Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Cairo

Cairo by G. Willow Wilson
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Aug 03, 12

bookshelves: graphic-novel, 2012, fantasy, magical-realism
Read in July, 2012 — I own a copy

"So today, I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck." So beings Ashraf's story to his mother, sitting by her grave with a cigarette in one hand and a hookah by his side. Ashraf is a drug dealer, running hashish into Israel, and hitting that camel nearly gets him killed by border guards. That's just the beginning of his wild and wonderful tale. Leaving the cemetery, he heads for a cafe where his good friend Ali is having tea with Ashraf's sister, Salma. While a young female Israeli soldier gets a ride with the Bedouin and their "stoned camels" into Cairo, a Lebanese-American called Shaheed (meaning "martyr") with possible suicide-bombing plans arrives on a plane along with another American, an idealistic student called Kate who came to Cairo mostly to escape Orange County. She wanders into the cafe asking for directions to her hotel, and there she meets Ali and Salma. Ali offers to take her to her hotel, but as they head down the street they are taken hostage, all because of Ashraf and the hookah. Ashraf, meanwhile, is looking for a dumb tourist to sell the hookah to, and encounters Shaheed, who willingly buys it.

Inside the hookah, unbeknownst to Ashraf, is a jinn called Shams, a tall elegant-looking man who manipulates probabilities in order to "grant wishes". He was trapped inside the hookah by Nar, an evil sorcerer who is looking for a box that contains a word of power, which Shams is determined to get to first and give to Shaheed. Nar's goons have taken Ashraf's friend - and Kate - hostage until he brings back the hookah, which means Ashraf must find Shaheed. Things for Ashraf are further complicated by Tova, the Special Forces soldier from Israel who asks Ashraf, at gunpoint, to get her back into Israel using his drug running route. And so the race, the confluence of choices, begins.

Cairo is an energetic, adventurous, fun, quick story that you can devour in a couple of hours - in fact, it shuttles along at a quick pace like a movie, flowing from one scene to another in much the same way. It perfectly balances a modern, colourful city with cultural and political tensions and ancient Egyptian myths to create a magical adventure story complete with gun fights, djinni, flying carpets, the devil, crises of conscience and coming-of-age stories for the two youngest, Shaheed and Kate.

The five main (human) characters, Ashraf, Tavo, Ali, Kate and Shaheed, are each introduced in such a way that you get a good idea of their characters from the start, Perker's clever illustrations capturing body language and nuances that complement the dialogue. Their intro scenes bleed one into another, so that it's very easy to flow with the story. The pacing is swift, but not always busy, giving you time to catch up.

That said, there were a few times the plot went a bit too fast for me, especially in regards to Nar and the mysterious box. Or rather, the box containing the mysterious word. I'm not entirely sure I followed all that, and while I did get the full impression of Nar as a bad man with strong magical powers and a cunning mind, I knew nothing of him beyond those details. He wasn't fleshed out at all, which left him as a bit of a caricature of a character.

On the other hand, Shams was also left mysterious, but in his case this added depth to his character, not left him flat. He's a jinn, after all. There are times when you see his vulnerability, his hopes, his sadness. He and Ashraf were my favourite characters; Ashraf may have been a bit of a cliche, but he was still hugely fun and could often steal a scene. He was also the comic relief, and like any good action movie, there's always a need for a few laughs.

There are some moments of moralising, not preaching but the characters coming to realise things about themselves and the world. It was handled well, not belaboured, sometimes not even stated but shown. During an unexpected trip to the Undernile, where the devil whispers to them, Kate and Ali have a great argument where their prejudices and arrogance come out. Shaheed has a mystical transformation which I didn't fully grasp, since it all hinges on the word in the box. And Ali has a renewed enthusiasm in getting the news out to Cairo, no matter how much the censors remove first.

If you're looking for a well-written, wonderfully-illustrated graphic novel that reads like an action movie but with more depth, and tells a story you haven't really heard before, definitely pick up a copy of Cairo.
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