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Deena Mohamed on her graphic novel 'Shubeik Lubeik'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The third-class wishes are the ones to watch out for. They backfire. That's part of the reason why wishes are regulated in the world of "Shubeik Lubeik."

DEENA MOHAMED: The title - so, "Shubeik Lubeik" - it's actually kind of a - almost a fairy tale rhyme in Arabic. It's what genies say when they come out of a bottle. So it's sort of like abracadabra. But what it actually means is, your wish is my command.

RASCOE: That's Deena Mohamed. Her graphic novel is called "Shubeik Lubeik." Thanks so much for talking with us.

MOHAMED: Hi. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So tell us about this world that you've created in the book, where wishes are real things. They've been regulated. There are different classes of them.

MOHAMED: So the concept of "Shubeik Lubeik" is it's a world where you can buy and sell wishes. And the more expensive they are, the more powerful they are and more likely to grant your wish. So the cheap wishes are sold in cans, and the expensive wishes are sold in bottles. And a first-class wish is much more expensive...

RASCOE: Yeah.

MOHAMED: ...But it will grant your wish very reliably. This immediately creates a sort of classification of wishes, and it also creates an affordability of wishes. When you have a regulation of this because they're commodities, and you can buy them from anywhere, then you have to consider what would people be willing to spend a million dollars on.

RASCOE: So when you were a child, did you dream of having a genie granting you wishes? And what did you wish for?

MOHAMED: Oh, you know - well, the thing is, it's funny because in Arabic, if you say, you know, there's a jinn or a jinn who would grant you wishes, I do feel like it has this sense of you are about to be tricked. I actually was this kind of child who every night I would think about the three wishes I needed to make - the exact right wishes so they wouldn't backfire. And so I felt like I had to make a smart wish. And I definitely wasted a lot of time. And it turns out not all people think like that.

RASCOE: No, no. What did you - so did you have your standard, like, I know I would wish for this?

MOHAMED: Yeah. A baseline wish, which is, like, that everyone in my family would be healthy and live to be, like, 120 years old.

RASCOE: Oh, yeah.

MOHAMED: That was - for some reason, that was the time limit I thought was right.

RASCOE: (Laughter) That's about - that sounds about right.

MOHAMED: Right? It felt like a good wish. Like, I felt like no genie would really trick you with that one, right?

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

MOHAMED: But actually, when I was researching this book, I would ask people about one wish, because once it's one instead of three, I think it's a lot more interesting. And it's also if you could buy a wish, I think it really changes how you might think about it.

RASCOE: Yeah. And so the story that you focus on that's set in this world is there is a kiosk, and the owner of the kiosk has three first-class wishes. And there's this elderly woman, and she's like, why are you holding on to these? You need to sell them. One of the characters who comes to buy a wish is Aziza, and she's a widow. She's poor. She actually gets caught up by the government because they want the wish, right?

MOHAMED: It's not just that they want the wish. They also want to control who gets to make them.

RASCOE: Yeah.

MOHAMED: One of the sorts of keys to narrow down this world when I was conceiving of it is really it's more or less how wealth already functions in this world.

RASCOE: Yeah.

MOHAMED: It's almost like she came onto this fortune, and no one would let her have it. Even though they know exactly where she got it from, it's, do you have the right to use it? - do you have the right to enjoy it? - sort of line of thinking.

RASCOE: So there's Aziza, and then there's Nour. They're a university student majoring in wish studies. And Nour is rich.

MOHAMED: Yes.

RASCOE: And Nour is struggling with depression. And Nour is kind of like, why - I'm rich. What am I sad about? Like, there's a whole struggle of even thinking about depression as a real issue.

MOHAMED: I think this is a very Egyptian concept because many people - many, many people - when I asked them, what would you wish for? They said (speaking Arabic) which is like - sort of like contentment. And so when I was thinking of the character who would wish for happiness, I thought it would be a character who suffered from depression.

And so I wanted this portrayal to feel very normal and very almost unromantic. And there's a lot of graphs and a lot of numbness to it. It's a very numb portrayal. Depression in Egypt is a very sort of lonely experience. It's something very singular. And so I wanted this character to be going through it totally alone with, like, not really telling people about it because I felt like that was more true to the experience of mental health right now.

RASCOE: Yeah.

MOHAMED: It's more about the decision to help yourself.

RASCOE: I do want to ask you, because the kiosk owner - and we're not going to give away the twist.

MOHAMED: Yes, yes.

RASCOE: But it's very complicated. And there's this whole thing of wanting to help and the complications that can come from our desires, right?

MOHAMED: Shokry - he's a sort of contradictory character because he's very judgmental and quite bigoted, but he's also very selfless.

RASCOE: And Shokry is the kiosk owner who had refused to use the wishes because he felt they were against his religion. That's who Shokry is.

MOHAMED: Yes. He's a character I understand very well. I think you can't really represent any world without seriously considering how religion works in it. And so it was important for me to have, like, the themes of faith and health in the last part explored as much as possible. It's very hard to talk about the last parts without spoiling.

RASCOE: Yeah, we don't want to spoil it, but it's really good.

MOHAMED: Yes.

RASCOE: So we don't want to spoil it. You know, so, you know, I asked you earlier about, like, the wishes you make when you're a child. Like, do you make wishes as an adult? And are you still very mindful about what you wish for?

MOHAMED: I'm even more mindful now, I think. I honestly would save it. I wouldn't use it because I think I would save it for an emergency because you just never know. But what would you wish for if you had a first-class wish?

RASCOE: I think that I would wish for - OK. So I could be, like, you know, very deep with it. But the real wish would be that I would have enough money, so I ain't got to worry about it.

MOHAMED: Yeah.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MOHAMED: No...

RASCOE: That's my real - I know, I could get real deep with it. And, yeah, health for everybody - of course you want health and all that stuff. But I feel like if I could get that money right...

MOHAMED: Yeah.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.

MOHAMED: It makes sense. I had a conversation with a friend, and we really went through all of the possible, like - not deep wishes, but, you know, all of the possible - like, maybe I should wish for, like, safety. Or maybe I should wish to undo, like, this moment from my past. And then in the end, we settled on a boat because, my friend, after all the considerations, said, nothing will make me as happy as a boat.

RASCOE: You know, and with the money that I get, yeah, I could buy a boat.

MOHAMED: Yeah.

RASCOE: You see what I'm saying? And then all the other stuff - I feel like I could work that other stuff out. You know what I'm saying? I could work that out. But...

MOHAMED: No.

RASCOE: ...Just give me a little bit of money.

MOHAMED: Yeah. It's a personal thing, I think. It's a very context-dependent thing.

RASCOE: That's Deena Mohamed. Her graphic novel is called "Shubeik Lubeik." Thanks so much for talking with us.

MOHAMED: Thank you.

RASCOE: And may all your wishes come true, as long as they're good ones.

MOHAMED: Aww. Yours as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.