It makes strange sense when Deena Mohamed tells me that her grandmother, who was eager to foster her love of art, let her paint on the backs of old cigarette cartons when she was a girl. After all, Mohamed’s new comic, koshks (kiosks) can be found on every corner of the streets of Cairo: beloved, Tardis-like stands make it possible to purchase tobacco at any time of the day or night, among many other things. For me, Your wish is my command now feels like the book he was born to write: a future classic that might one day be talked about in the same breath as Craig Thompson’s blanketsor Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
Originally published in three volumes. Branch Lubeik Grand Prize winner in Arabic and 2017 Cairo Comix festival, Your wish is my command It takes place in an all-too-recognizable modern Egypt: heavy traffic and even heavier bureaucracy. But Cairo isn’t exactly where Mohamed was born and still lives, the noisy and crowded he portrays (although we’re talking on Zoom, unfortunately). In this city, as in the rest of the world, wishes can literally be bought and thus lives changed forever overnight. However, there is a problem (you knew there would be). Stored in bottles and carefully controlled by the government, these precious wishes vary in quality, and access to the only truly reliable type, first-class wishes, is restricted to either the wealthy or the extremely lucky – until a man named Shokry, who owns a Modest kiosk, puts three of them up for sale.
“I was thinking about kiosks,” Mohamed says, and remembers how he started this project. “I have always had an interest in them. They are brightly colored spots in the city and they are all different because they have been personalized by their owners. I knew I really wanted to draw them. But I also love fantasy and I thought it might be fun. koshk selling magical objects. What kind of magical object? Once I got the idea for the wishes, the story came together. I started to build a world.”
His is a realm where details are everything. The regulations on wishes, not to mention their possible uses and abuses, are so complex that Mohamed sometimes has to step outside of his narrative to better explain the long history of both (first exhumed, created by the UN). The Declaration of Human Wishes, after their “brutal and excessive use” during World War II, and the deceptive rules governing the way it works (“wives must be clearly expressed by someone within one minute of opening the bottle”). It’s even a guide to slang that has evolved around third-rate wishes. In Egypt, for example, they are known as “delesseps”, a word to emphasize their betrayal (Ferdinand de Lesseps was a French diplomat notorious for betraying Egyptian anti-colonialists). The British, on the other hand, simply call them “duffers.” When it comes to unreliable delesseps It is important to be careful what you wish for.
In the wider Arab world, the comics industry is dominated by women. No money in it and no sense of hierarchy
Mohamed’s story features characters from all over Egyptian society: Nour is a middle-class student; Aziza is a poor young widow; and then there is Shokry, a devout old man half-hidden behind stacked cardboard boxes. But even though it’s easy to read your wish my command As an enlarged metaphor of Egyptian politics – the helpless who need wishes more than anyone else, only risky third-rate types can afford it – Mohamed thinks the scope of his book goes far beyond his home country. “I wanted to look at what people wanted most, and once you start doing that, the themes of the book start to seem universal,” he says.
Just as the commodification of wishes reflects capitalism spreading around the world – Coca-Cola can be bought anywhere, including where many essentials and necessities are not available – so the policy of the book is also global. “In the past, some people were just other countries,” Mohamed tells me. “But they now understand that the corruption of politics is not just in one part of the world. The book works on many levels. It is not unique to Egypt.” He hopes that the three stories at its core reflect shared desires: In the end, people want nothing but health and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones: “I conceptualize wishes as some think about prayer. It is for extreme life events. But then I complicate it. Wishing happiness is not simple. You have to think about what happiness is.”
Mohamed, 28, comes from a medical family. “My parents and my brothers are doctors,” he says. “But I have a theory about the path from doctor to artist. I think that when there are enough doctors in the family, someone has to take on the burden of being something else.” He used to paint all the time as a kid, but instead of comics he read Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. “My mother had a huge collection of English books, and for a long time I would say things like ‘very good’ when I spoke English. [she taught herself the language]”
In his first year as a graphic design student, he began anonymously drawing a web comic “mainly for stress relief,” and only then did he finally start reading other people’s cartoons when the comic went viral. “This is my confession: I started comics only after I started making them. My web cartoon was about women’s issues. He was talking about sexual harassment, freedom of dress and things like that, and I was surprised when the Egyptians got excited about it. I felt a little inadequate when it went viral, so I thought I’d research the history of Egyptian comics.” He found the breakthrough quarterly magazine (the Egyptian name for three-wheeled scooters) particularly inspiring.
Was it difficult to get into comics as a woman in Egypt? “No, because this is a small world – 20 or 30 people – and in the wider Arab world, Lebanon for example, the comics industry is dominated by women. People have been very supportive. They are excited to recruit artists because this is not a competitive industry; There is no money in it and no sense of hierarchy. I think it’s much more welcome than the comic book communities in France or the US.” Still, he loved his guest appearance at the 2018 annual Angoulême international comics festival in France (the award he received after his book won an award from its Cairo counterpart). “I saw people out there scratching a page five or six times to fix a small thing, and it made me feel like I could do better; I should be more proud of my job.
Until recently, Mohamed worked on his comics alongside freelance work as an illustrator and graphic designer. But thanks to the sale of translation rights Your wish is my commandhopes (she doesn’t say) to concentrate solely on his next book, whatever it may be, at least for a while. What about Egypt? Is her book a hit out there? Did it get a lot of attention? “Again, this is relative,” he says. “You know, my goal for a long time was just to finish. There’s no funding for comics here, and people often run out halfway through, especially when it comes to long graphic novels. That was my aim. But the response was surprising. The first volume is in its eighth edition, and I and my publisher didn’t really see it coming. Now you can buy it at any bookstore, and when we do book signings a lot of people attend.”
While still small, the adult comics readership in Egypt is far greater than before, something that pleases him: He wrote his own book with his compatriots in mind. But that also explains why it works so great in English or any other language, as he certainly knows. If its features give it a certain warmth, it also makes it feel more subversive and original. In her own words: “I wanted everything to feel familiar and comfortable for the Egyptians so that the magic involved would not be jarring. But everyone in the Arab world and beyond seems to like this version of Egypt. I was relieved because when I wrote it I would never have guessed that it would go this far.”
• Your wish is my command Published by Deena Mohamed by Granta (£19.99). to support Guardian and Observer Order your copy at Guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply