A Brief Foray Into African Literature: Egypt

Nate, a Reference Staff member, continues his exploration of contemporary African Literature on the blog with a look at Egypt and reviews of The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz and The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton.

Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue, also works as a psychiatrist and visual artist in her home country of Egypt.  A successful student and lifelong artist, Abdel Aziz was pushed towards the field of medicine by her family and chose to pursue psychiatry as she felt it important to see and understand the entirety of human beings, not simply individual pieces as a surgeon might.  Basma has been an outspoken critic of human rights abuses and torture and was censured at various times during her tenure as a student.  She has published a number of pieces of nonfiction examining the issues and in 2016 was named a Global Thinker by Foreign Policy.  Her novel The Queue was inspired by events and experiences during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

Set in an unrevealed country at an undisclosed time, the experiences which have informed and inspired Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, though never explicitly mentioned, will reveal themselves quickly to anyone who followed news relating to the Arab Spring.

The work examines the lives of a handful of characters following what is referred to as ‘the Disgraceful Events,’ and the rise of the governmental entity known only as ‘The Gate.’  Each character is forced to interact or grapple with a policy or procedure implemented by ‘The Gate’ which sets them off on seemingly unachievable tasks.  The titular Queue is the line in which individuals must wait in order to receive a meeting and potential acquiescence from ‘The Gate’ to move forward with whatever it is they are trying to accomplish.  We learn of individuals seeking approval for surgery to remove a bullet acquired during the aforementioned ‘Disgraceful Events,’ the approval of surgery, however, would indicate ‘The Gate’s’ involvement and use of deadly force in the events, an admission they are unwilling to make.  We follow a young man, seeking acknowledgement that his friend died fighting for ‘The Gate,’ yet this also would implicate the government in ‘The Disgraceful Events.’  We meet a woman who sets out for the queue hoping to receive permission for her daughter to undergo heart surgery for a condition another of her daughters has already died from.  The Queue serves as the common thread, binding all of the novel’s characters together. It develops an economy and community of its own.

As the queue swelled and extended into far-off, practically uninhabited districts, the Gate issued a decree for a wall to be built around everyone waiting.  For their own protection, of course.

The bureaucracy represented by the queue and newly introduced policies prove a formidable adversary for The Queue’s major characters, pitting them against insurmountable odds and causing a fair amount of mental anguish.  This grappling with the absurd calls to mind works by Kafka such as The Trial and seems to rely on the feelings experienced by real life protesters such as those involved in the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011 and the events which followed.

When he arrived, Ehab told him that the road to the queue and even all the sidewalks were closed to cars in both directions, and that the Gate had issued a decree on the matter, recently broadcast in one of its frequent and confusing messages.  In a low voice the others couldn’t hear, Ehab added that the decision would soon apply to pedestrians, too – you’d only be allowed to walk toward the Gate, not away from it.

The postcolonial history of Egypt deserves more space than I can afford it here.  The events of the Arab Spring in Egypt, beginning in the winter of 2011, included protests across the country and protestors from all walks of life.  The demands included increased venues for political expression and for improvements in living standards.  The focal point of these protests became Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  Following two weeks of occupation and multiple violent clashes with governmental forces resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, acquiesced to the protestors and announced his intentions to step down and schedule elections.  For the first time in many decades the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to contest the elections and a year and a half after the start of the protest their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president.  Following a series of controversial decrees and more protests, Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the military and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, was put temporarily in charge.  Another presidential election was scheduled for 2014, for which El-Sisi resigned from his military role, contested for, and won, though less than half of eligible voters participated in this election.  For more on this period of Egyptian history see Thanassis Cambanis’s Once Upon a Revolution, Bassem Youssef’s Revolution for Dummies, and the documentary We Are Egypt.

The apparent implausibility of the Egyptian Revolution, culminating in the democratic election of a military leader, finds its expression in Abdel Aziz’s depiction of a society and government that appear designed to not function.  The characters’ fates are mostly tragic, representations of a revolutionary hope broken by the current reality.  ‘How could this be? How did it end up like this?’ seems to be the question the author is grappling with in The Queue.  Both poignant in its ability to convey the emotional response to the outcome of the Egyptian Revolution felt by members of the protest and captivating in its use of suspense to carry the story forwards, The Queue is a book to be enjoyed by all.

The gravity of Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue is dependent upon her skillful use of metaphor, as this often-opaque tale of the rise of authoritarianism leaves much to the imagination, where the mood is characterized by a feeling of disorientation.  Consequently, the fear emanating from the story’s central characters is a result of the mind’s ability to wander in the face of a lack of outright consequences, of befuddlement surrounding the size, shape, or capacity of ‘The Gate’.

In contrast, Omar Robert Hamilton’s ‘The City Always Wins’ confronts the failures and misgivings of the Egyptian revolution in a much more outright, visceral way.  In this story feelings of anger are created and framed through vivid descriptions of violence perpetrated by state actors over the course of multiple years of protest.  Whereas The Queue quite literally shuffles towards a conclusion, slowing picking up steam as more and more disparate pieces of information are stitched together, The City Always Wins barrels ahead, jumping between characters and chapters at a breakneck speed, often substituting Twitter feeds for dialogue and description.

The hospital is all burning and weeping.  Bodies being carried bleeding and moaning, the index finger of a right hand up, blood trailing thick and shining behind them, the high voice screeching out of the speakers on the stage again and again.

Antagonists are named outright, the main characters Mariam, Khalil, Hafez, and Malik, are working to first overthrow Hosni Mubarak, and then Mohamed Morsi, and then Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and this much is made abundantly clear.  The story flows between first person narratives from the different major characters, rarely taking the time to distinguish who is speaking, which often leaves the reader in a dream-like state.

There are days, minutes, moments I will circle around forever.  The late-afternoon sun dipping over a shimmering lake of people and banners and babies on shoulders and I’m up on the balcony at the One’s.  The one, whose apartment was always overflowing with people.  People on computers, charging cameras, smoking cigarettes, lining up for the toilet, making plans, preparing sandwiches, changing clothes, breaking down, doing interviews, taking naps, calling home.  Everything still so new in those first eighteen days.  In the dining room a group of people are gathered around a table, voices indecipherable from one another.

This seems a deliberate attempt to impart a generality among the activist protagonists.  Their fight, their desires, their ideas all much the same; a free Egypt.  As the story moves through the toppling of the Hosni Mubarak regime, the subsequent rise and precipitous fall of Mohamed Morsi, and finally the rise of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the highs and lows of Hafez, Miriam, and Khalil are palpable.  The resignation of Mubarak imparts on them a sense of invincibility, of inevitability.  Only for this to be crushed by the election of the Muslim-Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi.  This event forces them into a conundrum; how can their choices be between a religious, authoritarian-leaning, newly-elected government and a coup d’etat by the army? Two completely unpalatable outcomes.  The story winds down in a state of muted despair as more and more of the population moves to back El-Sisi, largely in response to the instability the country has withstood over the preceding years.

Hamilton’s strengths lie in the emotionality of his writing.  His direct connection to the events playing out on the pages of ‘The City Always Wins’ is unmissable.

A stone river of blood drags through the asphalt of Tahrir.  On its banks the mourners.  The stain of a life slipping away.  He walks silently along it.  The square is empty now, dark and cold.  This new battle has been long.  Khalil follows the bloodline, follows the careful stones lining this new holiness.

And indeed, in the Author blurb it is revealed that Hamilton and members of his family took part in a large number of demonstrations in Egypt throughout 2011-2014.  Some ended up detained and remain so currently.  Although at times The City Always Wins feels somewhat overly dramatic or glorifying of the protestors, leaving little to the imagination, the author’s proximity to the events at least suggest his attachment to the cause and the people taking part is candidly anchored in experience.  In the end, this book offers a compelling narrative set into strikingly important and historically accurate events which will provide the reader with a basic understanding of how the Arab Spring played out in Egypt.

posted: , by Sarah Skawinski
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Art & Culture | Readers Writers
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