February 28, 2024

A page out of Deena Mohamed’s graphic novel ‘Shubeik Lubeik’, and Deena Mohamed. (Photos: Screen shot & Instagram/itsdeenasaur)

What do genies in Arabic fairy tales say when they are released from their bottles? “Shubeik lubeik”: a version of abracadabra that means, “your wish is my command”. This is the title of Deena Mohamed’s bewitching graphic novel in which fulfilling desires are more trouble than they’re worth.

Originally published in three volumes in Arabic and now translated into a single hefty English edition by the author, Shubeik Lubeik is set in an alternative Egypt where wishes are not horses, but a form of currency. In panels that are meant to be read from right to left, as in the original Arabic, the novel depicts a society in which there are different types of bottled wishes for sale.

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(Screen shot from Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohamed)

In this world, the most expensive wishes are the most reliable, while the cheaper ones can lead to unforeseen consequences. Third-class wishes are the worst of the lot and are labelled as a dangerous health hazard. In Mohamed’s cheeky nomenclature, they are known as “delesseps”, a reference to Ferdinand de Lesseps, the 19th century French diplomat who mooted the idea of the Suez Canal. However, as one character points out: “A first-class wish is often more dangerous than a third-class wish because usually what we think of as a blessing can also be dangerous to our well-being.”

Shubeik Lubeik takes a satirical look at this scenario through striking visuals and heartfelt dialogue, tempered by more than a touch of playfulness (which includes a talking donkey). The sections deal with three very different characters in contemporary Cairo and their attempts to create lives worth living. First, there’s Aziza, a poor widow coming to grips with her husband’s sudden death; then, Nour, a privileged university student struggling with how to overcome depression; and finally, Shokry, a street kiosk owner who sells wishes and has to negotiate between the tenets of his faith and a desire to help others. All of them discover that sorting through the consequences of making the right wish is akin to navigating a minefield of misplaced expectations.

The audacious premise apart, what makes Shubeik Lubeik memorable is the way Mohamed conjures a complete world of wish fulfilment and control. There is strict wish-regulating legislation laid down by the government to govern classification, licencing and access. There are wish abolitionists and wish purists, donate-a-wish societies, and professional wishing experts. Universities offer courses in the cultural significance of wishes, and therapists help their patients unpick the dilemmas of wishful thinking.

As Mohamed put it in a recent interview: “One of the keys to narrow down this world when I was conceiving of it is really that it’s more or less how wealth already functions in this world.” This is brought out, for example, in the way that the upper classes use their wishes in the novel, from creating invisible gated societies to maintaining flying cars and pet dinosaurs. She also touches upon a wider milieu of Egypt’s maladies, including inequality and corruption in the long shadow of a colonial past. Powerful countries discover and control naturally-occurring “wish-mines” and take over the “global wish-supply chain”. Naturally, “third-world countries had no say in the global wish council”.

Another compelling aspect of Shubeik Lubeik is the way that it weaves societal critiques with individual narratives without being overly didactic. This is delivered through a combination of black-and-white and colour images that incorporate the cartoonish as well as the gritty. There is innovation in the telling too, especially in some sections of Nour’s story that capture his predicament through graphs, Venn diagrams, and more forms of data visualisation. In other parts of the tale, panels are filled with emphatic lines and vivid portrayals of scenes from Cairo, Alexandria and rural Egypt, with infrequent footnotes and comments for those seeking further enlightenment.

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Shubeik Lubeik, then, is a magical fable, a telling allegory, and a cautionary tale about wish-induced chaos and getting what one wants – or not. It juggles commentary on the current state of affairs with affecting personal tales in a light-hearted and accomplished manner. Definitely a narrative worth unbottling.