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Egypt's first graphic novel captures the zeitgeist

Words and ideas seem to float out of Magdy El Shafee like steam under the lid of a saucepan – a sort of gentle chaos surrounds the pharmacist turned graphic novel artist. This is possibly because his thinking is frequently done out and loud, a patter of words which are both the footsteps marking his …


Words and ideas seem to float out of Magdy El Shafee like steam under the lid of a saucepan – a sort of gentle chaos surrounds the pharmacist turned graphic novel artist. This is possibly because his thinking is frequently done out and loud, a patter of words which are both the footsteps marking his journey to the point he wishes to make, and commentaries on the flights of fantasy by which he is occasional seized.

He tells me about the time he put on a white winter jacket which made him look like an astronaut when he zipped it up. “All I needed was a helmet! I told me family ‘look at me I look like an astronaut.’ What did they say? I wondered. “They laughed – I don’t know why.

“Metro is El Shafee’s (and Egypt’s) first graphic novel for adults. Part thriller, part love story, part socio-political commentary, it tells the story of Shihab and Mostafa – young men who rob a bank as a way out of bankruptcy – through beautifully rendered illustrations of Cairo.

El Shafee was quick to disabuse me of the notion that “Metro was born out of a moment’s flash of inspiration.

“Artists talk about inspiration descending on them but that’s bullshit. In 2003 the idea came to me. A friend of mine was broke and left the country – this gave me the clue and I thought, ‘OK, suppose if they’re two people.’ The idea came to me that I would portray one as assertive and his friend is nice, funny and so on.

But why a comic?

“All my life I’ve been interested to know why people only tell stories with words, not pictures. Once I found a magazine that does comics for adults, and I really liked it, I said ‘that’s something I can do’. This was early on, but at that time Egyptian society didn’t accept it. Now because of more communication and everything there’s a generation of people who grew up with comics.

El Shafee says that the turning point came in 2003 when he took part in an American University in Cairo comic workshop which provided him with the “keys to graphic novel design.

“I wanted to find the keys to drawing comics – such as the storyboard. This is different altogether to a classical drawing. It depends on something like the editing in cinema which separates cinema as the seventh art; the storyboard separates comics as the ninth art. You have a space, and events which happen very quickly, or very slowly, and you divide up the page according to this. I learnt to do this in the workshop, he said.

El Shafee quickly won support for his drawings in the Al-Ahram release “Alaa Eddin , a children’s comic, where his “Yasmine and Amina series was published. There he met Ahmed El-Labad, designer of the iconic covers of books produced by Egyptian publishing house Merit, who El Shafee describes as the “reference for visual art who has constantly strived “establish Egyptian comics.

Extracts of “Metro were also published in the independent daily Al Dostour, edited by Ibrahim Eissa.

“But I blame Eissa for something, El Shafee said. “With El-Labad I always felt like a student, that I was learning with him, but Eissa made me feel like a master. That was shocking for me, astonishing, I thought to myself ‘what’s this! I’m drawing comics!’

It is perhaps “Metro’s overtly political tone which appealed to outspoken government critic Eissa.

The novel is a visual record of the zeitgeist, filled with poverty, sexual frustration, corruption and abuse, drawn from the events which surrounded El Shafee when he was plotting the novel.

“At that time there were demonstrations against hereditary succession.sexual assault of journalists in protests.the war in Lebanon.I thought that all these things would make a really great backdrop for a story like this, El Shafee explained.

“I used to go and see my daughter Yasmine every Friday and during the journey there and back my thoughts would be lucid – I’d be happy that I’d seen Yasmine and I’d think about these things, he continued.

El Shafee says that he did not, however, set out to make “Metro political.

“I didn’t intend it to be political – I wanted it to be a thriller. But I’m talking about events which happen and which have been happening since 2003 and 2004. Politicians have this point of view about the population, have data which is wrong. It’s impossible that someone like [Prime Minister] Nazif has concluded that he should get rid of subsidised food for the poor – it’s wrong. These people don’t have a strategic outlook, they don’t think from a health aspect, an education aspect or an economic aspect.That’s the reality, he said.

The fate of “Metro’s protagonists is dictated by these circumstances, particularly that of the gifted but unlucky Shihab.

“After I had completed one third of the book I redid the story and altered Shihab’s appearance.He had been bolder, more violent. I wanted the reader not to sympathize with him at first, and then little by little discover that he has a heart, is trustworthy and in the end is cheated. In the end, with his talents, his power and everything, he wants to do something real but he has no option but to rob a bank, El Shafee said.

But how will readers react to seeing the harsh reality of Egyptian society presented to them? Do recent Egyptian films like “Hena Maysara and “Heyya Fawda indicate a greater readiness, or desire, to see previously taboo aspects of Egyptian life?

“No one in the world likes to see the reality of themselves in the mirror. I don’t like someone to stand in front of me and say, ‘Magdy: you are a bastard’ but another part of us – including societies – likes to see the nastier aspects of ourselves, he responded.

“Metro is published by Dar El Malameh which opened in 2007 and which has gained a reputation for publishing first-time, young authors, but El Shafee’s experience with the new-found publishing house hasn’t been altogether pleasant.

“It was a big mistake, he said about signing on with Malameh. “That was my biggest mistake. Apart from the fact that he [Mohamed El-Sharqawy, Malameh’s manager] doesn’t know how to distribute, launch or market a book, I think he wants to promote his own agenda, and that’s a pity because I wanted to support him.

Two weeks ago “Metro (LE 60) was only available in the Townhouse Art Gallery’s shop. Independent bookshop Diwan (whose young, wealthy customer base would likely be drawn to the book) were not stocking it and had no record of it in their stock catalogue.

El Shafee says that he will look for a different publisher to carry the soft back edition of his comic.

The Townhouse is currently hosting a workshop given by El Shafee in which 12 young artists are collaborating to produce a graphic novel.

The author is barely able to contain his enthusiasm about the workshop.

“Things are very exciting, they’re making something really exciting, he said. “We’re looking for funds to publish it.

It seems this is merely of many plans up his sleeve.

“I’m having a little break, apart from the workshop which I didn’t realise would turn into something real, it’s like a dream come true. It might turn into a job, with weekly meetings until next summer. Then I’ll be back for Alaa Eddin and Al Dostour – something like paying them back for their dedication and the efforts they made for me, he said.

“Afterwards, I have two ideas for two graphic novels, one based on autobiographical events, mostly affairs – I may get divorced for the second time. So I’ve postponed it for a while. Extracts of the novel, translated into English by Humphrey Davies, are available at: http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=ShaffeeMetro

Topics: Gamma Islamiya

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