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Let’s get a couple of things straight: Metro is not based on the Berlin song, nor is it a comic adaptation of the Eddie Murphy movie. It’s a “story of Cairo,” as the subtitle tells us, and it was written and drawn by Magdy El Shafee and translated into my bastard tongue by Chip Rossetti (it was originally published in 2007, presumably in Arabic, but it was banned upon publication and is no longer available in that language). It’s published by Metropolitan Books and costs $20.
On the first page of Metro, we’re introduced to Shehab, whose first thought is that he’s going to rob a bank. That’s not a bad beginning, and the El Shafee takes us back two weeks to explain how he got to this predicament. He and his friend, Mustafa, ran a software company, but through the machinations of Egyptians more powerful and richer than they, the company was run into the ground. They made a deal with a guy named Ghareeb, who now wants them to pay back the money he loaned them, and he wants the full amount. According to Shehab, they really have no other choice. Before they rob the bank (and they do, in a kind of haphazard way), they meet a construction mogul who wants to hire them, but he’s killed before they get the chance. Shehab chases away his killer and the man tells him something cryptic about a “stable,” and so there’s a layer of mystery added to the whole thing. Does this murder have anything to do with their bank robbery? Well, maybe. What about the blind shoe-shine man who shows up occasionally? What’s his deal? And of course there’s a woman, Dina, who’s a muckraking journalist. She and Shehab are romantically involved, but can he trust her? So there’s a lot going on in this book.
Ultimately, however, the plot doesn’t really matter. That might seem strange in a book where there’s so much going on, but El Shafee isn’t really interested in the trappings of the plot. 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. The police are lazy and corrupt – they hire thugs to beat up homosexuals at a protest because they can’t be seen doing it themselves, for instance. The media is a tool of the regime, as a reporter bullies a suspect in the murder, trying to get him to confess (even though it’s not the killer). Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the comic is that it doesn’t read like a typical thriller – El Shafee goes out of his way to show how incompetent the regime is. Shehab is never in much danger because of the information he has acquired, and the conspiratorial aspects of the book are woefully undramatic. He is in danger mostly because he owes Ghareeb money and Ghareeb has a posse who can beat him up, or because he spends time at pro-democratic rallies and could get caught up in the beatings administered by the police or the thugs hired by the police. Sucks to be him, I guess.
I don’t claim to be an expert on modern Egypt (I know, right – what am I doing writing this review then???), but I did visit in 2006, right before this book is set, and it was interesting to notice the small things, like the massive armed presence on the streets of Cairo. Obviously, the Egyptians cater to tourists, but it was still a different vibe than a democracy, and El Shafee captures that feeling very well. Shehab and the people he knows are perfectly normal people and it’s not like they live in fear for their safety all the time, but El Shafee does a nice job implying the presence of the government and how it has corrupted society. The bank doesn’t report the robbery, for instance, because it would be embarrassing to the regime. The shoe-shine man, Wannas, asks Shehab not to yell that name because it would tell people he’s Christian, and that might get him in trouble. Even the fact that this remains banned in Egypt because on one page, Shehab and Dina have sex (underneath a cover) and we see Dina’s breasts, is an indication of how Mubarek tried to suppress any conflicting opinions. Shehab makes the point very clearly more than once – the Egyptians are in a cage, and he understands that they want to be in a cage. He also realizes that all he has to do is leave. This is a fairly bleak comic, even with an ambiguous “happy” ending, because El Shafee indicts the entire populace – they just don’t care to confront the corruption because they think that’s the way Egypt is. It’s very interesting that such a cynical book came out very shortly before Mubarek was toppled from power – I wonder how El Shafee feels about the revolution in Egypt, as even afterward, his book is still banned. Of course, one of the good things about the book is that El Shafee takes a specific case – Egypt – and makes it universal; one could make the case that most citizens, especially in this country, have tuned out because they accept corruption in the government. So while the book is ostensibly about Egypt, it feels more universal as well, which is a nice trick.
I’ve written before that I like it when an artist sets a book in a specific place and gives us a sense of that place, and El Shafee does that with Cairo. His style is very interesting – his characters are very unique and specific, and El Shafee even adds a sense of humor to the book through the artwork, as some characters almost seem to be caricatures. Some of the scenes are poorly drawn – mostly the action scenes – but overall, the book is nice to look at, as El Shafee does a fine job giving us a good sense of the city and how Shehab moves through it. The book is only 91 pages long, but like most European comics, El Shafee packs a lot onto each page, so it feels longer and invites us to linger over the drawings. Some of El Shafee’s storytelling seems weak, but I’m not sure if that’s because the book was written in a different language and I’m not reading it correctly. Mostly, though, he gives us a city packed with interesting characters and crowded streets, and it’s probably not a coincidence that there feels to be a total lack of privacy in Cairo – the apartments are small and filled with relatives, the streets are narrow, and the buildings feel claustrophobic. This lack of privacy is a physical manifestation of one of El Shafee’s themes – even in a regime as incompetent as this, there’s always someone watching. The title of the book comes from the subways in Cairo, and El Shafee uses the map of the metro to separate the chapters, but there’s something else about it, too: the metro is representative of the cage in which the people live, but at the end, it’s also one of the few places where Shehab and Dina can feel like they’re alone. The metro is a place where people can get on a train and disappear from view, and that’s what Shehab hopes to do. El Shafee draws a very nice final two pages, which makes this a bit more explicit. It’s not a coincidence that in the final two pages, El Shafee actually pulls away from his characters and allows us to see some space. Suddenly, Shehab and Dina might have a chance.
I’d Recommend Metro because El Shafee does such a nice job with the tone of the book. If you’re expecting a really good plot, you might want to skip this, because El Shafee just isn’t interested in that. He’s much more interested in giving us a comic that shows what kind of world people like Shaheb have to deal with. The Mubarek regime doesn’t seem terribly evil, so it’s difficult to show the heroism of people standing up to it. It’s definitely oppressive, but in far more subtle ways than we would see in a story about Nazi Germany or even a place like North Korea. This makes Metro much more like an absurdist work, as Shehab rails against a machine that seems incompetent yet somehow retains all this power. It’s a fascinating comic in that regard, because it seems far more difficult to rally against a government like Mubarek’s, and even though Shehab isn’t as politically active as Dina is, he’s still trying to work against the regime, even if it is for more selfish reasons. I encourage you to check the book out, because it really is quite good.
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