Title: The Queue
Author: Basma Abdel Aziz
Translator: Elisabeth Jaquette
Published by: Melville House
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
Content Warning: State and police brutality, imprisonment, death (from injury)
“Set against the backdrop of a failed political uprising, The Queue is a chilling debut that evokes Orwellian dystopia, Kafkaesque surrealism, and a very real vision of life after the Arab Spring.
In a surreal, but familiar, vision of modern day Middle East, a centralized authority known as ‘the Gate’ has risen to power in the aftermath of the ‘Disgraceful Events,’ a failed popular uprising. Citizens are required to obtain permission from the Gate in order to take care of even the most basic of their daily affairs, yet the Gate never opens, and the queue in front of it grows longer.
Citizens from all walks of life mix and wait in the sun: an activist journalist, a sheikh, a poor woman concerned for her daughter’s health, and even the cousin of a security officer killed in clashes with protestors. Among them is Yehya, a man who was shot during the Events and is waiting for permission from the Gate to remove a bullet that remains lodged in his pelvis. Yehya’s health steadily declines, yet at every turn, officials refuse to assist him, actively denying the very existence of the bullet.
Ultimately it is Tarek, the principled doctor tending to Yehya’s case, who must decide whether to follow protocol as he has always done, or to disobey the law and risk his career to operate on Yehya and save his life.
Written with dark, subtle humor, The Queue describes the sinister nature of authoritarianism, and illuminates the way that absolute authority manipulates information, mobilizes others in service to it, and fails to uphold the rights of even those faithful to it.” (Source)
There was a new wave of literature and speculative fiction that arose out of Arab Spring and those books are finally now being translated into English. One day the Northern Gate appeared out of nowhere and started issuing decrees. Some people accepted this change easily, others fought back. But eventually you needed permission from the gate for everything from medical procedures to a certificate of true citizenship to get a job. So people lined up in the square waiting for the gate to open. This is the story of a number of people in the queue and their lives.
I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s an easy read that draws you right in despite the difficult topics. It’s a dystopian that feels more in line with 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale than The Hunger Games, but there’s very little speculative technology in it. This is a story of now, of modern Egypt (of what appears to be Egypt since the country is never named). People have cell phones, take minibuses around the city, are university educated. The only bit of magical technology is a patient’s file that keeps updating even though it’s just loose papers.
But The Queue really hit home to me about the line between totalitarianism and dystopia. And that although technology is often terrifying in how we imagine it can be used to control us, it is often scarier and more real to just start restricting things and rewriting the truth. The terror that permeates the book doesn’t stem from depictions of state brutality as incidents of brutality are rarely depicted, but discussed and woven into the story by the characters’ lives and interactions with each other and the state. But in the era of Trump and fake news, it’s the slow acceptance of totalitarianism as a normal part of society, the manipulation of information and the twisting of the truth that grips the reader. Like The Handmaid’s Tale and Parable of the Sower, this is definitely a book for now.