Software designer and computer network hacker, Shehab, is trapped in a self-proclaimed ‘cage’ that is the Egyptian government and social system of complacency. Following the demise of his programming business due to multinational takeover, he is left bankrupt and in debt to a local thug boss who elbowed his way into Shehab’s affairs. Frustrated, jobless, and pursued by those who desire payback, Shehab decides his only option to escape the rat trap of his surroundings is robbing the bank that had formerly hired him for his efforts.
Shehab and his semi-reluctant friend and business partner, Mustafa, begin to organize a rough plan for the robbery, but, are met with a barrage of conflict on the streets of Cairo that continually antagonizes their goals. Shehab’s girlfriend, Dina, is accosted by punks. His elderly uncle, Wannas, has his shoeshine business taken away for back taxes and left to beg for a living. Pro-democracy rallies erupt in violence as he walks the streets, and a kind benefactor who reaches out to help him is suddenly murdered before his own eyes. With Shehab avoiding the police for his debt and the circumstances that continue to follow him at every turn, the ‘cage’ he is living in becomes smaller and deadlier every minute. He must find a way out. He needs money, he needs safety, and he needs to find the truth behind his benefactor’s murder. Shehab is an educated man, with incredible stick fighting skills, yet, what does this offer when you are up against a corrupt police force and media? Even his neighbors, the citizens of Cairo, are an obstacle to his goals. Their ‘blindness’ of their governments exploitation causes them to go ‘numb.’ “Nothing has any affect on them,” Shehab explains, “they put up with so much.” They are happy to turn in their fellow-man for just a bit of ‘cheese.’ The underground metro system, of which Shehab helped design software, provides an exclusive sense of security for his attempt at deliverance.
According to a report by CNN‘s Catriona Davies, the first publication of ‘Metro‘, in 2008, was seized by the government and its author, Magdy El Shafee, was interrogated overnight in a police station. There followed a lengthy trial which ended up being a conviction of ‘disturbing public morals’ and constituting of a $1000 fine. The real reason, El Shafee believes, for the trial was that the novel harshly criticized and ridiculed the public policies of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Currently, the graphic is still unavailable in El Shafee’s own country. El Shafee now works as a pharmacist, and continues his appeals to the courts and Ministry of Culture to have his book republished in Egypt.
Words Without Borders conducts a nice interview with, El Shafee, concerning his work and the censorship taking place in Egypt.
The black, white and grey artwork in ‘Metro: A Story of Cairo’ can sometimes appear quite sketchy and unrefined. It would be nice to witness more color, with more sense for the scenery and architecture to appeal to a western culture that may not be familiar with the city and country that the novel predicates itself within. Plotting the story has its difficulties, as well. Shehab’s adventure is not necessarily what El Shafee is trying to produce, rather, his novel is an examination of his homeland, with Shehab portraying the microscope. Greg Burgas, of Comic Book Resources, explains it this way, “The plot is there to serve the themes he’s developing, which have to do with living in a dictatorship (or, perhaps more fairly, an oligarchy). The book is about the Mubarek regime in Egypt more than it’s about a bank robbery or a murder victim, and Shehab is at the center of it – a young man who feels that he can’t get out from under his debt, can’t get a loan because he’s not rich and powerful, and can’t get a job because he has no connections. The plot exists simply so El Shafee can examine how the regime treats its citizens.”
Personally, I look forward to seeing more of El Shafee’s work, and others like him, producing graphic novels in cultures I would like to explore and be educated about via this great medium.
Metro: A Story of Cairo, written by Magdy El Shafee, translated by Chip Rossetti, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, English language translation copyright 2012, originally published by Malamih Publishing House 2007