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Government policy designed to make its citizens crazy

“They could no longer predict what tomorrow would bring, or what future events might throw the world into confusion again.”
Basma Abdel Aziz’s debut novel, “The Queue,” highlights and enumerates the sometimes violent and other times apathetic attitudes of a fictional totalitarian society. The characters are introduced as beleaguered members of the public; teachers, housekeepers, sales representatives and many more in a queue awaiting the opening of a government office, known as the omnipotent and mysterious Gate.
The book spans over 140 days in an unnamed city, following the lives of people who wait in a nearly 2-kilometer-long queue outside the Gate, “a strange crimson octagonal structure, slightly higher than the concrete walls that extended from it on either side.”
Each individual has pressing business. One woman needs a Certificate of True Citizenship. Another must file a complaint against the bakers who will not serve her anymore because of who she voted for in the last election. And another awaits approval for surgery to remove a bullet from his pelvis.
Through descriptions of veiled women and a stern man in a galabeya, a scorching sun, quiet nights, the desire for yansoon (a hot anise drink), and wild winds blowing papers across dusty roads, Abdel Aziz takes the reader through an introspective journey of her character’s intricate lives and struggles. Her characters are multi-faceted and intertwined with one another through the queue and the Gate.
“Since the Gate had materialized and insinuated itself into everything, people didn’t know where its affairs ended and their own began.”
There is confusion throughout the city marred by bursts of violence by unknown assailants who continuously cause tension between the government and residents of the city. With violence and mistrust growing among the city-dwellers, especially when a telecommunications company giving out phones is discovered to be recording conversations, people are scared, and life is made more difficult.
The book opens with Dr. Tarek Fahmy being handed a folder of a patient, Yehya Gad El-Rab Saeed. It is sealed with clear tape and the words: “Suspended Pending Approval by the Gate.” The process of getting approved by the Gate is not just “red tape” but like a bad experiment to see how far people can be pushed to the brink of insanity.
Saeed has been shot during the “Disgraceful Events” and is in need of an operation. A bullet is lodged in his pelvis and the doctors at Zephyr Hospital, a government hospital, have postponed his surgery. He seeks the help of Dr. Fahmy, who works at a private hospital, but due to government restrictions, he is not allowed to remove the bullet, which the government says could not have been shot during the Disgraceful Events since no guns were fired during the event.
Dr. Fahmy tells Saeed to get approval for the procedure from the Gate, and that is where we first find Saeed. He has been in line outside the Gate waiting for it to open every day, but it has not so far. With Saeed, are more people, waiting patiently, such as Ines, the Arabic teacher; Ehab, the journalist; and Um Mabrouk the housekeeper.
Abdel Aziz’s novel identifies and delineates why her characters are waiting in the queue, switching between stories of her characters’ past and present of woes and political drama. Each story begins quietly but eventually grows into sights, smells and personalities, both familiar and mysterious. These are characters we have met before, in novels by Mahfouz and Taher, but they are not the same people. They now live in a place that is different, one with an overlay of distrust, where politics controls every aspect of life.
“Politics had eaten away at people’s heads until they in turn had begun to devour one another,” the author writes.
As the novel moves through the 140 days of waiting in the queue, characters begin to change. Where once Ines was quiet, she begins to discover a voice. Where once Um Mabrouk was helpless, she is now a shrewd businesswoman, selling tea and allowing people to use her phone for a fee. Where once Nagy was rebellious, he finds “his body came and went but his will was trapped here.” Each embodies resilience, acceptance, helplessness and heartbreak. For all of them, however, especially Saeed, the very system that controls them is also the only way out of their predicaments.
First published in 2013 in Cairo, “The Queue” was translated into English in 2016 by Elisabeth Jaquette allowing English readers a glimpse into Abdel Aziz’s world as a journalist and psychiatrist.
Although set in a city that is never named, the sense of Egypt wafts through the pages with mint tea, cafes, heat and vivacious personalities. It is clear that the Arab Spring serves as the backdrop for this novel. In the last five years, the political turmoil that has spread in the region has inspired many writers to pen their experiences and stories to reveal accounts newspapers are unable to report.
Aziz’s novel continues to ignite the spark of all that is curious in a land so easily portrayed as a generalized city in the Middle East but is anything but. Every aspect of Abdel Aziz’s book, from the faded political banners to the doctor who doodles like an artist, momentarily forgetting his profession, reveals what life in a dystopian metropolitan city is like, where politics, religion and society push and pull against one another, where people lose or find a voice and continue to struggle under the Gate.
— Manal Shakir is the author of "Magic Within," published by Harper Collins India, and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
[email protected]

“They could no longer predict what tomorrow would bring, or what future events might throw the world into confusion again.”
Basma Abdel Aziz’s debut novel, “The Queue,” highlights and enumerates the sometimes violent and other times apathetic attitudes of a fictional totalitarian society. The characters are introduced as beleaguered members of the public; teachers, housekeepers, sales representatives and many more in a queue awaiting the opening of a government office, known as the omnipotent and mysterious Gate.
The book spans over 140 days in an unnamed city, following the lives of people who wait in a nearly 2-kilometer-long queue outside the Gate, “a strange crimson octagonal structure, slightly higher than the concrete walls that extended from it on either side.”
Each individual has pressing business. One woman needs a Certificate of True Citizenship. Another must file a complaint against the bakers who will not serve her anymore because of who she voted for in the last election. And another awaits approval for surgery to remove a bullet from his pelvis.
Through descriptions of veiled women and a stern man in a galabeya, a scorching sun, quiet nights, the desire for yansoon (a hot anise drink), and wild winds blowing papers across dusty roads, Abdel Aziz takes the reader through an introspective journey of her character’s intricate lives and struggles. Her characters are multi-faceted and intertwined with one another through the queue and the Gate.
“Since the Gate had materialized and insinuated itself into everything, people didn’t know where its affairs ended and their own began.”
There is confusion throughout the city marred by bursts of violence by unknown assailants who continuously cause tension between the government and residents of the city. With violence and mistrust growing among the city-dwellers, especially when a telecommunications company giving out phones is discovered to be recording conversations, people are scared, and life is made more difficult.
The book opens with Dr. Tarek Fahmy being handed a folder of a patient, Yehya Gad El-Rab Saeed. It is sealed with clear tape and the words: “Suspended Pending Approval by the Gate.” The process of getting approved by the Gate is not just “red tape” but like a bad experiment to see how far people can be pushed to the brink of insanity.
Saeed has been shot during the “Disgraceful Events” and is in need of an operation. A bullet is lodged in his pelvis and the doctors at Zephyr Hospital, a government hospital, have postponed his surgery. He seeks the help of Dr. Fahmy, who works at a private hospital, but due to government restrictions, he is not allowed to remove the bullet, which the government says could not have been shot during the Disgraceful Events since no guns were fired during the event.
Dr. Fahmy tells Saeed to get approval for the procedure from the Gate, and that is where we first find Saeed. He has been in line outside the Gate waiting for it to open every day, but it has not so far. With Saeed, are more people, waiting patiently, such as Ines, the Arabic teacher; Ehab, the journalist; and Um Mabrouk the housekeeper.
Abdel Aziz’s novel identifies and delineates why her characters are waiting in the queue, switching between stories of her characters’ past and present of woes and political drama. Each story begins quietly but eventually grows into sights, smells and personalities, both familiar and mysterious. These are characters we have met before, in novels by Mahfouz and Taher, but they are not the same people. They now live in a place that is different, one with an overlay of distrust, where politics controls every aspect of life.
“Politics had eaten away at people’s heads until they in turn had begun to devour one another,” the author writes.
As the novel moves through the 140 days of waiting in the queue, characters begin to change. Where once Ines was quiet, she begins to discover a voice. Where once Um Mabrouk was helpless, she is now a shrewd businesswoman, selling tea and allowing people to use her phone for a fee. Where once Nagy was rebellious, he finds “his body came and went but his will was trapped here.” Each embodies resilience, acceptance, helplessness and heartbreak. For all of them, however, especially Saeed, the very system that controls them is also the only way out of their predicaments.
First published in 2013 in Cairo, “The Queue” was translated into English in 2016 by Elisabeth Jaquette allowing English readers a glimpse into Abdel Aziz’s world as a journalist and psychiatrist.
Although set in a city that is never named, the sense of Egypt wafts through the pages with mint tea, cafes, heat and vivacious personalities. It is clear that the Arab Spring serves as the backdrop for this novel. In the last five years, the political turmoil that has spread in the region has inspired many writers to pen their experiences and stories to reveal accounts newspapers are unable to report.
Aziz’s novel continues to ignite the spark of all that is curious in a land so easily portrayed as a generalized city in the Middle East but is anything but. Every aspect of Abdel Aziz’s book, from the faded political banners to the doctor who doodles like an artist, momentarily forgetting his profession, reveals what life in a dystopian metropolitan city is like, where politics, religion and society push and pull against one another, where people lose or find a voice and continue to struggle under the Gate.
— Manal Shakir is the author of "Magic Within," published by Harper Collins India, and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
[email protected]

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