The African Library: The queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

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The African Library: Entry no 128
Basma Abdel Aziz: The queue (2013)

In a recent “comment” piece in The Cape Times, a South African-based Egyptian who is both a medical doctor and a member of the Media Review Network, wrote that in Egypt, under the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, “a total of 1 813 death sentences have been meted out in three years by a farcical judicial system”, and also that the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, which is an “independent group, recorded 256 deaths in custody, with 209 detainees dying due to medical negligence” (see Media Review Network, 27/02/2019). These disquieting statistics seem to emanate from the same context as Basma Abdel Aziz’s brilliant novel, The queue, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette for the 2016 English version. The novel is often referred to as presenting readers with a dystopian vision of Egypt, using the adjective which refers to an imagined or a foreseen, future version of a society, but the details in the opening lines (above) make clear that this seemingly both Orwellian and Kafkaesque text represents experiences that, for many Egyptians, are all too real, and even “everyday” occurrences. Besides being an award-winning author, Basma Abdel Aziz is a sculptor and painter; an internationally rated researcher who publishes in the overlapping areas of politics, sociology and psychology; and an activist who has, for her outspoken reformist efforts, been labelled “the ever-ready Egyptian Rebel”, while nevertheless retaining her appointment in Egypt’s Ministry of Health. She has qualifications in sociology, in medicine and surgery and in neuropsychology. Aziz has to date written three other novels apart from The queue. Nevertheless, even in fiction, Aziz writes from acquired knowledge; her (Arabic) publication dealing with the “Temptations of absolute power” won her a Young Researchers Award in 2009, and she formerly worked for several years in the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture.

Still, these impressive credentials may seem to predict a more Dostoyevskyan novel than the quite slender and seemingly low-key work that The queue happens to be. Set in an unnamed country and concentrated on a small group of interrelated characters, the novel is structured with six sections, each following a brief, numbered document (each a part of a hospital patient’s medical record), and a final seventh section, which follows an annex. The text juxtaposes attitudes towards a changing situation in the political scenario and their social and psychological repercussions. The central character is a non-ideological nonconformist and an idealist who is inadvertently drawn into a politically oppositional role – really only for seeking treatment for a bullet wound incurred when observing demonstrations by an activist group of which he is not an active member. His name is Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed. This full name is formally noted with other basic information about him on Document No 1, which the reader encounters as it is reread by the doctor who originally examined his gunshot wound. The doctor’s name is Tarek Fahmy, and he has from the first a strange fascination with this patient’s file – a fascination that readers only later come to understand as a strange mixture of concern and guilt, along with anxiety – because the patient’s treatment was curtailed and insufficient, and his unavoidably deteriorating condition requires an immediate, as-yet-unperformed surgical operation. A line typed on the cover of Yehya’s file gives a hint of the reason why the surgery has not been performed. It reads: “Suspended Pending Approval by the Gate”. One of the surreal features of the novel and of the society it portrays (like in the cited phrase) is the use of the term “the Gate”, as if it refers to a person in command or to an authorising body. We learn, in due course, that there is an actual physical gate – a formidably large, perpetually closed and intimidatingly silent structure. Its “voice” is heard in radio and television broadcasts, as well as recorded in print media announcements.

About the doctor, we learn the following:

Tarek was a man who didn’t overstep boundaries, a man who’d never been to the Gate, not once in his life. No questions, no problems – life passed him by both predictably and monotonously, just as he liked it. He’d finished his studies and received his master’s degree, and it wouldn’t be long now before he could open his own clinic. He’d even asked a colleague out on a date not long ago. The only thing hindering this stable, traditional plan of his was Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed. (5–6)

After listening to a radio programme in which a caller is lavishly praised for not allowing her children to participate in “the Disgraceful Events” (6), Tarek in his thoughts recalls “tumultuous times” in his country’s recent past; but, he has only a “hazy” idea of what these involved, having only an obscure notion that what has been labelled the “Disgraceful Events” was caused by people who wanted either a “more lenient” or a more “tolerant” government – which would have been “less stable”, in Tarek’s opinion (7). The state’s response, he recalls, was swift and brutal: “[T]he Quell Force had been created to suppress this kind of riot and was better armed than any government agency before it.” In a phrase that chillingly echoes the crushing of popular uprisings against oppression in many parts of the world and at different times, Tarek states that the actions of these forces “cleared the square effortlessly, wiping out everyone at the rally in just a few hours”. Sadly, this “crushing triumph” of the Gate’s troops is the outcome of an earlier “popular uprising” known as “the First Storm” (8). It was the “fractur[ing]” of the liberationist movement, even before the regime in power could be overthrown, that allowed the ruler to “rally his inner circle”, which could then regroup and regain power. The Gate, Tarek recounts, “appeared” in the midst of the squabbling splinter groups, each pursuing its own selfish agenda and with different and competing notions of how – and for what purpose or whose benefit – the country should overthrow its ruler and change its system of governance (9). Tarek, typically indecisive, was not “altogether enthusiastic” about the bloodily established rule of the Gate, but had “never questioned” its victory, knowing that it was decisive. Even in the text’s present, Tarek is so deeply troubled by Yehya’s case that for a whole day he is unable to perform his hospital duties, and yet so unwilling to face his real feelings, that he insists (to himself) that Yehya is a patient “whose problems he didn’t entirely remember” (9).

The narrative moves on to the people who form the queue in front of the Gate: a fairly loosely and constantly expanding row of people of all classes, whose lives have been placed on hold pending their acquisition of particular documents decreed essential – in an ever-proliferating bureaucratic maze – by the unseen presences within the Gate, who only utter their decrees through its masked portal. The first story we hear is that of an old, poor woman from the south. She was suddenly denied the bread she had bought for years from the same baker, after he’d questioned her as to which party she had voted for; upon hearing that it was “the wrong” party, he snatched back the bread, and subsequently all the other shops refused to sell her any bread. Bewildered by these events, the illiterate old lady now carries a rough piece of cardboard with the words “Certificate of True Citizenship” – the name of the document a neighbour told her she would have to obtain from the Gate for her life to resume as before. But the queue merely extends for kilometres as more and more people join it, while the Gate remains firmly shut. Another woman nearby is a school teacher, someone sufficiently sophisticated to fend off prying political enquiries. In her case, she highly praised a pupil’s essay that spoke “about the state of the country and developments in the region” (13). This brought an inspector to the school, who required the principal to summon Ines (the teacher) and instruct her to obtain (again!) a Certificate of True Citizenship by joining the queue at the Gate. Failure to do so would (the inspector strongly hints) bar her from the teaching profession. The inspector left a tape of the pupil reading out her essay to her classmates (on Ines’s instructions) with the principal. The detail of the secretly made recording points to the brilliant cover image of this text, which shows the revered symbol of the Ancient Egyptian “Eye of Horus”, the all-seeing eye image usually interpreted as signifying divine power of protection against evil; on the cover of The queue, the eye has a security camera instead of a pupil in its centre.

Yehya, too, is in the queue, though utterly weary and in terrible pain. When a sympathetic bystander supplies him (after overhearing a snippet of conversation between Yehya and his loyal friend, Nagy) with some painkillers, Yehya is quick to hide the actual cause of his pain by calling it a “silly little stomach pain” (15). He is evidently well aware that the fact of his carrying a government bullet in his intestines is a dangerous secret to be carefully kept. Confirming that his secretiveness is not due to a neurotic paranoia, Yehya is sent a note by his beloved Amani (she works in the same office where he was formerly also employed), informing him that a doctor “in a military uniform” employed at Zephyr Hospital came looking for him at the office. He divulged no other information. Amani suggests they should meet soon – evidently to discuss this disquieting development. Yehya, we learn, has – like other people – been spending not only days, but nights in the queue, never leaving his place in it.

Another indigent woman who becomes a habitué of the queue is Um Mabrouk, who used to work for Amani’s mother, then for Amani herself, and now works full-time at Amani’s office – besides holding two additional house-cleaning jobs, just to survive along with her three ailing children: two daughters with serious heart conditions and an asthmatic younger son. Like most of the urban poor across the world, her living conditions are terrible:

All she had was two rooms in a damp ramshackle apartment, buried deep in an alleyway in the old District 3 where the sewers bubbled over, and a husband who never left the coffee shop, who’d quit his job and wandered around idly in search of hash and pills. She saw him only when he ran out of the money he took from her small salary, sometimes by pleading with her and sometimes by force. Every so often at night he would leave the coffee shop and come begging, demanding more money, and when she scolded him he berated her and sometimes even beat her. On top of all that, two months ago she’d fallen and broken her hand while cleaning the ceiling in the office, and then she broke her left foot when she’d jumped off a microbus. The pain hadn’t let up since then. As if everything else wasn’t enough. (20)

Um Mabrouk’s misfortunes are predictably ascribed (by the High Sheikh – visits to whom were, at that stage, still permissible without a permit from the Gate) to her failure to maintain the time-consuming daily prayer regime, for (he declared) “the remedy to poverty was to bow down and pray” (20). But Um Mabrouk finds it impossible to maintain the requisite prayer sessions, despite earnest intentions to the contrary, and so, of course, her bad fortune persists.

The old lady who could not buy bread is suddenly taken ill; her son appears and takes her out of the queue. Her place is instantly occupied by “the man in the galabeya”, a clearly generic evocation of the zealot figure, since this person is never given a name. He roundly denounces the old woman, authoritatively proclaiming that “only those who have gone astray picked pyramid candidates”, and stating that she had failed to “repent” (27). The Gate’s decrees have by now caused widespread loss of income and also damaged the country’s economy, as employees are absenting themselves from work in the hopes of obtaining essential documents. The jurisdiction of the Gate has been “extended to just about everything anyone could think of” (31). Absurdly, “even window-shopping was now subject to a charge”, and the Gate interferes in the workings of business, arbitrarily requiring local companies to supply goods or services remote from their professional concern, and levelling steep taxes and levies that just about bankrupt these businesses and force them to lay off many of their employees. Yehya decides to go and visit Amani at her apartment on what turns out to be his 39th birthday. Unfortunately, what was meant to be a happy reunion is spoilt by his dire physical condition. Yehya is in too much pain to embrace his beloved, and unable to eat more than a mere morsel of the cake she has baked for him. Indeed, he has to lie down, and falls asleep on her couch for most of the visit, exhausted by lack of sleep caused by pain. Amani suggests that they go and speak to Dr Fahmy. Nagy phones just as they are setting off, and they arrange for him to join the two of them at the hospital.

“Document No 3” regarding Yehya is particularly significant – not only because it gives clues as to how grievously he has been injured (over and above the bullet still lodged in his body), but also because it has been blatantly censored. As Dr Fahmy rereads it, he sees that all his meticulously detailed medical notes have been reduced to a mere skeleton of information. He recalls that immediately after Yehya had been admitted to the hospital and he had cleaned his wounds and applied first-aid procedures to stabilise him, he had wanted to proceed forthwith with emergency surgery to remove the bullet. He was condescendingly prevented from doing so by a younger colleague, “fed up with his naïveté” (41), who threw down an official document (from the Gate of the Northern Building – which is the full designation of the governing authority) in front of Fahmy. This stated clearly that removal of bullets was only allowed in another hospital (Zephyr Hospital – a military facility), since “bullets and projectiles may be the property of security units” and should therefore be handled only in a military context. The document outlined that if a doctor performed surgery to remove a bullet in any institution other than Zephyr, the penalties would be dire: they would be banned from practising the profession; would be imprisoned for an unspecified period; would be allowed, upon release, to resume their practice of medicine only subsequent to “rehabilitation”; and, even then, would be “required to undergo a periodic performance review” at least “once a month”! Even more depressing is the narrative detail that “Tarek smiled” upon recalling how narrowly he had escaped becoming liable to these penalties; that “any shame he’d felt because of Yehya had vanished”; and that, even at the time when Yehya had come back to him (claiming he had been discharged from Zephyr, when he had walked out to avoid the sinister-seeming “treatment” meted out at that hospital), he (Fahmy) had “concealed his relief” from Yehya at not having operated on him (45). He had “advis[ed] Yehya to [a]wait his turn at Zephyr Hospital”, and sent him home with “some strong antibiotics and a few boxes of painkillers” (46). He did not inform Yehya that a doctor from Zephyr with a coldly imperious manner had, in the meantime, arrived at his office and demanded Yehya’s file, from which he had removed the all-important X-rays, and that soon afterwards the brand new machine on which they had been taken had unexpectedly and oddly begun malfunctioning and had been removed by technicians from Zephyr. Fahmy has been informed that Yehya has started queueing at the Gate to try to obtain official permission for the surgery to be performed at the hospital where Fahmy is employed. In the meantime, it is reported in the media that during the “Disgraceful Events”, the “rioters” had gone berserk and violently – often fatally – attacked one another in their frenzy. Additionally, a Zephyr doctor is reported stating that the high mortality rate among victims admitted to that institution is to be attributed to the fact that the patients are “simply too sensitive” (52).

The next development is that the entire cell phone network goes down, so that people in the queue cannot keep in touch with family or friends located elsewhere. Strangely, the “man in the galabeya’s” phone still functions; he offers Ines the use of it. At Fahmy’s hospital, the narrator informs us, the nurse with whom he usually works (named Sabah) had been phoned just after all the patients had been transferred to Zephyr Hospital by one of its most senior doctors, and ordered to alter (censor) Yehya’s medical file. In a similar way, when Um Mabrouk’s elder daughter dies because the girl’s faulty heart has never been fixed in the necessary operation (Um Mabrouk never having managed to accumulate sufficient funds to pay for the procedure), she takes the death certificate to a branch office of the Gate to push for the document that would authorise her younger daughter’s operation (for a similar condition). She is coldly refused, despite paying a huge bribe she can ill afford, and told that the information as to the elder daughter’s cause of death is inappropriate; “the girl died because her time was up”, and it was divinely ordained as a test of her faith (67). Um Mabrouk needs to apply to the Gate for a new death certificate, and withdraw her complaint and her younger daughter’s name from the list of awaiting-surgery patients, since she (Um Mabrouk) does not have sufficient funds for it, the official instructs her. Having returned to the queue, Yehya hears about a new development from a new friend, the indefatigable investigative journalist, Ehab. There has been:

An opinion poll conducted by the Center for Freedom and Righteousness, under the Gate’s supervision, of course. They had dispatched droves of delegates to knock on people’s doors during dawn prayer time, to ask their opinion of recent events and how the country was being run. The results had finally been released, and were precisely the same as the results of the previous poll. Citizens had unanimously endorsed its governance, laws, and court rulings – wholeheartedly and dutifully supporting the just decrees that had recently been issued. Those conducting the poll had therefore decided not to conduct one again. To simplify matters, they would announce the previous poll’s results on a set yearly date. (68)

The deftly articulated, biting and widely applicable satire (or should one call it black humour?) in the above passage indicates among many other details why Aziz’s novel is being rated as highly as it is. The passage is followed by one in which we see the carrot-and-stick approach of all too many African and other governments, throughout history, clearly illustrated. Like the Roman “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses), and even though in the depicted society there is but little and often no bread, placatory measures are used to make people feel that their harsh rulers are actually kind, generous. For, a “leaflet from the Violet Telecom Company” arrives to announce “thousands of free telephone lines and endless credit for an entire year” (69). These details balance rumours of a fuel shortage, the suspension of the microbus service and an infestation of swarms of insects.

A new character works his way into the queue in the area where the previously known characters are waiting. He’s an oafish countryman named Shalaby; he is queueing to obtain a certificate recognising his late cousin Mahfouz, along with whom he grew up in the same village. Mahfouz, who is boastfully described by Shalaby as all that a brave soldier could and should be, lost his life doing duty in the suppression of the Disgraceful Events (as a member of the Gate’s Quell Force). The narrator slips in some counter-information regarding Mahfouz: he had attempted to rape a hospital patient he was supposed to be guarding, and he died after running away from people determined to apprehend him because he had shot one of the demonstrators dead in cold blood; he drowned after jumping into a river to escape the pursuers (he could not swim). At this point, Ines speaks up with such risky courage (considering her sentiments) that she surprises even herself. Mahfouz, the school teacher declares, had met no more than a deserved end as someone little better than a murderer. Shalaby erupts in fury at her words, and implies that Ines must be attacking his cousin’s impeccable, indeed heroic, conduct because she is “corrupt, morally and otherwise” (78); indeed, he declares, she had probably herself participated in the Disgraceful Events – he had heard that there were female saboteurs among them. Soon afterwards, when Ehab, the journalist, is asked to assist the illiterate Um Mabrouk in sorting out her application forms for her daughter’s operation and the backing documentation, he discovers among the papers transcriptions of several “compromising” conversations among and statements by a few people in the queue. These were evidently inadvertently included when the Gate official returned Um Mabrouk’s papers to her. A sinister instruction has been added onto the page containing a transcription of one of Ehab’s own telephone conversations: “Important – Follow-up” (81). Eventually, those affected (since Ehab warns the others so secretly recorded, like Ines in her rant against Shalaby’s cousin, Mahfouz) manage to work out that the transmissions came from nearby telephones; they were not betrayed by Shalaby, but (the reader senses) it is the “man in the galabeya’s” phone that sent the secretly made recordings to the Gate’s security people.

There is a second outbreak of “Disgraceful Events”. Those in the queue are not impressed when the participants (whom the members of the queue label “Riffraff”) attempt to dissuade them from continuing with their unrelieved waiting for the Gate to open; they say it is a trick to ensure the passivity of the populace (or of the majority), to keep them within an easily controllable area and to intimidate them. The animosity between the two factions persists. Then, one day, the “Riffraff” mysteriously disperses. What has become “ordinary life” in the queue, resumes. Ehab (who has always been interested in Yehya’s situation) offers the latter his assistance; they become friends and allies, since Yehya no longer mistrusts Ehab’s motives. Soon afterwards, Ehab and Nagy (Yehya’s old, loyal friend) are impressed to hear that Yehya, all by himself, has managed to surmount the initial bureaucratic hurdle and been granted permission to have the bullet in his stomach removed. Ehab marvels at Yehya’s integrity of character:

Other people had weakened when faced with fear and pain, or submitted to the flood of pressure and promises from above, clinging to a desire to survive their predicament. Others agreed to undergo surgery at Zephyr Hospital and somehow emerged as they’d been before the Disgraceful Events. They didn’t have a mark on their bodies, no sign of bullets or shrapnel, and the operations left almost no trace. But Yehya wasn’t like them. He was a different kind of man, steadfast and stubborn, and must have realized that day in Zephyr Hospital how important his injury was: he was carrying a government bullet inside his body. He possessed tangible evidence of what had really happened during the Disgraceful Events, and was perhaps the only person still alive who was willing to prove what the authorities had done. (115–6)

Amani, for her part, has insisted that she will go to Zephyr Hospital and find (or bluff) her way to the basement, where the X-ray records of patients are reputedly kept, to retrieve Yehya’s confiscated X-rays. Ehab is determined to assist her in her risky quest.

Another and more public battle is led by the woman with short hair (she, too, is never identified by name; she is probably intended as a representative of “the radical”). Upon evidence accumulating that the “free” – and perhaps all – cell phones are spying devices for the Gate, she leads and organises a boycott against Violet Telecom – now the only permitted cell phone company, evidently happy to oblige with the secret surveillance of private conversations. Rumours abound that those who had been found to indulge in “subversive” talk have “disappeared”, and anxiety increases. Animosity also intensifies between the woman with short hair and the man in the galabeya, who opposes and preaches sermons against the boycott of Violet Telecom. He is now constantly seen in the company of Ines, who has been reduced to a state of neurotic anxiety because of the earlier evidence that her outspoken “politically oppositional” outpouring against Mahfouz, the dead soldier, was recorded – presumably as dangerous evidence on her record. The influence of the man in the galabeya grows steadily stronger – also over other women and men encouraged to attend his regular sermons. He is suspected by the woman with short hair of owning large stock in Violet Telecom, and is delighted when the High Sheikh issues a fatwa declaring the boycott of the phone company impermissible and “harm[ful to] the economic interests of the country and its people” (132). When Ehab, to counter the fatwa, writes “a hard-hitting and well-researched article about the [boycott] campaign – its grounds and implications, and how many people joined each week” – he is summoned to a meeting with his editor, who refuses to have the article appear in their newspaper; he also gives Ehab “a stern warning about ‘fabricating the news’” (135).

When Amani makes her way surreptitiously into Zephyr Hospital’s maze of corridors, she spots a sign indicating the office of the secretary for the surgery department. Entering, she requests the X-rays for Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed, claiming that he is a cousin of hers, and spinning the unsympathetic official a hard-luck story, but to no avail. Asking the date when these images were obtained, the official immediately spots the implication – that the X-rays show wounds incurred during the Disgraceful Events. With a sneer, he informs her that such records (presenting “special cases”) are kept on the fifth floor, which no unauthorised person may enter. With a “mocking glare” (144), he bids her farewell. Taking out her cell phone, Amani sees several “missed calls” from the same number, and, when she replies, they turn out to have come from Ehab, who is at the hospital’s entrance (where she goes to meet him). Watching from a distance, Amani sees that Ehab has no success in attempting to persuade the front desk man that he has legitimate business inside the hospital. Ehab ends up being unceremoniously grabbed by several security men and thrust out of the hospital. The next moment, Amani hears her own full name – Amani Sayed Ibrahim – broadcast over the intercom, demanding her presence at the Investigations and Instructions Desk. Without any time to plan things properly, she walks further into the hospital, and, when she spots an elevator, enters and presses the button for the fifth floor. As she walks out into the “forbidden” floor, Amani spots a notice saying “Department of Critical Bullet Files”. She is about to open the door of this office, when the lift doors open behind her and she hears the clamour of “angry voices” (146) confusedly speaking just before she is apprehended by the men, among whose faces she recognises the dreaded visage of the doctor who long ago came to her office asking to see Yehya.

Unwilling to worry Yehya about Amani’s possible endangerment, Ehab goes to find Nagy, with whom he goes to wait for Amani at her apartment. However, she does not show up, nor can they reach her on her cell phone. Disquietingly, even the innocuous-seeming old caretaker at Amani’s block of flats tells them (about her) that she has “gone to Zephyr Hospital, that Zephyr Hospital belonged to the Gate, and that he had suspicions about her work, and about her involvement in those Events people talked about” (148). Desperate to do something after waiting all day at her flat, the duo enlist Um Mabrouk’s aid, and they decide to issue a “missing person” leaflet with a photo of Amani, which they distribute as widely as they can, but without result. Amani has, in the meantime, been sternly interviewed by a hospital security official. When Amani bravely insists that Yehya has a right to have his X-rays returned to him, the man claims that no such records exist or, in fact, could exist, because, he claims, “No one was injured by any bullet that day or the day after or on any day, do you understand?” Unable to restrain herself any longer, Amani yells back at him: “Lies! He’s wounded, and the bullet is still in his body, and as soon as they do the operation and he has the bullet in his hand he’ll tell everyone who shot him, and then you’ll have your proof!” (151).

After a page break following the no-doubt shocked and furious silence achieved by Amani’s words, the next paragraph starts with the single word, “Nothingness” (151). Amani seems to be returning to consciousness after a gap, knowing only that she is in some completely dark and utterly silent place. In “every direction”, Amani finds “nothing but a void” (152), not even a wall or the bars of a cell. The only discernible sign of her remaining in the world is the solid earth under her feet. Soon, memories and even immediate sensations vanish in this “nothingness” (152), in which she cannot even find the relief of sleep. Amani seems to be naked, but cannot make out whether she has been raped. She shouts out in fury, in abject apology, makes promises and utters confessions, but all to no avail. In this terrible emptiness, she is no longer even able to produce tears, she finds, fearing that she is somehow vanishing. Many days seem to pass, until she at last finds herself in a tunnel. She walks along it to find that it lets her out, not too far from her apartment block. In her flat, her things appear undisturbed and as if she has not been away all that long. Her senses appear to have returned to normal, and her face – when she at last has the courage to look in a mirror – although “haggard and gray” (155), is recognisably still her own. In her purse, Amani finds a stack of photographs of herself in several “politically compromising” positions – photos she had had no idea of, but at whose existence she can no longer feel surprise or dismay.

Discovering at last that Amani has returned, her friends come to visit, but Amani is unwelcoming and apathetic, telling the story of her Zephyr experiences as unremarkable – a narrative that they all feel to be unconvincing. Even though she carries “no signs of violence on her body”, they surmise that she is probably unable to speak of some terrifying or shaming experience to which she was subjected, and soon leave her. They know it is possible that the guards “had just scared her by playing with her emotions and deepest secrets, and [that] that [may have] been enough to strip her of all her natural vitality and determination, leaving her in this dull and lifeless state” (157). She has, evidently, been dealt a psychological blow as potentially fatal as Yehya’s bullet injury.

Amani had asked her friends to leave her be and give her time to recover. While Yehya understood her need for “some space and the freedom to come to him when she felt ready to tell him what was haunting her”, his own condition is steadily deteriorating, and, after a fortnight’s separation, he goes to her office (where he, too, had formerly worked for over ten years) to find out whether Amani had returned to work. His old boss “greeted him coolly”, indifferent to Yehya’s weakened condition (he is “bleeding all the time now”), although they had been “close” when he had worked there and the boss is aware of how much good business Yehya’s efforts had brought in (159). Yehya finds Amani “distraught and ashen-faced” (160) in the old office they used to share. She is perturbed by his state, and questions him in detail, but is still unable to tell him anything about her own trauma. The state of the papers piled up on her desk is evidence that Amani is unable to perform her duties. Despite this, Yehya ignores his constant pain as he returns to the queue; he is profoundly heartened since he has seen Amani again, and inspired by “the first gentle smile that had crossed Amani’s lips since she’d disappeared” (163). The whole world appears brighter now that she has agreed to see him again. At the queue, Shalaby is distributing leaflets containing a report that has appeared in the “official” newspaper, titled (what else?) The Truth – the usual give-away that it disseminates government propaganda. In banner headlines, the photocopied report proclaims “MASTERMIND OF DISGRACEFUL EVENTS DISCOVERED”, attributing the blame to “a foreign individual” who had been “accused of terrorism in his home nation”, and who has, after a vain attempt to foment “unrest”, with the assistance of local “operatives, ingrates, and fools”, been fatally injured. He had left “no information behind”, but had died before his “wicked schemes were accomplished”; it is he, the report ends, who was responsible for the “gunfire witnessed in the square” at the time of the Disgraceful Events”. Shalaby is delighted with the report, since, in his view, it puts paid to the “claim” that his cousin had shot any innocent “true believer” (164). Unfortunately, a later publication of corrections and clarifications in The Truth exposes the story about the wicked foreigner as a fabrication. Crestfallen, Shalaby returns later on with a “medal” he has evidently obtained from a pawn shop, but insisting that it was awarded to his late cousin in recognition of his heroic service. Hearing this, Nagy “laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks” (173); he recognises the “medal”.

Not long afterwards, Nagy receives a surprise call from Amani, distractedly asking him to meet her without Yehya’s knowledge. She tells him that the sinister senior doctor from Zephyr Hospital has again shown up at her office and, in her view (if obscurely), “threatened her in front of her boss and colleagues” (174) by telling her to convey to Yehya that he is waiting for him to pay the doctor a visit at Zephyr. Amani is in such a dreadful state that it perturbs Nagy, whom she desperately begs to keep Yehya from visiting her, for fear the doctor will catch him there. Himself now in a somewhat distraught state – also at the thought that, with the onset of winter, Yehya would soon be unable to stay in the queue in his weak condition, at risk of infection and death from exposure – Nagy gets into the first bus that comes along, letting it take him where it will. He finds that the last stop (where he alights) is close to the newspaper offices where Ehab works. When Ehab is at last able to join him, they leave together, talking as they go. Ehab – though still his undaunted, cheerful self – tells Nagy that his boss appears to be growing hostile toward him, refusing to print any more reports concerning the queue, and severely slashing a piece Ehab wrote about his experiences at Zephyr Hospital. Ehab refers to his boss as being “suspicious” and “acting all high and mighty” (179).

It is clear that the violent repression of the Disgraceful Events continues to make serious trouble for the Gate, for in another development, The Truth prints a weird report of an interview with the High Sheikh. He states that anyone who might have been shot by a bullet, if a true believer, would in the strength of his faith understand immediately that it was “God himself who’d struck him down”. His duty would allow him to see that he was greatly “lucky”, and he would be “exalted to a place in heaven ordinarily reserved only for the most dutiful” (181). The circulation of The Truth, the narrator informs us, has subsequently increased. However, the interview with the High Sheikh also results in the circulation of a petition from the “Disgraceful Events Victims Association”, who accuse the Sheikh of causing distress by questioning the faith of the injured (183). The Sheikh issued a complicated fatwa in the course of his interview, accusing those injured and those claiming others were shot of being failures of faith. The man in the galabeya, of course, preaches in support of the fatwa, “declaring his solidarity with the Center for Freedom and Righteousness” (186). Yehya is angry at hearing the sermon, but Ines has now joined ranks completely with the man in the galabeya, and assists him in his proselytising. Soon afterwards, he asks Ines to marry him (he is much older than she is), and not long after that, she accepts his proposal. In contrast with Ines’s “success story”, Amani’s life appears to be falling apart; her boss instructs her to type out and sign a request for leave without pay. “She slept only in scarce, sporadic spells, waking up terrified in the middle of the night” (189). All she can think about is her failure to retrieve Yehya’s X-rays.

After several days, Amani notices “missed calls” from Dr Tarek. But the mere sight of his name terrifies her now. Shalaby’s family’s rented farm and dwellings have, in the meantime, been swept away in a great flood. Confident of generous compensation and an award of land to his family as reward for his cousin’s “sacrificial” death, Shalaby returns to the Gate. When the official to whom he speaks refuses the demand, sneers at him and humiliates him, Shalaby at last snaps and violently attacks the man. He returns to the queue calmer and humbler than before, to find that the people there (who have all heard the story of his encounter) have become much more sympathetic towards him. The queue people subsequently notice, uneasily, that a figure with what appears to be a camera is stationed on top of the Northern Building. Yet, it never moves. The Truth next prints a story that the so-called Disgraceful Events were actually a foreign-made, big-budget film that had to make the violent events seem convincingly real. Even Amani starts taking comfort in the reassuring belief in “stability and tranquility” (212), and that all is well in their country – even that Yehya has no bullet stuck in his innards. “But Yehya was not convinced, and he did not stop bleeding” (213).

The novel’s final chapter is promisingly titled, “Tarek’s proposal” – pertaining to the doctor who initially treated Yehya. Its opening paragraph reads as follows:

Tarek heard the Gate’s latest message and came to a decision: he would do the surgery. The Gate’s assertions were becoming more outrageous by the day, and he knew that Yehya would die soon if nothing changed. He felt he had nothing to lose from one last-ditch attempt. He’d come up with an idea that was certainly unorthodox, but he was also convinced that it was sound. If he could operate on Yehya at one of his friends’ houses, the home of Nagy or Amani, perhaps, they could find a way around the permit. The laws issued by the Gate only applied to hospitals and clinics, and said nothing about ordinary people in their homes. Tarek could bring the surgical instruments he needed with him and perform the operation there. It would be easier if Alfat [the former head nurse at Tarek’s hospital, now also in the queue for a certificate] accepted Yehya’s offer and agreed to help them, and maybe he could show them how to remove the bullet without he himself having to lay a finger on Yehya at all. (214)

By the time we reach the final thought expressed in the above citation, Tarek indeed sounds rather less resolved and still plagued by apprehension; but then, he stands to lose a lot by taking even this seemingly less risky route in saving Yehya. Everyone except Amani (“whom no one had seen”) readily agrees to the plan. Nagy offers the use of his apartment as the operating room, and Ehab wants to film it; both of them undertake to assist Tarek in any way needed. Yehya also consents; however, he wishes to try and locate Alfat again – she has, for a few days, not been in her usual place at the head of the queue. Yehya wants to ask her to provide her nursing skills. Tarek notices that in Yehya’s file, his three visits to Alfat (in the queue) have been noted with precise dates and times, but the space for her reply still left blank. More frighteningly, Alfat is nowhere to be seen, and they fear that she is the first person to have “disappeared” – referring to someone who is secretly imprisoned, to be tortured or punished by the authorities – from the queue (215). Spooked by their fear, and also because their friend’s (Yehya’s) condition is worsening alarmingly, the small group speed up their preparations for the operation. Ehab is constantly by his side to keep an eye on the sufferer, while Nagy has been entrusted (by Yehya himself) with continuing with the search for Alfat (to no avail). At the hospital, Tarek conducts a few trial runs and begins to assemble the surgical instruments that will be needed for the operation. But Sabah (no doubt the person who has continued to tamper with and add to Yehya’s hospital file) is growing increasingly suspicious of Tarek’s unusual behaviour – he is no longer spending hours and hours brooding alone in his office, but is jumpy and hyperactive. Tarek fobs her off when she tries to get an acknowledgement of the intended act out of him; nevertheless:

[T]he waiting overwhelmed him, and after a few days, Tarek lost his nerve. His commitment had flickered and waned, and he came up with a plausible excuse to delay his appointment with Nagy to prepare his apartment. Consumed by fear, he worried that he’d been too hasty with his idea and that this single act now could destroy his future forever. (216)

Although the file nowhere mentions Tarek’s own visits to Yehya (in the queue), or his “proposal to conduct the operation at Nagy’s house”, Tarek is well aware that “he must be under surveillance” (216). His own name has been moved from the cover to the “Follow-up” section in Document No 6.

Still, after two nights of sleeplessness, Tarek again commits himself to the dangerous undertaking. He goes to Nagy’s flat, and they prepare the space. At the hospital, he puts in a week’s leave; Sabah, the spying nurse, spreads rumours about him, but his resolve still holds. Then, he returns to the hospital to check on the file, but to his surprise, nothing new appears to have been added to it this time – an aberration from a by-now-established pattern. Then, Tarek spots a sentence that has been added at the bottom of the last page: “Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed spent one hundred and forty days of his life in the queue” (217). And that is all. The eerie ambiguity of the sentence is no doubt deliberate. This is written on what is also the last page, and in the final paragraph, of the novel. Tarek feels his “chest tightening” and sinks into “confused” thought, sitting in complete silence and remarkable calmness, lost in deep thought. Then, he takes up a pen, from which a small blue dot drops on the document. Tarek turns to “Document No 5” in the file, a completely blank block with a heading above it that states, “The Gate’s Response” (138). Tarek “quickly” adds a sentence “by hand” to the bottom of this document. We are not told what he wrote. The text’s final sentence informs us that “[h]e closed the file, left it on his desk, and rose” (217). Is the final verb a clue? Or, is “left” significant? The abrupt curtailment of the narrative is absolutely fitting – a last but somehow fertile and lingering piece of information about conduct undertaken in a society as cowed and super-surveyed as the one Aziz has shown us in this novel.

The queue is simultaneously a dire warning about how dangerous, difficult and, therefore, risky it is to resist fascist dictatorship and the cowing of an entire population (with but a few rare exceptions), and how necessary – even essential – it nevertheless is to resist for the sake of the preservation of self-respect and humane values. It is also (on the other hand) a creepily recognisable portrayal of many actual societies, now and in history – and probably what others might in the future become. Of course, all too many details in the text point to conditions unhappily prevailing at this time in Egypt, Aziz’s birthland and country of residence, but the text also effortlessly transcends this singular example. It is a mature and impressive novel, and one which many readers are likely to revisit in their memories or by rereading the text.

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  • Monica Hammes

    Ek volg hierdie reeks besprekings van Afrika-boeke reeds jare lank met groot plesier. Kan u dalk een of twee titels aanbeveel wat leeskringe vir hulle 2020-program kan oorweeg?

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.