IN THE LATE SUMMER of 2013, I watched injured protesters flee down my quiet residential street in Cairo. Government troops in tanks were firing birdshot in the traffic circle near my apartment. An excitable street dog trailed the protesters, then climbed to the roof of a car and began to howl, as an elderly couple next door peered worriedly over the balcony railing.
For weeks that summer, military helicopters flying in formation and wielding Egyptian flags regularly disrupted the cacophony of Cairo traffic; supporters of the former president were denounced as terrorists; and nightly curfews were imposed and regulated by tanks, troops, and citizen brigades. One sweltering day in August, government troops killed almost a thousand demonstrators at a sit-in in a public square.
After the 2011 popular revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime, the election of President Morsi, and the military coup in 2013 that swept General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi into power, Egypt is now under the control of an authoritarian government with an affinity for disappearing unruly students and dissidents.
Though Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz’s new novel, The Queue, is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, her descriptions of what it is like to witness history being rewritten by an oppressive victor recall Egypt, and other countries that have seen the fruits of their revolution swept away by powerful men.
In the dystopian world of her novel, for example, it is forbidden and illegal to remove bullets from a person’s body without the express approval of the state. The removal of the bullets would prove their existence, and, by default, that the state used bullets on protesters, so all evidence of state-sponsored violence, including x-rays, must conveniently disappear. Those unfortunate enough to remember are left to ponder the alien object embedded in their bodies, helpless to eject it.
The Gate — the authority that controls most aspects of daily life — requires authorization for all things, but perversely refuses to grant it. Citizens are forced to wait in a massive queue, which becomes the central focus of daily life. Documents dominate the characters’ lives and examples precede each chapter, exerting a subliminal framework of control. Businesses spring up, marriages occur, people are disappeared, they die or they struggle on, all under the oppressive eye of The Gate. If there is one positive we can take away from this insightful rendering of a post-revolutionary society, it is that life, in all of its messy excess, does not wait for a gate to open. It continues on.
Abdel Aziz, a 39-year-old journalist and psychiatrist based in Cairo, brings a unique perspective to state-sponsored violence — she has spent years working with torture victims. She writes a weekly column for al-Shorouk newspaper, and has also won various literary awards in Egypt for her short fiction. The Queue is her first novel, and her first book to be translated into English. I spoke with her by phone while she was visiting New York for a book release event, the day that her novel was published in English translation by Melville House.
ALEXIA UNDERWOOD: What inspired you to write a novel about a dystopian society?
BASMA ABDEL AZIZ: I started writing this novel in September 2012. This was about three months after the Muslim Brotherhood took office. I didn’t really believe that the Mubarak system had fallen in 18 days and that we were now being ruled by a religious regime. I felt that the military system was still present and would soon come back — and so when I wrote the novel, I used some military terms, and I included preachers and religion too.
You will find the man with the galabaya [a type of robe] in the queue at all times, trying to reshape the consciousness of the people in the queue, trying to push them to support the authority and stop rebelling. I wanted to show that religion is being used here to control people, but meanwhile, the military system is still present.
This is generally speaking, of course. If you want a certain event, I was walking in downtown Cairo and I was going to finish some paperwork related to a recent trip to France when I saw a number of people standing in a line in front of a governmental building. The door was closed. I finished my paperwork and I came back the same way, and I was surprised that after two hours, the same people were still standing in the same line, not moving forward. The doors were not open, and I asked myself: Why are they just standing there like this? Why don’t they just leave the queue? Why don’t they scream and shout and say, “Open these doors!”?
People seemed like they were attached to the ground, like something was restricting their reactions, something was linking them to this system of authority, which was just neglecting them. So I told myself, okay — I’m a short story writer first and foremost — I told myself, this is a very exciting scene and it will work well in a short story, so I took some notes down on a piece of paper. When I returned home I just started writing and I kept writing for hours, maybe 10 or 11 hours. The next day I continued writing, the third day I kept writing, and I kept on this way for about two months without stopping. Just eating while writing. I realized that it wasn’t a short story anymore, but I was feeling just like one of the people standing in the queue — I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a beginning or an ending to the story. I just let myself go with the characters, inventing new ones, walking with them through the details of their life, until I finished the novel completely — it took about two months and a week.
It was the end of 2012, and I went to Dar al-Tanweer, a Lebanese publishing house that opened an office in Cairo that year. I gave them the novel and I waited. The editor there, Sadi Aahd, called me and said that he liked it a lot and didn’t ask for many modifications. The novel was published in January 2013, about four months after I wrote it.
How did you get the novel translated into English?
I met Elisabeth [Jaquette] through an editor at Dar al-Tanweer. That editor had called me one day and told me that he had a dear friend, an American, who was living in Cairo and who had read the book in Arabic because she’s a translator, and would love to meet me. She had a book club at her home; I went and met her there, and she asked for permission to translate a chapter. She published it in Mada Masr [a local independent English/Arabic news site based in Cairo] and then she got the English PEN Translation award, and things continued on from there.
When I was reading The Queue, I was reminded of Sonallah Ibrahim’s Al Lajna (The Committee). Who do you consider to be your literary influences?
Ah, Sonallah. I loved Al Lajna, it’s one of his greatest pieces, and I also love George Orwell, 1984, and of course, Animal Farm. I love his style of writing. And of course Kafka, I love his style of writing as well.
You’re a psychiatrist and a journalist, and have written several nonfiction books. What made you decide to delve into fiction?
Well, I came to be a journalist later on. I started out painting and making sculptures, and then I began to write. The first thing I wrote was fiction: my collection of short stories won the Sawiris prize in 2008, a well-known Egyptian prize for literature. I wrote my second group of short stories in 2009, and won the prize of the Egyptian Cultural Palaces, which is a governmental institution. They published it because this was a competition for unpublished short stories. And then I started to write in journals — I wrote two nonfiction books. The first one was called The Temptation of Absolute Power, and I talked about the violence practiced by the police officers toward ordinary Egyptian citizens, citizens who are not dissidents. This book was an academic study, and it won a prize, from the Ahmed Bey al Din institute for young researchers in sociology. Then, I wrote Al Tabour [The Queue], then another two nonfiction books, Memoir of Oppression, which is talking about the psychology of torture and the political system and the torturers in Egypt, and the last one, on Al-Azhar and its discourse during the ruling crisis. I published it last January.
What was the reaction to The Queue when it came out?
It received good reviews. The first person to discuss the novel was a very well-known and famous literature critic, Abdel Munim Talima, and of course Alaa El-Deeb who just passed away a few months ago. He wrote an article about it in Al-Masry Al-Youm (Egypt Today) and Alaa El-Deeb, he spoke to me after reading Al Tabour and he told me, “This is a very good novel. You must do nothing but write novels.” He contacted me every now and then, asking what I was doing, and I would say, “I’m working on a study, it’s a nonfiction study,” and he just kept telling me, “Stop this, leave this, go after the second novel.”
I kept telling him, “I can’t! I have to finish this other work because no one is writing about this. We have to raise up our voices in front of this totalitarian regime, we have to face what they are doing to people, we have to face this torture. This violence.” He just said, “Go and write your second novel!”
What was the reaction from the government? Was there any censorship of the novel?
At this time, the government’s priorities are not novels. Not at all. They don’t look for this. They might look for nonfiction books, talking about practices of torture and violence, but a novel? [Laughs.]
I will tell you something that is somehow funny. The brother of a political prisoner called me and said, “You know my brother? I’m going to bring him some books and he reads your articles in al-Shorouk … would you please sign some copies of your books for him?” I told him, okay, but I don’t recommend taking my books — which talk about torture — to the prison. He took a group of books from me and some other authors and then later contacted me and said, “I delivered the books, thank you, and I’m sorry, all the books went to my brother except your novel.” I said, “Why?” He said — the funniest thing — he told me that the officers said this book carries thoughts and we will not allow a book that carries thoughts to enter the prison. I said, “What?” A cooking book will carry thoughts. It’s weird.
But there’s been no response from the government to your novel?
No, no response toward the novel at all, and I don’t think they read novels.
They know that people do not read enough to be worried about it. I don’t think that they will react to a novel. They may react to another sort of book.
Regardless, some of the work you do — your writing and other work — is highly sensitive. Are you concerned for your safety and well-being?
I don’t want to be imprisoned, but, well, half of my friends and colleagues are now in prison. So, while I don’t want to be there, this will never prevent me from writing, and will never push me to conform. It will never prevent me from raising my voice. I’ve been working for the Al Nadeem Center in rehabilitation of victims of violence and victims of torture for more than 10 years, so we are at risk most of the time.
Obviously, different writers have different opinions about whether politics should affect literature or whether literature should stand alone, apart, from politics. What are your thoughts on the connection between politics and literature?
Well, I received some questions [in regard to The Queue] about why I didn’t mention the name of a city, or why I didn’t relate this novel to Egypt in a stronger manner. My response was that this situation — a totalitarian regime and a military institution, an authoritarian system that is controlling the details of people’s lives — could be based in any place, and I wanted to express this in universal terms.
If you are Egyptian you can read this novel and connect it to Egyptian facts, on the ground, but if you are not Egyptian, you can also read it and connect terms and expressions to your own experience in your country, and other places. There is a connection between politics and literature of course, but we don’t have to make it very direct. I don’t like things to be like a documentary. I prefer to give myself a space to breathe and invent and imagine.
What do you expect will happen in Egypt in the next few years?
Look, I believe that this very sad, bad situation that Egypt is facing now, but it won’t last for a long time, because people are smart enough to realize that excessive and extreme oppression and violence is not the solution.
I believe that there will be another movement to correct this situation. I’m not saying that all people will stand up and fight together for freedom of expression and things like this, but the slogans of January 25, 2011 [the day of the revolution], are not yet achieved. No social justice, no bread, no freedom, nothing. I expect that there will be another revolutionary wave to correct the situation. I don’t think it will be in the next year — maybe it will take four to five years — but I am sure that this will happen.