DOGSTAR RISING by Parker Bilal

 

(Temple of Queen Hapshepsut, Luxor, Egypt)

Periodically we read in a newspaper or hear broadcast news accounts of attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt.  The latest and every bit as horrific as others during recent years was in October, 2013 as Egyptian gunmen opened fire on a Coptic Christian wedding in Cairo.  “Three people, including a girl aged eight, died when gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on the wedding party outside a Coptic Christian church in Cairo.” (BBC News 21 October, 2013)  Some Islamists groups have been targeting Coptic Christians who accuse them of supporting the army’s overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi last July.  Human Rights Watch reports that attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt have been on the rise and Egyptian authorities have done little to investigate the attacks or take actions to prevent them.  Another aspect of the problem is the kidnapping of Coptic Christian women and forcing them to convert to Islam, and then releasing them.  The issue is that Islamic conversion is irreversible, even under threatening conditions, and if one tries to reverse the marriage, the punishment is death.  “One priest in Cairo estimates that at least 21 young girls, many as young as 14, have disappeared from his parish alone.” (THE AUSTRALIAN May 21, 2011)  This atmosphere becomes part of the background for Parker Bilal’s novel DOGSTAR RISING.  The story is extremely timely as he begins the narrative with the murder and mutilation of Moslem children in Cairo.  The event takes place in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks and involves threats against employees of the Blue Ibis Tours company for supporting and aiding western pollution of Islam.  Makana, Bilal’s central character, a former Sudanese policeman who is a detective in Cairo is hired by the head of the tourist agency to investigate.  From this point on the novel twists and turns around the murder of the children and its possible link to a pedophile who is involved in smuggling linked to military officials, and attempts by journalists to expose the creation of an Islamic bank, the Eastern Star Bank that was set up to launder money for illegal activities.

The plot rests on a series of attacks on Moslem boys, journalists, and anyone who might be an impediment to the corruption that poisons Egyptian life.  By making the murders appear as if Coptic Christians are performing ritual murder, the television “Islamic evangelist,” Sheikh Mohammed Waheed publicizes this conspiracy theory to further the radical cause to make Egypt another Iran. The story highlights the dichotomy that is Egypt.  As Sami Barakat, a journalist points out, “You know what our problem is?  We can’t decide what we want.  Do we want West or East, Islam or the joys of secularism?  We think we can have it all.” (201)

Bilal has constructed a many layered novel involving fears of ritual murder, the plight of Coptic Christians, government corruption, Islamic extremism, and the hopes by some to recapture and make amends for their past.  The characters are numerous and well conceived.  Some return from Bilal’s previous novel, THE GOLDEN SCALES, but he introduces many new ones i.e.; a murdering pedophile, a Coptic priest, assorted Egyptian mobsters, corrupt police officials, a radical Imam, and every day Egyptians who have to bear the weight of the poverty that is their existence.  Throughout the novel, Bilal makes numerous references to Egyptian history and tries to place contemporary Egypt in that context.  His discussion of radical philosophers is accurate as his use of certain historical events to assist in the flow of the narrative.

The story itself is extremely complex and Bilal’s literary style makes it easier for the reader to keep up with the constant changes that seem to take place on every other page.  The ending is somewhat of a surprise and it will easily lead to another sequel as Makana’s search for his daughter, who he thought was dead, remains unresolved.  I enjoyed both Makana mysteries and I look forward to the publication of the third installment, THE GHOST RUNNER.

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