In 2013, when she was 18 years old, Deena Mohamed, an Egyptian illustrator and writer, created a webcomic that went viral. Qahera features a Muslim superhero who can detect misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia with her super-hearing powers. In January, Pantheon will publish Mohamed’s debut graphic novel, Shubeik Lubeik (Arabic for “your wish is my command”), the first title in a gorgeously drawn fantasy trilogy set in a Cairo, where wishes are for sale at the corner kiosk. Three characters buy wishes, and their stories expose desire, bureaucracy, and social ills as they deal with the consequences of their purchases.
“I’ve been drawing my whole life,” Mohamed tells me. “I was on the internet a lot at 18, and to entertain friends I made small comics and got really interested in making and reading them.”
After Qahera drew considerable attention, things changed. “I was referred to as a comic artist,” Mohamed says. At that point, she started researching Egyptian comics, finding the inspiration for Shubeik Lubeik. “I wanted to create something in print, in English,” she explains, noting that she “felt confident enough to do a graphic novel.”
The idea for the book came from the kiosks of Cairo. “There is one on every corner, and they are bright spots of color in contrast to the buildings,” Mohamed says. “There’s banners and red iceboxes; the snacks are in brightly colored packages. I wanted to draw a kiosk, and I have always loved magical stories. Modern Egyptian movies do not have fantasy; they are realist, tragic, or comic, but old Egypt was fantastical.”
Mohamed is charming and gracious and palpably thrilled about everything that has happened to her. She self-published 100 copies of the first book of Shubeik in 2017 and took it to the Cairo Comix Festival. “The comics community in Cairo is a real community,” she says. “It’s small and not competitive. It’s all about a love of comics.”
Shubeik went on to win the best graphic novel prize and the grand prize of the Cairo Comix Festival. Mohamed then translated it into English herself and, at the end of 2017, sent it to Anjali Singh at Ayesha Pande Literary Agency, after an introduction by Egyptian American professor Sherine Hamdy. Hamdy, who is represented by Singh, was doing research on comics in Egypt and had interviewed Mohamed to discuss Qahera.
“Anjali really liked Shubeik and immediately offered to represent me,” Mohamed says. “I remember feeling overwhelmed by the idea. I hadn’t expected it.” Singh is the agent who early in her career discovered the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (which, Singh says, had an original print run of 11,800 copies and went on to sell three million).
“Deena’s book was short, 90 pages,” Singh says. “But she had ideas for the second and third books. We put together a proposal that included the first book and a description of the next two and sent it out widely. There was interest, but when Dan Frank came in with an offer for world English rights in the summer of 2018, we went with Dan.” An understandable choice: Frank, as the head of Pantheon, was credited by the New York Times as the editor who “helped establish graphic novels as a literary genre.”
“I’m very excited about this book,” Singh says. “It continues to open up the stories that comics can tell. Most adult mainstream graphic novels are memoir or nonfiction. Anyone who loves a good novel, who wants to be transported to another country, will love this book.”
Sadly, Frank died from cancer at 67 in May 2021, after the second book was finished. Pantheon editor Vanessa Haughton then stepped in to work on the series. “Dan was always so humble about his editorial taste,” Haughton says. “He never took the success of the graphic novels for granted. He shared the first book of Shubeik with me, and I remember reading it in a café and totally falling in love with it.”
Frank told Haughton that Mohamed was amazing and would have a long career, but he wasn’t sure she’d want to work with him since she was so young. “Dan asked me to get involved,” Haughton says. “I was a young Arab woman; my heritage is Lebanese and I have a knowledge of Arabic so we agreed to coedit. One of our discussions was the decision to publish right to left, the way Arabic is read, and to keep the Arabic title. It was important to honor the origin of the story, the history of where it came from.”
Haughton adds that Mohamed “captures a handful of cultural and social issues in a story filled with dragons, talking animals, and magic cars. The character of Noor, a college student, struggles with depression, and it’s hinted that they're nonbinary. “Mohamed is a storyteller,” Haughton says, “but synthesizes issues in contemporary Cairo.”
Haughton worked on part two, but when part three came in, Frank was in the hospital (the book is dedicated to him), so, she says, “it was a natural progression for me to continue.”
Mohamed tells me, “Vanessa understood what I wanted. I never felt that the book lacked an editor. It was a logical transition. And both Dan and Vanessa gave me independence and creative freedom with all of it: writing, translation, drawing, covers. The book took a long time. I can’t believe it’s happening.”
Shubeik Lubeik was published in three parts in Egypt by Dar el Mahrousa: the first in 2018, the second in 2019, the third in 2021. The English translation will be published by Granta in the U.K. in January 2023, titled Your Wish Is My Command, and rights have been sold in France and Italy.
So what do people wish for? “Wishes gravitate around gain and regret,” Mohamed says. When she was writing Shubeik, and thinking about wishes and what people want, she asked friends a simple question: “If you already had a million dollars, what would you wish for?”
Correction: This piece has been updated for pronoun consistency.