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Banned Egyptian Graphic Novel Coming Out in English

March 28, 2011

English translation of "Metro"

I’m looking forward to adding Magdy El Shafee’s graphic novel “Metro” to the list of novels I give my students to read. Several news sources, including CNN announced that it will soon be published in English by the Metropolitan Books division of MacMillan. Alas, it probably won’t be out in time for this year’s summer sprint course as you can’t even buy an advance copy on Amazon yet (although they have a page for the unpublished book).

In the “Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East” class that I teach every summer, I always assign the students to read a popular Middle Eastern novel in translation. The idea is to get them to read it as a cultural artifact. Students read the novel, analyze its themes and symbols, and research its authorship and context. Then they write a short paper trying to relate it to concepts we’re learning in the class.


Page from the original Arabic edition

From what I’ve seen and heard of the novel, it is extremely timely, since it covers Egyptian youth culture, police brutality, and the Mubarak regime’s crackdown on peaceful protest. It tells the story of a young computer engineer named Shihab who falls victim to socioeconomic injustice, political corruption and police brutality. He becomes so frustrated that he decides to rob a bank to pay off his debts.

The book was published by Malamih Publishing House in 2008, but it was yanked from shelves in Egypt 2009. The Court of Misdemeanors on Qasr el Nil upheld the book’s ban in 2010 and fined the publisher and creator each a hefty EGP 5,000.

Magdy al-Shafee is a blogger and artist/cartoonist of Libyan descent. He’s no shebab al-Facebook (he’s my age) and has published in many venues, including the children’s magazine Alaa al-Din (about which I write at length in Chapter Two of Connected in Cairo). But like many Arabic writers he has to moonlight to make a living, in his case as a pharmacist.

Arabic copies are supposed to be available in Lebanon and UAE, but if so their buyers must really like them because I haven’t found used copies on e-bay or Amazon. The distinguished translator Humphrey Davies translated a few pages into English for the web site Words Without Borders. An Italian translation by Ernesto Pagano came out in December 2010 from Il Sirente (you can see a video about the Italian edition here).

Hopefully he earned enough to cover the fine.

The big question is: Will it come out in Egypt? CNN quotes El Shaffee as saying, “I’m sorry that my novel is available in other countries but not available to my own people.”

El Shafee has appealed to the new Ministry of Culture, but says that because his book was banned by court order, the courts will have to be consulted. He said: “I’m waiting to hear if the Minister of Culture will allow it to be published again. They will have to consult with the courts. I’m hoping there may be some kind of apology.”

The book was officially banned under Articles 178 and 198 of the Egyptian Penal Code, which prohibit the printing or distribution of publications which contravene public decency, and authorize the confiscation of publications which contain offenses to public morals.

There are two drawings in the book that might be seen as violating the acts: one depicting a couple making love in bed (albeit concealed beneath the sheets) and a drawing of a half-naked woman. There are also a few curse words scattered through the pages: fag, whore, and bastard. The book carried a label on the front cover reading ‘For Adults Only’.

Most commentators on the book argue that it was really banned because it portrayed the frustrations of Egyptian contemporary life, the brutality of the police and the deepening frustration of the growing numbers of unemployed and underemployed youth in the face of all this.

It’s certainly true that public decency was often broadly construed by Egyptian officials. I was once told by customs officials that a package of mine full of Christmas presents sent from the US had had a video removed for this reason. When I pressed the customs official, he leered at me and said “dirty movies.”

Finding it hard to believe my daughter’s godparents had sent her pornography for Christmas, I queried them.

The banned film was Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks 1998)

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