The bullet mistakenly came out of the gun
- The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
Melville House, 220 pp, £10.99, June 2016, ISBN 978 0 9934149 0 9
Two years ago, the Egyptian tourism ministry released a 90-second video as part of its $68 million partnership with the global advertising giant JWT. Accompanied by soaring violins and pounding drums, it whisks viewers past images of opulent swimming pools, quad-bike races in the desert, campfires presided over by smiling, crinkled Bedouins. No one speaks. ‘This is our story, our drama, our theatre, our poetry, our choreography,’ the on-screen captions announce. ‘This is Egypt.’
Earlier in the marketing campaign, Egyptians were encouraged to submit their own national imagery – sunsets, snorkels, that sort of thing – via social media channels using the hashtag #ThisIsEgypt. Some responded by linking to news reports about the torture and killing of citizens in police custody. Others mentioned the jailing of satirists, novelists and journalists, the crackdown on civil society, and the number of capital sentences handed down by military courts. ‘Welcome to #Egypt,’ someone tweeted from Cairo, ‘the land of the imprisoned, forcibly disappeared, and dead. We do hope you enjoy your stay.’ Several of these rogue contributions went viral, but the director of Egypt’s tourism authority, Samy Mahmoud, insisted that the proportion of negative comments ‘did not exceed 4 or 5 per cent’ and public interaction was generally ‘very good’. Still, this part of the campaign was quietly dropped. These days, as far as the regime is concerned, it is rarely a good idea to let ordinary citizens chime in.
‘Do not listen to anyone else but me,’ the general turned dictator, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, warned in a speech to the nation in 2016. Under his supervision, state torture has become so commonplace that Human Rights Watch recently concluded it may amount to a crime against humanity; all protest has been rendered effectively illegal, extrajudicial killings have soared and the number of political prisoners is believed to exceed sixty thousand. The government has censored hundreds of websites and drafted a law regulating internet activity which, among other things, would make the ‘illegitimate trading of ideas’ online a crime punishable by up to 15 years behind bars. For Sisi, there is something distasteful about politics itself, predicated as it is on competing viewpoints. He wants a clean and unified narrative of national existence, unencumbered by marginalia. And yet Egyptians keep finding ways to scrawl around the edges. Last month, Sisi inaugurated a ‘World Youth Forum’ in Sharm el-Sheikh with the slogan ‘We Need to Talk.’ Within hours, Twitter and Facebook were flooded with sardonic posts juxtaposing the slogan with pictures of unarmed citizens fleeing in terror from Sisi’s security forces. What is Egypt? One answer: Egypt is a place where Egyptians themselves are not supposed to tackle that question, and yet do.
Of course no country chooses to advertise its human rights abuses as part of a pitch to tourists. But in Egypt – home to a revolution in which people attempted to remake the state, and a counter-revolution in which the state has attempted to remake the people – tensions over who gets to script reality, and who is supposed merely to play their part, resonate at a higher frequency than they do elsewhere. ‘They are changing the books of schoolchildren, and rewriting history,’ says Basma Abdel Aziz, a psychiatrist, novelist and dissident. ‘Sometimes it feels like we have spent more than a decade trapped in a closed circle, and it’s exhausting.’ In her dystopian realist novel Al-Taboor, published recently in English translation as The Queue, the authorities eventually explain away a series of failed street uprisings in an unnamed Middle Eastern city as action scenes in a forthcoming blockbuster movie; throughout the apparent unrest, they claim, camera equipment had been carefully hidden from view. ‘This was why a few citizens had believed there were bullets, tear gas and smoke, even though there clearly hadn’t been anything like that, nothing except for standard special effects,’ says the city’s ruling body – a shadowy entity known only as ‘the Gate’. ‘The Gate called on everyone to remain calm, and avoid being misled by rumours that had been invented and spread by deranged lunatics. It explained that life was to go on as usual.’
Abdel Aziz’s work draws on a rich lineage of Egyptian literary styles, from the character portraits drawn by Naguib Mahfouz to the satire of Gamal al-Ghitani and the allegorical minimalism of Sonallah Ibrahim. She probes the gulf between official rhetoric and the stubborn inconvenience of real events, and delights in the convoluted absurdities that derive from them. The book’s protagonist, Yehya, goes around with a bullet lodged in his guts, a memento of the crushed rebellion; he can’t get it taken out because the state refuses to admit that any ammunition was fired, and so no doctor has any need – or permission – to carry out such an operation. Meanwhile the pro-regime media serves up increasingly outlandish conspiracy theories to explain away the Gate’s many contradictions and smear its real or imagined opponents. As each official version of events unravels, another arrives to take its place. Physical evidence that is incompatible with the established line is mysteriously altered; X-rays vanish, documents are rewritten, blank pages appear where words once stood.
In many other contexts, this would be caricature; in modern Egypt, it is closer to reportage. I have personally seen the medical files of protesters killed by live ammunition, and looked on as family members were told they must accept a certificate giving ‘cardiac arrest’ as the cause of death before their relative’s body could be released from Cairo’s Zeinhom morgue. Where proof of state violence is incontrovertible, Sisi’s security apparatus merely refashions it to deflect blame. Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a young mother and poet, was gunned down by police on 25 January 2014, the third anniversary of the start of the revolution; she had been walking unarmed through central Cairo clutching a bouquet of flowers, which she had intended to lay in Tahrir Square. The government initially offered no explanation for the shooting, then suggested it could be the work of ‘Islamist infiltrators’, before eventually arguing that her murder was really her own fault. ‘According to science, [she] should not have died,’ a spokesman for the forensics authority declared:
Her body was like skin over bone, as they say. She was very thin. She did not have any percentage of fat. So the small pellets penetrated very easily, and four or five out of all the pellets that penetrated her body – these four or five pellets were able to penetrate her heart and lungs, and these are the ones that caused her death.
In February 2016, after a 24-year-old taxi driver, Mohamed Sayyid, was shot dead by a policeman following an argument over the fare, the official report into the incident declared that the officer’s bullet ‘mistakenly came out of the gun’.
According to the el-Nadeem centre, which works to rehabilitate victims of state violence and where Basma Abdel Aziz once worked as a doctor, there were almost a thousand forced disappearances in Egypt in 2016, as well as more than five hundred cases of individual torture, more than three hundred cases of collective torture, and more than a hundred deaths in detention. ‘We do not have forced disappearances and we do not have torture,’ the interior minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, has asserted. ‘Exaggerating individual excesses is the aim of our enemies.’ Earlier this year, security forces swarmed into the el-Nadeem centre’s headquarters, sealed its doors and closed it down.
In The Queue, fake news saturates public discourse, not only giving the authorities a way to justify their repression – the presence of unspecified foreign agents is constantly alluded to, necessitating government action to ‘ward off civil strife and its evils’ – but also creating a climate in which reality itself becomes subjective and legitimate criticism is blurred with doubt. ‘Details of foreign powers’ plan to impose siege on Egypt revealed,’ a headline in al-Ahram, the country’s biggest state-run newspaper, screamed last September. ‘Documented information has revealed a plan set in motion by “foreign powers” to incite public opinion and weaken trust in Egyptian leadership,’ the story revealed, before going on to highlight a clandestine campaign by international journalists to ‘distort the image of the regime’. When Egypt’s mounting economic problems led to a nationwide sugar shortage a few weeks later, some columnists suggested that Muslim Brotherhood terrorists were stockpiling it in secret warehouses. Among those investigated for conspiring against the state in recent years are a migrating stork, a puppet used to advertise a mobile phone network on television and a farmer who named his donkey ‘Sisi’. Meanwhile the army claims to have discovered a cure for both HIV and Hepatitis C. ‘I take Aids from the patient, and feed the patient on Aids,’ General Ibrahim Abdel-Atti explained. ‘I give it to him as a kofta skewer to feed on.’
For the satirist, or dystopian author, this glut of source material can be both goldmine and straitjacket. ‘Things intended as a joke in the novel, as far-fetched imaginaries, have come true,’ says Abdel Aziz, who published The Queue in Arabic in early 2013, before the coup that toppled the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, and launched the beginning of the Sisi era. But her book is concerned less with the blunt imposition of state power from above and more with its reproduction on the ground: her characters experience oppression as a social virus that they transmit – even, in some cases, as they try to resist it. ‘Since the Gate had materialised and insinuated itself into everything, people didn’t know where its affairs ended and their own began,’ the narrator observes. The state’s colonisation of private lives shapes citizens’ interactions; individuals can exploit widespread fear of the surveillance infrastructure to manipulate rivals and obtain personal benefits; and yet all are trapped by the knowledge that any infraction they commit will expose their families to danger.
There are no bandana-wearing revolutionary heroes in The Queue, and no cartoon baddies either. Abdel Aziz explores the ephemera of mundane bureaucratic viciousness – official reports, state television announcements, the grammar of the regime’s self-image – alongside the worlds of those one step removed from the street battles playing out in the city. Such skirmishes are always left on the edge of the page, recently ended or just out of focus; of the action itself, we see nothing. Inhabitants of the queue in the novel’s title – a line of residents needing permits or other paperwork from the state, which stretches for miles because the Gate never opens – are neither dissidents nor cheerleaders for the regime, though they shift between aspects of both: orthodoxy and rebellion, always intertwined, always contingent. ‘I wanted to bring out the unseen,’ Abdel Aziz told me when I met her last year at a café in Nasr City, a Cairo suburb. ‘If you’re a radical, it is easy to dismiss those who weren’t in Tahrir Square like me and my friends were. But we are all in the same boat. Each of us is trying to live our own lives, cope with our own pressures, conduct our own debates.’
It is important, and a better reflection of the views of most Egyptians, that Abdel Aziz’s novel looks at Egypt through the eyes of people less enamoured of the revolution than she is herself. Under Sisi’s leadership the state has carried out multiple attacks on protesters – a thousand predominantly Islamist demonstrators were killed on a single day in August 2013 – but still commands significant support. The fall of Mohamed Morsi was propelled by a combination of popular anger at his betrayals of the revolution and elite machinations by members of the ancien régime. The current political landscape is more fractured and less stable than most of the reports that make it into the international media may suggest. Many Egyptians have embraced Sisi’s binary narrative – where the choice is between the strongman and chaos – while at the same time remaining angry about the state’s failures and inconsistencies. Abdel Aziz’s characters reflect this complexity. Yehya’s doctor, Tarek, has ‘a good heart’ but respects government edicts because these are ‘difficult and uncertain times’ and the aspirations of the rebels seem ‘lofty, the stuff of dreams’. Shalaby, a model citizen and the brother of a soldier accused of atrocities, regurgitates every snippet of state rhetoric he hears: not because he is incapable of individual thought, but because he hopes to find solace and prosperity by following its logic. Um Mabrouk, who sells tea and snacks to the queue, condemns protesters as ‘meddlesome riff-raff’ but later becomes a champion of subversive voices.
Waiting interminably for the Gate to fling open its doors and respond to their needs, those in the queue are forced to build their own systems of social order and solidarity. Etiquettes spring up governing who can hold someone’s place in the line while they step out, and for how long; a grassroots micro-economy and alternative media develop to service the queue’s needs. It is a good metaphor for Sisi’s uneasy dictatorship, built as it is on the back of a series of convulsions which have fundamentally disrupted traditional models of power. The Queue purportedly depicts a fictional, futuristic universe but in reality it is set firmly within the hizb al-kanaba or ‘couch party’ – that majority of Egyptians who watched the uprisings from their sofas and for whom the revolution, and counter-revolution, have not been primarily about barricades and tear gas but rather the challenges of everyday existence. They are the majority who welcomed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and continue to find the existing state inadequate, but whom the revolutionaries have largely failed to carry with them.
As a child, Abdel Aziz didn’t want to go into medicine; she liked drawing and painting, and was disappointed when decent exam results at the end of high school ruled out her studying fine arts at university, compelling her instead to pursue a professional career. ‘I could never be a paediatrician, or a gynaecologist, or anything like that,’ she says. ‘You qualify from medical school as a general practitioner and have to list about ten options for specialisation, in order of preference. I just wrote one: psychiatry.’ Mental health problems remain highly stigmatised in Egypt. Soon after graduating Abdel Aziz was prevented from taking up a university post by security officials; her master’s thesis, a sociological examination of the politically sensitive relationship between Egypt’s government and al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in Sunni Islam, was rejected by her supervisor and blocked from publication. On several occasions her human rights advocacy has landed her in police detention.
The Queue materialised over a couple of months of writing in late 2012, after Abdel Aziz walked past a line of people waiting outside a government office. A few hours later, she passed by again and found ‘the same queue, the same people, the same faces in front of the same gate, which was still closed. No one was shouting, no one was screaming, and I asked myself why.’ These were the early months of the Morsi presidency, before public discontent at the Brotherhood’s rule picked up steam. But following the drama of the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising in early 2011 that so thoroughly captured the world’s attention, and another year and a half of contested army rule which saw thousands of civilians being dragged before military tribunals, the central faultline in Egypt’s historic moment was already discernible. On one side of the divide were those determined to ensure that most Egyptians enjoyed no more than a walk-on role in their political futures; on the other, those who were muscling their way onto the political stage. Sisi’s ascendancy has intensified this divide, and in the process cast light on the numerous contradictions of a regime attempting to cling to power by retaining the structures of the past but describing them with the vocabulary of the new. The Egyptian parliament’s human rights committee is currently headed by a former police officer accused of multiple human rights violations (he denies the charges). Looking ahead to next year’s presidential vote, a writer in a broadly pro-regime newspaper has suggested that Egypt needs pluralistic elections – and argues that to achieve this, Sisi should draw up his own list of appropriately qualified candidates who would then be invited to compete against him.
Throughout, as they did with Mubarak (‘I really consider President and Mrs Mubarak to be friends of my family,’ Hillary Clinton gushed as secretary of state in 2009), Sisi’s Western sponsors have continued to cleave to him. Fresh out of khakis, he is a familiar face in an ever more unfamiliar region, and one that foreign ministries and intelligence operatives believe they know how to do business with. But we have been here before. Egypt was a key partner in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme during the Bush-era war on terror, its security apparatus seen as an asset by its allies, not an aberration. ‘If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan,’ one CIA agent explained at the time. ‘If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.’ In the past two years Egypt has signed major new arms deals with the US and France, while Donald Trump – whose own administration’s attacks on the media and exploitation of ‘fake news’ echoes some of Sisi’s tactics and rhetoric – has labelled his Egyptian counterpart ‘a fantastic guy’. In late 2015, David Cameron rolled out the red carpet for Sisi at Downing Street; Theresa May has promised ‘a new chapter in bilateral relations’ between the UK and Egypt. The IMF, meanwhile, is back to peddling unrealities of its own. The 2011 revolution erupted in part as a reaction to the misery and corruption created by Egypt’s neoliberal reforms – reforms the IMF had praised as ‘impressive’, ‘prudent’ and ‘bold’. Now that a vicious new austerity programme is being implemented as a condition of a fresh $12 billion loan, the IMF has called Egypt ‘an example of positive transformation’, albeit a transformation that has required ‘sacrifices in the short term’ from its citizens.
All this is despite the fact that, in early 2016, the corpse of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD candidate studying at Cambridge, was found abandoned on the roadside in the outskirts of Cairo, his neck broken and his body subjected to ‘animal-like’ violence that experts believe is consistent with torture by the Egyptian security services. The Egyptian government responded with obfuscation and lies. Under domestic political pressure, Italy temporarily withdrew its ambassador, but since then fresh partnerships have been struck between Egypt and the Italian energy giant Eni, and diplomatic relations have been reinstated. The fortification of the Egyptian state, and the culpability for the violence unleashed in the process, seeps messily beyond Egypt’s borders. ‘Your war is our war, and your stability is our stability,’ the then Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, told Sisi at a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2015.
Egypt talks a great deal about terrorist threats, and with good reason. But to the guardians of the state, the real threat comes not from anti-Brotherhood activists, as Morsi claimed during his short-lived tenure as president, or pro-Brotherhood operatives, as Sisi’s administration claims now. It is to be found among the holdouts, both Islamist and otherwise, for whom submission to state power is not a norm: people like Tarek Hussein, a revolutionary in his mid-twenties known to his friends as Tito. ‘The revolution for me was personal and social, not just political,’ he told me last year. ‘It was about rejecting plans set out for me by others, whoever those others were.’ In March 2013, Tito was arrested for allegedly attacking the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The following year, with Egypt under military rule once more, he was arrested for allegedly being a member of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood. This summer he was snatched and forcibly disappeared for five weeks, a much shorter period of detention than his younger brother Mahmoud underwent after being stopped at a checkpoint for wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Nation without torture’. He was detained, tortured and incarcerated without charge for two years. ‘It’s a black comedy,’ Tito said. ‘Very black, and very comic.’ Visiting Mahmoud in jail last year, he took a bundle of books with him by some of Egypt’s leading contemporary novelists: Ahdaf Soueif, Radwa Ashour and Abdel Aziz. All the novels were allowed through by the security guards, except for The Queue. ‘The officer in charge explained that this was because the book appeared to “contain ideas”,’ Abdel Aziz says, ‘and ideas cannot be allowed inside the prison.’
One of the book’s illicit ideas is embodied by Yehya, the man with a bullet still in his body. Like Tito, Yehya refuses to accept his own powerlessness and this mindset is pathologised: his medical records include references to his ‘rebelliousness’ and ‘an irrational belief that he can alter reality’. The Egyptian state has always attempted to render such individuals simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible to the wider public, both to strip them of their agency and humanity, and to maintain a sense of amorphous but pervasive threat to the nation’s collective well-being. Abdel Aziz captures this balance in the aftermath of some street clashes: ‘Though the wails of ambulances were heard, no one saw anyone being transported away. Here and there, people noticed blood pooling in deep, wide puddles, but only rarely did they see anyone bleeding.’ These lines reminded me of the words of Islam Khalil, a 26-year-old Egyptian forcibly disappeared for 122 days in early 2015 who was then subjected to a further year in detention, describing his status as a prisoner at the Cairo National Security headquarters: ‘In Lazoghly, we are just numbers and corpses.’ The consequences of dissent lie in plain sight; dissenters themselves are unseen.
Sisi’s regime has done its best to educate its citizens on the impossibility of altering their own reality. In 2014, a new subject – Intellectual and Moral Security – was added to the school curriculum with the aim of ‘reforming errant behaviour that threatens security [and] cultivating students’ love of their country’, and a think-tank affiliated to the Ministry of Education advised that a database be established of young people who appeared resistant. But in The Queue, Yehya’s predicament is so acute because he can’t simply change his mind about the ‘Disgraceful Events’, even if he wanted to: material proof of the state’s lies remains embedded inside him, his body now ‘a map of the battle’. Bodily integrity – the struggle to prevent the state from practising power and brutality on one’s physical form – has been at the heart of the revolution from the beginning. From the names and phone numbers scrawled by protesters on their own arms to identify themselves in case they are killed on a demonstration, to the repeated mobilisation of women and men against state-sponsored sexual violence at rallies, Egyptian bodies are often sites of resistance, tangible ripostes to establishment untruths. This means that doctors, who must deal with bodies, have regularly been thrust into the breach. Abdel Aziz’s most interesting character is Yehya’s surgeon, who watches in horror as the supposedly ‘trivial matter’ of extracting the officially non-existent bullet turns into a fundamental dilemma regarding whose jurisdiction he operates under, and why. His experience echoes those of many real-life medical practitioners in Egypt who have been forced into confrontation with the authorities. Last year several armed policemen walked into a hospital in Matareya, a dense neighbourhood to the north of Cairo, and demanded that doctors falsify the medical reports of detainees believed to have been subjected to torture; when the doctors refused, two of them were arrested. As a result, a nationwide doctors’ strike erupted. Since then, the combative deputy head of the Doctors’ Syndicate, Mona Mina, has been investigated under suspicion of ‘spreading fake news’.
Aida Seif El-Dawla, the founder of the now-shuttered el-Nadeem centre, has said that those on the frontline of medicine and human rights protections are demoralised and exhausted. ‘This is the worst situation when it comes to the killing and torture and starving of detainees in prisons that we have ever seen, and it’s hard to visualise a way out,’ she told me last November in her office in downtown Cairo, shortly before it was raided by security forces. ‘We respond to an urgent need, and yet the situation does not allow us to rise up and meet the extent of that need.’ She noted the growth in secondary traumas – psychological problems faced by the family members of those who have been tortured or disappeared – and the intricate layers of defiance and guilt built up by former prisoners. In one passage in The Queue, Abdel Aziz attempts to articulate the ordeal of a citizen forcibly disappeared by the state. Amani, Yehya’s sometime lover, is detained while trying to track down his X-rays in a military hospital and wakes up to an all-consuming blackness. ‘She wanted to see colour or just a single point of light, even if it were only in her dreams, but her dreams failed her, even her daydreams,’ the narrator says. ‘Maybe she really was nothing, had never existed. Or maybe she would disintegrate here, slowly dissolving until she became nothingness, became nothing. She was already beginning to disappear: her tears were the first part of her to vanish.’
Sisi has spoken about the need to develop Egypt’s education system: ‘1+1 = 2 … I don’t want that,’ he declared. ‘I want 1+1 = 3, or 5, or 7, or 9.’ The comment was intended as a critique of Egypt’s traditional teaching technique of learning by rote, but it could just as easily be describing his regime’s worldview, or perhaps more accurately the reality it depends on for survival. The ‘This is Egypt’ video – ‘This is our story, our drama, our theatre, our poetry, our choreography’ – is an advert for that reality. Its most striking feature is not what is present, but what is absent: not just the faces and bodies of those battered by Sisi’s state, but the auditory void where the voices of those who might acknowledge the existence of such faces and bodies should be. It depicts a place where 1+1 does equal 3. The Queue shows us that resistance comes in many forms. The question at the heart of the novel – whether or not Yehya’s doctor, Tarek, will violate his orders and remove the bullet from his patient – is never answered, but towards the end of the story Tarek deliberately leaves a trail of ink on the pages of Yehya’s medical report. It is an assertion that he too, and not just the hidden forces that have been secretly revising the report’s contents throughout the narrative, can be the author of his own reality. ‘People change, my own family members who were with this regime are already shifting their views, and these steps to me are like little hopes,’ Abdel Aziz says. ‘I don’t like closed endings, in anything.’