Egyptian Author Basma Abdel Aziz: the Futility of Waiting
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As an Egyptian psychiatrist and activist who has worked with and written about survivors of state torture, it's no surprise that when Basma Abdel Aziz began writing a dystopian parable about a totalitarian state, she set it in a mutated-but-recognizable version of present-day Egypt. To a reader well-versed in a the dystopian literary tradition, The Queue, published in Arabic in 2013 and translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette in 2016, can feel very familiar, almost a pastiche of literary dystopia from Kafka, 1984, and A Brave New World, to Vladimir Sorokin's own riff on Soviet bureaucracy (also called The Queue). And yet the genius of the novel is, for all its heavy web of references, basically a very realistic novel, set in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution.Taking place a few years after the “Disgraceful Events” that are, obviously, the uprising in Tahrir square, The Queue is about the process by which the masses are demobilized, after the fall of the old, bad dictator and his replacement by a new, bad dictator. It is built around a single Kafkaesque touch: under the new regime, every aspect of the state has been located behind a single portal, The Gate of the Northern Building, which in colloquial usage comes to be simply, “The Gate.” Everything you need from the state bureaucracy comes from The Gate: one character needs permission to have surgery, another needs a license to work as a teacher, burial permits or citizenship papers are required, and so on. Whatever the state might provide or require is filtered through the Gate.
The Kafkaesque touch is this: the Gate is closed, and remains closed.
With a faith in the state that is both profoundly misplaced and depressingly realistic, everyone in the novel seems to believe the Gate will eventually open, and so they take their place in line. They queue because they are sure the Gate will eventually open—it wouldn’t make any sense for it to stay closed, after all—and so they all patiently wait for the senseless reality to begin to make sense. As they wait, the queue grows from hundreds of people to thousands to tens of thousands; and as the novel goes on, and the Gate stays closed, the queue becomes its own city, with cafés, public entertainment, and all the other affairs that make up human society.
In one sense, it’s simply a realist version of Kafka’s The Castle or the “Before the Law” section of The Trial: in those stories, a character needs to access the authority, and is never able to. The deeper the “K” character goes into the Castle, the more elaborate and nonsensical the bureaucratic obstacles become, while everyone insists that it all makes sense. But the major difference is that Kafka's novels never end; there is no final crisis, just endless continuing, in the sense of a Samuel Beckett “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” The individual never finds what he is looking for, and society and the state never make sense.
The Queue is different because it is not a parable, and because Egypt is a real place, filled with real people. As realism, then, the novel is about the limit point for a mass of human beings trying to assimilate an irrational, impossible reality into their everyday lives. Many of the people waiting in the queue are cynics; they don’t really believe that the Gate will open, but because there is no alternative—because there is no other queue in which to wait—they invest themselves in the only hope that is offered. And so, an entire society comes into being, all oriented towards a giant mouth that should open and make sense, and never does and never will.
In this way, the novel is about the futility of waiting for power to make sense, and the folly of treating it as if it eventually will. It’s about how a population that might, in other circumstances, be part of a mass movement, but instead not only poses no threat to the sovereign power, but effectively exhausts physical strength and resources. It’s not a pleasant novel, actually; the experience of reading it can be a lot like waiting in line yourself. But as a realist novel, in the end it’s about the point at which even those who have no alternative will begin to say no.
The main protagonist is a man named Yehya who has a bullet lodged in his stomach from a confrontation with military police. Officially, the riot police did not use guns in putting down the “disgraceful events,” so that bullet must not exist. He therefore cannot get a surgeon to remove it. Yehya must wait in the queue along with everyone else, since he needs special permission from the Gate to remove a bullet that does not exist.
In this way, the novel engineers a crisis point: since the bullet will kill him if it isn’t removed—and no matter how much people try to convince him that it isn’t there, it stubbornly continues to exist—he must have it removed or he will die. This causes the queue to become unstable: there is an embodied limit to how much nonsense human beings can swallow. Even if the mind will believe, the body no longer can; in place of the endless "I can't go on, I'll go on” of a Kafka novel, this novel posits "We'll keep waiting, we can't keep waiting."
What happens next? It’s hard to tell. What The Queue ultimately dramatizes is not heroic individual resistance to a mass information society, but the emergence of a community built on solidarity. If The Queue has a happy ending, it’s when a small group of people—who all meet each other in the queue—organize themselves in order to remove the bullet from Yeyha’s stomach. It’s a modest form of resistance, but if it’s successful, it’s because this solidarity takes the community's attention away from the queue, and re-focuses it in the most primary way on the basic necessities of sustaining life. It is a beginning, and only a beginning. But it’s the end of waiting.