Pluralistic: Deena Mohamed's 'Shubiek Lubiek' (11 Jan 2023)

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The cover for the Pantheon English translation of Deena Mohamed's 'Shubeik Lubeik.'

Deena Mohamed's 'Shubiek Lubiek' (permalink)

Shubeik Lubeik, a trilogy of graphic novels by Deena Mohamed, took the Arab comics world by storm, winning Best Graphic Novel and Grand Prize at the Cairo Comix Festival; today, Pantheon Books releases a gorgeous hardcover omnibus English translation:

The world of Shubeik Lubeik is an intricate alternate history in which wishes are real, and must be refined from a kind of raw wish-stuff that has to be dug out of the earth.

Naturally, this has been an important element of geopolitics and colonization, especially since the wish-stuff is concentrated in the global south, particularly Egypt, the setting for our tale.

Though the underlying wish mechanism is metaphysical, Mohamed plays out her worldbuilding in a very science fictional way, constructing an intricate – and skillfully deployed – set of social consequences for a world where wishes are a fact of life.

Indeed, it's this science fictional trick of "in-clueing" (to use Jo Walton's excellent critical term) that makes Shubiek Lubeik such a cracking, cross-cultural read:

For though the three stories that make up the trilogy are intensely culturally situated in modern Egypt, they play out as universal, intricate human ethical dilemmas. Mohamed delivers the realistic – but unfamiliar to westerners – depiction of contemporary Egyptian life with the same smart, deft technique that she uses to paint in the rules of a world where wishes are real.

The framing device for the trilogy is the tale of three "first class" wishes: these are the most powerful wishes that civilians are allowed to use, the kind of thing you might use to cure cancer or reverse a crop-failure.

These first-class wishes are the near-exclusive purview of the rich and powerful and their use is tightly monitored and licensed. However, three of these wishes, of Italian origin, are, improbably, in the inventory of Shokry, a poor, pious kiosk owner in central Cairo.

Despite knock-down prices, no one wants to buy Shokry's wishes. Potential customers are put off by his desperate, hand-lettered sign advertising the wishes, combined with the implausibility of first-class wishes being offered for sale in a humble kiosk.

But one of Shokry's regulars, a fiery old lady who buys her cigarettes from him each day, convinces him to let her nephew design a slick poster advertising the wishes, and the tale begins in earnest.

Every story of a wish is both a puzzle – how would you construct a wish so that it couldn't possibly backfire – and an ethical conundrum. That is what makes wish stories so delicious to read, whether it's Scheherezade's tales or O. Henry.

The engine of wish-fulfillment is a powerful one, capable of hauling behind it almost any kind of tale. Mohamed's three-act play blends class- and sectarian divides, gender relations, depression and resilience, and kindness and regret.

The first volume, Aziza, is about corruption, using a parable about elite wish-hoarding to tell a wrenching story about loss, love, hope and resilience. It's a gorgeous, deeply romantic love story, and because it's a wish story, there's a devilish twist.

The second volume, Nour, is about depression, privilege, coping, and gender (and, like Aziza, it's ultimately about resilience, too). There's some delicious worldbuilding here, and Nour herself is a great character, whose depression is mapped in a series of comedy charts worthy of Randall Munroe.

The conclusion, Shorky, opens the world up, showing us how wishes interact with theology, colonialism, the antiquities trade, and sectarian Egyptian politics. All three stories have wish-style surprises, but the surprises in this one are jaw-dropping. And while all the stories have a lot of broad comedy and great characterization, this one introduces a sprawling cast that is choreographed with absolute mastery.

It's easy to see why this book did so well in the Arab world. It's incredibly exciting to see it in English. Many of us have experienced Japanese comics, of course, and if you follow the brilliant publishing program of First Second, you've gotten some great French and Spanish comics. But this is the first graphic novel from the Arab world that I've had the pleasure of reading. It won't be the last.

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