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Last November, while visiting Chicago, I attended a dinner party where I met a young woman who had an interesting story to tell. Of Egyptian ancestry, she was supermodel lovely, without the anorexia. Long, glossy black hair, dark, almond-shaped eyes with lashes that Maybelline would love to patent, and a complexion that emphasized her brilliant white smile.

But her looks took second place to her enthusiasm once she learned that I was familiar with the summer protests in Egypt that overturned Morsi's government. All of our fellow dinner guests were Democrats (it was Chicago after all) but few of them understood exactly what had taken place. But then, their lives, like the lives of so many other Americans, did not include much political knowledge outside of what directly concerned them. They did not follow Daily Kos, or they would have had the benefit of OllieGarkey's discussion last July (which includes a concise timeline as well as a thorough analysis of the action). Or TomP's, or the many front page articles that appeared. Rashida (not her real name) had been there.

She described an Egypt fed up with Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood regime. And an Egyptian people who wanted jobs more than sharia law. They felt Morsi had betrayed the revolution and was acting illegally. But the early atmosphere during the June 30 protest had a holiday feel, according to Rashida. The largest protests the world had ever seen, with numbers between 14 and 20 million participating, were thrilling for an American to join. She had planned on coming home earlier, but got caught up in the demonstrations and decided to remain in Cairo.

She told me that the Muslim Brotherhood is despised by the people who want a more secular society. And that when Army chief Abdel Fatah al Sisi mobilized the troops, the crowds were thrilled. They feel that the military will protect them and they were actually disappointed when al Sisi did not take over as head of state, but were willing to accept the the proposed compromise which allowed a new constitution to be approved in January. It is likely that al Sisi will win the Presidential election later this spring.

This video clip was actually filmed last March, but what the young man has to say about the state, religion and Morsi's governance is remarkable. If you can't play the YouTube video, kyril's diary of last July includes a transcript. Much of what he has to say is what Rashida told me in November, the main difference being that he is only 12 years old.

Just listening to Rashida talk about Cairo whetted my curiosity about life in Egypt's capital city. The last time I visited Egypt in fiction was the Egypt of the turn of the last century in the company of Amelia Peabody, Elizabeth Peter's intrepid protagonist in her nineteen mystery novels.

Time to see a modern nation. And I think I have found the perfect tour guide in Parker Bilal.

Parker Bilal is the name that Jamal Mahjoub, known for his critically acclaimed literary novels, uses for his Makana Mystery series. Bilal was born in London of a Sudanese father and English mother and raised in Khartoum. He has lived at various times in the UK, Sudan, Cairo and Denmark and currently lives in Barcelona, according to his author's page at Bloomsbury Publishing.

In an interview with John Crace of The Guardian, Bilial explains his transition from literary to crime fiction:

"Literary fiction is in a twilight world, where no one knows how to judge it or what works. There's a fatigue: no one really gets it any more. Most of it goes unread. Crime has an audience, so it allows me to write. It's a pressure valve to release stories that would otherwise go untold."
And while he has no intention of abandoning literary fiction, he has planned a ten-part series following the exploits of private detective Makana in Cairo. So far he has finished and published three: The Golden Scales, Dogstar Rising and The Ghost Runner.


The Golden Scales
by Parker Bilal
Published by Bloomsbury USA
January 31st 2012
397 pages

When the novel opens in 1998, Makana is living on a houseboat held together more by inertia than material, and reluctantly accepting private investigation work in his adopted home of Cairo. Seven years earlier he had lost his wife and daughter to the regime in Sudan and fled the country of his birth.

He is summoned by Saad Hanafi, one of the richest men in Egypt, to find a missing footballer who is the star of Hanafi's Dreem Team. Good looking, but not especially bright, Adil Romario, who has been treated like a son by Hanafi, has vanished. The trip from his rickety rented houseboat on the Nile to the penthouse of a modern, glistening high rise demonstrates the different worlds that the people of Egypt occupy.

Before he could get a decent start on this investigation, he meets a strange Englishwoman who is searching for the daughter she lost in Cairo eighteen years earlier. The next day she is found murdered and Makana, who felt a kinship with her, perhaps as a result of losing his own daughter, finds himself drawn into the mystery of her murder.

His investigations, helped occasionally by a corrupt cop and a newspaper reporter, take Makana from the back alleys and markets of Cairo to the luxury beach front resorts of the very wealthy.

This well-plotted mystery is peopled with unique individual characters, none of whom are ever as they first appear. Makana himself, is an unusual character. Once a respected homicide investigator in his home town in Sudan, he is now very much down on his luck, conducting his business in a run down cafe. The story of his move to Cairo and the loss of his family is slowly revealed as he pursues answers to the two mysteries.

The main character in this novel is Cairo, though. You can hear the call to prayers and the noise of the crowded streets in the market. You can smell the refuse dumps and the unwashed bodies in the crowds. And the chaotic auto traffic in the streets that is shut out by the sleek limousine that takes Makana to meet Hananfi. The glaring inequality and the rampant corruption of the government seem to be widely accepted facts of life in this opening novel.

In his March, 2013 interview, he indicated that he wanted to write the ten novels to explore the nation prior to the 2011 revolution. When asked why he didn't want to deal with the events of today (remember, this was before the June 2013 revolution) he answered

"It's the sequence of events leading up to the revolution that really interests me. The revolution itself was the moment Egypt passed through the mirror. What is happening now is a variation on what happened before, with the establishment managing to split the left. It's more a situation for journalists and bloggers than a novelist."
There is something about "the establishment managing to split the left" that sounded very familiar. And no, I am not referring to Daily Kos, but to the corporate oligarchy that rules us all.


Mystery Book Club

Starting last week, the Mystery Book Club began meeting at 7:30PM EDT to discuss the group read. That will allow us greater latitude in revealing spoilers without ruining the novel for any of the Monday Murder Mystery readers who may want to read our selected book in the future.

Last week's vote resulted in a winner. Please join us in tonight's diary to find out which one won.


Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
2:00 PM What's on Your E-Reader? Caedy
2:00 PM Bibliophile's Wish List Caedy
Sun (occasional) 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery michelewln, Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
alternate Thursdays (on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
alternate Fridays 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
Fri 10:00 PM Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable shortfinals
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Mar 17, 2014 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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