Reading in Translation

Within the Lines: Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

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Reviewed by Andrea Shah

Basma Abdel Aziz’s début novel, The Queue, was written in the span of two fevered months, after the author came upon a line of people waiting outside a closed government office in her native Egypt: “The gate to the building would certainly open shortly, I thought to myself; after all, it was nearly midday. Two hours later I walked back the way I came, only to find the same people standing exactly where they had been. They hadn’t moved. There were more of them now, yet the gate was still closed.” Abdel Aziz takes the perplexing scene and runs with it, setting her novel in the capital of an unnamed country. Though the book was written in Egyptian Arabic and translator Elisabeth Jaquette was able to identify Cairene landmarks and street corners in her reading, it is not intended to be specifically Egyptian.

The nation is governed by an institution known as the Gate, which has usurped the role of the country’s previous ruler. After an uprising (the First Storm) in protest of the ruler’s iron-fisted tactics, he appears on television, advising his subjects that measures will be taken to control the situation. The next morning, the Gate has appeared, and it quickly becomes omnipresent:

Before long, it controlled absolutely everything, and made all procedures, paperwork, authorizations and permits — even those for eating and drinking — subject to its control. It imposed costly fees on everything; even window-shopping was now subject to a charge […] To pay for the cost of printing all the documents it needed, the Gate deducted a portion of everyone’s salary (31-32).

Chafing at the restrictions placed on them, people organize a protest in the city’s central square, which later becomes known as the Disgraceful Events. In the wake of the Disgraceful Events, the Gate closes to citizen business, while still churning out endless decrees and regulations. In response, a long queue forms outside the building where the Gate is housed.

The novel’s two protagonists are bound together by the Disgraceful Events: Yehya is an average citizen who decides to pass by the protest, only to find himself shot, a bullet nestled within his abdomen; Tarek is a physician at the hospital where Yehya is admitted for treatment. The novel is framed by Tarek’s re-readings of Yehya’s patient file, and his fixation on Yehya’s fate. The X-ray performed on Yehya when he was originally admitted goes missing, and Tarek’s memory plays tricks on him as he struggles to remember the nature of Yehya’s injuries.  After all, the Gate has decreed that “no bullets [were] fired at the place and time he was injured,” and “any injuries [the protesters] sustained were simply puncture wounds” from fighting amongst themselves (52).

Meanwhile, his health declining due to his injuries, Yehya takes up a place in the queue in order to secure permission to have the bullet removed. From there, Abdel Aziz introduces us to a number of other people in the queue, among them Ines, a young teacher who erred by praising a student’s essay on her living conditions; Um Mabrouk, an enterprising older woman who begins selling tea and snacks to the others in the queue; and Amani, Yehya’s girlfriend, who is desperate to help him obtain the needed treatment.

Nearly every reviewer of The Queue thus far has noted the resemblance it bears to titans of dystopian literature such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. There are also echoes of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 in the regime’s obsession with paperwork, and the ever-increasing number of barriers that citizens must clear to complete the most basic tasks. As the novel goes on, Yehya’s health declines, but he is effectively barred from having surgery to remove the bullet:

Permits authorizing the removal and extraction of bullets shall not be granted, except to those who prove beyond doubt, and with irrefutable evidence, their full commitment to sound morals and comportment, and to those who are issued with an official certificate confirming that they are a righteous citizen, or at least, a true citizen. Certificates of True Citizenship that do not bear a signature from the Booth and the seal of the Gate shall not be recognized under any circumstances (115).

Not only is Yehya obliged to wait daily in the queue — despite his injuries — in order to obtain the Certificate of True Citizenship, but the implication is that given the time and place where he was injured, he won’t qualify for the certificate based on his lack of “righteousness.”

This is but one of many absurd scenarios that take place throughout the novel. In another, free phones from a state-run telecom company turn out to have been a Trojan horse when citizens discover that their private conversations are being transmitted to the Gate; a boycott of the company leads to a fatwa, in which citizens are advised that “sin can be absolved by fasting, or by making seven consecutive phone calls, each one not separated by more than a month” (134). Another boycott takes place against a candy company that manufactures “candy made of sugar swirls, in which — in a certain light — one could make out the word ‘God’” (124).

In a third, a man seeks redress from the Gate when his family’s land is flooded, and is accused of “having caused the downpour in the first place. Shalaby had deliberately flooded the huts, [the official] said with confidence, to acquire land he could build a house on, instead of the soggy farmland where they could only build these flimsy shacks” (211). As with all of the absurdities the characters encounter, there is just enough of the real to make them plausible.

It should come as no surprise to the reader that Abdel Aziz’s academic work as a sociologist culminated in an analysis of the discourse that shaped people’s reactions to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the installation of the Muslim Brotherhood government. Careful attention to language demonstrates the manipulative and persuasive powers of the government, and Jacquette does an excellent job of making the English novel reflect the original in that regard.

Jaquette noted that one of the challenges of translating the novel was rendering the flowery language used by the Gate to make its declarations: “O beloved fellow citizens, in order to fully cater to your needs, the Gate shall soon extend its exceptional services to you every day of the week” (111). For her part, Abdel Aziz has embroidered the ordinary nouns and verbs with an excess of obsequious adjectives: beloved citizens, to fully cater to your needs, its exceptional services. Jacquette does equally well in using the vocative case — O, beloved fellow citizens — with that single archaic O evocative of Biblical speech or poetry written before the 20th century.

Given that Arabic does not use capital letters, Jacquette’s decision to capitalize all of the nouns associated with the Gate — the Booth, the Quell Forces, the Disgraceful Events, to name a few —  is an elegant way of conveying the universality and the power of the institutions and events. She also leaves a few Arabic words untranslated throughout, such as the name of a garment (galabeya) and a type of bread (baladi), which allows some of the local color of the original to peek through.

Unfortunately, happy events in The Queue are few and far between, and the final scenes of the novel show more than one of the characters conceding to the ubiquity and power of the Gate and its adherents. The freethinking Ines becomes deeply religious and accepts a proposal of marriage from a lay preacher who has been plying his trade among those who wait in the queue. Amani decides that the Disgraceful Events and everything that followed “[were] all a simple fiction” (213), and holes up in her house to avoid the outside world. And Tarek, now willing to perform surgery on Yehya at any cost, discovers the extent to which his patient file has been modified by agents of the Gate, and what his initial reluctance has cost his patient.

As the novel closes, the cloud of Abdel Aziz’s dystopia has not lifted from her unnamed country — a fitting end given the questions of governance that linger in many of the countries that were part of the Arab Spring. There remains an abundance of material to work with, both in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world, and it will be interesting to see where Abdel Aziz’s writing goes next.

Abdel Aziz, Basma. The Queue. Translated by Elisabeth Jacquette. Brooklyn: Melville House Press, 2016.

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