Metro: A Story of Cairo by Magdy El Shafee – A Review of a Censored Graphic Novel from Egypt

Metro: A Story of Cairo
Magdy El Shafee
Metropolitan Books, 2012, pg 95

Magdy El Shafee’s Metro: A Story of Cairo is the much anticipated publication in English of the Egyptian author’s banned work. When published in 2008 it was banned for “offending public morals” and remains banned despite the change in government. The offending public morals is one of those classic phrases of despotic regimes and rarely do the artists condemned with those words actually offend anything but the regime’s sense of invincibility. Given the profound changes that have swept over Egypt in the last year and a half, Metro, which was written and baned several years before those events, has taken on not only the voice of protest it has always had, but also a document of the problems that led to the Arab Spring.

The story itself is rather simple: two young software developers Shehab and Mustafa who get shafted on a business deal by a corrupt businessman. They are broke and a friend of theirs, an old man, tells him he is going blind. The two men decide to steal the money using their electronic know-how. It fails but on the way out of the building they come upon a government official demanding a payoff from the head of the bank. In one of those great lines that catches the flavor of the whole book the banker says,

Collateral, your excellency? What collateral? You honor us by taking our loan…

Running parallel to the story is a murder that the boys witness and try to solve . The murder brings them into the ins and out of corruption. The police are untrustworthy, the press is week, and no one seems to care. At one point the one of the boys says,

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.”

And to illustrate that the last third of the novel breaks out into a violent protest march that is  broken up by government thugs pretending to be protesters. It is a prescient part of the book, foretelling the types of protests that were to happen a few years later.

Shafee’s Egypt is burdened down by corrupt politicians, unreliable  police, businessmen who’ll cheat you every chance they get knowing there is no recourse to complain if they are connected, and an economic system that is so dependent on payoffs that it is virtually impossible to start a new business. When the young men try to sell their software they are completely blocked by inaccessibility to funds and corruption. Their only hope is to steal, or to immigrate. To show this complete collapse of possibilities their friend, an old merchant, has given up and has taken to begging. But his begging is just as corrupt and what he says has nothing to do with his economic circumstances. It is impossible to trust anyone when the only way to succeed is to cheat, to steal and to lie. It is a truth that not only fills almost every encounter in the book, but one that Shehab will find even destroys his closest illusions.

Metro is written as a noir with  Shehab narrating in much the same way. He opens the book saying, “We’ve spent our whole lives in this cage, but two weeks ago, when the bars began to close in, things became clearer. Our eyes were opened and we made a decision.” Shehab is a modern outsider, both a hacker and a ninja-like figure who welds a staff like Bruce Lee, one of his heroes. Since computing can be mysterious hacking makes for the perfect type of priestly warrior, one whose special skills allow him to combat the abuses of society. He is a mix of Batman, Philip Marlow, and a Shaolin monk. It can be a stultifying image, one that takes away from the brutal realities he is describing. What saves the book is that almost no one gets what they want. As with all noir the power isn’t necessarily in the reality, but the but the power to show all the corrupt elements of a society at once, even if that creates mythic heroes that lead to their own escapist fantasies.

The art work of Metro is much like that of the cover photo. Occasionally, a guest artist will do a page or two in a completely different style. Many frames are rough and still have the original pencil tracings. It all leads to an impression of a hurried and unfinished place. He also shifts his style to accentuate the comedic as when he draws the beggar in his comic moments. The most polished moments are during the protests when the wide sweep of violence are shown in sweeping gestures, more abstract and more brutal. They were the most effective sequences in the book.

Overall its a fascinating book that still has its roots in the comic, but whose power comes from criticisms. It will be interesting to see if without the urgency of the times, the story will still stand up and not turn into a noir that does not have the power to evoke a society on the edge.

You can read an interview with Shafee at Arab Lit in English.

Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro to be Published in English in 2012

Arabic Literature in English is reporting that Magdy al-Shafee’s Graphic Novel Metro which has been baned in Egypt will be coming out in English in 2012. I don’t have too much more information on the book, but I have been waiting for this to get published into English or Spanish so I could give it a read. It has gotten a lot of good criticism. You can read an excerpt at Words Without Borders (link below).

And, further on the good-news front, Magdy al-Shafee’sMetro, which was yanked from stores in April 2008, will receive a new edition. According to al-Shafee,Metro will be republished by Dar Merit (in Arabic) in conjunction with a Lebanese publishing house.

Metro also will also soon have an English version. The graphic novel—the first Egyptian graphic novel for adults—has been translated in full by Humphrey Davies, who earlier translated an excerpt for Words Without Borders. It will be published in early 2012 by Metropolitan Books, which also publishes Joe Sacco.


New Edition of Classic /Beer in the Snooker Club

Arabic Literature (In English) reports that a new edition of Beer in the Snooker Club is coming out in December. What little I know about it sounds interesting.

I was surprised to see Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club on Kotob Khan’s June bestseller list. After all, the book was originally published in 1964, and I hadn’t heard anything about Ghali in the news that might cause a run on this classic book.

Other books on the bestseller list are more easily explicable: Bilal Fadl’s hot A Chagrined Laugh, the Arabic Booker-winning Azazeel as well as the Response to Azazeel. Alaa el-Aswany’s latest nonfiction.

But Karam Youssef, owner of Kotob Khan, explained that her staff often suggests classics, such as Beer in the Snooker Club, to book-browsers. Beer in the Snooker Club, she said, is a perennial seller.

Miramar by Nagib Mahfouz – A Review

Nagib Mahfouz

Nagib Mahfouz’s comparably brief novel, Miramar, captures a moment of great change in the history of Egypt through the lives of the inhabitants of a the pension Miramar. Although politics are ever present in the background, the novel focuses on the way the lives of the inhabitants of the pension have been changed by the Nasarite revolution of the late 50s. Mahfouz, the great story teller he his, uses the personal disappointments brought on by the revolution to draw a picture of a country trying to radically change, yet tied to the past and unable to change many of its ways despite official policies. His subtle focus on the relationships between the characters of the pension, drawing out the conflicts between the shifting class of people, lifts the book above politics and draws a fascinating picture of classes rising and falling.

Miramar is divided into four chapters, each told by a different resident of the pension. Amir Wagdi, the first to narrate, is a retired journalist who provides a historical memory to the story. He had seen the uprising against the British in the twenties and later the revolution. A long time friend of the proprietor of the pension, Mariana, he has returned an old man, content to live in his memories and accept what his life has given him. He has a sage like quality that in conversation with his contemporary the Pasha, a rich man now disposed of most of his lands, he is able to avoid arguments about politics. Much of his chapter has a dream like feel of the lost, and his interactions with the Pasha and Mariana recall the days when he was amongst the action, before their respective lives and the movements they belonged to failed and faded into the past.

When a young peasant girl, Zorha, comes to work at the pension, everything changes for the boarders. For Amir Wagdi, he takes on the role of a grandfather, hoping for her to succeed as she attempts  leave the country side and survive in a world where everyone wants to take her independence. Zorha is a defiant woman who had left the village when her family wanted her to marry someone she didn’t want to marry. Surrounded by men in the pension, she stands up to them and though shy she, she is strong enough to fight back against all the things that befall her. She is one of the few characters in the book that really is looking towards the future and doing it on her own terms. She is illiterate, but hires a teacher to learn to read even though most people tell her it is a waste of time. She is also one of the few, perhaps the only, who is good hearted. One read could see Zorha as the future of the new Egypt, but Mahfouz is too clear eyed for that simplicity, because all the young who live in the pension either want the old society, or are just looking for ways to exploit the new corruption that has replaced the old corruption. Nor is the country side a bastion of wisdom. If it were, Zorha wouldn’t have needed to leave the country side. Instead, Mahfouz celebrates an individuality that is strong and not tempted by the faults of society.

The other men, Husni Allam, a rich playboy, Mansour Bahi, an indecisive radio host, and Sarhan al-Behairi, a low ranking party man whose is looking to make money on the black market, have only one interest: what they can get for themselves. They are consumed by lust, which varies in cruelty, but is all consuming and is an attempt themselves in a position of power, using women without care. The hustling nature puts them in conflict with each other, especially as they fight for Zorha’s affections. Ultimately, the mix of hustling, sexual tension and the close confinement leads to the murder of Sarhan al-Behairi, who is found on a street one morning. As each of the three men narrate their section, the events that lead up to al-Behairi’s death become clearer. It is obvious that none of these men are particularly praiseworthy. Yet even in a character such as Husni Allam, Mahfouz creates evocative characters that also express the frustrations of men who, in many ways, don’t have many options. On the one hand, the rich are loosing their lands, and on the other those are part of the new regime can’t get ahead either. The frustrations add complexity to what might have otherwise been a simple tale of lust and envey.

Ultimately, it is not important if al-Behairi’s murderer is found, what is important is Mahfouz’s picture of post revolution Egypt. The conflicting interests and impulses he presents avoids the pessimistic, yet there is an air of fatalism in the characters who cannot get beyond their pasts. Only Zorha offers hope, but it is unclear what that it is. It is not for Mahfouz to describe the future. Still, one hopes Zorha will survive, for it suggests there is a future worth having.

Banipal – New Egyptian Writing (Spring 2006)

I only found out about Banipal a week or two ago and thought of buying a copy, but at 18 pounds for 3 issues (not too bad) and 17 pounds for shipping (ridiculous) forget that. Fortunately, I live near a major university and they have a subscription. I read through issue 25, New Writing from Egypt. First, I was impressed with the quality of the writing. Too often I have read journals that are compendiums of authors and they aren’t particularly interesting. The authors who I found interesting and have books in English were Ahmed Alaidy’s Being Abbas el Abd (American University Cairo, 2006), which not only was an interesting story, but lexicographically interesting; and Hamdy Abowgliel’s Thieves of Retirement (Syracuse University Press, 2006). They bother were in the more seedy and criminal seeming vain but look worth perusing.

In addition to these writers, were several who were more playful in their stories, such as Haytham Al-Wardany’s Pissing on the World which is just about boys pissing on streets and seeing what they can get away with. Also of note was Ibrahim Farghali’s brief story The Monotonous Rhythm of the Years of Drought which describes the humiliation a man feels when he cheats on his fiancé with his old girlfriend. Safaa Ennagar’s Amoeba was about a woman who wears shapely cloths before her marriage, but after must wear baggy ones. One day in a private moment she again finds the freedom to wear the tighter clothes and has a moment of transcendence.

The collection is filled with interesting works, although having looked at a couple other issues, I do know they can be a little poetry heavy which isn’t bad, just something I don’t read much.

To finish I’ll quote Ennagar who comments on the state of Egyptian writing:

Literary production in Egypt today is either a way of releving the poetic situation of the writer or a kind of intellectual luxury that goes beyond reality. It is a literature of the “ghetto” that neither affects, nor is affected by, social and political movements. It is new on the levels of both form and content, but is presented only within the circle of the literati; there is no interest in spreading it outside the small elite. The print-run is limited (usually 1000 copies) as official institutions generally support works that are more traditional and lasting.

New Arablic Lit

I have been enjoying the blog Arabic Literature (in English) recently (written by a fellow Quarterly Conversation contributor M. Lynx Qualey). The blog is full of information about Arabic Literature, usually noting what is available in English, but also mentioning issues that are going on in the world of Arabic writing. Recently the blog has been posting new works of note. I’m not going to post the works, but just links to the original articles. They all are interesting sounding.
Nomadics Translates Dib
Coming in 2010 from AUC Press: The Recommended and Not-as-recommended

Most Underappreciated Egyptian Lit (in Translation) of 2009

Neglected Treasures: Tawfiq al-Hakim’s /The People of the Cave

Sons of Mahfouz – An Egyptian Novelist After Mahfouz

Al Ahram weekly (via Literary Salon) has a good article about the youngish (b. 1967) Novelist Ibrahim Farghali and the evolution of post Mahfouz writing. I’m not sure if I agree with the author of the article’s implicit idea that after realism comes magical realism:

[…] Yet from a history-of-literature point of view, Abnaa Al-Gabalwi is probably the closest we have come to a fulfilment of the prophecy that a home-grown magic realist movement would emerge in the new millennium.

Such books would combine the realism and social commitment of the Sixties narrative tradition with the individualism and physicality of the Nineties (the latter thus far accommodated mainly by the prose poem). It would give substance to the notion of an “age of the novel”, espoused by critic Gabir Asfour at millennium’s end, and express a range of recent influences from Gabriel-Garcia Marquez and Jorge-Luis Borges to Umberto Eco to Jose Saramago — all of whom demonstrated how elements of the fantastical could be deployed to intensify reality and/or infuse the public realm with private experience.

That said, I think the book has some promise and certainly sounds interesting if it ever makes it into English, which it may not because it sounds very writerly.

This, basically, is the premise of Abnaa Al-Gabalwi, which nonetheless incorporates numerous other frameworks, notably the appearance of flesh-and-blood reincarnations of some of Mahfouz’s characters both in and outside their original settings, the government’s efforts to do what it can to have the books back — some people apparently know the texts by heart, others attempt to reconstruct them with the help of their knowledge of Mahfouz’s work from translations — and the very complex, gradual intermingling of the fictional world and the world to which it supposedly refers. There are not only characters but narrators, character narrators, doubles, triples, even quadruples. Subplots take on lives of their own, and there are multiple scenarios with a range of possible resolutions.

The fictional acrobatics are of such intensity they frequently if no doubt intentionally disrupt what suspension of disbelief the reader has managed to maintain, but they also undermine the book’s popular appeal and seem to have no purpose beyond themselves.

“The fictional acrobatics are an end in themselves” Farghali insists, “not a means to something else. You could put it down to taste. I like complexity in a novel. More than one time frame, more than one character, more than one voice. My wish is to alter my voice till it becomes a multiplicity of voices in the manner of the Portuguese writer Fernando PesÓo, although of course there is a huge difference and I am still a student compared to him. I managed that somewhat in previous works, I created parallel time frames, but in general I totally incline towards this kind of layering. I like The God of Small Things, for example, for that same reason.”

As in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter night’s a traveller (which is made up of novel openings), by the time you have turned the last page, you have read not a novel as such but a range of possible novels. More than any one character or story-line, you retain a sense of what an Arabic novel is, or what Farghali thinks it might be. More importantly, perhaps, you appreciate the disappearance of Mahfouz’s work as a metaphor for the general social-political malaise the book selectively and somewhat fitfully depicts: corruption, purposelessness, physical and mental repression, and the existential loss not only of the private but of the public self all come to mind. Mahfouz’s books stand in for Egypt and all it means.

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature – A Review

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature truly is a brief introduction, but for anyone who is unacquainted with modern Arabic Literature, this book is a good introduction. The book covers literature from the 20th century and primarily from the eastern part of the Arabic speaking world. The book focuses heavily on Egypt followed by Lebanon and Palestine, while other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria rate an occasional mention.

The book traces the development of modern Arabic literature from the early 20th century, finding its first exemplar in Taha Hussein in Egypt. What makes the literature modern is its break from Arabic poetry, which was the primary form of literature, towards prose based, in part, on western models. The early works, especially in Egypt, were concerned with defining what the new Arab states would be like and what is the role of tradition and western influence. Usually these works were written in a realistic manner. Illustrating that point, the book focuses on the works of Mahfouz and shows how his earlier works fit that model.

Latter as disappointment and dissolution came to the Arab world, it too was reflected in the literature. Authors like Al-ghitani began to use more post modern (although in his case he goes to much earlier times for source material) approaches to describe the problems besetting the countries of the authors, such as the the power of the west, the despotism of Arab regimes, and an uncertainty about the future.

Each author he covers, with the exception of Mahfouz, receives about a page or two of coverage. A Brief Introduction sticks to works, primarily novels and short fiction, available in English and originally written in Arabic. This approach leaves out authors such as Assia Djebar, who writes in French, and doesn’t examine the breath of a writers work which would be useful to non Arabic speakers. However, in reading the book a reader will find a great list of books to read, if the reader can find them.

While A Brief Introduction is a useful introduction its brevity makes for some choppy sections and the inclusion of poetry, a subject in itself, seems forced and might have been left for a different book. That said, his descriptions of the books he does write about make for a good guide and should arouse one’s curiosity.

The Mahfouz Dialogs

The Mahfouz Dialogs
Gamal Al-ghitani

Sometime ago I made it my mission to read everything in English written by Gamal Al-ghitani who some commentators have suggested is Naguib Mahfouz’s literary heir. Why I seized on this I don’t quite know, but it has led me to this interesting book, which gives a few insights into Al-ghitani as it examines the life of Mahfouz.

Structurally, it is the compendium of conversations and sayings Mahfouz had given over the last 30 years of his life, roughly from the early 70s when Al-ghitani met him to when he died in 2006. The short first and third sections read like compendiums of fragmentary texts, as if we were reading the remaining 50 pages of dozens of lost works from centuries past. Often phrased “then master said…”, they provide some insights into his views, often more liberal than those of his friends. The second section, though, is a collection of interviews between Mahfouz and Al-ghitani that Al-ghitani shaped into an autobiography, one that relived Mahfouz of the task of writing. The richness of the interviews produced an interesting work, not only an examination of the life and works of Mahfouz, but a examination of how Al-ghitani fits within the Egyptian literary world.

The interviews cover three general subjects: his life, his writing, and the Cairo Trilogy. Reading about his life, I was struck just how dedicated to writing. He never made much money from writing until he won the Nobel, but he continued on. It was something he had to do, made even more impressive since he stopped writing every summer because of an eye allergy. He typically plotted out his ideas before writing and only wrote when he had a story worked out. He was, though, influenced by European writers and read as many novels as he could. For years he was a poor civil servant and did his daily work in obscurity. His literary world, though, was quite rich and the book is filled with descriptions of the weekly meetings he had with his friends, many who were famous Egyptian thinkers and writers. Honestly, I was a little envious of the café culture that existed. When he grew older he became the sage of conversations and would often make the final pronouncement on a topic. The book makes quite clear how much Mahfouz was respected by all those he met with, even if he didn’t share the same political views.

For someone like myself who is not familiar with Cairo and Egyptian writing, The dialogs provide invaluable insight into the Cairo Trilogy and his other works. His descriptions of the alleys and streets in his novels are taken directly from the real places. Over time the alleys have changed (something Mahfouz was quite saddened by), but they still look the way he described in the books. For Mahfouz the parts of Cairo were more than just settings, but his home, the manifestation of everything he was.

As you get older, you both feel and comprehend that the place where your life started will also be your final refuge. As though recapitulating the cycle of life, your encounter a new world that seems, at first blush, not to be your world. It is not enough to understand any given word for it to become your won private world. Feeling truly at home in that world demands something deeper then that. We are heading toward a new world, but that world is assuredly not one in which I shall feel completely at home. I am at the end of a stage, of a life, let me say. What is the total life experience that I have undergone? You will find it incarnated in the old, by which I do not mean a return to the latter’s values, or a rejection of the new. I mean it in the sense of its being your own private refuge, because you have been at home in it and have understood it.

Finally, Al-ghitani reveals details about himself quite freely but often en contrast to Mahfouz. Al-ghitani, one gathers, is more conservative, or at least less western that Mahfouz. When talking about the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Mahfouz looked negatively at them, but Al-ghitani, one suspects, is in the camp of those say the US deserved it. I’m not 100% sure of this, but it is obvious from reading the book, and Al-ghitani’s comments, that they disagreed about the Egypt and its relations to the west. To his credit, Al-ghitani’s love for Mahfouz prevents him from trying rewrite those ideas.

The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz

The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz
Gamal Al-ghitani

If your are going to read the Cairo Trilogy, you should have this book in your lap as you read it. The pictures provide a beautiful look at the streets and alleys Mahfouz writes about. What makes the book so invaluable, is each photo is linked to a quote from a specific book and gives you a chance to see the world that so inspired Mahfouz. Unfortunately, the book is out of print. The last time I looked it was $68 on Amazon.