“As an examination of extreme control and its consequences, it succeeds” – The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Terms and Provisions Issued by the Gate on Conducting Work in Medical Facilities.

Article 4 (A): “Authorization for the Extraction and Removal of a Bullet.” The extraction of bullets and all other types of firearm projectiles, from the bodies of persons killed or injured … is a criminal act.

tqIn these days of Brexit, Britons are obsessing over the interference into domestic affairs, via a draconian and unseen hand. Whether the European Union actually tried to straighten our bananas remains a vexatious point, but all can agree on this – if you hate the EU, no-one will shut you up. On the contrary, the spitting of bile is your birth right. In Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, however, citizens of an unnamed Middle Eastern country don’t enjoy the same privileges. Following a failed, popular uprising, the country’s president recedes from public life and is replaced by a faceless authority – the Gate – which enacts into law a series of bills designed not merely to inconvenience, or hamper everyday life, but fully cripple the body politic. So extreme and far-reaching are its powers, and so harsh the punishments for transgression, that colleagues and friends begin to distrust each other.

The novel interweaves several stories, of individuals whose lives are disrupted – near destroyed – by banal edicts and the mandated paperwork requirements of autocracy.

“…he’d been told that in order to submit an application for a permit, he first needed to go to the Booth, a small structure on the side of the Northern Building. There he needed to hand in his paperwork and the state the purpose of his request. The official there would check that his papers were in order, file the application, and give him a stamped receipt as confirmation. Only individuals who had gone to the Booth to register and inform the Gate of their purpose were entitled to wait in the queue.”

But the Gate never opens and consequently ‘the queue’ keeps on growing. People wait not for hours, but days and weeks; they go home at night and take up the same spot in the morning, without having moved forward even an inch. An organic system of neighbourly co-operation – and suspicion – develops. Micro-industries sprout, furnishing those in the queue with refreshments and washed clothes.

The central story is of a man, Yehya, a passer-by during a spontaneous eruption of violence, who gets shot by state security forces. However, the official version of events, faithfully reproduced in the broadcast and print media, is that the perpetrators were thugs and the security forces heroes, defenders of virtue who did not open fire. And in something straight out of a Stasi textbook, Yehya’s medical records are edited and an X-ray showing a bullet trapped in his abdomen goes missing. And so he can’t get the bullet removed. And thus the thrust of the novel is provided by Yehya and his fiancé/girlfriend/lover, who are desperately trying to recover evidence of the bullet in his body, and get it removed before he runs out of time. The couple, such as they are, are no hi-fi pair swinging from chandeliers – they’re urchins, bred for stoicism, whose life’s work is simply to avoid getting crushed underfoot. And through them, Abdel Aziz communicates the full horror of life under the Gate. Some of the secondary threads are less successful – this work bears hallmarks of prototypical ‘first novel’ mistakes – however as an examination of extreme control and its consequences, it succeeds.

Any Cop?: In a Walter Mitty world, governments go to great lengths to control – to harness popular opinion; and even curate history. And the devastation caused to those simply airbrushed out of the official gloss, is the beating heart of Abdel Aziz’s The Queue. In her clipped, stripped bare style, she brings this powerfully home.

 

Tamim Sadikali


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