Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Ruled by a network of intricate and powerful relations

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz, despite being set in an unnamed city, is clearly an allegory of revolutionary events occurring in Egypt in recent years. However, beyond that, it's difficult to pin down any sense of truth or justice or clear delineation of right and wrong, as the ambiguity of novel drives home.

The story centres on Yehya, who was injured during the Disgraceful Events, and his quest to have the bullet removed from his stomach. Bureaucratic complications arise because bullets "may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization." Dr. Tarek is reluctant to perform the operation Yehya needs. It's this special authorization that brings Yehya to queue up at the Gate. Others come to the Gate to file a complaint, get a certificate notarized, obtain a Certificate of True Citizenship, etc. But the Gate never opens.

Days pass. Weeks. A whole society springs up around the queue. The sales rep mingles with the teacher, the cleaning woman, the journalist. Prayer meetings, refreshments, phone service. Bus routes are modified to accommodate the queue.
Yehya wasn't like them. He was a different kind of man, steadfast and stubborn, and must have realized that day in Zephyr Hospital how important his injury was; he was carrying a government bullet inside his body. He possessed tangible evidence of what had really happened during the Disgraceful Events, and was perhaps the only person still alive who was willing to prove what the authorities had done.
Why do people keep queuing up? Don't they know the Gate isn't going to open?! How can they not realize it? Why don't they rise up, do something?!

Their access to news is being controlled. They're being surveilled via the cell network. People are disappeared. Dr. Tarek's file on Yehya all the while mysteriously is being updated.

Yehya's character is called into question, the nature of the Disgraceful Events is called into question. And so it goes.
Nagy had failed to convince them that everything in the world was interconnected, and that their lives were ruled by a network of intricate and powerful relations. Even things that seemed random operated according to this invisible system, even if the connections couldn't be seen. Yehya laughed whenever they discussed it seriously, teasing him that the philosophy department had corrupted his mind and destroyed his faith in human nature. Amani would laugh, too — she could never be convinced that the independence she believed she possessed was in truth no more than an accepted illusion, part of a web of relations and contradictions. The Gate itself was an integral part of the system, too, even if from the outside it appeared to pull all the strings.
What will we not normalize? What does it take to drive people to action?

While Basma Abdel Aziz's new work starts with a bullet to the gut it is also relevant to those of us stuck on hold with an insurance agent.
Roundtable including the translator, which approximates a decent bookclub experience.
Getting the tone of the ending right was one of the more challenging parts of translating the novel: working to approximate the same amount of vagueness, to not make it more concrete or more open-ended than the Arabic suggested.
Excerpt 1.
Excerpt 2.

The more I think about The Queue, the more I like it.

No comments: