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Review: Basma Abdel Aziz’s “The Queue”

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Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel is called The Queue, but it might just as easily be titled The Gate because the two are thoroughly interlocked in her account of coping with bureaucracy and intimidation in a post-Arab Spring country. It’s probably Egypt, the writer’s place of birth, where she lives in spite of the damning picture of the place presented in her story. Nor is this any surprise. People with expertise about the country tell me that life in Egypt today under Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi is much more frightening than it was during Hosni Mubarak’s time. The Queue similarly makes it obvious that protests do little to improve people’s lives. Other writers have suggested this, but Aziz takes the aftermath of an attempted people’s revolt to a new level of frustration and horror.

There’s been a people’s uprising that the government refers to as the “Disgraceful Events.” People were shot and killed—though apparently not a huge number—but important enough that the government has tried to downplay its significance and, in order to thwart further unrest, instigated a brutal system of surveillance, as well as a bureaucratic system that requires a relentless pursuit of governmental forms—all channeled through a new government office known as the Gate. (In downtown Cairo, there’s an enormous government building, the Mogamma, no doubt the model for the Gate.)

“At first no one knew what this immense and awe-inspiring structure was, which simply offered its name—the Main Gate of the Northern Building—as pretext for its existence. Yet it was not long before people realized the importance it played in their thequeuelives. As the ruler faded from the public eye, it was the Gate that increasingly began to regulate procedures, imposing rules and regulations necessary to set various affairs in motion. Then one day the Gate issued an official statement dealing its jurisdiction, which extended over just about everything anyone could think of…. As time passed, the Gate began to introduce a few new policies, and soon it was the singular source of all regulations and decrees. Before long, it controlled absolutely everything, and made all procedures, paperwork, authorizations and permits—even for eating and drinking—subject to its control.”

As the beginning of the story, a man named Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed, 39 years old, is waiting in the queue—perhaps a couple of kilometers from the Gate—for a permit: the Authorization for the Extraction and Removal of Bullets. He’s got a bullet inside him, near his pelvis, that a doctor did not remove when first attending to his injury. This is, absurd, of course, but without that authorization, the bullet will remain inside him. The doctor, Tarek Fahmy, attending to him keeps up-to-date with the patient’s needs because of the file he has been provided, though he fully understands that time is crucial. The bullet can’t remain there forever. Nor can Yehya endure a very long wait standing in the queue, waiting for his turn to enter the Gate.

Sound familiar? It’s a little like Franz Kafka’s The Castle or works by George Orwell, depicting invisible networks that control people’s lives, though the people never fully understand what they have to do to have their most basic needs fulfilled. In The Queue, no one in the line leading up to the Gate appears to gain entrance to the intimidating structure. People spend days, weeks, even months waiting in line for advancement—night and day. In short, waiting has become their entire way of life. Dr. Tarek frequently checks his folder about Yehya and discovers that even though that folder is locked inside his office, someone is adding details to it, keeping him up-to-date about the patient’s deterioration. Yehya himself, and two of his friends from his university days, attempt to speed up the process for his paperwork, but all to no avail.

Then, slowly, what becomes apparent is that the authorities do not want the bullet extracted because if it should fall into the hands of the wrong people, it would be obvious that the bullet was fired from a gun that belonged to someone within the government’s security force. Dr. Tarek can’t understand how the file keeps changing, including his own plan to remove the bullet surreptitiously so that the patient does not die (increasingly Yehya is oozing blood). There are hints that all citizens are being observed at all times, their movements as well as their phone conversations. In the most absurd incident in the novel, the Gate announces that the Disgraceful Events did not actually happen. They were part of a blockbuster movie that was staged and being filmed.

The sense of total repression that people feel from authorative states is chillingly detailed in Basma Abdel Aziz’s frightful account of what it like to live today in any number of Middle Eastern states. Yes, she takes these incidents to the absurd because survival can only occur if individuals can brush off repressive activities and convince themselves that the Gate will open tomorrow and people will complete the paperwork necessary for their basic needs, that life can return to what it was. It seems hugely significant to me that it’s a woman who has written this book, dared to point her finger in the eyes of authority in spite of what I fear are very genuine threats to her own well-being.

Basma Abdel Aziz: The Queue
Trans. by Elisabeth Jaquette
Melville House, 218 pp., $15.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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