Review: ‘City of Jackals’ by Parker Bilal

‘City of Jackals’ is the fifth book (a standalone read) in the Makana Investigation series by Parker Bilal (pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub). The year is 2005. Large number of Sudanese are protesting in the middle of Cairo, Egypt, demanding a permanent refugee status. The government, elected with a suspicious 88% of the votes, has the riot police on stand-by with no interest in talking with the protestors. The rest of Cairo is divided between sympathizing with and antagonizing them. But both the groups are certain about one thing: it’s going to get very ugly, very soon.

Makana is a former detective in Sudan who ended up on the wrong side of their Intelligence Agency. He faces hostility from both, the Egyptians, for whom he’s a freeloader in their country, and the persecuted Christian refugees of Sudan, for whom he’s a Northern Muslim Sudanese who worked for the persecutors and whose people enslaved them in the past. We follow him as he works on two cases as a private investigator.

The owner of a ‘respected’ Italian restaurant calls upon Makana to search for his son, who has gone missing from University. No sooner has he begun on the case, he finds himself on the banks of the river Nile, conversing with a fisherman who had an unusual catch that day: a young boy’s severed head. The markings on the boy’s head tell him that he was a fellow Sudanese, one of the Southern ones who might have spat on him if alive, to be specific. Convinced that the Egyptian authorities will have no need or incentive to investigate the crime, he takes it upon himself to find justice for the boy. It takes a while, but he does discover the two cases are interlinked in surprising and life-threatening ways.

The book might be set in Egypt under Mubarak’s soon-to-be-fallen regime, but the situation, atmosphere, attitudes are global. For me, being an Indian, the backdrop of the protests felt very similar to the anti-CAA protests of 2019-20. Even calling out Israel for being a conspirator behind everything wrong in the country felt similar to how Indian Nationalists blame Pakistan, or former US President Trump blamed China.

The book is a thrilling read and you’ll often find yourself speculating twists and conspiracies. The climax seemed a little rushed and on a personal level, I was disappointed about some of my anticipations being incorrect. The plot was still expertly crafted and you find yourself invested in it quickly. But rather than the mystery, what stayed with me was the nuanced situation of the refugees. If you are a citizen of a functioning country, you’ll be counting your blessings after reading this book. 

Parker Bilal has done a great job in fleshing out his characters, their relationships, and the setting of the novel. You’ll learn a little bit of history as you enjoy a rich story, not a bad deal, eh?

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