Harvest of jackals

Harvest of jackals

Harvest of jackals

City of Jackals
Parker Bilal
Bloomsbury
2016, pp 440, Rs 399

Lovers of detective fiction can now meet another sleuth, Makana, the quiet, well-mannered, steely-nerved Sudanese refugee-cum-Cairo-based private investigator, who is the creation of British-Sudanese writer Parker Bilal (pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub).

City of Jackals - A Makana Investigation, is the fifth in a series that is set variously in the years before the Arab Spring. This story takes place in December 2005, when President Mubarak was re-elected in a seemingly rigged election, and Cairo was rocked by protests from its long-term guests, the South Sudanese refugees, demanding asylum. Against this troubled backdrop, Bilal spins a haunting tale of Cairo’s missing young – an idealistic Egyptian youth and more than one missing Sudanese refugee. While Makana investigates, his own past as a former Sudanese police official (and current exile) comes into play, persuading him to follow leads, even at risk to himself.

The book begins with a chilling prologue: a young and vulnerable sibling pair on the run from unseen villains. Hurt, hiding, Beatrice recalls their perilous childhood; the escape from pillaging soldiers in their own country, followed by orphaned relocation, survival, recent events, hope, surprise, deception, shock, escape, recapture... The prologue ends with Beatrice’s escape, and a deadly end awaiting Jonah, the younger sibling.

Cut to Makana, the independent investigator musing in his rented home, the rickety houseboat on the banks of River Nile. He is puzzling over his latest case — the university student Mourad Hafiz, heir to a restaurant business, missing since three weeks. His parents are frantic, and the investigator is eager to solve the case. But hot on the heels of this problem comes another disturbing happening — a fisherman’s grisly catch, a severed head with tribal markings on the forehead, indicating a male South Sudanese refugee.

The Egyptian police official Okasha (an old acquaintance from earlier cases) is content to wash his hands off yet another refugee problem. His colleague, Forensic Officer Doctora Sihora will also do her bit, but it’s only Makana, the North Sudanese exile, who worries about a beheaded South Sudanese refugee’s fate.

Makana follows all available leads, and the author simultaneously establishes the background scenario: Mourad had taken up employment with an American fast food chain outlet; he is later reported missing. And, in yet another suspicious happening, a van belonging to a pharmaceutical distributor gets totalled in a created traffic accident; Makana is at hand when the discovery is made; the driver is missing, and there is a body in the van’s shelves.

The various threads are soon woven into a credible tale: Makana visits a South Sudanese refugee camp, explores a church run for these poor, lost Christian souls, talks to the American missionary pair of siblings, the sincere Dr Liz Corbis and her smooth-talking reverend brother. The Americans are apparently helping a few chosen refugees to find homes in the US.

The novel moves swiftly and steadily, with Makana getting help from old friends like the cynical and wise journalist Sami Barakat, Sindbad and his ancient Datsun taxi, and the comely yet hardy Dr Sihora. Makana and the reader also get to visit a serene medical facility, the Hesira Institute, with its miles of marble, its scientific care, its well-heeled patients, its own crematorium — the only disturbing element being the décor with repeated images of Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god of death and afterlife. The titular jackal motif runs throughout the book.

The story continues, with the next body turning up and the well-meaning students and their chaotic lives revealed. Ancient Cairo plays a leading part. To his credit, Bilal reveals a view of Cairo rarely encountered in touristy stories. Here is an amusing line about a scene at a typical apartment complex: “Somewhere in the building, Umm Kalthoum was wailing at full blast.”

And suddenly, the alert reader gets a hint that things may not be alright even in the most innocuous of scenarios. The author’s portraits and characterisation keep the reader clued in. The investigator takes immense risks in his twin goals — to find the missing Mourad alive and to find out what’s happening with young refugees in a society on the boil.

In essence, this is a socio-political mystery thriller set in a dusty and tired old city that is straining under the weight of history and political expectations. There are many critical reflections on the corrupt Egyptian societies today. Occasional strands of humour coupled with fine language help lighten the scenario: The Hafiz family’s old restaurant called ‘Verdi Gardens’ may not be fashionably modern, but it ‘was now home to an older clientele that could tuck into creamy pasta dishes that didn’t strain their dentures.’

The denouement is classic. In a world full of the ill and the rich, selfish middlemen have no compunction exploiting the poor and the desperate. And at least in the fictional world, a Makana strives to reveal all.

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