A few words on inspiration, plot and world building in my short story “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili.” A little bit Steampunk. A little bit Cairo. And Angels that grant miracles–of a sort.
If you want to find the Angel of Khan el-Khalili you have to make your way to the market at night. Not when the sun goes down, and Cairo’s masses spill out into the opening shops, where soot smudged factory workers and well-groomed ministerial clerks mingle at open air coffeehouses to debate local politics. Not even after the first stars have appeared and, beneath the glare of gaslight, hawkers practice their best chat up lines to seduce idle wanderers to their stalls—where everything from counterfeit medieval antiques to drive shafts for automated wheel carriages are up for sale. No, to find the Angel of Khan el-Khalili means going to the market late at night, when most of the city have long retired to their beds, leaving the souk to the curious, the adventurous, and the desperate—like you.
So begins my short story “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili” which appears in the anthology Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Tales of Egypt. Edited by Matthew Bright, Clockwork Cairo is the inaugural anthology of Twopenny Press that explores adventures “from the steam-powered souks of Cairo, to the clockwork bazaars of Alexandria and the shadowy mysteries of the pyramids.” The book features stories with whimsical titles like Gail Carriger’s The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn’t, the Mummy that Was and the Cat in the Jar, and Rod Duncan’s more ominous The Museum of Unlikely Survivors. Among the contributing authors are luminaries such as Nisi Shawl and K Tempest Bradford–who I borrowed this whole Story Notes business from.
“The Angel of Khan el-Khalili” is set in an alternate early twentieth-century Cairo, where magic, djinn, angels and steampunk all co-exist. It follows the story of a young girl who goes to the famous bustling souk one night, in search of a miracle.
So what sparked the story?
First it was an invite from Matt Bright to contribute. Let me tell you this, I hemmed and hawed and had to ask for fifty-leven extensions before I finally got a story to him. As I wrote about in the beginning of this year, my foray into the life of a junior scholar and assistant professor has left little time for creative writing. Never taken so long to write a 5200 word story in my life. Thank goodness he was patient. And I was happy when it was accepted.
The first thing I knew about this story was that it would be set in the same world as my previous novelette, A Dead Djinn in Cairo (ADDIC from here on out) published by Tor.com in 2016. I mean how it could it not be? Steampunk. Clockwork. Egypt. It’s why Matt Bright even sent me the invite. As I wrote a while back, in the SFF world success leads to chances and doorways. It’s the nature of the beast. Ain’t bragging. Ain’t complaining. Thems just the facts.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo cover art by Kevin Hong.
However, unlike ADDIC, I wasn’t trying to tell a grand story. So, sorry, no Fatma and company or all-important Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. I also wanted to do something smaller in scale and somewhat darker, featuring entirely different characters. Why? Mostly to allow some world building exploration on my end. You build yourself a world, you want to take it out for a spin and see how it handles.
I knew some key things right off: (1) the story’s protagonist was going to be a young girl who was a factory worker. I’d alluded to women and girls as factory workers in ADDIC and wanted to explore the less glorious side of industrialization. (2) the story was going to be set in Khan el-Khalili. A significant scene takes place in that market in ADDIC, and (having visited it previously in person), the souk makes a lasting impression. (3) There was going to be some aspect of the otherworldly. Because I always like a dash of magic and the fantastic with my steampunk (and this is Egypt after all).
My first pass was a story titled The Clockwork Djinn. The basic structure and plot of the story were the same, but this time our protagonist went looking for a wish–not a miracle. Something about this kept bothering me though. Maybe it was because I was, after all, trying to subvert the whole “wish-making-djinn” thing in this world and this hit too close to the nose. Or, maybe, I just couldn’t get that darker feeling I was going for with a djinn. Whatever the case, after about a half-dozen attempts to make a djinn fit–I changed course.
In ADDIC there’s an angel featured as a main character–or, at least, the beings who call themselves angels. They’re already clockwork, after a fashion. And there’s something about angelic beings (real or otherwise) that comes ready-made with a dash or hint of darkness waiting to be explored. Besides, searching for a miracle raises the stakes more than searching for a wish. Once I got that niggling part down, the story I wanted to tell fell into place.
I won’t give away much more, except to say that there are elements here taken from some of the less savory sides of industrialization in the West transposed on this alt-world Cairo. Can’t have your Victorian & Edwardian derived factories (wherever they’re set) without workers, exploitation and bosses. The main character, Aliaa, is no Fatma. So, no fancy suits or allusions to Bartitsu. Hopefully, readers will find her just as determined in her own way. This is also my second foray (and my first published) into second-person storytelling. Figured while I was experimenting, why not go all out?
Before anyone asks, this is not my last foray into the world of ADDIC. Or the Ministry. Or Fatma. I spent 48 hours last week while visiting Granada in Southern Spain sketching out the entire timeline for that world (Moorish palaces will spark that kind of inspiration) and don’t intend to let it go to waste. Plans are, even now, in the offing. In the meantime, I offer up this short fare, alongside some amazing and robust stories of airships, parasols, gears and magic. Available on Amazon for your perusal and buying pleasure.
Art for my story “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili”
The Angel of Khan el-Khalili is a towering giant. Even bowed as she is, her head near brushes the ceiling. Her body is wrought of iron and brass: a living statue in the form of a lithe woman constructed of clockwork machinery that hums and moves to its own metronomic rhythm. Shimmering silver wings lay folded on her back, a bundle of metallic feathers inscribed in turquoise script that shifts and writhes before your eyes. She sits amid a bed of brocaded cushions on a mammoth moss green divan, chin propped upon a fist in a thinker’s repose. A draping skirt of gold conceals her legs and feet, falling in cascades to flow upon the ground below. You crane your neck to gape up at her, too taken at first to speak, and lost in her terrible beauty.
Angels arrived in Cairo some forty years past. Your parents had been children then, but they still tell you stories of al-Jahiz—the disappeared Soudanese mystic, scientist, madman—whose fantastic machines had sent magic pouring into the world with the force of an unstoppered sea. Djinn had been the first to appear, and were in many ways responsible for the great innovations of this age. Their kind you are accustomed to: creatures of flesh and blood, elements of wind and water (or whatever came from smokeless fire) who walk, live, work and interact among humans. Your family’s apartment sits above the confectionery of an elderly onager-headed Sila. She’s friendly enough, for a djinn, and hands out pink candy dolls to neighborhood children every Mawlid for as long as you can remember.
But angels are another matter. They are rarer things, ethereal beings who shroud their bodies behind contraptions of mechanical grandeur and hold themselves apart from mortals and djinn alike. None, not even the religious bodies of Cairo, have been able to discern the reason for their coming. And they have remained equally enigmatic. Some have taken up residence in old palaces and ruins. There are several, you have heard, who now occupy the Citadel outside the mosque of Muhammad Ali. Why this one has decided to shelter in a cellar beneath the Khan would probably befuddle the most learned scholar of the Ulama. All you know, is that she calls herself Seeker.