"Let Loose Your Tongue"

A Roundtable on Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue.

Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue is one of the most exciting post-Revolution novels written in Egypt in the last few years; when Elisabeth Jaquette first reviewed the Arabic original, in 2013, she called it a novel which "illuminates how absolute authority distorts reality, mobilizes others in its service through fear and manipulation, and fails to uphold the rights of even those faithful to it":

"A psychiatrist, artist, author, and researcher, Abdel Aziz has dedicated much of her writing to condemnations of Egypt’s security apparatus. In 2007 she published Beyond Torture, a psychological study of Egypt’s deep state. Her second book, The Temptation of Absolute Power, is a sociological and historical study exposing the effects of police violence on citizens in Egypt, and was serendipitously released a day before the revolution began in 2011. The Queue is a novel evocative of George Orwell’s dystopias, of Kafkaesque surrealism, and of the dark satire of Sonallah Ibrahim’s The Committee."

Of course, for those of us who don't read Arabic, we had to wait until Lissie translated it into English--now available from Melville House--and for my own part, I first heard of the novel because of Marcia Lynx Qualey's tireless promotion of Arabic Literature in English (at her blog of the same name). See, for example, this interview "The Worst Thing Is That Publishers Are Scared, Too" or her "5 Reasons to Read Basma Abdel Aziz’s Terrifying, Hopeful, Dystopic Fantasy ‘The Queue.’"

The following is an edited transcript of a discussion that Elisabeth Jaquette, Marcia Lynx Qualey, and I had, chatting about The Queue, "dystopic realism," and Egyptian literature.

queuq basma

Aaron: Since Lissie’s wonderful translation is the only reason I can even read this novel, perhaps we could start by having Lissie talk about how she first came across this novel?

Elisabeth Jaquette (Lissie): I found it through the tried and true method of haranguing people for book recommendations. I was studying at CASA at the American University in Cairo, and I asked one of my professors—who was also an editor at a publishing house, Dar al-Tanweer—for recommendations, and he suggested The Queue, which they had just published. I was interested in writing about the revolution, and this seemed different stylistically from most of the other literature that was coming out at the time. Plus, I was interested in reading—and possibly later translating—more writing by women. I read it, and really loved it. The book club I was running at the time also read it, and we invited Basma to join our discussion.

Aaron: Oh, wow! So you got the author herself to come to your book group?

Lissie: I was so star-struck! I asked her if I could translate it, and she said sure. At the time I hadn't yet published a single translation. (Sidenote: I feel like that’s the kind of story men only get to tell— “I had never done this thing before and then I just did it!” But I’m getting distracted.)

Marcia Lynx Qualey (MLQ): Lissie’s book club often had authors visit, if I’m not mistaken. The literary community in Cairo is pretty accessible.

Lissie: Marcia’s right—there’s a smaller community of readers in Cairo, so authors are much more accessible. We’d had Magdy el-Shafee join for our discussion of Metro previously, and Humphrey Davies (one of the best Arabic translators out there) later joined for a discussion of I Was Born Here, I Was Born There.

Aaron: What was Basma’s visit like?

Lissie: She was so gracious. It was just four of us in my friend’s living room, and she stayed and chatted for hours. Finishing the book left me with so many questions (including WHAT DOES THE ENDING MEAN??) and I peppered her with plot questions, asked a lot about whether I’d interpreted lots of the references the way she’d intended. It’s not often you finish a book, wondering IS THE MAIN CHARACTER DEAD?, and then you get to find out from the author herself days later.

MLQ: I’m not sure I want to know what Basma says the ending meant. Maybe I’ll close my eyes and plug up my ears here.

Lissie: I want to know what you guys think the ending meant before I jump in.

MLQ: I wasn’t worried about who lived or died. I just felt the opening, the moment of optimism, the place for the reader to breathe and see how the world could be done differently.

Aaron: It’s an opening, but in a way that novels like 1984 don’t often allow. Dystopias usually double down on the impossibility of hope in authoritarianism, where the writer writes us into a hopeless corner. What I love about this ending is that, within the novel, that opening is a moment of writing. Tarek has begun to alter the record, rather than being altered by the record.

Now that I say it, that makes me think of Tarek as a stand-in for the author herself; like Tarek, she was a doctor who became a writer, right? Perhaps Basma Abdel Aziz intervenes by writing the same way Tarek does?

In any case, the optimism of that moment has a lot to do with the fact that we don’t know what he writes. It’s just an opening, no more. And the idea of fictionalizing the official record is powerful and hopeful in a way that any particular choice he might make might not be; if we knew what he was writing, I don’t know if it would be as powerful. Because we don’t know in real life either.

MLQ: Absolutely. And now, Lissie, you should answer the question.

Lissie: Fair enough! I don’t want to delve too much into the question of which characters might represent the author, or when—is it Tarek, who gave up his artistic career to be a doctor? Or Nagy with his sociological analysis of the inner mechanisms of power? Or the short-haired woman rallying others against totalitarianism authority? But it’s interesting you felt Tarek might be a foil for Basma, because I felt he represents the reader. He’s confronted with an unjust world, but he also has a personal stake in it, and has to make tough decisions. It’s easy to imagine dystopias and think we would be Winston Smith or Neo, but heroic actions have incredibly high stakes.

Aaron: And he hesitates for a long time, and spends most of the novel passively staring at the pages of Yehya’s medical record, which we are also reading. We and he are both trying to figure out what to make of it, and what to do.

MLQ: And to make an intervention into the story.

Lissie: But what is the intervention?! Has Tarek changed at the end of the story? Have we?

MLQ: I think she leaves that with us. It’s a more powerful choice than telling us.

Lissie: Exactly. Being forced to question what Tarek has done, the ending makes readers question what we would do in his position.

MLQ: Or tells us that we are in his position, and must decide….

Aaron: In fact, by ending there, the book really makes us decide. If you continue to sit passively and read, you’ll be frustrated because there is nothing to read! If we want a resolution, as readers, we have to write the ending ourselves, even if just in our heads. Which is a dirty trick to play on the reader.

Lissie: I think the book forces us into the characters’ experiences in several places, like the drudgery of the middle, where not much is happening in the queue, but you’re forced to wait through it with the characters. As readers, we get conflicting versions of the truth… we’re in the dark about what is real, like Tarek.

Aaron: I like that feeling of being stuck in the imagined community formed by the Queue (since we are also, as readers, waiting in the queue). Reading is waiting, and we’re all waiting together, reading. So the passivity of the characters is also our passivity as readers, waiting for the next thing to happen. Until the moment of writing, when the novel ends?

Lissie: I’m digging these connections between the act of reading and writing. Basma said that when she was writing 11 hours a day, she felt like she was waiting in the queue, too, along with all these characters, losing her ability to imagine resistance.

MLQ: Indeed: The book was trapping her in certain received structures (of what the story could be, what language was forcing it to be), and she had to imagine her way to a new place.

Lissie: When I asked Basma about the ending, she said most of the time she thinks that Yehya died. But sometimes she thinks that maybe he didn’t. And that Tarek has been changed through this ordeal, and though he didn’t intervene in time to save Yehya, from then on he would begin to resist. I like that the unwritten ending isn’t even fixed in the author’s mind.

In fact, can I geek out on the Arabic? It felt significant that the book ends with the word ???; the last line of the book is “[Tarek] closed the file, left it on his desk, and rose,” and the word ??? means to stand up, which has the same root as ??????, or resistance. I took that word as a glimmer of hope: She could have described his actions another way; Tarek could have left the room, for example. But he stands, and so the last thing Tarek does is related to resistance. I would have loved to translate that as ‘arose’ or ‘rose up’ but it just didn’t work in English.

MLQ: I think the movement in the word “rose” does the work for you, hero-translator.

Aaron: The word “rose” is close enough; “Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number.” And if it was “rose up,” it might be too perfect, too on the nose.

Lissie: In my mind it also evoked ??? ?? ???? (“Rise up, Egyptian”), Sayyed Darwish’s nationalist ballad from the 1919 Egyptian revolution, urging people to rise up and take control of their country.

Getting the tone of the ending right was one of the more challenging parts of translating the novel: working to approximate the same amount of vagueness, to not make it more concrete or more open-ended than the Arabic suggested. I found that required a much more careful touch than points in the novel where things are happening that the reader should definitively understand.

Aaron: See, this is why translators are paid the big bucks. Trying to “approximate the same amount of vagueness” in another language sounds like riding a unicycle on a moving train.

Lissie: I can’t tell you how many times I went back and forth wondering whether it should be “Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed spent one hundred and forty nights of his life in the queue” or “had spent.” Whether the shift in verb tense would lead the reader closer to a certain interpretation of Yehya’s fate.

MLQ: Either way, Yehya can be alive or dead, “spent” or “had spent.” But “had spent” gives an extra layer of historicizing, elevates the mythology of his time.

Lissie: Oh the things that keep translators up at night! Settling on the line “Tarek sank into thought… his chest tightening” was also key in that calculus: That descriptor hints at emotion, but you don’t know for sure whether it’s depression, or loss, or anxiety, or something else.

MLQ: It’s interesting that translation forces you to take an interpretive stance, though the author is not. So difficult to choose the stance of letting the reader decide!

Aaron: Were there other parts of the translation you had interesting difficulties with? I imagine it must be all like flying half-blind, but it also must give you such a deep insight into how the text works.

Lissie: Flying half-blind?

Aaron: Well, you’re balanced between all these different partly-right, partly-wrong possibilities, having to pick one based on intuitions about what will work. You have to take an (educated) guess about the right interpretation (assuming there is one), and then figure out the right tense that will evoke it in the reader.

I guess I really just want to hear you talk more about translating! :)

Lissie: I could talk about translation all day! This novel in particular opened up so many little puzzles. In translation theory we often discuss Venuti’s ideas on domestication versus foreignization: as a translator, you are either bringing the text to the reader or the reader to the text. Sometimes I had the reader in mind while translating, but sometimes I prioritized the text, letting it stay one step ahead of the reader, or only hint at Basma’s intentions.

And Basma was so much fun to work with; she is very conscious of why she’s making the choices she does, and very good at articulating them. For example, there’s a scene where Amani is sitting in the restaurant, waiting for Yehya and Nagy to show up, and Amani notices that the street outside has been cleaned recently. To me it seemed like a non sequitur. But when I asked Basma, she said she was alluding to the government assiduously erasing all evidence of clashes or protests, to protect the image of its power and stability.

I don’t think most readers would connect the dots, but I had to allow the text to be as vague in translation as it was in the original, to risk letting this glimpse go unnoticed.

Aaron: It must be hard to get out of your own way and trust the author’s vision. The editor in me would want to re-write the novel, to “fix” and “correct” and “improve” everything.

Lissie: Absolutely. Particularly when you spend so many hours living inside of a text, and when, as a reader of the original language, you become attuned to all the little details and idiosyncrasies, and you find joy in the words, or concepts, or cultural references that are difficult to translate, it’s tempting to over-explain. You want the English reader to enjoy those too!

I talk about this a bit in this essay here, but my drafts tend to go through a cycle where the first one is very literal, the next one tries to gloss lots of information I don’t want to get lost, and the next one I realize how much I’ve added to the text, and dial it way back. In the end, I want to arrive at a sentence that feels natural, a sentence that feels like it was the one that was meant to be written on the page. It’s the feeling I have with excellent writing, where whatever is conveyed couldn’t be conveyed any other way. Getting to that point requires a lot of work, but should appear like you’ve done less. Just like the pleasure of watching great athletes is that they make incredible feats look so easy.

Aaron: Do you think a novel in Arabic loses more going into English than, say, a novel in Spanish or French? You say that nakha means both “smell” and “taste,” for example; I’m not sure English has a lexicon of the senses that could accommodate the bridge that gets drawn there. Do you think that forces you to be more interventionist and creative as a translator?

Lissie: I’ll step away from the discourse of “loss” and propose that a novel in a language like Arabic that doesn’t share linguistic roots, or as much cultural history with English, actually offers readers more opportunities to encounter something novel.

Aaron: But does the translator need to be more of a long-jumper, then? For something new to enter the English, the translator has to dig out a space for it. I’m mixing my metaphors.

Lissie: Jumping is my favorite metaphor here: I think of tackling those tough spots as leaps in translation.

For example, the line introducing Shalaby says he found:

“a way to announce his presence and loosen his tongue, which had nearly stuck to the roof of his mouth because of how long he’d gone without talking.”

Basma is riffing on an Arabic idiom that means to “let loose your tongue,” or “mouth off” (???? ?????), by saying “he let loose the whole length of his tongue,” and then she transitions into her own metaphor of it having been stuck in the first place.

Aaron: Did you have to add something to make that legible? Or is that just the “discourse of loss” in reverse?

Lissie: These challenges require transformation more than addition or subtraction. A translator’s grandiose hope is to transform the English that is out there. Here, the literal Arabic has his tongue “stuck in his throat,” which made it sound like he was choking. The Arabic had more levity, since Basma was playing with a well-known idiom. So, in English, it became “stuck to the roof of his mouth.”

When tackling that line, I used one of my favorite strategies which is ASK TWITTER.

Aaron: To take a step away from the language, what about the literary context? How unique is this novel? I’ve heard it compared to Sunallah Ibrahim’s The Committee, for example.

MLQ: Basma’s got more of the hyper-detailed reality of the Mahfouzian Cairo Trilogy than the black humor of The Committee, which is much more absurdist-surrealist, more playful. It comes out of a very different moment. The Queue is more urgent and more earnest. And the characters in The Committee are more symbolic than fully rendered, and much more male without necessarily recognizing itself as male.

Lissie: Another thing that sets The Queue apart is its references to this particular moment in Egyptian history. Which perhaps The Committee has, and I miss, because I wasn’t living in Egypt at the time.

MLQ: Or alive at the time.

Lissie: But the discourse of the 2011-13 years is peppered throughout here: references to the “wheel of production,” “honorable citizens,” and “foreign hands” meddling in domestic affairs. The institutional rhetoric, everything from the Gate’s decrees to the fatwa to articles in the newspaper filled with government supporters… it’s just such a brilliant satire of the tone of offical-ese in Egypt during these years.

MLQ: In that, she could be inspired by the official-ese of Zayni Barakat, by Gamal al-Ghitani, which while it’s set in the 16th century, is a powerful satire of official-speak.

In any case, one of the things I really enjoy about the book is that it manages to be so about the moment, like much of the “hasty literature” written post-2011, but also manages to transcend the moment.

Aaron: What’s “hasty literature”? Google tells me the Tunisian writer Kamel Riahi uses the phrase for “a form and a style akin to journalism or autobiography more than a traditional novel,” but that doesn’t seem exactly right. Whether or not she wrote it quickly, this novel doesn’t feel rushed, or like journalism.

MLQ: Yes, the ????? ???????? was written, uh, really hastily. Most of it, as Kamel notes, turned out to be thinly journalistic or thinly autobiographical. And, let’s also add, pretty bad stuff. The Queue absolutely transcends the shortcomings of “hasty literature,” a novel about right now without giving up on being a work of art.

Lissie: That is why I needed to translate this book. Aaron, as someone not steeped in Egypt of 2011-13: did you ever have a sense while reading the book that there were things you were missing?

Aaron: Well, I knew there were references I wasn’t catching. But I didn’t mind. At a certain point, as a reader, you just focus on the book in front of you. And the book works; if it was written by an Egyptian for Egyptians about contemporary Egypt, it certainly can be plucked out of that context and still work and be powerful.

Marcia, you said that The Committee was “much more male, without necessarily recognizing itself as male.” What do you think of The Queue in that regard?

MLQ: There are precious, precious few works of Egyptian literature that develop such a nuanced, finely detailed range of female characters. The Queue really interrupts how Egyptian women are portrayed, both in Arabic and non-Arabic fictions.

Aaron: Would you say it’s about gender, or that it’s just a novel that isn’t structured by the usual gendered erasure? Obviously the two overlap, but there’s a difference. And, also, to be very male for a moment, let me just ask: what does this novel think about gender that, as a male reader, I’m probably less adept at appreciating?

MLQ: This novel is doing so many things, and gender is one of them. Her gender critique is extraordinary to me because it also finds space and time to be concerned about how patriarchy is warping her male characters. She creates detailed female characters reacting differently to situations, from different class backgrounds, shaped by patriarchy and fighting against it, and sometimes losing; but then she also finds space to acknowledge how men are shaped by patriarchy.

Lissie: I think the range of female characters is significant, and not just for Arabic fiction but for English fiction. In terms of what you might miss as a male reader, there are moments of recognition that felt so significant to me as a female reader. For example, Um Mabrouk getting harassed on the subway, seeing others blame her for it, and starting to blame herself and play down the incident. One can only write that kind of scene if you have that lived experience.

MLQ: The small details of different Egyptian women’s lives have usually been absent from most literary depictions. Women get turned into symbols, or half-symbols; Woman as “motherland,” blegh. Woman as “site of liberation,” double-blegh.

Aaron: “Woman as motherland” is a really common move, right? I’m thinking of the peasant girl in Miramar, but I’m sure you can name dozens of examples where a woman becomes Symbol of The Nation.

MLQ: Yes, from Zainab (1913) and I’m sure earlier. And in so many newspaper cartoons.

Aaron: Not that Egypt is particularly unique in that regard!

MLQ: We women make a tempting symbol. But the situation of the “Arab woman” in Anglophone and Francophone fiction is even more dire: she stands in for so many things while rarely, rarely being anything herself. Ah ye poor Arab Woman.

Lissie: Because the main characters in this novel are men, women’s experiences and roles in this book almost easy to miss. Much as in the real world! But what’s so fantastic about this novel is that women are both more vulnerable to (patriarchal) power structures and they the only real sources of resistance in this world.

MLQ: Oh, I think everyone is a potential source of resistance in the book. Well except for that wretched man in the galabeya.

Lissie: Okay, fair enough. I mean more that the acts of resistance come from women.

MLQ: Women, journalists, outsiders, philosophers, folks with bullets in their pelvises….

Lissie: But it’s Amani who spearheads the dangerous trip into the Zephyr. And it’s the woman with the short hair leading the boycott. And it’s Um Mabrouk who sets up her business venture.

MLQ: True. Many of the most dangerous, creative acts are left to the women.

Aaron: Yet if women were the only source of resistance in the book, then it would make women into a political fetish object. But it’s much less clear-cut than that.

MLQ: And men can also be victims of patriarchal systems, not just victimizers.

Aaron: In that regard, the bullet itself is an interesting gendered figure: he has this thing in his belly waiting to be born and it’ll kill him if it isn’t removed. It’s one of the symbols that stayed with me throughout (as it stays with him!).

MLQ: You could certainly read it that way. But I read it as being very much a bullet in his pelvis, very real. It’s related to the rubber bullet that killed poet-activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, and the state bullets that have killed so many others.

Aaron: What do you think of that New York Times article that talked about The Queue and some others? The headline was “Middle Eastern Writers Find Refuge in the Dystopian Novel,” and described “a new wave of dystopian and surrealist fiction from Middle Eastern writers who are grappling with the chaotic aftermath and stinging disappointments of the Arab Spring.”

MLQ: Well certainly the word “refuge” is quite odd here. I don’t think you could describe Basma’s project as finding refuge (neither could you describe Mohamed Rabie’s, nor Ganzeer’s, nor other writers who’ve explicitly said they’re interested in dystopia, that way). Indeed, Basma’s project is the opposite of “finding refuge,” if in the sense of escaping a difficult and dangerous situation for a place of safety. She is running straight at the problems--the whole interlocked nest of them--and rewriting them, re-inventing them, opening them up to different sorts of questions and gazes.

As to dystopia, well, that’s also a question. Another Egyptian writer told me that these aren’t dystopian novels, they’re post-apocalyptic novels. Some writers do describe their projects as dystopias, but they’re still not the classic “failed utopia” dystopia. They’re exaggerated versions of reality. Maybe “failed completist-power” dystopias.

Aaron: How is that different than a “failed utopia”? It’s an interesting distinction, but I’m not sure how to parse it.

MLQ: Instead of being a vision of someone’s perfect world (where we’re all “happy” or we’re all “free”) that has turned inside out, it’s the vision of completist autocratic rule being turned inside out.

Aaron: Is it that everybody is sort of unhappy here? And knows it? The premise of a 1984-style dystopia is that everyone believes it’s actually a utopia, that Big Brother is actually our, you know, big brother. But even though people are optimistic that the Gate will eventually open, the society constituted by the Queue is also pretty unhappy with the situation, and the ferment is boiling beneath the surface.

MLQ: There isn’t that seamlessness to it. She doesn’t have one vision for the power structure here; there are so many interlocking and reinforcing systems of power. There are multiple failed systems. Many, many people are unhappy, and they have a sense that something is going on, and they’re trying to grapple with it—as we all are—and to find the edges.

Aaron: There’s a patchwork quality to this regime, where the Orwellian meets the Kafkaesque… Instead of the seamless perfection of the completed dystopia, we get an internally contradictory regime that is more absent than anything else. And everybody’s dream of what will happen with the gate opens is probably different. It all co-exists, strangely.

MLQ: Yes, there is neoliberal capitalism and there is traditional patriarchy and there is religious authority and there is the Orwellian Gate. This coexistence of forces is probably why it feels so real to me. Instead of one source of power, some bwa-ha-ha supervillain, there are many different systems.

Aaron: I liked that you called it “an insightful, multilayered dig into the whys of authoritarianism” both because of the excavation metaphor, and because it could also be “authoritarianisms,” plural. And yet “multilayered” is the right word for that plurality, because it’s also a singular simultaneous experience. Authority might be built out of many different overlapping authorities, but it adds up to the fiction of a unitary authority. It’s not really singular, but it feels like it, so it is.

MLQ: Part of me wants to call this a philosophical novel, though I’m afraid it would scare off readers.

Lissie: Just as there’s no supervillain, there’s also no hero. Tarek isn’t a brave doctor fearlessly taking a stand. Yehya’s struggle doesn’t come from ideological conviction about the wrongs of the system, but from a very physical need. I think Nagy stands in for Basma, for a few moments, when he speaks about the illusion of power, but even he has an intellectual critique, and he can’t put it into action.

Basma shows how power isn’t located behind the Gate: it’s in how individual people adopt and reproduce power relations, themselves.

MLQ: Despite Nagy’s pessimism, her belief in individual action is very appealing. Or, rather, despite Nagy being overwhelmed by loss.

Lissie: I’m interested in the point that these books (and The Queue in particular) are not classic failed-utopia dystopias, but just exaggerated versions of reality. In my review for The Queue in Mada Masr, I called it “dystopian realism” and I stand by that. That’s also why I think The Queue is satire, but messes with the definition of satire.

Do we need names for new genres? Do we need to expand the definitions of the genres we have?

MLQ: Basma is surely familiar with “world” literature, but The Queue comes in an Egyptian Arabic tradition where pure science fiction hasn’t really been an interest. But all sorts of alternate-reality fictions have been. For example, while Nael Eltoukhy’s Women of Karantina is set in the future, he kind of looks at you sideways if you call it “science fiction.” An Egyptian dystopia has a different memory and vocabulary from an American or English dystopia.

A dystopia is a warning about some possible future, but this is not that; if we attend to what is unreal about this novel, we miss so much of what’s real.

Lissie: In Arabic, The Queue is described as “fantasy,” but it’s not what we’d call fantasy in English, at all. I think the English literary world over-enthusiastically classifies literature into genres, and literature coming from other traditions and languages doesn’t fit those neat boxes.

MLQ: Which is great. Arabic disrupts our thinking on Anglophone genre, and vice versa.

Aaron: What about all the references to Orwell and Kafka that we read (and write) in reviews? Genres are useful for framing the questions we ask a text, but it feels like everybody who talks about this novel inevitably references those two figures.

MLQ: Yes, reading it as though it came out of a mid-twentieth-century European literary context causes us to skate over large chunks of it.

Aaron: I suspect that Basma Abdel Aziz has learned things about authoritarian governance in the last few years, in Egypt, that George Orwell never imagined in 1949. But the radically different contexts, and the forms of government and resistance that occur in them, all of that can so easily get washed away by using those kinds of analogies too easily.

The same with “Kafkaesque”; obviously The Queue might remind us of “Before the Law,” but even she’s riffing on that theme, the interesting thing is where she takes it, not where it starts out.

Lissie: Labeling The Queue “Orwellian” and “Kafkaesque” puts the novel in a double bind: I’ve heard the critique that the novel is too similar to 1984 (that it doesn’t offer much new) and that readers came to it because they heard it was Orwellian, and then were disappointed it wasn’t the dystopia they were looking for.

Aaron: Not the dystopia they were looking for!

Lissie: What a disappointment, right?

Aaron: What do you these frames obscure?

MLQ: The gender critique, for one. The fine-tuned psychological portraits. The descriptions of physical pain.

Lissie: How people work to become active participants in their own oppression, less from a place of brainwashing or conviction in the system than from malleability, creativity, and carefully-hedged survival skills. I think its society-wide lens also sets it apart from other dystopias.

And many mechanics of the Gate’s authoritarianism—secretly photographing dissidents, tapping phone calls, printing over the top lies in the newspaper, recruiting supporters to pose as average citizens and support the Gate on talk shows—actually do happen in Egypt, or are satirized versions of reality in Egypt. If you recognize that, and also recognize those tactics from other dystopias, it leads to interesting questions on the nature of authoritarianism. I think those are more interesting questions, and more politically salient, than asking how much of this fictional dystopia matches up with other fictional dystopias.

MLQ: To see the satire here, we also need the ability to read religious and government proclamations as separated from reality by just a tiny degree. If a reader doesn’t approve because it was “too much like 1984,” then we critical-types have failed Basma in bending folks’ ears to the book.