Book Review: Is the Gate Worth the Wait?

When it comes to revolutions and political uprising, the intention is that the result of the revolution will be better; that the resistance should change the status quo and validate the sacrifices that made the revolution possible. The multiple revolutions of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s did not entirely resolve as expected, as some of these nations are left questioning whether the resistance and sacrifices were worth it in the first place. Of the countries politically activated during the Arab Spring, Egypt is unique in that the Egyptian’s initial revolution intended to uproot and remove dictator Hosni Mubarak from office which allowed them to vote democratically. Mohammad Morsi—who represented the controversial party named the Muslim Brotherhood—was democratically elected only to be removed through a the second revolution that eventually returned Egypt to a Mubarak-esque status quo with Sisi. During the first revolution, the Egyptian people united regardless of religion or political party; it was not until a few years into Morsi’s term when a percentage of the Egyptian people, however, began to criticize his policies and the influence of his party. Specifically, some deemed the conservative politics of the Muslim Brotherhood to be too influential on the president’s decisions. Egyptians took to the streets after about two years of Morsi’s term, which resulted in the military ousting their democratically-elected president. Military forces cracked down and killed nearly a thousand Muslim Brotherhood protesters at pro-Morsi protests, making it clear that the political climate was one of uncertainty as the provisional government tortured and persecuted those critical of the military regime with an eerie resemblance, to say the least, to Mubarak’s regime.

Current day Egypt is a country of censorship as no citizen dares to criticize the government, and people do not have the full access to resources, like electricity and gas, to survive. They also do not, as they cannot, trust what is presented on the news. But Egyptians do not talk about it. It could be out of fear, it could be the normalization of the political climate, or it could be that the Egyptian people are exhausted. The military’s coup-d’etat has left the country in a time of uncertainty, surveillance, and a plummeting economy. Some say that the current state of Egypt is worse than it had been before the revolutions.

This uncertainty, dysfunctionality, and lack of trust in authority is the overwhelming sense of modern day Egyptian society, which has inspired the author of The Queue, Basma Abdel-Aziz, to write about the current atmosphere of Egypt, and especially the dystopian similarity to other countries in the Middle East that were politically active during the Arab Spring. This is the reason why Abdel-Aziz creates a nameless city in a nameless country: for it to be a common ground for all nations of the Arab Spring. The use of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the form of Arabic that formal Arabic literature and media employs, to write the novel—instead of the use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic, validates the neutralization of this being a narrative of all Arab countries involved in the Arab Spring.

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, who lived in Egypt through both political upheavals, into English, The Queue is described as a political dystopian novel with “Kafkaesque surrealism.”  A New York Times article by Alexandra Alter mentions how several Arab writers take to this genre, deserting the usual genres of realism in Arabic literary canon. Due to the unusualness of the atmosphere of Egypt after both political upheavals, this genre’s surrealism, per the use of speculative fiction, can be used to make sense of the ineffable post-revolution realities of these countries politically active during the Arab Spring.

Abdel Aziz uses code words to disguise and distance the specific events in relation to Egyptian political events, like “the First Storm” in reference to the ousting of Mubarak and the second ousting as “the Disgraceful Events.” As a reader, I understand that Abdel-Aziz’s intention to generalize setting and nationalities in the novel and of the characters to leave the novel open to interpretation and relation to the several countries who experiences political uproar during the Arab Spring. But in the end, I saw every event inextricably tied to Egyptian culture and politics. The challenge, however, is in recognizing that Egypt’s political history is one that is unique and individual, particularly because they removed two presidents while only a few of the other Arab Spring countries could oust just one.

The central character of Basma Abdel-Aziz’s The Queue is Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed, a man who was shot by government forces during The Disgraceful Events, and due to the denial of such events carried out by the government, they have established laws specifically pertaining to the removal of bullets. Authorities from The Gate confiscate the x-rays and mandates it to be illegal to surgically remove bullets without a permit from The Gate. When Yehya returns to Zephyr Hospital, the nurses and Dr. Tarek deny ever admitting Yehya on that night and deny his situation—though they all know it to be true. The people in the queue in front of The Gate have no knowledge of when it will open. They stand there—each with a legitimate need of authorization. Soon enough, they seem to forget why they are there in the first place. There are many obstacles between them and the authorization they came for.

The mindful symbolism of the novel includes the bullet in Yehya; Violet Telecom, the cellular network company giving people free phones that records conversations; Amani and what happens to her; and the relationship between the High Sheikh and The Gate. The bullet symbolizes the disregarded and denied pain of not only the Egyptian people but also Egyptian society as a whole. Violet Telecom symbolizes the larger significance of technology and the detrimental effects that it has in terms of politics, authority, and connectivity of society. Amani symbolizes all those who question the authority and are harmed by the authority—mentally and physically. The High Sheikh clearly represents the Muslim Brotherhood and religious authority more broadly, which promotes and endorses the Gate—the major authority.

The major themes that run through the novel are fear and distrust, as well as uncertainty not only in authority but also among the community. There is much significance in the role of technology and censorship. There is also a sense of distrust of religious power, and a theme of existentialism. These are influences of George Orwell and Franz Kafka—authors who found political surrealism to best explain and describe political uneasiness and uncertainty.

The Queue, written in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) instead of being scripted in colloquial Egyptian Arabic dialect, contributes to the idea that the novel is intended for all Arabs of countries active during the Arab Spring to relate to. The translation by Elisabeth Jaquette might be compared to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s notion of a “thick translation” which should reflect a learning experience of culture while being true to the original meaning of the text. Jaquette occasionally goes so far as to leave words in the original Arabic—a method not unlike that employed by Jerome Rothenberg and John Felstiner in their translations of Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge.” The words Jaquette leaves in their original are colloquial words, a choice that effectively transmits a lot of the culture and originality of the text. The novel, in Arabic—as written by Abdel-Aziz—does not have much description, but rather has a focus on narration which is what Jaquette preserves in the translation. Initially, this makes it harder to ease into the novel and forget that I am reading a book, but after reflection this made me realize that maybe this is the intended effect of the novel. We’re supposed to be like Tarek, a part of the omniscient authority that knows everything and causes us as reader to question their position in the novel. With this in mind, the translation, like the writing style, is quite effective. The political surrealism and defamiliarization of the novel is certainly portrayed in the translation, which makes it more or less a successful translation. The Queue suggests an uncanny unusualness, the uncertainty, and the dystopian nature of post-revolution countries. The use of speculative fiction by Arab authors like Basma Abdel Aziz makes readers question whether it was worth going through the revolution in the first place.

Aia Hawari is a Muslim American writer, poet, and community servant-leader from Southern California finishing up her Literature/Writing B.A. at UC San Diego. Her work has been published in Huffington Post, UC San Diego’s Common Ground, and UC Berkeley’s Threads (formerly known as Al-Bayan Magazine). Since Muslim women are often a hot topic that everyone and their mother has an opinion about, Aia recognizes that her voice and narrative has the power to dispel misconceptions and misrepresentations about her faith and what it means to be a visible Muslim woman. Currently, Aia is working with Alchemy, an academic journal of translation at UC San Diego as the Assistant Editor.