In 2013, Magdy el Shafee, an Egyptian graphic novel artist and pharmacist, went to downtown Cairo to protest against the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) under the Muslim Brotherhood. The FJP wanted to get rid of more than 3,000 judges of the Egyptian judiciary who had been appointed during Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. Like others, el Shafee saw this as another way to repress the people and ensure power by another party.
El Shafee said, “I went peacefully…Police surrounded us, and they caught and beat me.” El Shafee and 39 others were imprisoned; El Shafee was accused of attempting to murder three police officers, among other (untrue) charges.
Two months after the protests, the Brotherhood’s president, Mohamed Morsi, would be brought down by the Egyptian Military.
Another undercurrent is the repression of freedom of speech and censorship of written works – authors, journalists, and artists who critique the Egyptian state are sometimes jailed for their words and representations.
But even in 2014, Ahmed Naji, a graphic novelist and writer of Using Life, was jailed after an older man claimed he had “palpitations” after reading of excerpt of Naji’s book. Interestingly, the novel had already passed Egypt’s censorship book and Egyptian critics praised the book. Naji was sentenced to jail with charges of “violating public modesty.”
El-Shafee’s Metro is considered as Egypt’s first graphic novel, and, in fact, the first graphic novel of the Arab world. The novel tells of two men who are trying to live in, and reveal, the corruptness of Mubarak-era Cairo. They do so by trying to rob a bank.
While reading Metro, I didn’t understand all the polticial undercurrents the story represented, but I felt the “cage,” as the men in the story called it. I felt just as shackled and held back as the men did, and felt just as violated as Dina, a female character in the book was by a group of up-to-no-good men.
Metro showcases protesters in downtown Cairo, of which Dina is a regular participant of. The story illustrates the police crackdowns against the protestors, of the murders and crimes committed that no one seems to care about, unless it involves rich men. Sexual harassment, as Dina experienced, is explored, and the corruptness of businessmen, including bankers, is a dark undercurrent of the entire story. All of this against the backdrop of the pro-democratic protests occurring in Egypt in 2008, where activists spoke up about the gap between rich and poor, rising food costs, and low salaries.
In downtown Cairo, where the protests were held, riot officers in Tahrir Square lined up as several hundred protesters chanted “Down, down Hosni Mubarak.”
This is illustrated in Metro, with protestors showing up throughout the story, chanting lines such as “No justice on the street! Nothing for the poor to eat!”
As one of the main characters in Metro, Shehab, says,
“We’re all living in one big cage…The cage is open, but nobody leaves…We all have to leave the cage together.”
When Metro was written, Egypt banned it and the work wasn’t available in Arabic – only English and Italian. Under the Brotherhood, though, in 2012, it appeared in Arabic and was available in bookstores.
Published in 2008 but banned for ” “offending public morals”, Metro was only available in Italian and English, and not available in its original-written language, Arabic. But in August 2012 — under the Brotherhood — it reappeared in bookstores in its original Arabic. But, it still wasn’t readily available in Egypt at that point.
“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.”
In 2017, Metro was republished in August 2012 by The Comic Shop, “the first publishing house in the Arab world specialized in comic books for adults.” In Egypt, Metro is now being sold at Kotob Khan, which advertises itself as the only shop in the country carrying copies.
With its noir tone and black-and-white images, when reading Metro, it was like being in another world. The corruption, the anger, it latched onto me and it made my blood boil. Reading Metro, if you know some of the political undercurrents, will make you just as angry as Shehab and the others. It’s not wonder people protest, and no wonder the Arab Spring occurred.
Read more on Metro and its political milieu.