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Graphic novel about Egyptian life gets English publication

Magdy El Shafee's Metro is still not available in Egypt, where it's set.

It was the Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz who first introduced many westerners to Egyptian literature, but since events in Cairo started making international headlines, Egyptian books are back in vogue in the anglophone world.

Many of them are straightforward memoirs or academic accounts of the nation's history, but as graphic novels proliferate in Cairo, they are starting to attract international attention as well.

Tarek Shahin's comic strips for The Daily News Egypt on the end of the Mubarak regime were turned into a book, Rise, published last year and now - four years after it was written - Magdy El Shafee's graphic novel Metro gets an English language release, despite still not being available in Egypt itself.

It paints a vivid picture of the daily grind of life in Egypt earlier this decade, and weaves in romance and adventure.

The book, which has never been published in English before, was released yesterday by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of the publisher Macmillan, and it is eagerly anticipated by many. The international writing not-for-profit Words Without Borders reported in April that it had received more enquiries about Metro than any other book it had written about.

It helps, publicity-wise, of course, that the book was banned in Egypt on publication, and El Shafee was fined in a high-profile case that illustrated the frustrations of life under Mubarak.

If you missed all the furore about Metro the first time around, here's a guide to the book and its difficult history.

The book

Mubarak's Egypt is rife with corruption and insecurity in this frenetic graphic novel, in which Shehab, an angry young software designer who gets on the wrong side of a loan shark, decides the only avenue open to him is bank robbery.

In the process, Shehab and his sidekick Mustafa stumble across a secret with far-reaching consequences, and team up with an idealistic journalist to uncover political corruption that reaches the highest levels of Egyptian society.

The art is full of details of a buzzing, fast-paced Cairo, and an anti-hero drawn with fluid strokes. El Shafee doesn't flinch from depicting sex and violence and using harsh language. "Today let bones be smashed like the dreams of our youth!" Shehab cries in one panel.

The backstory

Shortly after publication, Egyptian authorities confiscated all copies of Metro and banned the publisher Malameh from printing any more. Booksellers were ordered to deny all knowledge of the book; both El Shafee and Malameh were put on trial for "disturbing public morals," and eventually fined 5,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh3,050).

The story was reported in The National and elsewhere, and Italian and German publishers decided to release translated versions of the novel. Metro has also been published in Arabic in Lebanon, but it is still unavailable in Egypt, something El Shafee is hoping to remedy. He is also hoping to receive an official apology from the state.

The author

Born in Libya in 1961, El Shafee originally worked in marketing for a pharmaceutical company (a job he "couldn't bear", according to his website) before attending a comics workshop at the American University in Cairo in 2001.

His comic-book series for kids, Alaa Eddin, was published in 2003, and he started drawing strips for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dustour in 2005. Metro was his first adult graphic novel, and was initially published in 2008.

He recently founded a comics magazine called El-Doshma, which focuses on politics. Its slogan is "Know Your Rights", and an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights introduces each story. He says his aim is "to launch comics as an art and a fine sort of literature in the Arabic speaking countries and the world".

The context

The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age for Egyptian comic books, but the past few years have seen a revival of the art form, and a new emphasis on adult readers.

Comics magazines include El Shafee's own, the award-winning Tok Tok and the anthology Autostrade, to which El Shafee has contributed. Autostrade's publisher, Division, is a new Egyptian publishing house focusing specifically on graphic novels, and in March last year, Egypt's first comic-book store, Kryptonite Toys, opened in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

The verdict

The time is finally right for El Shafee's graphic novel, with the world's eyes turning to Cairo after Egypt's first free presidential election, and the book doesn't disappoint. The translation is terse, rhythmic, and feels contemporary.

"I don't know how all this anger built up inside of me," Shehab says on one page. "All I know is everyone was always some place, and I was some place else."

The composition and art is full of momentum too, with panels constantly shifting size and shape, and plenty of movement. Reading panels from right to left can be confusing for anyone more familiar with western comics, but anyone who wants a more personal view on recent events in Cairo should pick up a copy.

Updated: June 6, 2012 04:00 AM

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