“The Queue” by Basma Abdel Aziz [Why This Book Should Win]
Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
Since I (Chad) used this book in my class this spring, I thought I’d write it up for the series. Hi.
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Egypt, Melville House)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 78%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 13%
A couple months ago, shortly after the inauguration, 1984 by George Orwell returned to the bestseller lists for the first time in ages. That was followed by a handful of articles claiming that instead of reading 1984, the book about dictatorships people should be reading is The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz.
The novel is set in an unnamed city in an unnamed country (Egypt) where an uprising has taken place that the government is loath to acknowledge. During the Disgraceful Events (Tahrir Square?), a young man named Yehya was shot. At the start of the novel Yehya is still trying to get the bullet removed from his pelvis. He’s in great pain, slowly dying, but because the government doesn’t want to admit that they had shot anyone, they have to prevent him from getting treatment because an actual bullet would be proof of their lies. So he is forced to wait in a never-ending queue (reminiscent of the queue in Sorokin’s The Queue) to get the proper paperwork to get treatment to get the bullet removed. In Kafkaesque fashion (I too hate that term and apologize), the goalposts keep moving and various statements keep complicating and delaying the process, forcing queue-waiters to get a special document to get the next special document to be able to get what they need from the government, so on and on.
That sort of bureaucratic runaround is a hallmark of many movies, books, and nightmares, and yet somehow still retains a sort of terrifying power. Everyone can relate to the frustrating helplessness governmental institutions can enact (remember your last trip to the DMV); it’s incredibly easy to imagine how an administration can turn on the faucet of needless bureaucracy to demoralize dissidents.
Control through paperwork is only one of the ways depicted in the novel of how citizens are held in check. There’s the pressure to obey religious dictums, awareness that all conversations are being recorded, nationalism, male aggression, torture and, the one that both echoes 1984 and speaks to the post-fact world we live in now, the ability to rewrite history by denouncing things as “fake news.”
The woman with the short hair redoubled her efforts, and the next day she printed oppositional leaflets responding to the allegations made by the man in the galabeya, and declared that she would continue the campaign. Ehab had helped her draft the text, and alongside her statement they’d included another passage from the Greater Book, which urged people to respect and defend personal privacy. He wrote a hard-hitting and well-researched article about the campaign—its grounds and implications, and how many people joined each week—but the newspaper didn’t print it. Instead, they gave him a stern warning about “fabricating the news.” The editor in chief lectured him on how necessary it was to strive for accuracy and honesty in everything he wrote. Then he warned Ehab against giving in to ambition and trying to achieve professional or financial gains at the expense of journalistic ethics and principles.
There’s wealth of bits like this that the reader can map onto our present-day situation in America—something that’s kind of fun and also terrifying. What’s even more interesting, or disturbing, are the various narratives characters end up adopting to make sense of the world around them. The stories they use to rewrite their broken selves so that they can continue living.
For example, the schoolteacher Ines, fired for giving a good grade to a paper about poor living conditions, is initially rather rebellious, outspoken, willing to challenge viewpoints she doesn’t believe in. By the end of the novel, she’s quite religious and obeying all the various restrictions that go along with that:
Ines hadn’t missed a single weekly lesson since committing herself to her new attire. She felt a deep sense of relief and was gradually accepted by a new crowd, which was somewhat different from the groups of women she’d known at her school. She joined them for social and spiritual activities, visited proselytizers, and attended religious gatherings and prayer groups. [. . .] She became immersed in it all and her fears began to fade, though she was still occasionally troubled by worrisome thoughts.
Or there’s Yehya’s close friend Amani, who is physically tortured because of her attempt to help him, and then ends up accepting the official newspaper’s version of events claiming that Yehya was never actually shot, that the Disgraceful Events were all fake, all just part of a film.
Which brings me to one last reason why this book should win: the ambiguity of its ending. I don’t want to spoil too much, but every section of the book begins with the inner monologue of Tarek, the doctor who didn’t initially help Yehya. As he keeps going back to Yehya’s files—at the urging of Amani and Nagy and Yehya—new information keeps appearing that shifts and expands his view of the government, the Disgraceful Events, and the world he lives in. Almost serving as a stand in for the common citizen, he wakes up to the horrors of this dictatorship by the end—but will it be in time to save Yehya?