In a pivotal scene in the Egyptian graphic novel Metro, a blind old shoeshiner stumbles upon an anti-government demonstration in the streets of Cairo. The demonstrators chant, "Where can the oppressed find justice? Where can the hungry find food?" The old man, almost without realising it, starts mumbling along. A few frames later, he's being carried on the shoulders of the protesters in camaraderie. Then he's being beaten by a gang of young thugs of the sort routinely employed by Egyptian authorities to break up demonstrations. In two pages, the author of Metro suggests the appeal and hopefulness of the recent democracy movement in Egypt, as well as the severe consequences of any political activism.
It may be scenes such as these that led to Metro's recent disappearance from Cairo bookstores at the hands of authorities. The logic behind the officials' action remains, as is often the case in Egypt, unclear. Were they genuinely shocked by the novel's depiction of corrupt officials and government-employed thugs? Or were they settling scores with the novel's publisher, Mohammed Sharqawy, a political activist and a much-publicised victim of government torture? What's sure is that just a few months after its publication, Metro - a promising work by Magdy al Shaaf'ee - is both notorious and almost impossible to find.
Metro has been described as the first adult graphic novel in Arabic. On its cover, a lean, muscular and disgruntled young man, holding a revolver and a laptop, glowers at prospective readers. This is Shehab, the book's anti-hero. He is a genius with computers, but the small software company he runs is about to go under because he doesn't have the connections to obtain a bank loan. So Shehab decides that the only way to beat a system that's stacked against him is by breaking the rules. If the bank won't lend him the money, he'll take it by force. From this dramatic starting point, the novel takes off in a number of directions - hurtling through the city of Cairo at breakneck speed.
The plot of Metro is action-packed and larger than life. Shehab fights government-backed thugs, saves his girl (twice) and successfully pulls off the robbery. There are twists and turns, murders and shadowy conspiracies (some of which don't make much sense). But the Byzantine plot is saturated with a political commentary on the state of today's Egypt, which is depicted as a deeply dysfunctional country whose citizens take government corruption and repression as a given. The conversations between Metro's characters about politics and life in Egypt range in tone from weary indignation to amused cynicism. At the very start, Shehab tells his assistant Mustafa not to worry about the police: "They're all busy with the peace and security of one single person," he says - and the person in question is clearly Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak. Throughout the novel, characters talk often of corruption, injustice and the "trap" in which Egypt's people live. That trap, according to Shaaf'ee, is the daily struggle to satisfy the simplest material desires, and it leaves most Egyptians too drained or distracted to think of political change. Shaaf'ee describes his hero as "someone who's alienated, who views extreme materialism as a form of surrender".
Cairo's subway supplies the novel's visual and narrative framework. Characters use it to move around the city, giving each other appointments at different stops. The subway system - with its underground multitudes - also serves as a metaphor for the anxious, rushed, blinkered existence of most Egyptians. Each section of the book begins with the name of one of the stations on the subway map, and at those stations that bear the names of Egypt's presidents, Shaaf'ee includes some pointed quotes: Sadat's famous pronouncement during the 1977 bread riots, "That isn't a popular intifada... that's an intifada of thieves"; Nasser's promise of "self-sufficiency and justice"; and Mubarak's oft-repeated lament "There's so many of you. What will I do with you?"
Metro was published in January by Mohammed Sharqawy's fledgling publishing house, Malaamih (its slogan: "On the asphalt of the street, a culture of change is made"). Sharqawy is a political activist who was detained by police in May 2006; he was tortured while in detention, and footage of the abuse, which had been taped, was leaked and eventually posted on the internet. On April 6 of this year, he was arrested along with other activists suspected of calling for a general strike. He was still in prison when, on April 13, his publishing house - a modest office overflowing with stacks of books - was ransacked. "It wasn't a confiscation," he says. "It was a theft. They came to the publishing house without any confiscation order from the prosecutor's office or from a court, and without a search warrant. Not to mention the way they behaved, the way they terrorised [the staff]." All the copies of Metro were taken. The authorities then went on to withdraw the book from a number of Cairo's main bookstores.
The confiscation "isn't about the novel", says Sharqawy. "It's about Mohammed Sharqawy, and Mohammed Sharqawy's publishing house. They're going after my livelihood." The charges against Shaaf'ee and Sharqawy are of "offending public morals" and "publishing political insinuations and domestic information for the purpose of spreading them abroad". When he was questioned by the authorities, Shaaf'ee expected to be asked about the book's single sex scene, or its use of profanity. Instead, officers wanted him to explain the scene in which Shehab says: "People live their lives doped up, nothing has any effect on them anymore…because of all they've seen they end up saying…hey man…is this our country?" They were also troubled by a character who bears a striking resemblance to Kamal al Shazly, a former minister and one of the best-known and longest-serving officials in President Mubarak's party. In Metro, this character gets thrown into the street and beaten by ordinary citizens who call him "a piece of garbage".
When contacted for comment, officials at Egypt's Ministry of Interior denied any knowledge of the case and said: "The police do not confiscate books." "The combination of images and words has a strong effect" notes Shaaf'ee. "When [the police officers] found a picture that resembles an Egyptian official, and next to it words in Aameya [Egyptian Colloquial Arabic] and insults, they were shocked: how could somebody do this?" But, al Shafaa'ee maintains, "It's the right of the artist to express things like this, and even more than this. One of the most important things for us to do is to destroy the idea that people in power are incapable of making mistakes, and that we aren't allowed to talk about them."
Shaaf'ee considers the graphic novel a particularly effective medium for accomplishing this mission. According to the artist, Egyptian authors generally have to face two serious hurdles: "[Egyptians] don't read much, and we speak one language and write in another." Al Shafaa'ee suggests that the graphic novel - with its use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic rather than formal Arabic, its focus on dialogue and action, and its visual vocabulary - is "more accessible to the reader".
Yet the unhappy fate of Metro may strike a blow to a genre that is still in its infancy in Egypt. While the newspaper cartoon has a long and illustrious history in the Egyptian press - where satirical cartoonists once enjoyed a greater following than writers - the idea of a comic book for adults is decidedly new. "The few comics there are, are for children" says Guy Nadeau (better known as Golo), a renowned French cartoonist who has worked in Egypt for decades and was a mentor to Shaaf'ee. "When you say comics, people think of children and adolescents. There are young people with talent, but there is absolutely no support for comics."
Shaaf'ee is more optimistic. He speaks of "a new generation, raised on comics... They are familiar with things like Neil Gaiman's Sandman ... They download pdfs from the internet, print them and exchange them." Shaaf'ee also notes the positive influence of El Dustour, an opposition daily that gives generous space to cartoons. He cites Marjane Satrapi (whose acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis has been translated into Arabic), Joe Sacco and Daniel Clowes among his own influences. As a child he read Zorro, Tintin and Superman, and was struck by the work of Hugo Pratt.
Graphically, Metro has its own distinct if slightly uneven style. Shaaf'ee is experimenting with his talents and the possibilities of the medium, and his experiments are mostly, but not always, successful. He alternates between a number of drawing techniques, creating a rich, layered, varied flow of images that bring the bustling city of Cairo to life. He employs a sometimes dizzying variety of points of view - this mostly creates a dynamic effect, butis confusing in a few of the action sequences.
It's a pity that the creators of Metro chose to go with computer-generated type for the dialogue, as opposed to hand-drawn letters, which offer such greater possibilities for expressiveness. And while Metro has clearly been printed with much care, using good quality paper and a lovely hard cover, a few of the panels appear to have suffered in the layout process: their edges are cut off or they have been enlarged to the point that they are slightly blurry.
But such minor quibbles are easily addressed. The larger problem is how few will be able to read, consider and perhaps be inspired by Metro. The novel appears to have settled into a legal limbo. The case hasn't been referred to any court. Shaaf'ee and Sharqawy hope the charges will eventually be quietly dropped, but in the meantime they can't reprint the book, and bookshops hesitate to order it. Shaaf'ee declares himself mystified by the authorities' hostility. "Before, the government would go after Islamists, extremists. Or communist opponents," he says. Now a new group has apparently been added to the list: comic book artists.
Ursula Lindsey is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. She writes the culture blog The Arabist Review (www.arabist.net/review)