Even the titles of the novels – The Queue and Woman at Point Zero – reroute the thoughts towards recent emotionally exhausting lockdowns. They conjure interminable waiting, to the point of breakdown. In a way, this is precisely what these books describe. However, the denials of freedom to move, associate and connect are not caused by a global pandemic but by local patriarchal, totalitarian societies. The fictionalised/documentarian versions of Egypt spiritually and physically destroy the respective protagonists, Armani and Firdaus. Both women are driven to extreme forms of exile from their societies, Firdaus by accepting a death sentence, Armani by self-enforced mental alienation. Although all genders in these two novels suffer from oppression, women are subjected to specific forms of violence highlighted by the writers.
The sensitivity and detail in the portrayal of these forms of gendered violence is related to the fact that not only are respective authors both women, but they are both psychiatrists. Both writers are important figures in Egyptian society, renowned for their activism and respected as powerful intellectuals. The two authors have personally experienced state-inflicted violence for their resistance, their feminism, and their criticisms of other forms of oppression. Nawal El Saadawi was fired, exiled and threatened with imprisonment; Basma Abdel Aziz’s nickname is ‘the rebel’. Both novels portray an Egyptian society from a historical vantage point that are four decades apart (1975 and 2013). These have not been decades of ‘progress’: albeit fictionalised, oppression as presented by Basma Abdel Aziz in The Queue (2013) has become more suffocating and more all consuming.
In both novels, patriarchal misogynistic societies force its female protagonists towards cessation of feeling and profound alienation. It is possible that both authors – familiar with how their patients process trauma – make literary use of the symptoms that they observe in victims of domestic violence or rape.
In Woman at Point Zero, Firdaus in an act of self-diagnoses, describes how she used self-alienation in order to survive as a sex worker, dealing with violence, abuse and rape. This method of opting for extreme sensory estrangement from reality, at a cost of no sexual pleasure, no taste in food, not even the beauty of Nile – does not protect Firdaus. Nor can money protect her, only a ‘man’ can protect her, claims the pimp, whom she later murders. She is convicted, and chooses the death sentence over a repentance or an apology. She claims in her testimony that it is the only form of freedom that is available to her.
In The Queue, Armani is subjected to sensory deprivation as a form of torture. It’s a culmination of a series of escalating cognitive and sensory repressions perpetuated by the Gate – the architectural representation of an array of bureaucratic instruments of state-sponsored oppression. The world of The Queue has been compared and contrasted with canonical dystopian novels:
English-language commentators have likened the novel to George Orwell’s 1984, but such a comparison diminishes both its uniqueness and its humor. Rather, the Gate represents a distinctly Egyptian version of its Orwellian counterpart, much more real and all the more absurd for it. At the heart of this autocracy, where moves are monitored, power is everywhere and nowhere, and the state reigns supreme is a bureaucracy that is disorganized and useless at accomplishing anything but the act of repression. To describe this world, Abdel Aziz conjures language so heavy-handed and obvious that the prose spills seamlessly from dystopia into satire.After the Fall: Women Writers on Post-Revolutionary Egypt. By Marya Hannun
However, when it comes to the torture scene the similarity is clear. The method of torture is chosen based on what is most likely to break the victim down, to ensure submission to the regime. In The Queue room 101 is not filled with rats, it is filled with nothingness. Armani is completely cut off. She can’t sense the world around her – the state shows her that it can take everything away: taste, smell, sound, touch, sight, even a sense of time. She is released but unable to reconnect with the world, unable to take part in the resistance. The state wins.
Read post-pandemic, aspects of The Queue might seem to echo anti-government sentiments expressed during recent lockdowns:
But it’s also a novel exploring the organized passivity of a beaten-down citizenry, a people’s willingness to line up and live in optimism that the state will meet their needs, against all odds and past precedent.“The Queue” is a Dystopian Novel About Egypt After the Revolution
Not unlike the lows of Trump’s or Putin’s administrations, the Gate is an expert in ‘alternative facts’. It is the blunt denial of reality by the Gate, very much like the Republican’s ‘stop the steal’ campaign, that leads to a farcical tragedy. Armani’s boyfriend gets injured during a protest which the government suppressed with live ammunition and later denied any culpability. A bullet stuck in his stomach is proof that the government lies, thus the government-controlled healthcare system refuses to acknowledge the existence of the bullet, let alone remove it. Armani is destroyed by the state as a precaution, to prevent her from telling the story. Within the novel, she is rendered speechless, unable and unwilling to ever set the record straight.
Firdaus, on the other hand, tells her story in full and ensures with her death that it will become known:
“I’m a killer, but I have committed no crime.”
The novel details Saadawi’s encounter with Firdaus in a Cairo prison, while Saadawi researches neuroses in female prisoners. Meeting the day before her execution, Firdaus agrees to tell Saadawi her story, how she has suffered through FGM, sexual abuse, forced marriage and domestic violence, before running away and becoming a prostitute. She recounts how, disillusioned by the double standards of patriarchal dominance, she became a rich and influential woman, only to be held to ransom by a powerful pimp, whom she eventually killed in self-defence. Given the chance to ask for a pardon to overturn her death sentence, Firdaus refuses, finding her agency in choosing death over a compromised, unjust and painful life. Firdaus is an enigmatically powerful and hypnotic character, drawing everyone in the prison, guards and prisoners alike, under her spell. When we meet her, she has lost all fear. She explodes out of the book and screams into the world, fiercely, angrily, proudly; her dignity and power are almost bewildering.
Saadawi is, and will become, Firdaus, the double that compels her. To tell Firdaus’s story is to give voice to the “other” that haunts her, to see her own face in the contours of the prostitute’s narrative, and to be provided with a moving link to her own experiences as an excised woman.Lionnet, ‘Dissymmetry Embodied: Feminism, Universalism, and the Practice of Excision’, p. 33.
El Saadawi’s autobiography A Daughter of Isis, reveals how interlinked her childhood accounts are with those of Firdaus. ‘I do not separate between fiction and facts. They are inseparable’, says Saadawi, […] ‘creativity means you write reality in a better way than reality.’ ( ‘Nawal El Saadawi – Woman At Point Zero’, World Book Club, BBC World 2009).
Deeply affected by Firdaus, Saadawi intertwines her own path with that of Firdaus’s, as she gives voice to one of the most enigmatic characters of modern literature.
This is where the two protagonists diverge: one sinks into silence, the other has her voice amplified by other women, reverberating through generations both in literature and on the streets.