Discussed in this essay:
Using Life, by Ahmed Naji. Translated by Benjamin Koerber. University of Texas Press. 150 pages. $21.95.
Otared, by Mohammad Rabie. Translated by Robin Moger. Hoopoe Fiction.
352 pages. $17.95.
The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz. Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. Melville House. 224 pages. $15.95.
I was in a classroom in Turkey recently, explaining the word utopia. From u and topos: “no-place,” possibly a pun on eu-topos, “good place.” See also: dystopia. That, too, is a place that doesn’t exist, but—
“Oh,” someone interrupted, “it exists.”
My students were Syrian refugees, and they were taking no lessons on where the border lay between the real and the unthinkable. They knew that not all dystopias are fictional, that one person’s nightmare is another’s dark norm. For them, survivors of tyranny and war, it was no great leap to imagine a place in which, as the OED defines the word, “everything is unpleasant or bad.”
Dystopian literature has its representative figures and their defining specters—Orwell, rule by fear; Huxley, rule by consumerism—and their descendants have opened up the genre to a strangely thrilling variety of possible hells. Hell tends to be another word for “dehumanization,” and the key insight of this recent flowering is that there are as many ways to dehumanize as there are humans to write them. Whatever the threat in question—climate meltdown, runaway mutants, an all-knowing state—these works are usually understood as cautionary tales. The alternate worlds they present are supposed to shock us into repairing this one. Their implied tense is the future perfect: this is what will have happened, they warn, if we don’t pay attention. But they also serve as reminders that for many, the world is already a dystopia.
Three new novels from Egypt, where the revolutionary hope of 2011 has given way to a society in which things are, by many accounts, worse than ever, hold up a black mirror to the present. “The future is now. And it stinks, I tell you.” That’s Bassam Bahgat, the narrator of Ahmed Naji’s Using Life. He’s writing twenty years after the Catastrophe, a series of violent natural events that leave Cairo buried under a tsunami of sand and result in the building of New Cairo on its outskirts. (This is not very far from reality—sandstorms blow through Cairo every spring, and the government is planning a new capital in the desert; China has already pledged $35 billion.) Dystopia is often linked to natural disaster, but here the novelist’s device seems to function less as a warning than as a coping mechanism for somber times: if politics get you down, lie back and think of Armageddon. Nakba (“catastrophe”) and naksa (“setback”)—references to the Arab defeats of 1948 and 1967—are now only shorthand for the Storm. By commandeering the political obsessions of the old order, this brave new world seems to have done away with history itself.
Not that Bassam has much time for regret. He’s suspicious of nostalgia, which he sees as a form of amnesia:
For several years after the event, many made desperate attempts to save what they could. The Egyptian people were joined in the perpetuation of this farce by UNESCO and the people of the world. “Humanity faces a catastrophe.” “Our heritage is threatened with extinction.” To hell with all of it, really. As if Cairo’s very existence were not a disaster in and of itself. As if abandoning it to such a sorry state long before the naksa, and the devolution of its human residents into soulless beasts, were not the real tragedy.
Behind this snub, we are given to understand, lurks a complicated affection. Using Life is an old man’s letter to his youth, a bittersweet portrait of Cairo before it was destroyed. This turns out to be a report on what is for us the recent past, its details recalling the years around 2011. It was a time of house parties and arguments and hash, of stifling bus rides and talking until morning before melting into bed “like honey.” Bassam and his friends struggle to live and love in a city where a welter of slow-burning crises conspire to eat them alive. It’s not just the raw displays of state power; it’s also the smell of waste, the traffic, the harassment, the repression. Yet however much he insists that Cairo was a “miserable, hideous, filthy .?.?. overcrowded, impoverished, angry .?.?. shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” his memories cast it in a prelapsarian glow. There are moments of exquisite feeling—a lover’s “soft-spoken thighs,” Jimi Hendrix’s guitar shrieking “like a hen laying its first egg.” Bassam is both disenchanted (from reading Foucault he learned that “there was no longer any hope”) and full of passionate intensity, just like a young man, or rather like a young man pretending to be an old man remembering his youth. (Naji is just past thirty.)
Things start to veer off course, and the novel into outright fantasy, when Bassam falls in with the Society of Urbanists, a shadowy outfit with pharaonic ambitions in urban planning— like the Freemasons, if they’d stuck to masonry. Though global and tentacular, the group is centered in Cairo: its members might meet at the base of the pyramids, or naked in a Jacuzzi, or in a plane circling the city. Our desultory hero is recruited to make a film about them in the style of “documentary hyperrealism” (“What cocksucking Frenchman came up with such a lame idea?”), and slowly teases out their philosophy, which involves a lot of esoteric knowledge, fierce secrecy, and the eating of watery food. His recruiter, Ihab Hassan (a real-life theorist of postmodernism, one of the novel’s many in-jokes), lets him in on the secret. The society’s members keep an archive of the architectural truths they have discovered over the millennia, which are transmitted “like phantom genetic material” among them. Some of this data is published—James Joyce and the brothers Grimm, and almost every visionary you can think of, were Urbanists in disguise—and some is kept at the bottom of the sea. The society was responsible for the world’s first city, the Suez Canal, the catacombs of Paris, cheap postwar housing, and almost everything else. Its members, we are hardly surprised to discover, can be traced back to Adam.
The design of modern Cairo, according to this pseudo-history, was the result of a power struggle between the Urbanists and a coterie of European architects, which the Urbanists lost. Now, under the leadership of a ruthless, nationless mind reader called Paprika, they want redress. (Softcore descriptions of every female character’s figure are gratuitous—“her breasts pressed against her T-shirt like a pair of lemons”—and in Paprika’s case somewhat undermine her mystique as an evil shape-shifting sprite.) Their mission is the eradication of pain through architecture. Their powers are limitless, their logic neatly hubristic: to end suffering, many must die. After the disaster, they embark on a project of radical social engineering whose ripples extend well beyond Cairo:
The whole world was now more or less the same: no room for rebellion, no space for screaming. The forests had been masterfully redesigned, and temperatures kept carefully under control. . . . Peacocks were placed under strict surveillance, as the number of endangered species increased with every passing hour.
Once the utopians have had their way with it, the unruly city comes to seem a paradise lost. Ostensibly a document of frustration with the old world, the novel is also an attempt to imagine how much more miserable things could be. Yes, it seems to say, this life is unlivable, but how would we feel if we lost it all?
As though in response to this question, soon after an excerpt from the book was published in an Egyptian magazine in 2014, a surreal chain of events landed Naji in jail for “violating public morality.” It’s hard not to read Benjamin Koerber’s rollicking translation in light of Naji’s legal ordeal, which began after a “concerned citizen” complained to the public prosecutor that a scene involving cunnilingus had caused him heart palpitations and psychological harm. As Koerber explains in his introduction, Naji’s case marks the first time in modern Egypt that an author has been imprisoned for a work of fiction. One of the ironies of the case is that the offending chapter was also the novel’s happiest, one in which simple pleasures—morning sex, a walk in the sun—become scraps of joy snatched from the jaws of the city. Another is that Naji, who has written critically and explicitly about the current regime in his journalism, should have been undone by a work that announces itself so clearly as fiction; the prosecutor took the chapter to be a confession of its author’s indecent behavior. Naji was acquitted last year; his case is pending retrial, but a bootleg copy of his novel circulates online. The book is an experiment, wild and weird, full of non sequiturs and oddball imagery. (The text is interspersed with surreal comics by Ayman Al Zorkany.) Perhaps it is subversive precisely for its love of whimsy; in a culture beset with political gloom, it agitates for the freedom to be unserious.
If Naji’s dystopia has the low-stakes lightness of a dream, Mohammad Rabie’s Otared is an unadulterated nightmare. The novel begins with a cannibal crime scene of rare ghoulishness and gets steadily grimmer. Our guide to this underworld is Ahmed Otared, good cop turned partisan. It’s 2025, and East Cairo has been occupied for two years by the armies of the Knights of Malta, land pirates with no territory of their own who speak “Arabic like Tunisians, and English in many different dialects.” The invasion was as swift and total as it was unopposed; only a lionhearted few still hold out. The bourgeois island of Zamalek has become the eye of the resistance. From the top of a tower in its midst, Otared, a matchless sniper, looks out over the divided city (the West remains free) and trains his scope on the enemy, cold-blooded behind his mask. “I was an ancient Egyptian god with a borrowed face, whose true features no man could ever know. . . . A Greek god, full of contempt for the world that he’d created.”
Whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of armed struggle, it does not take long for the resistance to overstep even the widest definition of guerrilla warfare and devolve into outright slaughter. What is remarkable about this shift is how slow we are to notice it. Otared is a companionable narrator, and at first we cannot see the murderer for the fancy prose style; one of the novel’s most chilling moves is the ennoblement of evil through formal beauty. Served by Robin Moger’s exceptionally fine translation, its mazelike structure and sensitive flashes of description are a lesson in the seductions of art. (Here is our terminator describing a line of blood: “It reminded me of an ostrich’s tail feather, a column of water rising from a fountain, the glowing tracks of fireworks launched across the sky.”) At regular intervals Otared takes stock of those he has killed, and these lists grow longer every time, a paratactic mess of names and bodies. Yet the slowly gathering rhythm has the effect of an ostinato, a musical pattern repeated and amplified. Violence is so carefully and insistently woven into the pattern of the novel that it cannot be senseless; something else, we come to suspect, must be at work.
And so it is. One of the longer roll calls of the dead provides a hint that Otared’s killing spree might not be quite what it seems:
And I killed a southerner called Gowhar, dressed in a broad-sleeved robe. I shot him in the neck with a single bullet, and he took to his heels, bleeding, and I let him go because I knew he’d die in a few minutes and that nobody would be able to help him.?.?.?. And I looked for Samira al-Dahshuri. She’d be walking beneath the overpass, I knew, and I swept the area through my scope, and when I saw her I fired without hesitation into her liver. It had been cirrhotic for years, and maybe she felt the bullet ripping through it and killing her. Maybe that is why she hunched over and peered at the spot as she died.
What kind of a sniper is this, and why is he blessed with a total, transcendent awareness of his victims’ lives? Why, at the moment of their death, does he describe them with something close to love?
Another clue lies in the novel’s cyclical structure: some sections pan back to 2011, and at its midpoint is a single, very brief chapter set in the year of the Hegira 455, or ad 1077. It is a testament to Moger’s flair for the varieties of English—and how they might map onto the many registers of Arabic—that within a few lines it is beautifully, mysteriously apparent that we have been transported a thousand years back in time. Here, a man attends a burial and comes to a violent understanding (“Hope shall be set in your hearts, and hope there is none, and hope is your torment”), which foreshadows the novel’s final revelation. It is not spoiling things too much to say that this key, when it comes, both clarifies the novel’s cruelty and upends it, turning its sadists into angels of mercy. A dystopia can also be a world turned on its head.
Yet the realization that Otared’s savagery is only a negative image of the truth does not redeem it entirely. Having sat through the horror show—public suicide and stoning, a miscarried fetus on a plate, homeless girls raped by a homeless man—one could be forgiven for not standing to applaud its basic conceptual trick. One part of the nightmare, however, contains the seed of something brighter. The chapters set in 2011 revolve around a man, Insal, who adopts a little girl after her parents disappear. The girl, Zahra, develops a strange ailment that causes her eyes, ears, and mouth to seal themselves shut until she is nothing but a smooth lump of flesh that has to be fed through a tube, cut off from the world of the senses. Eventually she is reunited with an aunt who suffers from the same affliction. That Zahra’s character should be one of the few not only to survive the novel but to experience a moment of connection comes as a poignant relief.
Zahra kept running her hand over her aunt’s cheek. Slow, even passes, testing out her favored sense: touch. At the nasal openings, she stopped, lifted her head, and stuck the tips of her first and middle fingers into the holes. There was a momentary lull, then the aunt released a sudden blast from her nose and Zahra snatched her hand away in feigned alarm. The aunt rocked her head back, as did the girl, then the two foreheads met once more. They were laughing.
The drama of dystopia is that it rarely succeeds completely; these novels draw much of their power from the resilience of the human. In other words, embedded in dystopia is the possibility of miniature utopias, clearings of solidarity or autonomous thought. Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue may be named after a hallmark of authoritarian states (it shares its title with Vladimir Sorokin’s 1983 Soviet saga), but its real subject is the queuers and their stubborn fellow feeling. We are in a parallel world of Brechtian simplicity, where the highway is marked Public Road, scripture is the Greater Book, and the only newspaper is the Truth. The Gate is both a place—a door set in an octagonal fortress—and the source of all authority; it came to power after a popular uprising was crushed many years before. (The phrase “winds of change,” often heard in 2011, marks out the revolt as a reference to that one.) No aspect of life falls outside its jurisdiction: the Gate announces the arrival of winter and decides who is entitled to phone lines. Even window-shopping is taxed. When a group rises up against the reigning injustice, this, too, is brutally put down. As punishment for these Disgraceful Events, the Gate closes, and outside forms an ever-lengthening queue, which threatens to replace society itself:
So many shopkeepers spent so long in the queue that they couldn’t buy or sell anything or supervise their employees, and so they decided to get rid of their merchandise.?.?.?. No one knew when rush hour was anymore; there were no set working hours, no schedules or routines. Students left school at all sorts of times, daily rumors determined when employees headed home, and many people had chosen to abandon their work completely and camp out at the Gate, hoping they might be able to take care of their paperwork that had been delayed there.
The novel is organized around a single medical file, that of Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed, a man in his late thirties with a bullet lodged in his body. This he acquired during the Events, but when he is taken to the government-run hospital and sees people around him dying of bullet wounds, he realizes that a gaslighting operation is under way:
The doctor asserted that the high mortality rate was due to the fact that these rioters were simply too sensitive. Upon hearing one another’s harsh words, they’d succumbed automatically, their hearts having stopped before the ambulances even arrived. Others had stumbled upon the grisly scene and were so traumatized by it that they froze, and then they collapsed, too, falling one after another like dominoes.
Another doctor is willing to help, but nothing, not even surgery, can be done without permission from the Gate. So Yehya joins the queue and its economy of frail hope. It is a microcosm of Egyptian life: it ought to be a utopia, or at least a great leveling.
Thrown into cohabitation, people pray together, work, sleep, roast sweet potatoes, propose marriage. A conservative preacher is forced to reckon with the opinionated young woman standing next to him. But as the queue grows, inertia creeps over the crowd. Though they stand together, day after day, fear keeps them suspicious and strips them slowly “of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.”
Another obstacle to Yehya’s operation is that his bullet does not officially exist. It cannot be mentioned, let alone removed, being evidence of the state-led crackdown on the Events. (Here too reality is catching up: the 2011 revolt has been expunged from the history curriculum in Egyptian schools.) Radiology wards are shut down, their equipment confiscated; X-rays circulate like samizdat. As the hospital becomes a battleground in the war on truth, conversations in the queue are mysteriously reflected in people’s medical files, which seem to be updated in real time. It turns out that nothing of the queuers’ lives escapes the Gate, not even the hour of their death.
Elisabeth Jaquette’s limpid translation achieves the spare, sterilized quality that medical prose and the communiqués of overbearing states have in common. This economy of style is integral to a world in which human interactions have been painfully circumscribed and stripped of trust; bleakness is related to bleach. This is a study of totalitarian logic with the plainness of a Kafka parable—and, unlike Naji’s and Rabie’s novels, it pulls off its unnerving effect without resorting to the degradation of women’s bodies. (A scene of harassment on the metro ends with the offender being beaten with a handbag and decamping in fright.) Nothing human is alien to it; see how compassion has sharpened, not softened, the prose:
With practiced care, Yehya slowly bent his right knee, leaned his torso to the right, too, and then lowered one side of his skinny bottom onto the edge of the wooden chair. He let the pain swell to its full magnitude for a moment, until he knew he could bear it without groaning or crying out, and then slid his whole rear end onto the rough-edged wooden seat, stretching his left leg out a bit.
A healthy man might take three words to sit down; a man in pain takes seventy-seven. Abdel Aziz, a psychiatrist who treats torture victims in Cairo, knows how wounded bodies move.
Dystopia is the putrefaction of utopia; it is the promise of perfection turned sour. After the uprising that is now a distant memory, “the Gate and its guardians had prevailed, and they emerged stronger than before.” The Queue was written before the military coup that put Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power, but it has proved prophetic. Since 2013, cases of death by torture have soared, and tens of thousands have been imprisoned without charge. Many have disappeared. The crackdown on noncompliance has led to a war on writers; Egypt is now the third-largest jailer of journalists on earth. Last June, a few months after his release from prison, Ahmed Naji wrote in a blog post about the fate of revolutionary art:
Day after day, things seem to be drifting to their pre–January 25 status quo, with some even believing that they are becoming worse. . . . Only a minuscule number of attempts remain, trying to continue under Egypt’s ever-increasing scrutiny and censorship.
These novels are among them, and they are reasons for hope.