If the Egyptian artist and writer comics Dina Muhammad Ever encounter a genie, she knows what she wishes for. She wished that everyone she loved would live to be 120. She wished that any book she wanted to read would appear right in front of her eyes.
“If I come across a genie one day, I have to be prepared,” she says. “Desires must be intelligent.”
Wishes are the subject of her first graphic fantasy novel, Shubik Lubik, in Arabic “Your wish is my command” published by Pantheon Books this week. The book follows Shukry, a stall owner in Cairo, Egypt, as he attempts to sell three wishes he inherited from his father. A devout Muslim refuses to use desires for himself because he fears they may not be in the spirit of Islam – but he meets three Egyptians whose lives can be radically changed by the power of desire.
The book highlights fantasy – there are talking dragons and donkeys and a fun scene where someone wants a BMW and gets a toy car. But the story is also remarkably grounded in the realities of modern life in Egypt, the country where nearly 70% of the citizens live. Live on less than $5.50 a day. Along with original illustrations of Cairo’s residents and cityscapes, the book features characters grappling with poverty, economic inequality, a weak healthcare system, and preventable disease.
The book also confronts the bureaucracy of living in a low-resource nation, where poor people must navigate labyrinthine processes to get what they need. One of the characters, a poor woman named Aziza, picks up trash, sweeps floors, and works menial jobs to buy a wish—only to find that before she can use it, she must register her wish with the Egyptian Ministry of Wishes. When she finally stands up to a government employee, they assume she stole the wish and confiscate it. “What stands between you and your desire may be a civil servant with papers on the fourth floor,” Muhammad writes.
Mohamed, 28, who was born and raised in Cairo, didn’t know how to tell the story any other way. “It’s just the way I experienced the world. So that’s how I built my own world.”
The book itself was originally published as a trilogy in Arabic from 2017 to 2021 while Mohamed studied graphic design at the American University in Cairo. In 2017, the trilogy won first prize in the Cairo Comics FestivalIt is an annual comics conference for cartoonists in Egypt and the Middle East. She is excited to see how an English-speaking audience will react to her creations.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I have started working on Shubik Lubik When you were only 21 years old. What inspired you to make this comic with such an imaginative plot – a wish-stall?
I knew I wanted to write a story about Egyptian kiosks, the kind you see on the street.
These kiosks in Egypt are everywhere. Where people can buy a bottle of Coca-Cola, cigarettes, a newspaper, a phone card, a bag of chips or a lollipop.
I like how they look and how unique each one is because it is customized by the person building it. And I knew in my story that I wanted someone to sell something magical. At first I wasn’t sure what this magical thing must be. But once I decided on a desire, I started building my story around it. What kind of world must exist for someone to buy a wish from a kiosk?
Although it is a fictional world, it is definitely similar to our real world.
As I was thinking of the wishes sold at the stall, I came up with an idea [low-quality] cheap wishes, called “third-rate” wishes, and [high-quality] Expensive wishes, called “first-class” wishes. So if there is some kind of commodification going on, there is immediately an access problem. If you are poor, then [high-quality] Desires will be unattainable. But if you are rich, you will be able to afford mountains of wishes.
And like many of the precious resources found in low-end countries, rich countries find a way to exploit desires. In your book, British explorers discover a collection of wishes in a tomb and begin to “extract” them and divide them into first-, second- and third-order wishes, which are then sold for profit. Are desires a symbol of something we might encounter in the real world?
I didn’t want it to be like a metaphor for something directly. However, I have used several models of how to control desires [in the real world]. The more I feel a little lost as to how there is such a thing as desires, the more I realize it is similar to money. It can make things possible if you have access to it. The way desires are extracted and regulated is similar to oil.
In the book, we meet several characters who need wishes, such as Shawqiyya, an elderly Christian woman who has cancer but is having trouble finding medical treatment in Egypt. Is it based on anyone in real life?
None are based on a real person, but I may base some aspects of the characters on different situations I’ve been through. For example, I have an aunt who has cancer and she had a hard time finding a bed [at a hospital] Although they can afford one. There was no one willing to accept her because she was very ill. So there was a race across Cairo trying to find all the different hospitals she could go to.
In another scene, Shawiya begs her husband to allow her to use her wish to save their two children, who are dying of hepatitis. They contracted the disease via a contaminated needle to treat schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms.
Schistosomiasis has been a widespread problem since the Pharaonic era. Everyone in Egypt knows the dangers of swimming in the Nile [where the parasitic flatworms lurk and spread disease]. It was very common for them to have blood in their urine [a symptom of schistosomiasis] They believed that men could menstruate.
due to schistosomiasis, [Egyptian health officials and the World Health Organization] king campaign to cure the disease [from the 1950s to the 1980s]. They gave a course of injections using glass syringes, which were then reused. This led to a severe hepatitis epidemic in Egypt.
What is the significance of telling that story in Shubik Lubik?
The theme of Shawqiyya’s section was health and I wanted her story to feel grounded in what was going on in Egypt at the time. And schistosomiasis was a real struggle that really affected people.
You have been very careful to illustrate your book in the style of traditional Egyptian comics. How does that sound?
Egyptian cartoons Influenced by political satire, so it has a cartoonish style that exaggerates features. It’s not about making people look pretty. It’s more about facial expressions. You can’t be shy about drawing people with ugly features.
Why was it important for you to paint in this style?
I wanted the book to be something that Egyptians would feel comfortable with, so it had to have a visual identity that felt Egyptian.
The concept of wishes is a distinctly Middle Eastern concept – many people learn about it from a story Aladdin In the collection of fairy tales Thousand and One Nightsor One Thousand and One Nights. And although your book is very modern, it follows the morals of this classic.
I conceived of desires the way others might conceive of prayer. You pray when you want something more. This is most likely done in case of regret, if you have lost something, or when you really want something. There is a theme for every wish in the book: sadness, happiness, and health. These are very universal themes, things people wish and pray for the most.
Malaka Gharib is a cartoonist and author of two illustrated memoirs, You are their American dreamAnd About her Egyptian-Filipino-American identityAnd And It won’t always be like thisAnd About summers in Egypt.