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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Queue

Basma Abdel Aziz

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To purchase The Queue

Title: The Queue
Author: Basma Abdel Aziz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 217 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Queue - US
The Queue - UK
The Queue - Canada
  • Arabic title: الطابور
  • Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

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Our Assessment:

B : solid variation on the (too-close-to-reality-for-comfort) absurdist totalitarian-dystopia novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 16/5/2016 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "At its best, the novel captures a sense of futility and meaninglessness, but its impersonal tone and uneventful middle contribute, at times, to a lack of urgency. This sense is remedied, albeit too quickly, in a strong finale" - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Queue is set in an unnamed country; it bears a strong resemblance to Egypt but, in these times, could double almost equally convincingly for any number of totalitarian states in which religion is also (ab)used in the name of state power. A weak and corrupt ruler used to run things -- think Hosni Mubarak -- but a 'First Storm' of protests easily undermined him:

The ensuing uprising wracked his reputation and jeopardized his properties and those of his cronies. It threatened to sweep away the system he and his inner circle found so agreeable and desperately wanted to preserve.
       What came was 'the Gate' -- which is more of a wall, containing and protecting the powers-that-be, an entity that is the ultimate manifestation of the (depersonalized) state. The Gate is also gatekeeper -- for everything. It issues official statements, edicts, and laws; its interpretations -- of facts as well as laws -- are authoritative. Yet in its absolutism it warps reality and twists history, ultimately also undermining itself.
       The Gate is also the ultimate state bureaucracy, controlling everything. By legislating everything in the country, it brings everything under its control, requiring citizens to obtain permission for almost any professional and many personal activities.
       For most of the novel, the Gate is also bureaucracy run absurdly amok: the Gate continues to issue laws and decrees, but it is physically closed; having simply shut its gates, no one can gain access to obtain the permissions or documents the system demands. Interaction with the state -- via the Gate -- is now essentially entirely one-way, with no possibility for the citizens to communicate with it.
       The citizens remain hopeful. Hence the queue of the title, as they line up in good order, expecting the Gate to open for business anytime now. Of course, that doesn't happen -- the queue just grows and grows, to the point where the Gate eventually even plans to erect a protective wall around it .....
       As Abdel Aziz imagines and presents them, the Gate, and the queue that forms in front of it, are a familiar spin on totalitarian absurdity. The queue takes on a life of its own, too, with its own rules and markets -- even as the Gate repeatedly tries to undermine many of these, especially regarding the transmission of information, which it always seeks to control and to put its own spin on. Among the clever ways the Gate seeks to maintain control is by arranging a cellphone-promotion, phones and contracts given free to many in the queue -- but it turns out the phones also function as recording devices, not only of the calls people make using them but of everything and every conversation in the vicinity of the phones. Even when they are turned off. The Gate seeks -- and manages quite well -- to be the ultimate surveillance state.
       The Gate closed its gates when the 'Disgraceful Events' took place -- apparently another uprising, all traces of which the Gate clearly wishes to expunge. Abdel Aziz focuses on a variety of citizens, most of whom spend most of their time in or around the queue, but the inspired central story revolves around Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed, who accidentally got caught up in the 'Disgraceful Events' and took a bullet. The Gate basically denies that any shots were ever fired, and does its best to get rid of any evidence they might have been. And so when Tarek, a doctor, wants to operate on Yehya to remove the bullet he is confronted with a new edict from the Gate that forbids the removal of any bullet, "except when performed under official authorization issued by the Gate of the Northern Building". Unwilling to jeopardize his career, he insists on Yehya obtaining the authorization; Yehya queues up but, of course, makes no headway -- and his physical condition deteriorates.
       The whitewashing by the authorities goes to all extremes. The X-ray showing the bullet is confiscated -- and the X-ray machine closed down, so no further ones can be taken. Slowly even Tarek realizes things have gotten very much out of hand, complicating his own position.
       The Queue is a solid variation on the familiar totalitarian dystopia. There's a distinctive Arabic spin to it, but other than that much of this does feel familiar. In many -- even most -- ways, The Queue seems simply a more up-to-date (and Arabic) version of countless similar novels, especially of Soviet times.
       Abdel Aziz does write well, and presents an interesting variety of characters (and how the Gate affects them), and certainly the discomfiting parallels to conditions in, especially, contemporary Egypt add a sense of urgency to the novel. It's a well-told -- and effectively unsettling -- story that, even if it does not offer anything entirely new is certainly tailored well to these times and conditions -- a welcome and necessary mirror that isn't nearly as distorting as its absurdist touches might at first suggest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 May 2016

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The Queue: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz (بسمة عبد العزيز) is also a journalist and psychiatrist.

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© 2016 the complete review

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