SEPTEMBER 12, 2017
WHEN I FIRST encountered Parker Bilal’s 2012 novel The Golden Scales — featuring Makana, a private detective in Cairo — I wondered why he had chosen to set the story in 1998, rather than write a contemporary novel, delving into the story-rich climate of Egypt during the 2011 demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the subsequent revolution, and the turmoil that followed. As it turned out, Bilal’s novel was the first in a series — six installations so far — that gives a slow build-up toward the revolution. This set-up gives the series a substantial dramatic irony: the reader knows what is coming, and the tumultuous events are foreshadowed in the public and private lives depicted in the novels. Bilal (a pseudonym of novelist Jamal Mahjoub) employs considerable skill managing complicated plots and interesting characters, with evocative and vivid descriptions of the city, its history, and its residents.
Makana (who uses only one name) is very much a noir hero, an updated version of Chandler’s hardboiled loner, a man of honor on the mean streets of Cairo at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Makana’s backstory is an important factor in the series. He is Sudanese (of Nubian descent), a former police detective and now a refugee in Egypt, having fled Khartoum after the government was overthrown. His position as an honest policeman became untenable, and upon approaching a police roadblock while fleeing the country with his wife and young daughter, their apparently sabotaged car veered off the road and plunged into a river. Makana was thrown clear and seized by the police, helplessly watching his family sink into the water. He remains in mourning and suffers from survivor’s guilt, as well as from persistent rumors that his daughter survived and remains alive in unknown circumstances.
Makana has managed to make a tenuous living as a private detective in Cairo, living on his awama (a somewhat decrepit houseboat) and carrying out investigations with the help of a support system that includes his landlady’s curious daughter; his occasional driver and bodyguard, Sindbad; a network of independent journalists run by a married couple; a few regular police contacts (some friendly and some hostile); and a few others that make appearances from novel to novel. The Golden Scales follows Bilal’s usual structure, with a prologue and then the introduction of Makana’s new case: in this first book he is hired by a shady but prominent developer to find the missing star of the football team he owns. Gradually, connections to the prologue, in which an English woman’s daughter goes missing in Cairo, become clear. With these intertwined stories, Bilal gives a picture of a corrupt ’90s Egypt as well as a colonial past that still hangs over the country.
The subsequent novels explore religious conflict, the victims of so-called honor killings, smuggling, and the reverberations of developing historical events, including Arab-Israeli conflicts and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. The fifth novel in the series, last year’s City of Jackals, is set in 2005, a year that would prove to be a turning point for the immigration of Sudanese refugees into Egypt, providing Bilal with the opportunity to dive into his main character’s Sudanese background in more depth than he had previously. One strain of the plot deals directly with the community of South Sudanese who occupied a public square in Cairo in protest over the conditions of their sanctuary in Egypt. The other thread of the story deals with the disaffected youth of Cairo, suggesting the conditions that would lead to the revolution. A new development in the series is a tentative relationship between the detective and a woman, Doctor Jehan Siham, a coroner who has sometimes provided Makana with information.
The new novel, Dark Water, is set in 2006 and takes a break from Bilal’s evocative noir portrait of Cairo, as Makana is tempted away from Egypt for a mission in Istanbul. The story takes on the character of that other dark vision of the contemporary world, the spy novel. There is an echo of The Third Man, when Makana, following his quarry through Istanbul, walks “past a zither player who provide[s] a jumpy soundtrack.” The complex and cynical actions of the agents of various security services suggest the dark world of spy fiction, from John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War to the post–Cold War espionage novels of Mick Herron or David Ignatius.
The reason Makana feels compelled to step outside his world and accept the unlikely job is completely in line with one of the most important facts of Makana’s life in exile: the possible survival of his daughter. The spy plot also draws on another constant shadow over the detective’s life, the malevolent presence of Makana’s former deputy and current nemesis, the Sudanese policeman Mek Nimr.
After a preface that shows the jihadi training of a young woman, Makana meets an Englishman, Marcus Winslow, who seems to be a British agent (though possibly a disgraced one). Winslow recruits Makana to contact and transport Ayman Nizari, an Iraqi chemical expert who was kidnapped by Mossad (the Israeli secret service) but escaped in Turkey. The Israelis (and Winslow) want to use Nizari’s expertise in nerve gas as bait to flush out a jihadi terrorist, Abu Hilal. But Nizari (who had previously sought asylum in Sudan) will accept only Makana as his contact, claiming to know of him through his former boss in Khartoum. And Nizari claims to know details about Nasra, Makana’s daughter, which he will reveal only once he is escorted out of Turkey.
As Makana flies from Cairo to Istanbul, everything he knows is transformed. He sees that
[f]rom the air, Istanbul resembled Cairo, if God had picked up the map and crushed it into a ball with his fist. Where Cairo had the Nile running through it like a guideline of clarity, Istanbul was as fractured on the surface as the underlying crust was further down.
Even the genre of the novel is transformed: the Marlowe of Cairo wanders into the labyrinth of a different Middle Eastern crossroads, that of the Iraq war, Mossad agents, the police and security service of Turkey, and, of course, the post-colonial British secret service he has encountered in previous stories. What is constant across this transformation are the shadowy figures of his antagonist Mek Nir (himself now transformed into a counterterrorist agent) and the ghostly possibility that his daughter is alive.
Makana’s white rabbit, once he passes through the looking glass, is Nizari, for whom he is supposed to wait in a cafe that sounds like something out of classic noir:
[T]he interior of the Iskander Grillroom might have modeled for a still life of human despair. In one corner, a woman in a red coat sat weeping into her handkerchief. A grizzled drunk swirled his tongue around a set of toothless gums, nursing a beer, waiting impatiently for nightfall, or the next bottle, or perhaps a visit from his guardian angel.
Cairo and Istanbul are cities steeped in the histories of very different empires, and Bilal evokes the contradictions of contemporary Istanbul:
The afternoon was fading as evening fell over the city. The sky was a deep indigo streaked with crimson banners. Sparks flew overhead as a red tram rumbled by and neon signs flickered like signals from distant corners of the universe. In greens and blues the names of dead emperors and caliphs brought the street to light in a ghostly electric echo of former glory.
But Makana experiences Istanbul as a labyrinth, a hall of mirrors (and mirrors play key roles in the telling of the story) in which his life is distorted. His usual support system is mirrored in a cooperative taxi driver, several journalists and former journalists (including Nadir Sulayman, who is supposed to arrange his passage out of the country), and a Turkish detective. And he glimpses reflections that evoke his wife and his daughter:
Who had he glimpsed for a brief second that afternoon in the bazaar, gliding across the mirrored surface, disappearing into the crowd even as he turned? And then the second time across a crowded mosque: a young woman dressed all in black, trousers and a long jacket with flared sleeves, a scarf draped loosely over her head to cover her hair. And finally, in the reflection in Nadir Sulayman’s window. A trick of the light? A lie of the mind? Madness would have come as a relief.
He becomes accused of first one murder and then another, and throughout the novel there is a subplot concerned with another series of brutal murders, a story that reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s story (and Nicolas Roeg’s film derived from it) “Don’t Look Now.” The serial killer becomes a karakoncolos, a monster from folklore, who wanders through the story adding a more concrete menace to Makana’s tense waiting, in the gaps between moments of sudden action.
In this web of international politics and deadly violence, Makana, a perpetual outsider, is even more out of place. He repeatedly feels “like a goat tethered to a stake, waiting for a lion to appear.” Indeed, in the swirling plots and counterplots surrounding Nizari, Makana is first the bait and then something worse, as the reasons for his recruitment for this mission become clear. The conclusion offers resolution as well as a meditation on contemporary espionage, in this exchange between Winslow and Makana:
“James Bond was fine when the world was ruled from London. The spy game was all about class. They mingled in gentlemen’s clubs. Not any more.”
“And you hate that because it makes you dependent on people like Mek Nimr,” Makana commented. People like us, he might have said.
Bilal’s series is about the “people like us,” the ordinary Muslims and others who simply want to go about their lives without the interference of international conspirators, corrupt officials, and political violence. While Makana, at the end of the novel, is beaten down but uncharacteristically upbeat, we can see a few years ahead when he and the “people like us” will be swept into a new maelstrom.