"I always liked the graphic novel as an art medium", said comic book artist Magdy El Shafee, while sitting in his office in a posh Cairo suburb. "I always wanted to read an Arabic graphic novel, so I thought, why not write it?" he told al-Shorfa.
"And now, the Egyptian courts have found me guilty of imagination. How crazy is that?"
As the author of "Metro", Egypt’s first graphic novel, El Shafee said he expected to be hailed as a pioneer effort in a medium that is still in its infancy. Instead, his novel was banned, its copies confiscated, and he was embroiled in a months-long legal battle that he lost.
On November 21st, the misdemeanor court of Qasr El Nile issued a ruling in a 2008 case against Magdy El Shafee and publisher Mohamed Sahrqawy. The court backed the confiscation of the novel, and also determined that El Shafee and Sahrqawy should each pay a fine of 5,000 pounds.
The graphic novel is set in chaotic modern Cairo pulsing with financial and social insecurity. Shihab, a young software designer, is forced into debt by corrupt officials and decides to get out of his dilemma by robbing a bank with the help of Mustafa, his loyal but reluctant sidekick. He is caught in a vortex of financial and political corruption. The only relief comes from Dina, an idealistic journalist, activist, and eventually his love interest.
The background is the 2005-2006 period of political unrest in Egypt which El Shafee claims inspired him. The story is saturated with political commentary on contemporary Egypt, which is depicted as a deeply dysfunctional country whose citizens take government corruption and repression as a given.
Metro was published in January 2008 by Sharqawy’s fledgling publishing house, Malaamih. Sharqawy is a political activist who was detained by police in May 2006 and reportedly tortured in detention. On April 6th this year, he was arrested along with other activists suspected of calling for a general strike. While in prison on April 13th, the Vice Squad (a body of the Interior Ministry) stormed his publishing house and confiscated all copies of Metro they could find. They then proceeded to withdraw the book from Cairo bookstores and issued arrest warrants for Sharqawy and El Shafee.
Initially, the Court of South Cairo ruled that copies of the novel were to be confiscated and it was to be taken off the market. El Shafee and Sahrqawy were to be prosecuted for "creating publications contrary to public decency". The case went to court on March 2009. The prosecution objected to the novel's language which includes dialogue between characters that use colloquial language. The Vice Squad found that some words were "abusive".
"They cite the use of profanity in the story, but when they questioned me they were asking more about the story’s political context. I guess they are okay with profanity as long as its not political, which is incredibly amusing," said El Shafee.
Despite the verdict against him, El Shafee remains optimistic about the future of graphic novels in Egypt and considers this verdict a minor setback. He is appealing the verdict, and the appeal is scheduled for December 30th this year.
"Fine! We lost the first round. No problem. We will not lose the second or the battle for that matter," he said with a smile.