The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

I’ve always considered myself as someone who reads quite widely, particularly with the variety of translated literature that’s on my shelf. However, when Melville House Press kindly offered me a copy of their new book “The Queue” (released today) I realised that there was a gap; the book is by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz, and I’m struggling to think of another writer from that country whom I’ve read.

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Abdel Aziz is described by MHP as ‘an Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, and visual artist. Early on, she earned the nickname ‘the rebel’ for her indefatigable struggle against injustice, torture, and corruption. A weekly columnist for Egypt’s al-Shorouk newspaper, she represents a fresh and necessary female voice in Arabic journalism and fiction. She is the winner of the Sawiris Cultural Award, the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces award, and the Ahmed Bahaa-Eddin Award. She lives in Cairo.’

That’s quite an inspirational CV, and “The Queue” is her first novel. Set in a nameless middle eastern country, it tells the story of a group of people living under a totalitarian regime, ruled by The Gate. Emerging from a time of unrest, the country was suddenly brought back into line by the mysterious Gate and its forces, and it issues decrees and tightly controls what happens. Applications for anything, from the most minor thing to major needs, have to be made there in person, and as The Gate has not opened for some time, a queue has built up of people waiting in line to make their requests.

Most important amongst them is Yehya, the main character, a wounded man carrying a bullet inside him that could be considered as the most important bullet in the world. Yehya received it during the Disgraceful Events, a recent popular uprising; but despite its existence, the authorities deny that any bullets were fired on citizens, and mysteriously all records, x-rays or knowledge of bullets has disappeared. Nevertheless, Yehya is gradually bleeding to death, and if he doesn’t get treatment his condition will deteriorate irreparably.

But to get the required permits for the operation, Yehya will have to join the queue and make a request, and so he does. The queue itself is a kind of microcosm for society, really, with a variety of people in it waiting patiently (or impatiently!) to make their requests. There is Um Mabrouk, a mother desperate to obtain treatment for one of her surviving children; Ines, a teacher who doesn’t know when to keep quiet and often says the wrong thing; the man in the galabeya, a fervent preacher with strong views about how women should behave; Shalaby, who regards his dead cousin Mahfouz as an unsung hero and is petitioning to have this recognised; and the head nurse from the hospital, Alfat, who may or may not be able to help track down Yehya’s x-ray. Circling the queue and dropping in and out of it are Amani, Yehya’s feisty girlfriend, Nagy, his best friend and Ehab, a curious journalist who recognises that the bullet may be a crucial piece of evidence.

A whole little world builds up around the queue, with many spending most of their time there. But all the time they are being watched – and recorded, too, as a phone scam by the Violet Telecoms Company reveals. Some are bold in their condemnation of the way things are in the country, others retreat into religion and very little is certain in this shifting landscape. But the most important thing is whether Yehya will manage to get treatment in time to remove his bullet…

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“The Queue” is a fascinating, quite wonderful read; it contains a vision of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with endless paperwork, permits, rules and regulations as well as the titular queue itself, endless and constantly expanding. Set alongside this is the Orwellian totalitarian state; controlling everything, denying events which have happened, and with seemingly limitless powers to observe and record the behaviour of its citizens. The framing structure of the book is Yehya’s medical file, a source of obsession to the doctor Tarek, which he constantly refers back to whilst trying to decide if he dares help Yehya. The various documents in it are chilling in their differences from reality, and at one point the file almost seems to be writing itself… Tarek himself is pivotal to the story, as his crisis of morality as to whether to operate on Yehya without authorisation or not represents the choices constantly having to be made in this country.

This is a society of extremes; the choices for women here are shown to be starkly limited, depending on the attitudes of those around them. They’re shown to be vulnerable to random harassment, either from passing drunkards or religious types. In the end, one is seduced by the apparent safety of religion and chooses marriage; one is marked by her experiences and can only cope by lying to herself; and one (only referred to as the “woman with the short hair”) continues to campaign for justice. Torture, something that the author has campaigned against, is referred to only obliquely, most obviously in one section dealing with a kind of sensory deprivation suffered by Amani, after a failed attempt to obtain Yehya’s x-rays from the main hospital; but it’s all the more effective for being done off camera. This way, we observe the effects upon her and, chillingly, cannot even begin to imagine what she’s been through. What’s also frightening is watching the control tighten on the populace through restrictions filtering down from above; the media is totally sanitised, no dissenting voices are allowed in the newspapers and anyone with any kind of position of authority will say black is white if required to.

I came to “The Queue” not knowing quite what to expect; and what I found was a remarkable book that deals with the human condition in extreme circumstances. Nothing here is logical or straightforward, and yet still people muddle through as best they can, trying to carry on a normal life in a surreal landscape. It may be this adaptability in humans that allows regimes like this to survive, as most of us would prefer to just get on with things than take a strong stance against what we feel is wrong. Basma Abdel Aziz is a brave person and this is a brave, important and excellent book – highly recommended.

(Review copy provided by Melville House Press – for which many thanks!)

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