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.
[email protected]


What We Are Reading Today: First Steps by Jeremy DeSilva

What We Are Reading Today: First Steps by Jeremy DeSilva
Updated 23 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: First Steps by Jeremy DeSilva

What We Are Reading Today: First Steps by Jeremy DeSilva

 

Jeremy DeSilva writes First Steps with a good sense of humor and a conversational tone.

First Steps examines how walking upright helped us rise above all over species on this planet.

“Moving from developmental psychology labs to ancient fossil sites throughout Africa and Eurasia, DeSilva brings to life our adventure walking on two legs. First Steps examines how walking upright helped us rise above all over species on this planet,” said a review in goodreads.com.

First Steps includes an eight-page color photo insert.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes said in a review for The New York Times: “DeSilva proposes that “our bipedalism is at the root of our uniqueness as a species, and the book is carefully structured, neatly braiding his own research with the wider narrative and history of human evolution.”

The review said that First Steps “is not just a big-picture chronicle. It’s full of very human, intimate details, in the past and present.”

The critic is the author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art — a New York Times Notable Book in 2020.


What We Are Reading Today: Dollars and Sense

What We Are Reading Today: Dollars and Sense
Updated 22 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Dollars and Sense

What We Are Reading Today: Dollars and Sense

Edited by Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler

In Dollars and Sense, bestselling author and behavioral economist Dan Ariely teams up with financial comedian and writer Jeff Kreisler to challenge many of our most basic assumptions about the precarious relationship between our brains and our money. 

In doing so, they undermine many of personal finance’s most sacred beliefs and explain how we can override some of our own instincts to make better financial choices.

Exploring a wide range of everyday topics—from the lure of pain-free spending with credit cards to the  pitfalls of household budgeting to the seductive power of holiday sales — Ariely and Kreisler demonstrate how our misplaced confidence in our spending habits frequently leads us astray, costing us more than we realize, whether it’s the real value of the time we spend driving forty-five minutes to save $10 or our inability to properly assess what the things we buy are actually worth. Together,  Ariely and Kreisler reveal the emotional forces working against us and how we can counteract them.


What We Are Reading Today: Rationality; From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky

What We Are Reading Today: Rationality; From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky
Updated 21 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Rationality; From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky

What We Are Reading Today: Rationality; From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky

In “Rationality: From AI to Zombies,” Eliezer Yudkowsky explains the science underlying human irrationality with a mix of fables, argumentative essays, and personal vignettes. 

These eye-opening accounts of how the mind works (and how, all too often, it doesn’t!) are then put to the test through some genuinely difficult puzzles: Computer scientists’ debates about the future of artificial intelligence (AI), physicists’ debates about the relationship between the quantum and classical worlds, philosophers’ debates about the metaphysics of zombies and the nature of morality, and many more. 

In the process, the book delves into the human significance of correct reasoning more deeply than you’ll find in any conventional textbook on cognitive science or philosophy of mind.

This book compiles six volumes of Yudkowsky’s essays  into a single electronic tome. Collectively, these sequences of linked essays serve as a rich and lively introduction to the science  — and the art — of human rationality.


What We Are Reading Today: The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan

What We Are Reading Today: The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan
Updated 20 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan

What We Are Reading Today: The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan argues in “The Case Against Education” that the primary function of education is not to enhance students’ skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity — in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee. 

Learn why students hunt for easy As and casually forget most of what they learn after the final exam, why decades of growing access to education have not resulted in better jobs for the average worker, how employers reward workers for costly schooling they rarely if ever use, and why cutting education spending is the best remedy.

Caplan shows how the labor market values grades over knowledge, and why the more education your rivals have, the more you need to impress employers.  He explains why graduation is our society’s top conformity signal, and why even the most useless degrees can certify employability. 

Romantic notions about education being “good for the soul” must yield to careful research and common sense — The Case against Education points the way.


What We Are Reading Today: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

What We Are Reading Today: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
Updated 19 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

What We Are Reading Today: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Minor Feelings is a thought-provoking, insightful, smart collection of essays that delve into Asian American history, identity and psychology. 

“By blending history and cultural criticism with stories from her own past, this book highlights the complexities of being Asian in America,” said a review published in goodreads.com.

Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong uses her own story as a portal into a deeper examination of racial consciousness in America today. 

The book “traces her relationship to the English language, to shame and depression, to poetry and art-making, and to family and female friendship in a search to both uncover and speak the truth,” said the review.

Park Hong “wrote this book with courage and all her heart — exposing her feelings with honesty and wit. Her writing is incredible and this is a true masterpiece,” the review added. 

“She reckons with her identity as an Asian American while exploring larger themes of unity, art, friendship, mental health and much more. Her poeticism comes through in the beautiful writing.”