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The Golden Scales, By Parker Bilal


Parker Bilal is the pseudonym of the Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub, who, like many "literary" writers, is venturing into the detective genre. The setting is present-day Cairo, where in a broken-down houseboat on the Nile, former police inspector Makana is operating as a reluctant private eye. He has few friends – mainly writers, painters and musicians – and his landlady lives in a shack constructed of old crates and jerry cans.

We discover another side of Cairo when Makana is summoned to the shimmering palace of Saad Hanafi, a man of enormous wealth and power. Hanafi has a strange request. Like many rich men, he keeps his own footballers in the way that the caliphs of old used to have their private menageries. The star of the Cairo team is Adil Romario, a handsome young man whose brains are apparently in his feet.

Romario has vanished and this doesn't bear the signs of an ordinary kidnapping. The distraught Hanafi treated him like a son. This loss is paralleled by another narrative, that of an Englishwoman whose daughter disappeared in Cairo many years ago.

With the aid of a certainly corrupt and possibly benevolent cop, our hero plunges into the twisting alleyways and glitzy skyscrapers of the city, finding himself in serious danger while trying to overcome memories of the terrible experiences which have driven him to take refuge in Egypt. In Sudan his wife was a science lecturer, under constant threat from the "morality police" for the double crime of being an educated woman and teaching evolutionary theory. With their daughter, they plan a "Flight into Egypt" which takes some horrifying twists.

Bilal's account of Egypt is bursting with the life of "Great Cairo, mother of the world". If you want to know why Egyptians were finally so appalled by corruption that they mounted the 2011 revolution, this brilliant piece of fiction will set the scene just before the country burst into flames.

The story leaps along until the various threads are brought together in a skilfully constructed narrative. This is a tremendously successful, satisfying switch of genres and at the same time a deeply moving story of suffering and exile.