‘The Queue’ by Basma Abdel Aziz (Review)

After a brief stay in Colombia, our Women in Translation Month travels now take us to Egypt, but unfortunately, as is the case for many world travellers, there’s a need for us to get our paperwork in order if we’re to continue the journey.  Luckily, I know just the place to get our documents approved – the only problem is that we might be in for a bit of a wait…

*****
Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, published by Melville House Publishing) takes us to an unnamed (but rather familiar) land where, after a failed coup, power has become focused around a shadowy entity dubbed the Gate.   People requiring any kind of document (such as the ominous-sounding Certificate of True Citizenship) must present themselves at the Main Gate of the Northern Building, where they must wait until their case can be processed.  However, after another attempted uprising, euphemistically called the ‘Disgraceful Events’, the authorities have temporarily closed the Gate, and the queue outside the building has begun to grow to immense proportions.

It’s here that the real story begins, as thirty-eight year-old Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed joins the queue.  The unfortunate Yehya was caught unawares by the recent conflict, hit by a stray bullet on leaving his office, and his reason for joining the group of people waiting for the Gate to reopen is to obtain permission for surgery to remove the bullet lodged near his groin.  However, this could may prove to be a futile task.  According to the newspapers, no shots were fired during the Disgraceful Events, so how can anyone have a bullet wound?

Sadly, there’s no shortage of dystopian narratives in contemporary society, and The Queue is painfully placed in the ‘not real, but could be’ category.  It’s a novel which pushes authoritarian and religious dominance in the Middle East to extremes, showing how governments can slowly extend their power, and the methods they use to do so.  There’s more than a hint of Big Brother here, and the Orwellian features include a newspaper that rewrites history to keep the masses fooled.  Its name?  The Truth, of course.

A novel set in a queue that isn’t moving may sound restrictive, but it actually works very well.  We move outwards from the stoic Yehya to encounter a whole cast of characters, both from his inner circle of acquaintances and the people he meets in the queue.  As well as his partner Amani and his best friend Nagy, there’s the helpful reporter Ehab, the motherly entrepreneur Um Mabrouk and Ines, a young school teacher who has fallen foul of the Gate’s decrees.

However, one of the novel’s major characters is to be found away from the queue: Tarek, the doctor who was too scared to operate on Yehya after seeing an edict forbidding anyone from removing bullets without the permission of the Gate.  One of the more interesting strands of the novel examines the poor doctor’s ethical torment as he balances his desire for a quiet life with the knowledge that Yehya will die without surgery.  Unable to sleep, even with the help of pills, he continually returns to Yehya’s file, poring over the edited version of the account he initially wrote.  It’s only later that he realises that the file, which is kept under lock and key, is being regularly updated.

There are many more signs of a dictatorship than this alteration of documents, though.  The ‘free’ phones many people in the queue manage to obtain turn out to be bugged, and the regime also calls on the help of religious leaders, producing fatwas against anything that might disrupt their order.  There’s even a satisfaction survey to make sure that everyone is happy with the status quo:

They had dispatched droves of delegates to knock on people’s doors during dawn prayer time, to ask their opinion of recent events and how the country was being run.  The results had finally been released, and were precisely the same as the results of the previous poll.  Citizens had unanimously endorsed its governance, laws and court rulings – wholeheartedly and dutifully supporting the just decrees that had recently been issued.  Those conducting the poll had therefore decided not to conduct one again.  To simplify matters, they would announce the previous poll’s results on a set yearly date.
p.68 (Melville House Publishing, 2016)

It’s in this light that Yehya’s case is so important as there is no proof of bullets being used during the Disgraceful Events.  He could actually have the surgery at the regime’s hospital if he wanted it – but the bullet would then disappear…

In addition to the 1984 allusions, it’s hard not to be reminded of Kafka’s short story ‘Vor dem Gesetz’ (‘Before the Law’), in which a man waits his whole life to be let through a gate.  However, The Queue is a very Arabic version of the story; rather than having a man wait alone, here we see the queue growing ever longer, with the people becoming resigned to the wait and getting on with their lives.  Initially, we see a city in confusion:

Yehya and Nagy wandered through the near-empty streets.  No one knew when rush hour was anymore; there were no set working hours, no schedules or routines.  Students left school at all sorts of times, daily rumors determined when employees headed home, and many people had chosen to abandon their work completely and camp out at the Gate, hoping they might be able to take care of their paperwork that had been delayed there.  The new decrees and regulations spared no one. (pp.30/1)

Yet it soon recovers, and it isn’t long before the microbus drivers, coffee shop owners and, of course, the ever resourceful Um Mabrouk adapt to life in the open air.  Life simply goes on, even if the queue’s not moving, and people soon become so used to this existence that they even get upset when protesters want to disrupt it.

As you can see, there’s lot to like about The Queue, an excellently written work (credit must also go here to Jaquette for her work in making this a smooth and entertaining read) with an intriguing story.  While there’s an obvious political edge to the story, it’s also a page-turner, with the reader wanting to know more about the world Abdel Aziz has created.  However, this leads to what is perhaps the only minor flaw in the novel.  Having built up our expectations, the writer really needed to provide a good ending, and I’m not convinced that she’s really nailed the dismount here.  The last ten pages or so seemed rushed, and even if the last scene feels right, there’s a sense that the final part doesn’t really provide the resolution the novel deserves.

Still, that doesn’t detract from the fact that The Queue is a very good novel, entertaining, thought-provoking and a little bit scary (and for those thinking that it’s something that couldn’t happen to us, Brexit and Trump should have you thinking otherwise…).  Tarek isn’t the only one disappointed in the regime:

There was no question that life was more restrictive now, though they’d promised the exact opposite when the Gate first appeared and everyone had rejoiced.  They’d said the Gate was going to make everything easier, that it would bring peace, joy, and security to each and every citizen.  He was a citizen, a dutiful one, too, but now it was clear that these promises had been empty. (pp.140/1)

I certainly enjoyed my few hours in the Queue, but in truth I’ll be very happy to get moving again…

*****
Before I finish, one final word on how I came to choose the book.  This wasn’t one of my many review copies, but a book I picked up (unexpectedly) at the local library.  I was standing at the entrance, waiting patiently for my wife to pick up a couple of holds, when I looked up and, from fully ten metres away, saw a rather familiar cover staring back at me (literally, if you examine the design…).  Well done to Archie Ferguson for his elegant and instantly recognisable work here – and congratulations also to my local library for having the book so prominently displayed in the first place 🙂

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6 thoughts on “‘The Queue’ by Basma Abdel Aziz (Review)

  1. I enjoyed this one a lot Tony – the dystopian elements added a lot to the story and I thought it was so cleverly done. And I certainly don’t think I’d read any Egyptian women’s fiction before so it was a good first for me.

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    1. David – Glad to see I’m not alone in thinking this; the end was a bit of a let down, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was a very good book and could well have taken one of the MBIP longlist spots (I can even think of one shortlisted title it could have replaced…).

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