The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal, book review: Murder mystery probes dark side of Cairo


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How many euphemisms we employ when speaking of the Middle East! "Extraordinary rendition" for kidnapping and torture. "Asylum seekers" for "refugee". And, in this latest adventure of private investigator Makana, formerly of the Sudanese police, we seem to have an "honour killing" – or a family murder, as we should call it to strip the act of any cultural dignity. As Bilal points out, it is not sanctioned by Islam.

The year is 2002 and the world is still reeling from 9/11, but for our subtle sleuth there are immediate local horrors to deal with. Karima, a young woman shopkeeper has been burned almost to death in Makana's adopted home, Cairo. Right in the heart of the city, near the gate where the last Mamluk sultan was tortured to death by the Turks, there seems to have taken place the traditional murder of a woman who has "disgraced her family", and the causes of this horrible event may lie far away in her origins – the Siwa oasis on the edge of the Sahara. A plutocratic friend who has taken the place of her father hires Makana to investigate and he journeys to Siwa.

Anyone with romantic ideas of an oasis can abandon them straight away: Siwa is no palm-fringed moment of peace and beauty set amid the burning sands etc but a hellhole of poverty where the local doctor is a drunk, the local policeman bloated and corrupt and as for the local qadi, or judge – he is drowned and disembowelled.

Makana doesn't have much help in his search for justice for the dead woman. But his persistence brings terrible secret to light, particularly in the wretched lives of the women in an inbred little town where incest and backstreet abortion are common. There is no help from the family of the girl in Cairo: her father has disowned her. Formerly a criminal and profligate, he has reformed, but this is because he has adopted the cause of jihad and become a religious extremist, as far from acknowledging his daughter as ever

Makana's investigation involves delving deep into the past history of local society. The portrait of modern Egypt is best described as one of loving despair, that such a vital and original people should be reduced to the grim levels of hatred and corruption which are emerging with the help of the War on Terror. Makana's own personal history, the probable loss of his wife and daughter during their flight from Khartoum, still torments him as he ponders the impossibility of trying to put right the wrongs of the past. This atmospheric crime fiction probes deep issues.