The Queue  by  Basma Abdel Aziz  tr.  Elisabeth Jaquette  (Melville House, May 2016)  Reviewed by  Sho Spaeth

The Queue
by Basma Abdel Aziz
tr. Elisabeth Jaquette
(Melville House, May 2016)

Reviewed by Sho Spaeth

In The Palace of Dreams, Ismail Kadare describes a dream in which dead regimes lie in wait in a special hell, biding their time until they might be revived, essentially the same, with only their insignia and flags changed; the dreamer imagines the State of Herod rising again and again, forever, merely stopping for a new coat of paint after each demise. The dream is meant, in Kadare’s novel, as a provocation, an anonymous shot fired at a government so repressive that it monitors its subjects’ dreams. But such a provocative image can take on a life its creator never intended, and this dream serves rather well as a description of Egypt’s modern history; after all, the Egyptian people overthrew over 40 years of dictatorial rule by ousting Hosni Mubarak in 2011, only to return to it three years later under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the autocrat now wears the robes of the guardian of the revolution.

Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel The Queue offers a window into how the revolution failed, an achievement made doubly impressive by the fact that novel was completed in 2012, and appears to have eerily predicted the rise of someone like Sisi. The book has been compared to George Orwell’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Trial with good reason; Abdel Aziz, a psychologist, has stated that her aim was to illustrate the psychological games authoritarian governments play with their subjects, and there are echoes of Josef K.’s bewilderment and Winston Smith’s education in the novel’s protagonist, Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed. Yet Elisabeth Jaquette’s lucid translation of Abdel Aziz’s words makes visible to a new cadre of readers the way in which The Queue sets itself apart from other books that seek to explain the underpinnings of a repressive state: first, by focusing on the period of transition between authoritarian regimes; and second, by giving readers the unique perspective of how women in particular are affected.

Loosely structured around an official dossier about Yehya, the book opens at a time of upheaval. Riots have taken place in protest of an unnamed country’s authoritarian rulers, who are referred to by the population as the Main Gate of the Northern Building, or, more simply, the Gate, which is the entrance to the building where the bureaucracy is housed. The building appeared, as if by magic, in the wake of a previous period of unrest years before, known as the First Storm. Here and there, it is described as a crimson, octagonal, windowless edifice; a character says of it, “anyone gazing up at it would have imagined it to be a massive block, solid and impenetrable.” The First Storm, which almost succeeded in toppling the country’s ruler, fizzled out due to infighting in the revolution, which allowed the Gate to subsume the previous regime and expand the scope of its predecessor’s control. Abdel Aziz describes this transition from the point of view of several characters, and the shift from an authoritarian regime badly shaken by unrest to a totalitarian one is chillingly banal. The riots against the Gate, which are dubbed the Disgraceful Events, are the fruit of years of frustration over the Gate’s steady insinuation into every element of its subjects’ lives.

The Gate, in addition to violently putting down the riots, responds to the Disgraceful Events by closing the literal gate through which citizens must pass through to access the building, even as it continues to issue regulations and rules. The people are nevertheless still required to report to the Gate to secure authorizations and permits for any number of things, which results in the ever-lengthening queue from which the book draws its name. In an inspiring twist, the queue is a strangely egalitarian place, and thus poor and rich, young and old, the healthy and the sick, even those who support the regime and those who oppose it, all are required to line up and take their place.

Yehya waits in the queue for a purpose that is subversive, even if it follows the letter of the law. Although he did not participate in the riots directly, he was injured in the clashes between rioters and authorities, sustaining a bullet wound to his pelvis. The injury is immediately controversial, as there is a standing order from the Gate that a doctor who wishes to extract a bullet from any body must have a permit. Consequently, the emergency-room doctor Tarek is forced to leave the bullet where it is and suture up the wound, compelling Yehya to line up in the queue to secure a permit for the bullet’s removal. After several weeks, however, the Gate decides to deny that its forces violently quelled any rebellion at all, and thus denies that any rioters were shot. The bullet embedded within Yehya’s pelvis, then, becomes a potent symbol of the regime’s repression and its lies. Early in the novel Yehya wonders why the Gate remains closed: “The Disgraceful Events had ended by affirming the Gate’s hold on power and growing omnipotence. It made no sense, unless it was simply dealing out another form of punishment.” As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the Gate is acutely interested in Yehya and his bullet, and that remaining closed is in effect a punishment for his principled effort to continue waiting in line.

The novel’s plot is centered on Yehya’s predicament, and by Tarek’s response to it, yet Abdel Aziz’s use of a roving, near-omniscient narrator allows her to diffuse her narrative focus across a large cast of minor characters. As they wait in line for weeks on end, cliques coalesce, vendettas are created, alliances are made; one woman sets up a little café to make up for lost wages. The queue, which never stops growing longer, becomes the society in microcosm; supporters of the regime hold a weekly propaganda session; opponents of the regime hold weekly study sessions to analyze the steady stream of pronouncements and regulations issued from the Gate; warring boycotts are proposed of companies that, alternatively, do the Gate’s bidding and those that are deemed supportive of anti-regime forces, and there is even a mini-revolution that pits those opposed to waiting in line against those who have become accustomed to it. The focus on these otherwise ancillary characters is one of the great strengths of The Queue, underlining, above all, the solidarities and divisions oppression creates, even as it allows for the stories of people who are otherwise often overlooked to be told, particularly women, and emphasizes how, so often, people have far more immediate and urgent concerns than the overthrow of government.

The narrator—and, by extension, the author—passes very little judgment on the people in the book; one comes away thinking that even the most pro-regime characters are merely doing what they can to get by. This refusal to assign blame is indicative of Abdel Aziz’s intent to secure a wide audience for the book; beyond any concern about censorship or retaliation, her decision to set the novel in a fictional country allows the Egyptian reader to focus solely on the psychological tactics of an oppressive regime, rather than identifying too closely with some partisan faction or another. While there are clear parallels to Egyptian institutions—the description of the Northern Building seems designed evoke the Mogamma, the Egyptian bureaucracy’s gargantuan home; the so-called Quell Force, which is used by the Gate to put down demonstrations and riots, is modeled on the Central Security Forces—there are also glaring omissions, such as the absence of any reference to an Islamist political party like the Muslim Brotherhood, and only passing references are made to a so-called Deterrence Force, the closest analog to which is the Egyptian army. Yet even as the conflict in the book is distilled to the antagonism between the security state and the people over whom it rules, it allows space for Abdel Aziz not only to criticize Egypt’s authoritarian rulers, but also to deliver an implicit criticism of the citizenry, one that is most succinctly expressed by Yehya’s friend, Nagy, a former philosophy professor. Nagy observes of the queue and the people waiting in it, “It drew people towards it, holding them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.” He laments that he, too, has become like the others in the queue, otherwise he’d argue “that if everyone took just a single step, that single step alone could destroy the Gate’s walls and shake off this stagnation.”

Nagy later recalls his persistent failure in convincing Yehya of the fact that

everything in the world was interconnected, and that their lives were ruled by a network of intricate and powerful relations. Even things that seemed random operated according to this invisible system, even if the connections couldn’t be seen… The Gate itself was an integral part of the system too, even if from the outside it appeared to be pulling all the strings.

It is, in the end, this holistic view that Abdel Aziz seeks to impart to her readers; she shows how the state grinds each person down individually in order to create a compliant population, how the psychological toll on each person is identically isolating, and how it is through that generalized isolation that a generalized helplessness is born.

Much of what Abdel Aziz describes should be familiar. Many other authors have examined authoritarian regimes, and many of them have approached the subject using the clarifying distance that fiction or abstraction can provide. 1984 and The Trial have already been mentioned, and do in fact bear surface similarities, but perhaps one of the better parallels that can be drawn is to Zayni Barakat, the remarkable novel by Abdel Aziz’s compatriot, Ghamal el-Ghitani. Like The Queue, Zayni Barakat is concerned with the transition between repressive regimes, similarly uses a variety of different viewpoints to chart the rise of a new order, and seeks to explain the way power is assumed, enforced, and maintained. Ghitani’s book is a pointed criticism of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and despite its primary focus on the terrifying surveillance state Nasser constructed, it also offers a warning about any possibility of change when an entrenched bureaucracy, replete with a well-developed domestic intelligence service, has been established.

That this warning has proved prescient raises a question: What good are these narratives, with their explanations of authoritarian states and their tactics, if in the end they do nothing to prevent the next group of thugs from taking over? Ghitani published Zayni Barakat in 1974, only to witness Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, turn and turn about, inherit the authoritarian state Nasser created; worse still, Ghitani, who died in 2015, believed that Sisi represented a return of the type of leader who could fulfill Nasser’s promise, the strong man reformer who would oppress only those who deserve it—in Ghitani’s case, that meant Mohamed Morsi’s supporters. That the author of a book like Zayni Barakat could support a ruler like Sisi, in the name of stability and order, no less, is cause for despair over the possibility for change and the power of literature.

Yet The Queue sets itself apart from these other books, and aligns itself more closely with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale by bringing to light the ways in which the authoritarian state targets women. Abdel Aziz’s decision here serves to both deepen the criticism of Egyptian society and offer hope beyond the banal possibility, always offered, that by working together the people can rise up and fight the repressive state. It is significant that of the many characters in the book, only Yehya’s girlfriend, Amani, is tortured. Amani is portrayed as the character most vocally antagonistic to authority; whereas Yehya’s role in the Disgraceful Events consisted mostly of passive observation, Amani was an active participant. But following her torture, she is left hollowed out, amenable to the allure of the Gate’s lies, of its promises of stability and order, and becomes reluctant to continue fighting to save Yehya’s life. A similarly distressing character arc is that of Ines, a model schoolteacher made to report to the Gate for praising a student essay with anti-authoritarian undertones. Ines finds in the queue a penchant for speaking out against hypocrisy, which leads her to fear not only for her own safety, but also for that of her family. Ines takes refuge in an assumed piety that erases her completely, obscuring her body and face with ever more conservative clothing and thicker veils, until she chooses to marry herself off to a pro-regime propagandist to save herself. These two women are singled out by the regime, much as female protesters were targeted by security forces during the 2011 revolution, and there are numerous further examples in the book of women struggling against widespread misogyny even as they deal with the demands of the regime.

The Queue is not, in the end, a hopeful book. The psychological acuity with which Abdel Aziz portrays an oppressed society shows, if anything, that Kadare’s dream is prophetic; the State of Herod is come again, stronger for having died and been resurrected, and the populace will ultimately grow accustomed to anything. Yet while Abdel Aziz seems to offer no prescription for change, the novel points to the errors in thinking that make change impossible. The metonymy of the regime’s name, the outsized importance of a single bullet, and Yehya’s insistent individualism are all set in opposition to Nagy’s holistic view of the nation, suggesting the solution in the first place will require the people to adopt a different perspective on the problem. And by bringing women and their (mis)treatment to the novel’s fore, Abdel Aziz makes plain that this new perspective will necessarily have to confront the fact that women in Egypt are doubly oppressed; what use, after all, are allies who cannot tell one tyrant from all the rest?


Sho Spaeth lives in New York.