leaders thought the Middle East, including Egypt’s own Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, call for reformation and the curtailment of Islamist extremism, Shaheed’s story seems particularly relevant. Wilson’s hopeful portrayal of his journey is poignant precisely because he overcomes the blinders of faith and personal depression. At risk of repeating myself almost word for word, I wonder how effective extremist recruiters would be if we treated each other a little bit more like people, and less like the shadows cast on the wall by the media.
Posted on February 24, 2015, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged #CBR7, Cairo, Fofo, G. Willow Wilson, Graphic Novel, M.K. Perker, Middle Eastern, Modern Fantasy, Urban. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.