‘Metro’ available to friends, not family

"Metro,” Magdy El Shafee’s fast-paced first graphic novel, is now available in Italian and in English. The heist thriller will soon be published in Lebanon in its original Arabic, but thanks to the Egyptian Court of Appeals, it is illegal to reprint the novel in Egypt — and it is not likely that imports will be allowed either.

“It is a lovely feeling to put on a feast for a group of close friends and family,” said Shafee, after the publication of his book’s English-language translation this June. “But when the food is snatched away from your relatives while all the dear guests are eating, there is also a feeling of powerlessness.”

“Metro,” published in Egypt in early 2008, is the story of Shehab, a young software designer struggling to feel human in a corrupt environment. As the book opens, he decides to rob a bank to solve his company’s financial problems. After all, he tells his friend Mustafa, they need not fear a successful bank robbery: “In this country, jail is for the poor.”

Shehab and Mustafa do manage to relieve a bank of US$5 million. But even this does not solve Shehab’s problems, which are not limited to his finances. There is also the sexual harassment of his girlfriend, Dina, government thugs attacking his protester friends, unsafe food and water, and a useless and corrupt police force. All this puts Shehab in “a lousy cage.”

This short thriller has a single page of sexual content — one that illuminates the relationship between Shehab and Dina. This page and some of the book’s language were the reasons officials gave for seizing the book in April 2008 and arresting Shafee and his publisher. The book, they said, harmed “public morals.”

But as Shafee has pointed out, many far racier books remain on the local market. Yet few paint as vivid a picture of corruption at the opening of the 21st century. And perhaps none are as accessible as “Metro,” which is written in a colloquial language that is spicy at times, and illustrated in Shafee’s hyper-kinetic, multi-layered, sometimes chaotic style.

The English-language translation of “Metro” is also a fun read. 

“In some ways, it felt as though the stakes were even higher when translating a graphic novel,” translator Chip Rossetti said, because readers expect that “it will reflect a conversational, naturalistic style” — which indeed the book does.

Shafee’s novel is similar to a few other recent books; its fast-paced exploration of Cairo corruption is not unlike Ahmed Mourad’s 2009 novel, “Vertigo.” But “Vertigo” ends more hopefully, with the main character sending off information about sex, corruption and unsafe food in a chain email that seems destined to bring change.

“Metro,” on the other hand, does not show an easy way out. At the book’s end, Shehab’s journalist girlfriend suggests they publish what they know. But Shehab tells her, “People are numb. Nothing has any effect on them. They put up with so much, they just say, ‘Well, that’s how things are in this country of ours.’”

Yet even when Shafee’s core characters are completely boxed in, they refuse to lose hope.

Indeed, the graphic novel is in itself a reason to hope. It certainly nettled authorities enough to get copies yanked and the author and publisher charged. At a 2009 court case, both were fined.

But this has not stopped Shafee from working to republish “Metro” or from creating new works, which have appeared in collections such as “Autostrade.” Shafee also has a new full-length graphic novel that he hopes to finish by the end of the year.

The author-illustrator says that for now, he refuses to concern himself with external censors.

“The censor to get rid of is the one in my head. That is the most dangerous kind of censorship and all of us must work on its demise. Neither [President Mohamed] Morsy nor anyone else will stand in the way of the destruction of that monster.”

He still does not appreciate the external kind. “Anyone who thinks that he can censor me because he knows what is in my best interest or that of other people needs his head examined,” Shafee says. “Enough already with treating people as though they were unthinking children or idiots who need to be watched over.”

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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