Willow is a good friend of mine; I guess I was predisposed to enjoy anything she would have written. Still, her new graphic novel CAIRO (inked by M.K. Perker) was a great read on its own merits. The story is unabashedly ours, ie it's rooted with pride in Arab and Islamic mythology, and also pays homage to the pre-Islamic Egyptian mythos as well. The Qur'an and the faith of Islam are not the subject of controversy or debate or analysis; they simply exist and are as factual as the sky, which is how it is in practice. The lack of needless navel-gazing, and letting the story exist in that context without any need to explain it, was so refreshing that it sets a kind of bar in my mind for any other fiction set in similar settings. There are no clumsy apologetics, or appeasements, or anything intended to set someone's mind at ease. The world is presented to you; take it or leave it. Assuming you take it, you are treated to a fun story that is part Aladdin and part Indiana Jones.
The story has an ensemble cast, and truth be told none of them seemed out of place. However, I suppose I am naive. Willow writes at her own blog that the inclusion of an Israeli character was a difficult one, and explains why she went ahead anyway despite the very real risk of alienating the Arab audience:
I want so much for tenderness to be universally understood, and it isn’t. I want not to have to separate the people I love to keep them from hurting each other. At the very least, I want the space to pretend, in fiction, that this is possible. But I may not even have that.
My husband wanted to know why I needed an Israeli character. Without her, the book is a shrine--a sometimes paradoxically irreverent shrine--to Islamic, Arab and Egyptian mythology, fit for all but the most hardline bookshelves. As one reviewer observed, the only unequivocal image in the entire book, the only symbol that is not polluted by shades of grey, is the Qur’an. Without the Jew, the book is kosher. I told him I didn’t need an Israeli character. But I did need the Israeli who was one of my most steadfast friends through my conversion; and the Israeli who held my hand while I was getting a large, pretty but idiotic Arabic tattoo in the days leading up to it, who joked that speaking Arabic would help me learn Hebrew; and the Israeli refusenik who was one of the first people to read a draft of the book, who was robbed of his Nobel peace prize by the tree woman from Africa. I needed those Israelis, and Tova was--is--for them.
As a privileged son of Western liberalism, I simply accepted the character without a second thought (my main beef with the story was the "mission" of the main character, prior to getting caught up in the events). In reality, including Tova was an act of courage. This book builds bridges, and does so within a firmly muslim context. That is exciting and fresh, and for that alone, deserves a place on your shelf.