Saturday, August 5, 2017

WITMonth Day 5 | The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

You know those books that you almost don't want to read because of how they suddenly seem to represent everything that's going on in your life? Like when you were a child and suddenly the protagonist of the book you were reading was struggling in school like you were, or finding a book about losing a parent just as your close friend was dealing with her grief. Sometimes books just seem too real, and goodness if Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette) didn't feel exactly that.

It's been a few months since I read The Queue, a few months in which it's remained an itchy little reminder in the back of my mind. This is unsurprising, of course - the political climate of late has been so turbulent, so virulent, so baffling that it's hard not to strongly relate to a novel that details the pervasive, insistent, cancerous growth of authoritarianism. The Queue does so from a very specific angle, taking place in a not-entirely-unfamiliar version of Egypt with its own unique struggles (including explicit references to questions of religious purity and specific Islamic values).

And yet somehow, in April of 2017, the novel felt eerily familiar to this reader.

The Queue is not an especially long, heavy, or complex read. Rich with characters as it may be, the story remains focused on a few specific individuals who effectively reside in "the queue" - a long, indeed stagnant and eternal line that is waiting for The Gate to open. The Gate represents the new, authoritarian regime. Unsurprisingly, it remains closed to the public. Even as it demands that citizens acquire specific approvals, documents, and certificates from the Gate in order to conduct normal lives (in some cases, in order to live at all), it remains steadfastly closed, even as it hands down more decrees.

The Gate has remained closed since the Disgraceful Events, when protests against the state erupted. These protests represent both the strength and weakness of the Gate: its strength in eliminating the protesters and convincing the public that these Events didn't occur as witnesses clearly show they did, while also forcing its bunkered retreat. Among the victims of the Events is Yehya, who was shot by government forces. Since the official narrative rejects that the government even needed to use live weapons, the bullet that remains lodged in Yehya cannot exist and thus Yehya's declining health is fictional as well. Yehya's health forms a sort of frame story, guided by the surgeon who initially saw Yehya and identified the bullet that remained within.

Alongside Yehya's story, The Queue introduces additional characters who need the Gate's approval for various issues. One man seeks to reclaim his family's honor, a woman tries to stay afloat as her son suffers from illness, a journalist wanders the queue in a quest to understand their stories... Each story introduces one more small angle of the Gate's authority, from control of the media to control of basic businesses (like the state-run cell-phone provider that doesn't really provide service) to the gradual - and then avalanche-scale - erosion of freedom.

And here was the point at which things began to hit close to home.

A major theme in The Queue is the reliability of truth itself. The truth of the truth. Do you believe what you are told so very reasonably? Do you believe what your own eyes have seen, even if it contradicts what you're being told? At what point is the demand of the state truly too much? At what point is it obvious that you are being truly and thoroughly oppressed? These are not trivial questions, and The Queue doesn't pretend to answer them. It's not about having an answer, it's about the route taken. A small lie enables outright, blatant denials of the truth. This not only echoes the new political climate in the US - a world of "fake news" and alternative facts - but Israel, where journalists are often (quite frankly) so shallow that it is almost impossible to identify truth from propaganda. True, both countries are still democracies (if each severely flawed in its own way...), but it felt like that iceberg tip. Just a little more and things might collapse.

The Queue is a good book. Powerful, cleanly written, thought-provoking. Both Yehya's core story and Tarek's frame are emotionally engaging, while the additional fragments from the side-characters build this world in a remarkable way. Pieces of the plot felt a little thick at times, but the relatively short length of the story keeps the book as a whole from getting bogged down. It is, ultimately, a cool-headed dystopian tale of a world that is actually far too real.

Here, at least, we have one truth...

2 comments:

  1. This one sounds like a must-read. I've seen it everywhere for the last while and it does sound very relevant to current life.

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  2. Ugh, if I didn't want to read this book before I definitely want to now!! And I love the way you ended your review ;) So suspenseful!

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