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The Queue, Basma Abdel Aziz, Melville House, 2016, 217 pp (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette, orig pub by Dar Altanweer, Cairo, Egypt, 2013)
This was a challenging but in the end quite affecting novel. The author, an Egyptian journalist, is also a psychiatrist who treats victims of torture. Excellent credentials for writing a novel about the impact of government oppression.
The story opens in an unnamed Middle Eastern city with Dr Tarek Fahmy reviewing the file of his patient Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed. Said patient had come to him for the removal of a bullet in his groin, received during an uprising that has come to be known as the Disgraceful Events.
Though the uprising failed it had an unlooked for upshot: The Gate, where citizens must go for even the most basic permissions but which never opens. A queue of petitioners grows and grows so long that one cannot see from one end to the other. In order to conceal all evidence that any civilians were shot during the uprising, Yehya must receive permission for the operation to remove the bullet, a permission that will never be granted because that would be an admission that a civilian was shot.
The queue becomes a community in itself attracting people from all walks of life. Many of them camp out there for weeks and weeks so as not to lose their place in line. I pictured something like the lines that form in America for concert tickets and such, except that in this queue the gate will never open.
I grew to admire many of the characters. Yehya, always in pain and slowly dying, is the Stoic. Amani, his girlfriend, in her attempts to help Yehya, pays a terrible price including mental torture. Um Mabrouk needs medicine for her son; her "camping spot" becomes a gathering place where she serves snacks, always has the latest news, and makes a living there instead of going to her job. Ehab is the journalist who keeps writing for the dissenting newspaper that employs him but will not always publish his articles.
When I finished the book, I had to lay on my reading futon with eyes closed and mind wandering for a good 30 minutes until the devastation wreaked on me began to fade. I felt a bit of what Amani must have felt when she was kept captive in a place of darkness, where she could not see, smell, hear, taste or feel anything.
I can't say that I found much hope in the story except from the characters who did their best to stand up to the oppression and not give in. Human beings are equally strong in cruelty and dissent. What impressed me most was the realistic portrayal of the effects of totalitarianism on the human psyche. Basma Abdel Aziz is an incredible writer.
(The Queue is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)