May 31, 2016
Newly published: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
by Melville House
Last week, Melville House published The Queue, the English-language debut of Egypt’s Basma Abdel Aziz. It promptly received a great deal of attention, and we thought you might want something to read on your way out to buy a copy.
In this early passage from the book, we are in an unnamed city. An authoritarian organization known as “the Gate” has just quashed a popular uprising and is now requiring its citizens to obtain permits for even the most basic activities—even to receive medical treatment. But the Gate never opens, and the queue before it grows and grows.
Below, a doctor reviews the file of a patient injured during the conflicts (which have been officially christened “The Disgraceful Events”), but no matter how many times he reads through it, he can’t help but wonder about one particular document he knows is missing.
Document No. 3
Examinations Conducted, Visible Symptoms, and Preliminary Diagnosis
The patient is conscious, alert, and aware of his surroundings; blood pressure and pulse are normal; visible symptoms include: signs of choking and irritation to the nerves, blood surrounding entry and exit wounds caused by a [word crossed out], sign of recent abrasions and bruising on the back, pelvis, and forearm regions, [word crossed out; “injury” written above it] penetrating the pelvic region along with profuse bleeding, deviation of the wrist. Procedures conducted include [long sentence, crossed out].
Required: Complete blood workup; kidney and liver function analysis; ultrasounds of the abdomen, pelvis, and chest; X-ray of the right forearm.
Tarek read the document again and again. Each time he flipped the page over to check the other side, and each time he found it blank. He was searching for the detailed description he had written and signed off himself after seeing the X-ray, but it wasn’t there. There were pages missing; he did not know how they had disappeared, but some other hand had clearly been through this version in front of him. All the useful information had been crossed out and replaced with a superficial report; not even a fresh graduate would write something this worthless, and he hadn’t an idea who had altered it.
He vividly remembered stopping the bleeding and performing a bit of first aid, and then being forced to close the wound, leaving the bullet where it was next to Yehya’s bladder. An act like that would never have occurred to him; he was a surgeon with a solid understanding of his work, and aware of its repercussions. But a younger colleague had informed him he would need a special permit if he intended to extract the bullet. After a heated debate, the other doctor went to the filing cabinet, took out a stack of papers placed carefully on the top shelf, and pulled out a light yellow document. He threw it down in front of Tarek, fed up with his naïveté, and told him to read it before making a decision. Tarek picked up the document, and was struggling to understand when a high-pitched whistle shot through their confrontation.
An ambulance had arrived and the injured patients were meticulously divided into groups, Yehya Gad el-Rab among them. Their injuries were assessed, and then they were taken to the government-run Zephyr Hospital, which, according to announcements on the radio and TV, had gone above and beyond in its preparations for admitting the injured.
In his office now, Tarek left the file and folder on his desk and went to sit in the chair on the other side of the room, taking just the third document with him. This was the page that really bothered him, because every time he took it out of the folder, began to read, and reached the end of the first paragraph, he remembered everything that had happened afterward. The morning after the events, an official-looking doctor appeared at the hospital and requested to meet him: him, Dr. Tarek Fahmy. The man refused to take a seat, and turned down the cordial offers of tea or water while he was waiting. Tarek was summoned minutes later and tentatively approached to find a grave-looking doctor in his fifties pacing the lobby and pondering the imitation oil paintings hanging on the walls. Tarek invited him into his office and extended his hand, which the man shook haughtily.
As soon as they shut the door behind them, the doctor produced the type of official ID one did not dare question, inquired about Yehya’s X-ray, and then opened his briefcase and produced an order to confiscate it. Tarek asked if he would like some juice or something hot to drink, but the man firmly declined these too. He stood up, impatient for the X-ray, and asked Tarek for every copy there was. However, looking back, Tarek realized the man didn’t actually ask for anything. He hadn’t phrased things in a way that left room for his request to be refused, no. The words that left his lips were direct orders, deftly coated with a sheen of courtesy, but containing greater authority than any doctor from outside the hospital possessed.
Tarek called the head nurse and told her to bring Yehya Gad el-Rab’s file at once. The moment she knocked, the doctor grasped the handle, wrenched the door open, and snatched the file from her, while Tarek stood there, his empty hand outstretched in her direction, where it remained suspended in the air for several seconds. The doctor told her to leave and not to disturb them, and shut the door again. He took a leisurely seat in Tarek’s leather chair, engrossed in the X-ray and ignoring Tarek, who stood rooted in front of the door. The man took everything out of the file and then nodded, satisfied. He carefully removed the X-ray with a single word—“excellent”—and then left the room and disappeared.