An American in Cairo
By Joseph Fahim / Daily News Egypt
First Published 8/28/2009
Cairo is a barren wasteland for comics fans. That is a sad, undeniable fact. No bookstore in the country houses a comics section. A small handful of graphic novels are haphazardly placed in the modern fiction book sections of the likes of Diwan and the AUC Bookstore. Up until this very day, Egypt has failed to take comic-books seriously.
Perhaps that’s why I was surprised to spot a graphic novel entitled “Cairo” — published by DC Comics’ Vertigo — buried in the bottom drawer of Al-Shorouk bookstore’s barely noticeable comic section alongside more famous comics such as “V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore and, coincidently, a sole volume of Neil Gaiman’s highly acclaimed series “The Sandman.”
Authored by Muslim American comic writer and former journalist G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Turkish artist M.K. Perker, “Cairo” is the first international graphic novel written about the Egyptian capital.
The first few pages bear some resemblance to Magdy El-Shafei’s “Metro” — the banned first Egyptian graphic novel — in terms of both the detailed, distinct modern Cairo backdrop and the critical approach to Egypt’s contemporary politics. But “Cairo” is no realist portrait of the city.
By the end of the first part, the story takes a sharp detour into the world of fantasy. What unfolds in subsequent pages is an intricate, action-packed multi-character tale about sacrifice, love, defiance and, most importantly, the significance of the word.
“Cairo” centers on six leading characters: Ashraf, a snarky, smart drug smuggler who steals an object that turns his life haywire; Tova, an Israeli Special Forces soldier who finds herself in the middle of Cairo after accidently crossing the Egyptian border; Ali, an idealistic, leftist, beaten-down journalist; Kate, an American tourist and aspiring reporter searching for adventure away from the suburban boredom of Orange County; Shaheed, a young Lebanese wannabe suicide bomber and Shams, a genie residing in a magical hookah that connects all six.
There are elements in the first part of “Cairo” reminiscent of Guy Delisle’s travelogue “Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea” and Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s “Abandon the Old in Tokyo,” two stories examining exotic cultures from a ground-level perspective. But Wilson’s work owes more to Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman,” whose gothic touches and knack for folk heritage can be traced all over “Cairo.”
Yet the one author Wilson is most indebted to is great Christian American novelist C.S. Lewis (“The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Screwtape Letters”) whose method of infusing fable with religious themes informs “Cairo’s” structure to a great extent. In distant intervals, “Cairo” — Wilson’s first graphic novel — suffers from slight unevenness. The vibrant art-work, frantic energy and surprises lurking in every corner trample all those minor flaws.
Wilson’s religious themes are appropriately integrated within the fabric of the story, cumulating with a poignant resolution. Cairo itself is the unquestionable star of the story; a mysterious, chaotic city abundant with contradictions, injustice, cruelty and tenderness.
The New Jersey born, Colorado raised 26-year-old Wilson started her writing career at the age of 17, freelancing as a music critic for Boston’s Weekly Digg. In college, she studied Arabic language and literature beside her history major. After graduating, Wilson — who converted to Islam in college — moved to Cairo where she worked as a journalist for Cairo Magazine before shutting down in 2005. During her time with Cairo Magazine, Wilson became the first western writer to interview Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the current Mufti of Egypt.
In recent years, Wilson has seen her articles about Islam, philosophy, the Middle East and Egypt published in some of the world’s biggest publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The Canada National Post and Atlantic Monthly.
A thorough examination of Wilson’s non-fiction writings reveals a deep understanding of the Egyptian culture that transcends that stereotyped khawaga/outsider outlook. In one article, she describes the solidarity she experienced among other Egyptian women in the tube. In another, she chronicles her brush with a group of Iraqi immigrants residing in her Cairo building.
Wilson is married to an Egyptian and spends her time between Egypt and the US. In addition to “Cairo,” Wilson has also authored an acclaimed running series called Air, also published by DC Comics. The following interview was conducted with Wilson from her home in Seattle via e-mail.
Daily News Egypt: At what age were you drawn to comics? Why comics? Who are your inspirations, both in comics and literature?
G. Willow Wilson: The first comic I remember reading was an X Men anti-smoking pamphlet they gave us in health class in fifth or sixth grade. In retrospect, it was really funny — Storm and Wolverine intervene to stop a high school athlete from smoking, so he doesn’t ruin his career and his health.
At the time I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever read. I was hooked. So the X Men were my first comics obsession. In high school I got interested in more edgy, literary comics: Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman,” Peter Milligan’s “Shade: The Changing Man,” Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles.” Those three are probably my biggest influences when it comes to comics.
When it comes to mainstream literature, I love E.M. Forster, Umberto Eco and Jhumpa Lahiri. All very different, but all masters of human nature.
Why did you decide to move Cairo? What did you expect and what do you eventually find?
Moving to Cairo was more or less a coincidence...after graduating from college I very much wanted to see what life was like in the Middle East, and it so happened that I was offered a job in Cairo. I only intended to stay for a year, but it ended up becoming my second home. I’m not sure what I expected — probably nothing close to the reality of the place. I think the story about drinking from the Nile — I’m sure you know it; all who drink from the great river are destined to return to it — is certainly true in my case. Cairo made me what I am.
You’ve worked as a reporter for the defunct Cairo Times. What lured you to journalism?
It was Cairo Magazine, actually — the publication that rose from the ashes of Cairo Times. My experience was probably different from that of most foreign journalists in Egypt because I covered primarily cultural stories — with a few exceptions, I stayed away from politics. It’s daily life that interests me most: the intersection of society, religion and individual personalities. But journalism was an unexpected detour for me...I got into it because there were too many stories that westerners needed to hear, and weren’t hearing. I wanted in some small way to help remedy that.
What swayed you to change your career course and become a comic book writer, which seems to be poles apart from both journalism and your non-fiction writings? How did you manage to secure the Vertigo deal?
Comics were always my goal — I’d known since I was 15 that I wanted to write comics. Almost all my non-comics writing is the result of meeting, listening to and debating with the remarkable people who’ve drawn me into the public conversation surrounding religion. That was unexpected too. I never thought talking about religion would become part of my profession. But we’re living at a critical moment in the history of Islam. I wasn’t sure how writing about religion was going to mesh with comics. Perhaps it hasn’t.
As for getting onboard at Vertigo...I’m still not entirely sure how that happened. As best I understand it, I showed an early draft of Cairo to Keith Giffen, who liked it and showed it to Joan Hilty at DC, who showed it to Karen Berger at Vertigo. Getting into comics professionally is an arcane business. There’s really no ‘standard procedure’.
Why “Cairo”? What motivated you to write this story and how did the idea come about?
That story came to me almost fully formed within 24 hours of being in the city. I’m never sure what motivates me when it comes to fiction — usually it goes like this: one minute I’m walking to the grocery store (or the dukan), the next there’s a story in my head. So who knows how or why the story behind Cairo came to be. The city is just a perfect setting for an adventure story.
There’s a sort of a love-hate relationship with Cairo evident in your book; an obvious criticism for the oppressive politics of the current regime as well as fascination and affection towards its myths, people and culture…
Yes. And I knew when I was writing it that there were some political allusions only Cairenes would understand. In that sense I wasn’t worried about writing for a wider audience...if one Cairene saw the scene with a bunch of state security police in Hawaiian shirts working at a fake tourism company and laughed, that was enough for me.
How close is the character Kate to the real you? Is Ali Jebreel based on a real reporter you’ve encountered?
I was a lot like Kate when I first arrived in Egypt — in other words, I thought I knew something about the Middle East, but I learned very quickly that I was totally ignorant. Ali is based to a certain extent on my husband, another native-born Cairene. My husband is much more handsome, however.
There are strong Islamic themes that run in “Cairo.” Were you concerned that this might limit the appeal of the book?
No, it didn’t worry me. There are so many great fantasy stories with clear religious underpinnings — “Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia.” I didn’t want to apologize for the Islamic underpinnings of this story.
The comics medium has often been criticized for being shallow, for being an inadequate vehicle to discuss profound ideas. How do you respond to that?
I think the people who believe that ought to read more comics. The medium is so much more diverse now than it was 50 years ago. There is no idea too abstract or weighty for comics today.
Some of the Egyptian readers I spoke to who read “Cairo” told me they “didn’t buy it,” mainly, they say, because the blend between myth and reality didn’t sit well with them. Were you concerned with the reaction of the Egyptian readers, not only in terms of believability but also regarding the love story between Tova and Ashraf?
What’s to buy? It’s a fantasy story. Both the mythology and the love story are wildly impractical — that’s part of the point. We hear enough about how hopeless the situation in Egypt is, and how endless the conflict with Israel will be. I don’t think it’s wrong to want to escape from that sometimes, and imagine another reality.
There’s an emphasis on the concept of the “word” in terms of being the essence of both Islam and political liberty/real democracy. Do you agree? Can you elaborate further on this point?
Oh yes. Especially in this age of instant, downloadable information, words are extremely important. (I wrote “Cairo” while reading heavy doses of Edward Said, which is probably obvious). Right now ‘the Middle East’ and ‘the Muslim world’ are terms that belong more to people who study them than they do to the people who live there. That’s pretty disturbing, I hope it will change as Middle Easterners and Muslims produce and export more of their own media.
Do you have any idea why “Cairo” isn’t widely available in here as much as it should? Is it a distribution problem?
A distribution problem, an import-tax problem, a language problem, a price-point problem...all of the above. But if people in Cairo are interested in reading the book, I think it’s possible to fix at least some of those issues.
Have you read Magdy El-Shafee’s graphic novel “Metro”? The question everyone seems to be asking is this: Egyptian literature has enjoyed a great deal of freedom the past few years. Why were the authorities so alarmed then about a graphic novel that operates within the same boundaries as literature?
I haven’t gotten a chance to read ‘Metro’ but I was very excited when I saw an article about it on a comics website. I think the reason is in the title: graphic. People always respond more strongly to pictures than they do to simple words. Plus — and correct me if I’m wrong here — I feel like most of the provocative fiction that has come out of Egypt in recent years has been pretty allegorical. Mubarak is rarely mentioned by name. With pictures, it’s harder to disguise what you’re talking about. So it makes the authorities nervous.
What can you tell us about “Air? The concept of the series sounds quite intriguing.
‘Air’ is also a fantasy with its roots in politics, but with more of both. It’s about an airline stewardess named Blythe, who is afraid of heights. She gets involved with a man who is labeled as a terrorist but seems to have a much bigger and more interesting secret. From there, the story just gets weirder and weirder.
You’re publishing your memoir, “The Butterfly Mosque,” next year. What made you decide to write your memoir now? What should we except from it?
‘Butterfly Mosque’ evolved from a series of letters home that I wrote while in Cairo. It’s about the things I learned from the city and the people who live there. The term ‘memoir’ makes me feel old, but I suppose that’s what it is. It’s due out from Grove Press in spring 2010.
What’s next for you?
There are a couple of novels I’d like to write, and more comics. We’ll see!
About G. Willow
Causes G. Willow Wilson Supports
Medicins Sans Frontiers, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund