Government policy designed to make its citizens crazy

Government policy designed to make its citizens crazy
Updated 26 May 2017

Government policy designed to make its citizens crazy

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.
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What We Are Reading Today: Putting it together

What We Are Reading Today: Putting it together
Updated 02 August 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Putting it together

What We Are Reading Today: Putting it together

Edited by James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim

Putting It Together chronicles the two-year odyssey of creating the iconic Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George. 

This is a “really insightful look at a classic show,” said a review on goodreads.com. 

In 1982, James Lapine, at the beginning of his career as a playwright and director, met Stephen Sondheim, 19 years his senior and already a legendary Broadway composer and lyricist. 

Shortly thereafter, the two decided to write a musical inspired by Georges Seurat’s 19th-century painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. 

Through conversations between Lapine and Sondheim, as well as most of the production team, and with a treasure trove of personal photographs, sketches, script notes, and sheet music, the two Broadway icons lift the curtain on their beloved musical. 

Putting It Together is a deeply personal remembrance of their collaboration and friendship and the highs and lows of that journey, one that resulted in the beloved Pulitzer Prize–winning classic. 

Lapine “is an incisive and at times self-deprecating interviewer, conceding that his unfamiliarity with musical theater and direction could sometimes lead him astray,” said the review.


What We Are Reading Today: Metrics at Work by Angele Christin

What We Are Reading Today: Metrics at Work by Angele Christin
Updated 01 August 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Metrics at Work by Angele Christin

What We Are Reading Today: Metrics at Work by Angele Christin

When the news moved online, journalists suddenly learned what their audiences actually liked, through algorithmic technologies that scrutinize web traffic and activity. Has this advent of audience metrics changed journalists’ work practices and professional identities?

In Metrics at Work, Angèle Christin documents the ways that journalists grapple with audience data in the form of clicks, and analyzes how new forms of clickbait journalism travel across national borders.

Drawing on four years of fieldwork in web newsrooms in the US and France, including more than one hundred interviews with journalists, Christin reveals many similarities among the media groups examined— their editorial goals, technological tools, and even office furniture.

Yet she uncovers crucial and paradoxical differences in how American and French journalists understand audience analytics and how these affect the news produced in each country.

American journalists routinely disregard traffic numbers and primarily rely on the opinion of their peers to define journalistic quality.

Meanwhile, French journalists fixate on Internet traffic and view these numbers as a sign of their resonance in the public sphere.


What We Are Reading Today: Shock to the System

Photo/Supplied
Photo/Supplied
Updated 31 July 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Shock to the System

Photo/Supplied

Author: Michael K. Miller

How do democracies emerge? Shock to the System presents a novel theory of democratization that focuses on how events like coups, wars, and elections disrupt autocratic regimes and trigger democratic change. Employing the broadest qualitative and quantitative analyses of democratization to date, Michael Miller demonstrates that more than nine in 10 transitions since 1800 occur in one of two ways: Countries democratize following a major violent shock or an established ruling party democratizes through elections and regains power within democracy.
This framework fundamentally reorients theories on democratization by showing that violent upheavals and the preservation of autocrats in power—events typically viewed as antithetical to democracy—are in fact central to its foundation.
Through in-depth examinations of 139 democratic transitions, Miller shows how democratization frequently follows both domestic shocks (coups, civil wars, and assassinations) and international shocks (defeat in war and withdrawal of an autocratic hegemon) due to autocratic insecurity and openings for opposition actors. He also shows how transitions guided by ruling parties spring from their electoral confidence in democracy.


What We Are Reading Today: The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell

What We Are Reading Today: The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell
Updated 29 July 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell

What We Are Reading Today: The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell

Ben Machell’s The Unusual Suspect details the remarkable story of socially isolated British college student Stephen Jackley who started robbing banks as the 2007 financial crisis unfolded, becoming a bank robber, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. 

Motivated by a belief that global capitalism was ruining lives and driving the planet towards ecological disaster, he dreamed of changing the world for the better through his crimes. 

The police, despite their concerted efforts, had no idea what was going on or who was responsible. That is, until Jackley’s ambition got the better of him.

Eventually agreeing to return to his native Britain after an arrest on American soil, Jackley wrote of his fears for the world, humanity “standing on the brink of massive change,” detailing his deeply revealing, morally complex motivations for the robberies. It was only later that psychiatric evaluation revealed that, unbeknownst to everybody, Stephen had been living with undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder.


What We Are Reading Today: Winners and Losers; The Psychology of Foreign Trade

What We Are Reading Today: Winners and Losers; The Psychology of Foreign Trade
Updated 28 July 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Winners and Losers; The Psychology of Foreign Trade

What We Are Reading Today: Winners and Losers; The Psychology of Foreign Trade

Author: Diana C. Mutz

Winners and Losers challenges conventional wisdom about how American citizens form opinions on international trade. While dominant explanations in economics emphasize personal self-interest— and whether individuals gain or lose financially as a result of trade — this book takes a psychological approach, demonstrating how people view the complex world of international trade through the lens of interpersonal relations.

Drawing on psychological theories of preference formation as well as original surveys and experiments, Diana Mutz finds that in contrast to the economic view of trade as cooperation for mutual benefit, many Americans view trade as a competition between the United States and other countries—a contest of us versus them. These people favor trade as long as they see Americans as the “winners” in these interactions, viewing trade as a way to establish dominance over foreign competitors. For others, trade is a means of maintaining more peaceful relations between countries. 

Just as individuals may exchange gifts to cement relationships, international trade is a tie that binds nations together in trust and cooperation.

Winners and Losers reveals how people’s orientations toward in-groups and out-groups play a central role in influencing how they think about trade with foreign countries, and shows how a better understanding of the psychological underpinnings of public opinion can lead to lasting economic and societal benefits.