Banned by Egyptian authorities upon publication in 2008, on the grounds of “offending public morals,” 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 focus on corruption at the heart of the book has understandably made authorities in Egypt rather edgy, and may go some way towards explaining why it remains banned in the country. Although the text is available in English and Italian, and is soon to be published in Lebanon in Arabic, it is currently illegal to reprint Metro in Egypt. It is also highly unlikely that imports of the text will be allowed into the country.
Metro depicts the story of Shehab and Mustafa, two Egyptians disillusioned by their home country’s 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. 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 pathologically corrupt country — as we are transported through the story along the railway lines of the underground Metro 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 a young journalist, Dina. Taking up only one page in the entirety of the story, this scene outraged the authorities and resulted 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 could be conveyed in words. 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 – posing a sense of threat to authorities for that very reason: 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 so 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” – hence ousting Hosni Mubarak from his forty-year dictatorship of Egypt last year, and the current protests surrounding Mohamed Morsi’s attempts to grab power for himself at the expense of the Egyptian people.
Communication, freedom of expression, and human rights are all integral to the foundation of a society and to the cooperation of people and their countries around the world. But where do we draw the line when determining which freedom of expression can be allowed and which suppressed: a graphic novel depicting a corrupt government; or a video mocking and abusing the beliefs of another religion? This is a line that is too difficult to define, and even if it were clear, there would always be somebody trying to cross it.
A version of this article was originally published on The Culture Trip