Around the turn of the century, American literature got magical. Writers such as Aimee Bender, Judy Budnitz, George Saunders, Kelly Link and others – many of them wonderful – all appeared at once with stories about fairies, ghosts and unlikely medical abnormalities. Here’s the opening of Bender’s story Marzipan, from her 1998 collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: “One week after his father died, my father woke up with a hole in his stomach.… You could now see behind him like he was an enlarged peephole.” And so forth.
These were the Bill Clinton years, an era of relative comfort for the privileged classes – including many of the people who were producing and reading these books – which in post-9/11, post-collapse retrospect feels a little naive. That fabulism would emerge amid this climate echoes John Barth’s championing of postmodernism as a “literature of exhaustion”; if those late-nineties flights of fancy weren’t all David Foster Wallace reckoning with the inanities of neo-liberalism, on the cusp of the millenium many seemed to be simply pursuing something new.
Whatever the motivation, it was a bit of an odd trend; in the 20th century, most literary turns toward magical thinking were inspired by persecution. Whether the supernatural offered an escape from or an articulation of trauma, writers responded to tyranny and terror with everything from the absurdist tales of early Soviet writers such as Daniil Kharms and Mikhail Bulgakov to the magic realism of the Latin American boom.
As Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier wrote of his contemporaries, “We have forged a language appropriate to the expression of our realities,” a language that did not seek to divorce itself from lived existence, but to capture its struggles through surrealism, expressionism, the baroque and the grotesque. Carpentier preferred the term “the marvellous real” to describe his fiction, which, as is too often the case with writer-dissidents who speak out against repressive regimes, landed him in jail and forced his eventual exile.
Since 2011, much of the fiction in response to the Arab Spring has gone a similar route, tending toward dystopian satires (Nihad Sirees’s The Silence and the Roar and Nael Eltoukhy’s Women of Karantina) more akin to the avant-garde social critiques of Vladimir Sorokin than the historical epics of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Basma Abdel Aziz’s debut novel even name-checks Sorokin’s The Queue; both are about an interminable lineup and the people in it, and both offer scathing critiques of the dehumanization of their respective societies.
Abdel Aziz, a psychiatrist by training, has published several works of political non-fiction and is well known in Egypt as an outspoken voice against injustice. The source of that injustice in her first novel is the Gate, a hegemonic shadow organization that sits, doors closed, at the head of the book’s titular queue, which has grown so large that it requires service by two buses: one to the end, and one to the beginning. The book is structured around the story of Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed, who has been shot while protesting the Gate’s activities. In order to have the bullet removed, he is required to have his status as a True Citizen verified – naturally, by the Gate – so he waits, slowly bleeding out, in line.
Aside from its allegorical resonances, what’s most compelling about The Queue is the destabilization created by filtering specific political events through the lens of fiction. Most English-language readers, certainly, are accustomed to our dystopias along the Orwell-Huxley-Atwood axis, which extrapolate worst-case end results from current social circumstances. Retroactively reimagining the events of and after the protests in Tahrir Square as a speculative novel accentuates their horrors: There’s a disturbing irony at play when these unimaginable “speculations” have actually happened.
Along with this doubling effect of truth and fiction, the book operates within a number of similar binaries. Among the members of the queue are, on one side of the political spectrum, a religious zealot known only as “the man in the galabeya” (a traditional, robe-like Egyptian garment) and Shalaby, the state-sympathetic cousin of a murdered member of the Quell Force; on the other are “the woman with the short hair,” who spearheads a boycott of the telecommunications company whose complimentary cellphones double as surveillance devices, and Um Mabrouk, who begins campaigning for reform after her child dies due to medical negligence.
The tension between these groups is focused in the space of what actually occurred and what is emerging as the historical record – at least as it’s reported by the perversely named newspaper The Truth, which has reconfigured the protests as “the Disgraceful Events” and claims that the ensuing violence was “a conspiracy hatched by some cowardly foreigners.” Though even these accounts shift per the Gate’s various agendas, until a version emerges that, while completely divorced from actuality, is so demoralizing that many citizens accept its inventions as fact.
The details of The Queue are appallingly familiar to anyone who has followed the social breakdown in Egypt over the past five years – manipulation of the media, “disappearances” of suspected insubordinates, clandestine surveillance and an insidious conflation of church and state. But Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel is not simply an exegesis on the state of her homeland, but a much more universal evocation of the relationships between hegemonic power and grassroots dissent. It feels both fitting and faintly tragic that she had to resort to the literature of dark fantasy to convey it.Report Typo/Error
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