Metro is a graphic novel written by Libyan born Egyptian cartoonist, writer and illustrator Magdy el Shafee. He writes a fast-paced, hard-hitting and somewhat chaotic story that addresses Egyptian poverty, injustice and corruption. This corruption is the underlying theme in a book that, from its publication in 2008 until the start of this year, was banned in Egypt. It was republished in Arabic by The Comic Shop in August 2012 for distribution in Lebanon, and since the end of January, Metro has been available to purchase in the Kotob Khan bookshop in Cairo.
Metro depicts the story of Shehab and Mustafa, two Egyptians disillusioned by the country’s political and financial system which is riddled with deceit and corruption. Egypt is described as a cage that imprisons them, and they are determined to break free from its confines. Struck by financial woe and misery, the two men undertake a bank robbery to secure $5 million dollars. The incredible irony of the story is that Mustafa ultimately deceives his friend and partner in crime, stealing from him the loot and disappearing off into the world with the takings.
From cover to cover, the ninety one pages of this graphic novel depict a vivid construction of a totally corrupt country, as we are transported through the story along the railway lines of the Metro underground system. Shafee’s drawings embody a sense of maniacal pace – a reflection of a fraught sense of earnestness. We are sucked into the mess that Shehab and Mustafa find themselves caught up in: the murder of Hagg Misbah, which they bear witness to, as the man’s driver plunges a knife into his body. In order to avoid a clash with the police, and recall issues of owed debts, the men stash the murder weapon, implicating themselves further.
The most striking scene is that of the sexual encounter between Shehab and journalist, Dina. Taking up only one page in the entirety of the story, this scene caused outrage, resulting in the seizure of the book by Egyptian officials and the arrest of Shafee and his publisher. Although there are far racier novels on the market, it is the tangibility of the graphic novel that sets this scene apart from the rest. In picture form, the sexual content is more direct, more hard-hitting than perhaps if words were used to describe the encounter. It leaves little to the imagination. These images are powerful; they provide intensity to the simple, unfussy language adopted by Shafee. Combined with a colloquial and easy-to-read format, this is an incredibly accessible story. Perhaps this is the reason for its ban for so long: it threatens the authority as it can be read by everyone and anyone. As a conventional novel, this story would take far longer to absorb, perhaps diluting the message along the way.
A constant reminder of the depravity and corruption that Shafee alludes to throughout the story is presented in the characterisation Hagg Wannas, the shoe maker who shines the shoes of the men at the top, ‘shoes on their way to commit a crime and shoes on their way back afterwards.’ Wannas cannot afford the taxes he is expected to pay; he is losing his sight and turns to begging on the streets of Cairo. Amidst a backdrop of demonstrations, murder and sexual encounters, Wannas, like many others is forced to earn a living by relying on the kindness of others – a gentle reminder to have hope in people, if not necessarily hope in the people in power. Shehab, alarmed by the blind man’s observation, questions his ability to see what is going on around him. Wannas responds: ‘Of course I can see. With the money I’ve made from begging, I had an operation.’
Though formerly blind, Hagg Wannas knows all about the robbery and the placement of Shehab and Musafa at the scene of the crime. This sense of irony continues as Wannas breathes his last words, having been attacked during the demonstrations: ‘In my life, death is the best thing to happen to me. I’m a free man.’ A quote that no longer sits comfortably as a representation of the Egyptian people stood out when reading the novel:
‘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.’’
It seems that since the Arab Spring this is no longer the case: people are no longer willing to accept that this is simply ‘the way things are’.
By Sarah Zakzouk