Comic book trial a test of Egypt courts
CAIRO // In a country where comic books are to literature what the Happy Meal is to cuisine, Magdy al Shafee's case will be difficult to make. One year ago today, police confiscated Metro, Al Shafee's graphic novel targeted at adults, from stores and street stalls throughout the country, then arrested him and his publisher, Mohammed al Sharqawi. Tomorrow, both men will be in court to defend Metro - which they claim to be the first work of its kind in the Arab world - as a piece of graphic literature to avoid facing a maximum two-year prison sentence.
Ultimately it is his book's accessibility, not any moral indecency, that has sparked official concern about Metro, Al Shafee said. Anyone can read it, anyone can understand it and many, particularly Egypt's vast field of unemployed and disenchanted youth, can identify with the struggles of the story's disillusioned protagonist. "The announced reason is because it harms public morals but you know, that's not the whole truth," al Shafee said. "There are much more liberal books than mine. There are other factors, maybe because it is in the comic form, and the comics form is very easy to read."
The controversy began last spring, when Saleh al Derbashy came across Metro and decided it was too graphic for Egyptian readers. "They're calling for the disrespect of social decency," said Mr al Derbashy, an attorney, who filed the complaint against Mr Al Shafee. "There is mention of homosexuality. They say the police don't respect people's rights. It just invites anarchy." As a novel, Metro occupies a space between Crime and Punishment and The Catcher in the Rye with an anti-hero for Egypt's youth. The story focuses on Shihab, a software engineer, who accrues an unmanageable debt thanks to underworld loan sharks. To pay it back, he convinces his friend Mustafa to rob a bank with him.
The story unfolds across a gritty, modern Cairo beset by corruption, poverty and moral hypocrisy. Throughout the story, Shihab theorises about his need to "get out of the trap" that he says confines Egyptians to an economic rat race defined only by an endless pursuit for more money. Robbing the bank and its corrupt managers, Shihab decides, will allow him to repay his loan and to emerge from this dehumanising existence.
"If we think, who is moving us in this mill and why are we moving in this mill, if we stopped and thought for awhile, we could get out," al Shafee said. "Shihab, the main character, has stopped it, and he thought this is a kind of a cage, and he stopped it and got out." Al Shafee admits that his book contains curse words, frank discussions of sex and violence as well as sexual imagery - namely a page in which a couple is shown having sex under a blanket. But it is the book's method of speaking truth to power, he said, that has invited controversy.
Mr al Derbashy's complaint about Metro is not the first time he has brought charges against a publication. He was one of the attorneys who brought charges against Ibrahim Issa, the editor of Al Dustour newspaper. Issa and another journalist were sentenced to one year in jail in June 2006 for "insulting the president" and "spreading false or tendentious rumours" after Al Dustour published an article accusing Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, of misappropriating public funds.
Some human rights groups have drawn a connection between Mr al Derbashy's complaints about Issa and al Shafee's Metro. Gamal Eid, the head of the Arab Network for Human Rights, called Mr al Derbashy a "hesba" lawyer, referring to a concept in Sharia that obliges the faithful to "enjoin good and forbid evil" within their community. Mr al Derbashy's lawsuits, Mr Eid said, are an example of how conservatives are seeking to expand the role of hesba in Egypt.
Mr al Derbashy denied that he had invoked hesba in either case, but he acknowledged that he was particularly offended by the emotional potency of comic books - an artistic medium with which he said he is not familiar. "It's the first time pictures have been used like this in Egypt," he said. "This would not attract any attention if it were written in the classical style and without pictures." Other Egyptian novels in modern Arabic, Mr al Derbashy said, portray sexual scenes and similar messages. But the stirring format of Metro, he said, renders it "dangerous".
"You can finish this book in 10 minutes and get the message immediately," he said. "The caricatures are much more effective in this book" than in classic Egyptian literature. But the damage from censorship and confiscation is far worse, said George Azmy, a 26-year-old graphic designer and stand-up comedian. "However much we are for or against confiscation, the effects of confiscation are more catastrophic" than the confiscated works themselves, said Azmy, a friend of the book's publisher. "When people are getting sued and put in prison like this, it creates this sense of fear."
Updated: April 17, 2009 04:00 AM