(The slums of Cairo…at a minimum 25% of Cairo’s citizens live beneath the poverty line)
Most Middle East specialists would agree that Egypt is a key component if Middle East peace is ever too achieved. Therefore, any insight into that country is well worth pursuing even if it is in a mystery format. Jamal Mahjoub, writing under the pseudonym Parker Bilal is just the writer to bring insights from that perspective. Having been brought up in Khartoum, Sudan and lived in Cairo his feel for the people and culture of the region is something he draws upon in his first Makana mystery, entitled THE GOLDEN SCALES. The story begins in 1981 before the assassination of Anwar Sadat by the Muslim Brotherhood and then jumps to 1998. The narrative takes place during the increasingly autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak that is dominated by the Egyptian intelligence and military communities who reign supreme in everyday Egyptian society. It is a time when the “Arab Spring” is a reformist fantasy and repression and poverty are the order of the day. (Tahir Square, during the Arab Spring, 2011)
At the outset, Bilal offers an insider’s look into a missing person’s situation and a murder investigation. He has the reader witness the underside of Cairo’s economic and social structure as we confront Egyptian gangsterism and corporate crime as the 20th century begins to draw to a close. Employing a former police inspector, named Makana, who has his own demons that relate to his experiences in Sudan where his wife and daughter were killed, we meet a driven man who believes that no matter the consequences for himself, the law must be up held for society to function properly. Once Makana begins to oppose the Islamic fundamentalism that emerges in Sudan he is forced to immigrate to Egypt. Bilal lives on a rickety wooden house boat on the Nile and from that base he launches a series of investigations that rub the gangster, intelligence, and corporate worlds of Cairo in the wrong way. The background history Bilal presents is very accurate as he creates a number of characters that interact with Makana to tell his story. Bilal puts together a plot that reflects the political and economic upheaval under the repressive regime of Hosni Muburak that Egypt still has not overcome to this day. Bilal creates an eclectic group of characters for Makana to work with and sometimes cope. The story revolves around the disappearance of a four year old child in 1981 and the murder of her mother seventeen years later; the disappearance of Aldi Romario, a national soccer favorite; the machination of Saad Hanabi, a former gangster and now one of the richest men in Egypt; Sami Barakat, an unemployed journalist; Vronsky, the former Russian soldier and intelligence agent; Soraya Hanafi, the heiress to the family fortune; Daud Bulati, a former partner of the Hanafi’s who becomes an Islamic revolutionary; and Okasha, a police inspector in Cairo. There are a number of other important individuals who appear but machinations among those named form the core of the narrative. Makana is hired by Saad Hanafi to locate his star player, Aldi Romario who has gone missing from the soccer team which he owns. Makana’s investigation has numerous twists and turns as he theorizes how the disappearance of the child, the murder of her mother, and the disappearance of Adil are all related. In developing the story, Bilal periodically alternates chapters stepping back from the criminal investigation to events in the Sudan seven years before. We learn about Makana and the plight of his family in the context of the Sudanese civil war caused by the rise of Islamic extremism. Throughout the novel the reader is exposed to what the citizens of Cairo must deal with on a daily basis, as Makana remarks early on that in Cairo, “life was lived on the streets.” The teeming masses, the never ending poverty, the lack of civil rights are all part of the burden that most Egyptians share. The novel will incorporate the Egyptian intelligence branch, the SSI; Sudanese “supposed” law enforcement officers, jihad, the breakdown of the Egyptian welfare network, and the violence that is Cairo. For a murder mystery the book contains exceptional prose as Bilal has written a number of other novels before embarking on his Makana series. The plot line has tremendous depth and I challenge any reader to try and figure how the novel concludes. This book was recommended to me by a friend, to whom I am grateful as I have already begun to read the second installment of the Makana series, DOGSTAR RISING.