Parker Bilal (Jamal Mahjoub), The Makana Mysteries: The Golden Scales; Dogstar Rising – Camden New Journal
As the horror of history repeating itself unfolds in Egypt – the young abandoning the early improvisations of Tahrir Square for the certainties of another military leader – I have been reading two remarkable novels by Parker Bilal (a pseudonym for the writer, Jamal Mahjoub) that seem to predict these events, and help to make sense of them.
At the height of the Arab Spring in 2011, when it appeared that a new generation had done away with the old tyrants once and for all, a warning voice sounded out on Twitter. Getting rid of the dictator was not enough, wrote the journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy, what the Egyptian people needed was to eliminate “the Mubarak in our heads”. It is this idea that Bilal explores in the Makana Mysteries, a series of novels about a Sudanese detective living in Cairo. The first of these, The Golden Scales, appeared in 2012, the second, Dogstar Rising, has recently been published by Bloomsbury. Although Mubarak himself is rarely mentioned, Bilal’s tales bulge with his imitators: gangsters, businessmen, fanatics and bullies, all of them tyrants, all powerful obstacles to individual freedom. The books are set in the decade or so leading up to the revolution, providing the reader with a chance to reflect on the conditions that laid its ground while giving the stories historical propulsion: out of the chaos of the city, with all its secrets and entanglements, many are struggling to break free. But as Bilal’s exiled detective knows from experience – and as history is demonstrating once again – the tyrant is tricky to eject: he keeps reappearing in different guises.
In a wealthy part of the city, in sight of the pyramids, one of Makana’s employers lays claim to the mystique of the pharaohs, surrounding his swimming pool with life-size statues of himself. Hanafi is a businessman who owns the city’s favourite football team, and in The Golden Scales he recruits the detective to search for a missing player. Like his boss, the absent footballer is beguiled by the power of images, and dreams of becoming a movie star. Like his boss, he too was once an orphan in the slums. Fifty thousand homeless kids live on the streets of Cairo, but Egypt’s media transfixes people with its rags to riches legends, “keeping the country asleep”. Few seem able to break the trance: only the odd café pariah who shouts, “Lies all of it. Stories to cheer us up while we rot down here like rats”, or Makana’s friends, sceptical journalists and academics, wondering: “Who is going to wake us up?”.
Behind the saga of the missing footballer lies an ancient feud between Hanafi and Bulatt, an old adversary. Once a childhood friend, Bulatt re-emerges as an Islamist demagogue linked to a shadowy network of politicians, bankers and foreign businessmen. What Bilal enacts in these novels – against Egypt’s pervasive “fantasy world of fairy tales and deceit” – is a form of iconoclasm: his are spell-breaking fictions. Aligning forces routinely posed as opposites, he exposes both the business modernizer and the religious traditionalist as vain and jealous men, hiding their petty rivalry behind the masks of power.
There’s a similar theme of opportunism in Dogstar Rising, where politicians manipulate sectarian attacks on the Coptic Christian minority for their own ends. When Makana’s journalist friend writes about this, he is asked to drop it, because “No editor in his right mind would publish a story claiming that State Security are trying to stir up anti-Christian feeling in order to take people’s minds off the economy, right?”
Makana himself brings something new to the detective canon, recasting many of its characteristic tropes. His wise-cracking is a sharp as any detective’s in Chandler or Hammett (“There was something about him that was hard and cheap. It made you want to count your fingers after shaking hands”) but it stems from a more literal world-weariness. Having watched Sudan fall into religious authoritarianism and seen his family destroyed by it, Makana has arrived in another country where the pattern seems to be repeating itself. Similarly, Conan Doyle’s figure of the detective as supreme rationalist in a superstitious world takes on more urgent meaning when he operates in places where women are raped for wearing the wrong clothes, academics murdered for teaching Darwinism, journalists imprisoned for reporting stories and detectives forbidden from investigating these crimes.
In Sudan, Makana, the policeman, was made into an outlaw. Now in Egypt, his life as an exile is precarious: even his riverboat home on the banks of the Nile is constantly in danger of sinking. But whatever setbacks Makana encounters – and however recidivist Egyptians seem right now – Bilal suggests that the tide of history is turning. It is precisely Makana’s place on the margins, and the ironic cast of mind it generates, that make him the perfect twenty-first century detective, capable of unravelling our most intricate plots and seeing behind our tricky guises. Any producer worth their salt should rush to pick up these novels and film them immediately.
Parker Bilal is an alias for the novelist Jamal Mahjoub. This article appeared in the Camden New Journal as ‘Swirls in the Tide of History’ and online as ‘Dogstar Rising: A Makana Mystery; The Golden Scales: A Makana Mystery, by Parker Bilal’ on 22.8.2013.