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

Miramar
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