A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I re-read “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” both to prepare for reading Clark’s new novella set in the same world, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and because I heard Clark speak about “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” during a panel appearance at Readercon in 2018, and I realized how much I had missed, and how little credit my previous review gave the depth of the story.
After I first read this, I was caught up in the wonderfully quick pace, the witty banter of the characters, the satisfaction of the climactic fight scene, and I called this story a confection. I often compare writing to desserts, because I love both, but that review does “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” a disservice.
This novelette has more markers and symbols of colonization and the anxiety of modernity than a James Joyce story. Lush with details that are so excellently woven into the fabric of the narrative, I didn’t notice them until Clark said the story is about colonization, and I read it again. Egypt has a very long history as colonizer and colonized, which Clark pays careful attention to throughout. In this alternate history, not only is technology developed at an earlier time to give it steampunk elements, the Egyptians stave off British colonialism and impose their own colonization on neighboring Sudan. And in turn, they are all colonized by creatures of legend emerging again into the world—djinn, angels, ghuls, gods, and monsters. None of the political colonizing is described in the text—I learned of the fight between Egypt and Britain to colonize Sudan when I started looking up the history of colonialism in Egypt—and yet it is, through every minutiae of cosmopolitan Cairo in the early 20th century, and the characters we meet as they move through their re-imagined cityscape investigating the mysterious death of the titular djinn.
I recently read Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums, which does for New Orleans what he does here for Cairo—sketch out a whole different history in a few words, a few pages; food, clothes, and the people consuming them; city streets and the people inhabiting the corners. I immediately slide into his reimagined places as though they have always been this way. I won’t overlook the complexity again.