Deena Mohamed’s 2022 Shubeik Lubeik is a stand-alone modern-fantasy graphic novel.
Cairo kiosk-owner Shokry sells papers and cigarettes to passers-by. Recently, Shokry has added some new offerings: three first-class wishes.
First-class wishes are expensive, not something one would expect to purchase from a news agent. Surely, this is some sort of confidence game. However, Shokry is as honest as he is pious. The wishes are very much real. Of course, there is a catch. Several catches.
Muslims of Shokry’s generation were raised to believe wishes were theologically dubious, something to be avoided. While many Muslims (and peoples of all faiths) find wishes too convenient to refuse, Shokry is an exception. He believes that even selling wishes for others to use is spiritually dubious. However, debt gives Shokry no choice but to sell the wishes with which his even more pious father was once paid.
Of more immediate concern to potential customers: wishes are notoriously tricky. Phrasing matters; wishes are often derailed by perverse interpretations (wish to lose ten kilograms and watch as an arm and a leg fall off). First-class wishes are as reliable as wishes can be. Nevertheless, prudent people should avoid them.
Three people do not.
Recently widowed Aziza is the first customer. She soon discovers that magical complications are not the only trap waiting for her. The wish market is strictly regulated. Many officials are corrupt. An illiterate widow with a wish could very easily find herself unjustly imprisoned in a bid to bully her into transferring ownership of a first-class wish. Her jailors would then discover just how stubborn Aziza is.
Wealthy student Nour is the second customer. Nour’s problem is depression, an issue often poorly handled in Egypt. Mental illness is complex. Curing mental illness with a wish can very easily go horribly wrong. In possession of an authentic wish, Nour discovers he is not at all certain how to proceed.
The final wishes’ caster will astonish Shokry, for it is Shokry himself. Shokry would never use the wish on his own behalf. Saving another from a dire fate is an altogether different matter. However, Shokry learns that he has misunderstood the situation.
First, a word about wishes: the rating system appears to indicate the degree to which wishes will be interpreted creatively. Wishes appear to be granted by entities resentful of being bound to mortal commands. Third class wishes have considerable leeway when it comes to realizing orders. First-class have almost none. Prices reflect the odds of surviving a wish happy and unmaimed.
It took me a while to nail down why Mohamed’s art seemed familiar, given that this is a debut. Her style reminds me of William Messner-Loebs, an old favourite.
There are a lot of modern fantasies in which the addition of magic somehow fails to have any large-scale effect on society and the world in general. This is not one of those fantasies. Mohamed has clearly given the matter of how wishes would transform the world considerable thought.
Availability of wishes has transformed the world, providing convenient (but dangerous) shortcuts for the desperate, the lazy, and the vindictive. The idle rich amuse themselves with wish-summoned dinosaurs. Flying cars pass overhead. Feuding villagers use wishes to call dragons down on their rivals. History itself can be rewritten. No wonder nations across the planet agree to ever more stringent treaties governing wishes.
It would be easy to tell stories of foolish people making bad choices from dubious motives. The author rejects the easy way forward. Each of the three protagonists resort to wishes because they see no alternative. Each of them gives the proper use of their opportunity full and detailed consideration. However, all of them are forced to act without full knowledge, because no mortal is perfectly informed.
The three tales are skillfully told and enthralling. I had intended to sample the graphic novel before setting it aside for another day. I ended up reading it in one sitting.
Shubeik Lubeik is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK) (but apparently only under a variant title so as not to alarm the BNP voters), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo).