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’.
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