Author Basma Abdel Aziz was recently featured in a New York Times piece about Middle Eastern authors who are writing dystopian fiction. Aziz is a psychiatrist who counsels torture victims, and it seems that both her profession and her experience of the Arab Spring have informed her storytelling. Aziz has been compared to both Orwell and Kafka for reasons that will be obvious to readers of The Queue. This novel features an unnamed Middle Eastern city that has experienced political turmoil and rioting and is now ruled by a theocratic police state under a High Sheik. As restrictions against the population increase, so does the line or queue outside The Gate, i.e., the main government office which has responsibility for granting or denying requests for assistance and for providing the official documents which seem to be required for anything and everything you can imagine. The problem is, The Gate never opens. The queue grows ever longer, turning into a society unto itself. Aziz provides stories for a core group of characters waiting in line, but the main story is that of Yehya, a 39-year-old man who was wounded in the the “Disgraceful Events” that preceded the government crackdown. Yehya needs an operation to remove a bullet from his body, but by law no doctor may remove a bullet without permission from The Gate. Thus begins the bureaucratic nightmare for Yehya and his doctor Tarek.
The novel opens with Tarek locked in his office, poring over Yehya’s file. Tarek is a conscientious doctor and remembers the details of Yehya’s visit to the ER on June 18, the date of the Disgraceful Events. He remembers Yehya’s wound and its severity, he remembers taking X-rays, and he remembers that an ambulance from the official state hospital arrived and took Yehya away. The next day, an official from that hospital arrived at Tarek’s office and removed the x-rays and the x-ray machine. Now Yehya has returned, in worse shape than before, asking Tarek to remove the bullet that threatens to do more damage if left inside. Tarek is torn; he knows that Yehya needs the operation, but if he performs it, Tarek will be in violation of Article 4(A) which states that doctors may not remove bullets from a body without government authorization. The penalties would be severe. Yehya handles this situation with a quiet determination and takes up his place in the queue outside The Gate. Tarek, however, spends long hours at the office, unable to sleep, plagued by anxiety over Yehya and re-reading the official documents on file about him. The odd thing that Tarek notices is that the file seems to be updated regularly. He cannot figure out who is doing it, or how or when, since it stays locked in his office, but he becomes increasingly agitated over Yehya and his fate.
When Yehya joins the line, it already stretches for blocks, miles even, and those in line essentially take up residence there. If you get to know your neighbors well enough, you might leave the line for a while and come back to your spot. People end up waiting for days, weeks, months in the line with no movement forward. In the meantime, they develop a sort of lifestyle to get through the time. One woman, Um Mabrouk, is trying to get the documents needed to help her children, who are all ill. An enterprising woman who has held several jobs at once to pay the bills, Um Mabrouk supplements her income in line by selling coffee and tea, renting out her cell phone, and doing other odd jobs for her neighbors there. Political groups develop, with some following the preaching of “the man in the galabeya” who seems to be a devout Muslim and supporter of the regime, and some following the progressive young woman with short hair who has a radio and the latest news. At one point, the people in the line organize a successful boycott of the cell phone provider, who seems to be spying on them for the government. A reporter named Ehab travels up and down the line, recording people’s complaints and stories; he is especially interested in Yehya’s case and wants to help him get his x-rays and operation, as do Yehya’s friends Nagy and Amani. Amani, his girlfriend, was with him when he was wounded. Nagy is an old friend from university days, a philosopher who has been a dissenter and quit his job rather than submit to government demands that he prove his “true citizenship.”
The overriding themes that stuck out for me were the absurdity and the genuine terror of living under this mysterious regime. Like all authoritarian regimes, this one is constantly looking for spies and saboteurs, denying any involvement in shooting citizens, and using an official ideology, or in this case religion, to keep people subjugated. The various explanations for the shooting during the “Disgraceful Events” become more ridiculous over time, and yet many people in the line accept them. The High Sheikh allows himself to be interviewed by the official newspaper, called The Truth, to explain the need for a fatwa against boycotters, whose actions have been an insult to religion and God-fearing businessmen. The High Sheikh reports that the general public has expressed gratitude for the fatwa, which targets liars, hypocrites and people of weak faith. The interviewer interrupts his own interview to thank the High Sheikh and people waiting in the queue are quick to align themselves with the Godly. Coincidentally, people have been disappearing from the line, never to be heard from again. Aziz includes a passage on the torture of one character that is the stuff of nightmares, horrifying in its simplicity and effectiveness.
As the story progresses, the main characters’ dominant traits seem to grow sharper and bolder: Yehya’s dogged determination to get his operation and prove the government’s involvement in the shooting, Nagy’s devotion to Yehya, Amani’s anger and commitment to getting Yehya’s x-rays, and Tarek’s guilt over what is happening to Yehya as he slowly deteriorates. Aziz ends the story in a fitting, and fittingly frustrating, way. Dystopian fiction done right has a way of putting us on edge, as it tends to deal with uncomfortable subject matter and can be so depressing. Yet when it’s done well, as with Orwell’s 1984 or Aziz’s The Queue, it should spur us to pay attention, speak up, and acknowledge that much of what we fear is already happening. This is a good one to read in an election year.