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‘The Queue’ by Basma Abdel-Aziz
Courtesy: Basma Abdel Aziz

“The weather was hot and humid, a sticky summer, the sky nearly turning to steam at the shattering ascent of the sun. The street in front of them seemed as if it had just emerged from an invisible state of war: papers strewn everywhere, broken bottles scattered on the ground, boxes of garbage plucked out of the bins, piles of burned rubber tires still spouting smoke and occasionally flames…”

The backdrop to The Queue is not unfamiliar to those who have traversed Egypt’s urban and political landscape over the past two and a half years. In her debut novel, Basma Abdel Aziz constructs a dystopic vision of an unnamed country – yet one not far from current reality. It illuminates how absolute authority distorts reality, mobilizes others in its service through fear and manipulation, and fails to uphold the rights of even those faithful to it. Written in subtle dark humor, it offers a brilliant and timely portrait of the sinister nature of authoritarianism.

After a quashed popular uprising known only as the “Disgraceful Events,” a centralized authority called “the Gate” rose to power, monopolizing the media, manipulating the truth, and extending its control into the banality of people’s lives. “It wasn’t long before the Gate had made all procedures, paperwork, authorizations and permits – even those for eating and drinking – subject to its orders and control. Even window-shopping became subject to a fee paid by those out doing errands and strolling along the sidewalks.” Under the Gate’s rule, citizens are required to obtain its permission for even the most basic aspects of their daily affairs – yet the Gate never opens, and the queue in front of it grows longer with each passing day.

The novel’s main character is Yehia, a man who was shot during the Events and is waiting for the Gate’s permission to remove a bullet that remains lodged in his pelvis. Early in the novel he celebrates his 39th birthday, but is physically unable even to eat the cake his girlfriend has prepared: “It saddened him they couldn’t find another subject to talk about, just this bewildering situation which had become the center of discussion from dawn’s crepuscular light until the ominous hours of midday – he woke up and fell asleep and walked and ate and drank and deep inside his body was a bullet that refused to leave him.”

The novel itself is structured by Yehia’s medical records; each chapter opens with a document from his file, framing his personal struggles with the cold and impersonal gaze of the state. His health steadily declines, yet officials refuse to assist him, actively denying the very existence of the bullet.

“The Queue” conveys as much in style as it does in content: the majority of its events are contained within the queue, just as endless waiting monopolizes the lives of those standing in it. Citizens from all walks of life mix and wait in the sun: a revolutionary journalist, a sheikh, a poor woman concerned for her daughter’s health, even the cousin of a security officer killed in clashes with protestors. They spend their lives waiting for the slight hope that the Gate will someday open and address their requests, yet meanwhile the queue extends endlessly into the distance. For a novel set against the backdrop of an uprising, resistance emerges in subtle ways; supporting characters struggle to make ends meet, or speak out against daily injustices in the queue.

Ultimately it is Tarek, the principled doctor tracking Yehia’s slow decline who has “never crossed a red line in his life,” who represents the novel’s true protagonist. Tarek must decide whether to follow protocol as he has always done – a choice contrary to the interests of his patient and the vows he took as a doctor – or to disobey the law and risk his career to save Yehia’s life. With the perusal of each new medical document and the ominous discovery that information is missing from the file, Tarek becomes aware that neutrality is not an option in the face of the systematic injustice perpetrated by the Gate, and that blindly following procedure is a political choice in and of itself.

Published in January 2013, The Queue is one of the first books to be released by the Cairo office of the Dar al-Tanweer publishing house, but it is Abdel Aziz’s third book denouncing authoritarianism. A psychiatrist, artist, author, and researcher, Abdel Aziz has dedicated much of her writing to condemnations of Egypt’s security apparatus. In 2007 she published Beyond Torture, a psychological study of Egypt’s deep state. Her second book, The Temptation of Absolute Power, is a sociological and historical study exposing the effects of police violence on citizens in Egypt, and was serendipitously released a day before the revolution began in 2011.

The Queue is a novel evocative of George Orwell’s dystopias, of Kafkaesque surrealism, and of the dark satire of Sonallah Ibrahim’s The Committee. Yet set against the current political backdrop, it could perhaps best be described as an example of “dystopic realism.” In February, a month after The Queue was released, the mother of Mohamed al-Shafie gave testimony about her son, who was killed by a bullet when he went out to protest on the second anniversary of the revolution. “Every martyr killed by bullets is stripped of their identity and brought in as ‘unknown’ and they aren’t even recorded on their books,” she said. “My son took two bullets to the head and one in his chest. He was taken to Crescent Hospital in an ambulance and they operated on him to take the bullet out of his chest. Where is this bullet now?” Ultimately, The Queue resonates in serving as a mirror on reality.

While most writing engaging with the revolution has not strayed far from actual events, The Queue is both a chilling parallel to the present and a bleak vision of a possible future, and it speaks to the power of fiction to denounce injustice at times more acutely than documentary. It is a brilliant and necessary novel, continuing the work of the revolution in fiction while speaking out against the shadow of real authoritarianism everywhere.

Elisabeth Jaquette