I read The Queue as the August 2017 selection in the book club I co-lead, Books Beyond Borders. A modern dystopia, Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern city where a centralized government known as the Gate has risen to power in the aftermath of a failed popular rising, the “Disgraceful Events.” Echoing Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and not a few of Kafka’s surreal short stories, Abdel Aziz’s citizens must obtain permission from the Gate for even the most mundane and basic needs, yet the imposing building never opens and the queue in front of it grows longer and longer.
The novel opens on a scene of a doctor, obsessed and troubled by a particular patient file documenting the injuries of a man named Yehya, who was wounded by a bullet during the Disgraceful Events. Yehya does not know who shot him, but he knows his body is evidence of a reality the Gate denies: that the government used force to quell the uprisings. The bullet is slowly traveling through Yehya’s body, and yet the doctor cannot operate because the government has made it illegal to remove a bullet without permission from the Gate. Hence Yehya’s presence in the queue, alongside a host of quirky and distinctive characters: a man whose security officer cousin was killed during the Disgraceful Events who is seeking martyr status for his sacrifice; an opinionated teacher banned from her classroom after encouraging a student’s revolutionary writing; a journalist who is trying to piece it all together. What is striking about the queue is its dual ability to create both community and apathy. Small businesses spring up, religious services are held, gossip is traded, and deals are struck. At the same time, the members of the queue seem stuck, incapable of gathering momentum to effect change. When citizens discover that free cell phones are in fact recording their owners’ conversations (even when turned off), they stage a boycott which fizzles after just a few weeks. Despite the fact that people jump the queue through barter and trade, no collective action ever congeals to confront the Gate en masse. Bureaucratic paralysis becomes a tool of authoritarian power, breeding a resignation and apathy that, in Yehya’s case, has deadly consequences.
While the novel was inspired when Abdel Aziz noticed a long line outside a government building in Cairo that didn’t move all day and seems to nod toward the political unrest following the Arab Spring, what is especially powerful about The Queue is the way it resonates with so many other conflicts, cultures, historical periods, and regimes. Within our book discussion, people reflected on similar experiences they’d had in Egypt, China, the former USSR, and the United States. Rather than a portrait of a specific authoritarian moment, The Queue makes us aware of the strategies all governments use in pursuit of security, peace, and power, and pushes us to reflect on where we personally draw the line on questions of surveillance and control. Even if I personally have no political agenda, shouldn’t I care whether the government is listening into everyone’s phone conversations? Why am I unconcerned when an internet search engine tracks my history and alerts me of sales, but perturbed when they explicitly sell my personal information to others?
By profession, Abdel Aziz is a psychiatrist who counsels victims of torture and violence. While she has published several short story collections and essays on human rights violations committed by Egyptian security forces, The Queue is her first novel in translation. In the past, I’ve struggled to enjoy English translations of Arabic novels, feeling as though something in the translation process creates a zoomed-out, flat, and narrative-driven view of the action. I felt this way too about The Queue, until a short scene late in the novel. Yehya’s girlfriend Amani has attempted to break into a government-run hospital to steal an x-ray of Yehya’s torso providing proof of his injury. She is captured and spends an unspecified number of days in a government facility, which she describes as
Nothingness. She wasn’t blindfolded, but all she could see was black. She moved her palms away form her face…nothing. She heard no voices, her hands felt no walls, no columns, no bars. She saw and felt nothing, only the solid earth underneath her, where she stood or sat or slept. Perhaps she was only earth, too. She walked in every direction but met nothing but a void. She tried to scream, to be silent and listen out for other voices, to swear and curse every person who deserved to be punished for wronging her….And then she took it all back and asked for forgiveness, rebelling then pleading, filled with courage then wracked with tears. But everything remained as it was: nothingness. (151-152)
This sensory deprivation, whether it is the torture itself or Amani’s way of blocking out her experience of trauma, seem directly informed by Abdel Aziz’s counseling work. It becomes especially ironic and significant that this lack of sensation is the most vivid and visceral scene of the novel, perhaps suggesting that The Queue‘s muted and peripheral tone is itself illustrative of life in an authoritarian regime. When Amani is released, her physical will to live and mental will to fight government propaganda have disappeared:
She surrendered to the conclusions that she began to weave around the Gate’s message…She felt liberated; freed from the fears that had wrapped around her life and mind for what felt like an eternity….she tried to convince Yehya that the bullet that had pierced his side and lodged itself in his pelvis was a fake bullet, that it wasn’t important to remove it, and that he no longer needed to trouble himself with the matter of who had shot him. But Yehya was not convinced, and he did not stop bleeding. (213)
The novel concludes as it began, with the doctor, and on a note of uncertainty that, depending on one’s readerly proclivities, can be interpreted as reason for hope or despair. As the participants of our book discussion discovered, there is no simple moral or sense of revolution in The Queue. This is part of what makes it such an effective, and haunting, critique of authoritarianism. In the end and as always, it is ordinary people–be it in the name of Big Brother, the Gate, or a real-life authoritarian regime–who control other people, and it is ordinary people who have the means to stop them. The uncertainty of The Queue‘s ending is itself an invitation to the reader to draw their own conclusions, to be drawn into the story, and in so doing see their own interactions and complicity with systems of control with greater clarity.