Is the spirit of revolution still alive?

Basma Abdel Aziz is one of the rising stars in Arab literature and her latest work, The Queue, explores the political and social fallout of the chaotic Arab Spring. Deputy editor Jurgen Balzan spoke to her ahead of her appearance at the Malta Book Festival next month

Basma Abdel Aziz, the author of The Queue, will be in Malta for this year's edition of the Malta Book Festival
Basma Abdel Aziz, the author of The Queue, will be in Malta for this year's edition of the Malta Book Festival

Basma Abdel Aziz will be in Malta for this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival and will be making two appearances during the festival – as a guest speaker at the conference ‘Literature and Totalitarianism’, which will open the festival on Wednesday, 9 November and at an event in her honour on Thursday, 10 November. 

In the latter event, she will be talking to Maltese-Palestinian writer Walid Nahban about her work and her life. 

As a new wave of dystopian and surrealist fiction emerges from North Africa and the Middle East, The Queue – published in 2013 – is one of the most exciting novels written in the aftermath of the popular uprisings in the region.

Born in Anwar Sadat’s Egypt in 1976, Basma Abdel Aziz is a psychiatrist, artist, and writer who has struggled against intolerance, inequality, corruption, religious control and injustice for many years. 

She is also a human rights activist and has written extensively on the subjects of free elections, the right to physical integrity and safety, and the independence of public educational entities.

Drawing comparisons to classics of dystopian literature such as George Orwell’s 1984, Franz Kafka’s The Trial and and Jose Saramago’s Blindness, The Queue explores the scenario of the aftermath of a failed revolution in an undefined Arab country. 

The narrative unfolds around the ‘queue’ – an endless line of civilians waiting to petition a centralized authority known as The Gate, which has risen to power in the aftermath of the Disgraceful Events, a failed popular uprising.

Why did you become a writer? How does it complement your work in psychiatry?

Well, I started writing before I got to the medical school, actually I was intending to continue my studies in the Fine Arts faculty as I am a visual artist too, I am a painter and a sculptor and I held a number of exhibitions even before publishing any book. 

I finished secondary school with an excellent degree so my family pushed me to the faculty of medicine, saying that arts should be just like a hobby. Anyway I studied medicine and kept drawing, writing and sculpting. 

In the last few years writing attracted me more, and gave me the easiest tool to reach many people, so I am focussing now on my fiction and non-fiction writings at the same time.

Waiting is a central theme in The Queue. How long can one wait for things to change? How can you remain sane when things never change?

This is exactly the question I wanted to raise in my novel. I preferred not to give a definite answer because at that time when I was writing, nothing is said to be really obvious or well prescribed. 

For me, some people would wait forever, the people in the queue are keeping themselves stuck to the authority, searching for minimal hope or even imagining the presence of hope, they are denying the absence of a single positive sign and this brings another question: why do people do that? Why do they insist to wait? 

I found that many are scarred from making any change in their lives, they don’t want to risk their routine and to start discovering what they ignore. 

Some are just solving the internal conflict which arises from confessing that something is going wrong, so being forced to make a reaction. It is easier to say things are going well, things are going to be better, than to rebel and declare your refusal to the whole bad situation.   

How easy is it being a woman in the Arab world today?

For me it is not really a big problem to be a woman in the Arab world, this may surprise you, but I was all the time fighting against discrimination based on gender and I can say that I took all my rights. 

The society would always submit if you accept to go through the fight with strong belief in equality and with the adequate amount of courage and insistence.

Some argue, including people living in North Africa and the Middle East, that dictatorship works better than democracy in the region. Is this a result of the vacuum left behind by dictatorships or is democracy an alien concept to people in North Africa and the Middle East?

Well, I shall say that I totally disagree with this point of view, and let me ask a question in return: is there any nation anywhere in the world where people found themselves enjoying the fruits of democracy without paying the adequate price?  

I guess history’s answer is no. I believe it is a matter of time, the whole problem in my opinion is that we are so far late we haven’t yet paid the price but we are on our way to do. 

A democracy is a democracy everywhere, the same as for people, they are people everywhere, the mass behaviour is a universal model, the defensive mechanisms are universal too and the liberty is a demand for all of us as human beings. 

The Queue is a dystopian and surrealist novel which deconstructs dictatorships. Did you write this with an Egyptian/North African audience in mind? Does literature change people?

No, I didn’t, and as many readers noted, there is no single sign or a single detail that refers to Egypt in particular, no time, no dates, no place. That is because I believe that a dictatorship would be present in any place all over the world, maybe in Latin America, maybe in Africa, and it also took place once in Europe. 

It’s a universal example, no matter who you are you can face it, and no matter what your cultural background is, you can feel its horrible impact on people, and you will be able to perceive it and this puts a duty on everybody; to resist and help people whose rights are violated to get their freedom.  

The Arab Spring is talked of in the past tense. How alive is it and was it the failure some say it is?  

The Arab Spring is still alive for me. A temporary arrest or delay doesn’t mean a complete abortion. 

Fears that people held in the past have now disappeared, we might feel extremely exhausted but the spirit of revolution remains in the hearts and once we regain a part of our strength, we will continue the battle. 

The world’s eyes are on Syria, Iraq and Libya and the situation in Egypt has been overshadowed by the war on Daesh. However, this does not mean that all is well in what is considered as the Arab world’s most influential country. Is the current unrest in Egypt a precursor for another revolution?

Yes, I would love to say so, the current situation in Egypt is not really good at all levels, the economic one, the social and of course the political situation which appears so frustrating. The extensive violations of human rights are reflecting how much the system is scarred from another wave of revolution and I guess it is a mandatory pathway to improve our future.