the Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
Melville House Publishing, 2016; 218 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue has elicited many comparisons to George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984. Such comparisons are easy to draw. In Aziz’s novel, a theocratic, authoritarian regime, elusively located beyond the Gate of the Northern Building, seeks to monitor and control all human activity. As in 1984, the regime (referred to obliquely as the “Gate”) goes so far as to confiscate and alter records to bolster whatever version of events suits its needs. Occasionally, disruptive citizens disappear without a trace. The few who return usually evidence severe mental trauma and a newfound tendency toward obedience.
Although the Gate maintains an oppressive presence throughout the novel, its actions are rarely revealing and hardly original. Where the novel really does its work is in its treatment of various characters struggling to cope with life under the Gate’s strict and frequently inconsistent dictates. Those who fall out of alignment with the regime’s shifting ideology are denied access to crucial services and referred to the Gate for special consideration. As a means of social control, the Gate develops a system that requires its petitioners to wait in an enormous outdoor queue. At the beginning of the novel, the queue is estimated to be nearly two kilometers long. Month by month, the queue grows longer and yet the Gate never opens. Soon, it becomes clear that the most consequential decisions aren’t being made behind the Gate at all.
Although he is only a minor character, I think it was Shalaby who made me realize how important it is that this novel doesn’t share its title with the shadowy regime ruling over its characters. Shalaby fetishizes (and exaggerates) the loyalty of his cousin Mahfouz, a member of the Quell Force who was “sworn to protect and defend the country from Godless infidels, unscrupulous rebels, and other filth.” Mahfouz was on duty during the Orwellian-named “Disgraceful Events,” a series of uprisings that took place following the Gate’s mysterious appearance. Mahfouz shot and killed a man during the Disgraceful Events and, in the aftermath of the shooting, was chased off a bridge to his death by an outraged crowd. Since the Gate insists that no one was shot during the Events, it has not officially recognized Mahfouz as being among the fallen Righteous Guards. Shalaby is initially convinced that this is a mere oversight, so he waits in the queue with the others in order to collect the benefits that Mahfouz’s family desperately needs.
Perhaps more than any of the major characters who wait with him in the queue, Shalaby demonstrates how logic itself can become a casualty of authoritarianism. Unlike the everyday citizens and functionaries who simply keep their heads down, watch out for themselves, and ask for nothing, Shalaby’s obedience is anchored by his desperate belief that the Gate will hold itself to the values it publicly extols. Although he knows that all shootings have been scrubbed from the official history of the Events, he apparently cannot grasp that this was done at the expense of soldiers like his cousin.
Each character who waits in the queue accepts the premise that the Gate will eventually keep its promises and act with rationality and compassion, even if their own experiences seem to indicate that such an outcome is impossible. Most prominently, there is Yehya, who is slowly dying from a gunshot wound that the Gate refuses to recognize. This puts him in the impossible situation of being able to receive treatment only if he admits that he doesn’t need it. At times, Yehya’s pained and desperate wanderings put me in the mind of J.M. Coetzee’s undocumented protagonist in The Life and Times of Michael K. Yehya carries in his guts a bullet that doesn’t officially exist and he haunts the novel like a man from an alternate timeline, unable to return home. His partner and lover, Amani, puts herself at great personal risk to navigate the bureaucracy that seems to exist only to prevent people like Yehya from getting the treatment they need.
The one primary character who doesn’t wait in the queue is Doctor Tarek. Tarek is sympathetic to Yehya’s plight and privately wishes he could perform the operation that might save his life, but the doctor fears the Gate’s disapproval. He nonetheless takes small risks throughout the novel, keeping tabs on Yehya’s predicament and trying to obstruct his efforts only as much as he believes is legally required. Tarek’s crisis of conscience is very reminiscent of Winston Smith’s, the protagonist in Orwell’s 1984.
Although all of these comparisons to Orwell amount to high praise, it seems likely that Aziz’s recent personal experience providing care to victims of torture in Cairo is just as responsible for her rendering of characters like Tarek. Throughout the novel, I got the sense that Aziz has gained a profound empathy for those individuals who are not revolutionaries (though they may harbor resentment as a result of government oppression) but dream of eventually doing the right thing. She also deftly navigates between Tarek’s own personal crisis, which is mostly existential, and his contributions to Yehya’s crisis, which amounts to a bureaucratic conspiracy against perceived dissidents. Such nuances actually set her apart from the Orwellian standard, which focuses almost exclusively on the plight of bureaucrats.