The Anxiety of Waiting in Basma Abdel Aziz’s THE QUEUE

For this, I’m reading Chapter 19 of James L. Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East: A history (fourth edition from Oxford Univ. Press) and Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue published in 2013 and then translated by Elizabeth Jaquette and published in 2016 by Melville House. Photo from https://media.npr.org/assets/img/2016/04/29/the-queue-cover-final2_wide-cc4b1914da37ce4ca9181d8e6ced2ac4c05793be.jpg?s=1400.

  1. “[Ines] wouldn’t leave her place for more than a moment, and Um Mabrouk began to send Mabrouk to bring her breakfast every day” 130
  2. “Yehya was distraught for days” 154
  3. “For several weeks [Amani] hadn’t seen or spoken to anyone but Yehya” 174
  4. “For weeks before she’d left her job, Amani hadn’t made any sales” 204
  5. “[Amani] didn’t know how she’d arrived in this emptiness, how time was passing, or whether it was passing at all.” 152

At the end of the Gelvin chapter on the Arab Uprisings, he annotates the historical use of the “spring” metaphor from “Arab Spring” and its first use, “Springtime of Nations,” which ultimately led to the incorporation of liberal ideals into society and government in the greater European area – “even if the realization of those alternatives [to autocratic government] might take a century and a half or so” (346). Thus, he comes to, at the very end of the chapter, a notion of waiting. That perhaps the Arab Uprisings are still in their beginnings or middles and the more liberal governments of the region are in the future. While of course this may be so – that is to say of course time in its most fundamental understanding moves linearly and forward – I wonder if the very question The Queue seems to take up is what that waiting may look like on the ground. In other words, while one might say the region is bound to fully realize the revolutions’ ideals in due time, that due time may in fact complicate that realization and its process.

Above, I’ve chosen several quotes from The Queue that outline, in the first four (from pp 130, 154, 174, and 204), moments when characters experience the anxiety of waiting. To an intentionally absurd extent, the characters spend their time waiting – that is to say all of this waiting occurs in “weeks” or “more than a moment,” both which blur the notion of time as a definable set of moments. In other words, we might experience time as a definable set of points, each moment passing its previous equal. What The Queue’s characters seem to experience via the anxiety of waiting is time not as a set of definable points but time which has begun to itself seem so long, it has become indefinable. I think we all feel this in a colloquial setting – the way we use “five more minutes” or “a few more minutes” interchangeably, each of them undefined when we use them in their own specific (with “five”) or unspecific (with “few”) means. The point is not that we wait exactly five minutes nor that we define how long a few minutes might be. It is the act of waiting that is the point. And in that act of waiting, the specific amount of time, again, does not seem to be what is relevant, which is to say time goes from being undefined to being indefinable, experienced in The Queue as hyperbole or absurdity – or, as I call it, irrelevant. The point, again, is waiting. Not necessarily time.

I digress now because I feel like I’m beginning to sound pedantic.

As I spoke about earlier, this creates anxiety for the characters who have to wait. Ines has to be brought breakfast, Yehya is distraught, Amani speaks to no one and loses her job. Ultimately, then, the anxiety of waiting accumulates and seems to affect the characters’ goings-on in their daily lives. So what does it mean for interference or deviation to seem to cause anxiety? For Gelvin’s piece, it seems to be anger and need for interference and deviation manifests in revolution and where The Queue places itself is after a revolution. The Queue then seems to be making the argument that despite revolution, the afterlives of revolution are weighed down in anxiety and waiting.

This brings me to the final passage above: “[Amani] didn’t know how she’d arrived in this emptiness, how time was passing, or whether it was passing at all.” 152

Time seems to collapse or at least become blurred – that is, felt as time/waiting itself rather than any incremental or specific ordering of time – in the novel due to the sheer amount of waiting. Waiting seems to be the cause of much of the anxiety – for Gelvin’s subjects it seems to be about waiting for the realization of liberal ideals whereas for those characters in The Queue it seems to be that and the fear of the new government and the ways that new government can and does exploit its people. I think a paper is to be written on the ways neoliberal, militarized capitalism functions in The Queue as a means of causing fear and anxiety via waiting.

Western Narcissistic Highground and Narratology

Here, I am talking about the Frantz Fanon chapter entitled “Concerning Violence” from his book The Wretched of the Earth and the Abu-Lughod piece is her essay from American Anthropologist 2002 entitled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.”

For much of the beginning of the essay, Fanon talks about this notion of compartmentalizing of colonialism. Obviously, as everyone else has mentioned (and as anyone who has actually read the piece will mention), he is outlining the impact of the colonist on the colonized–in every facet and chiefly in violence. I confess I haven’t finished the entire reading (and hopefully judging by its length we will spend more time discussing this on Thursday having by that time also watched the film), but I see this heading in the direction of validating violent decolonization and violent revolution/rebellion (like that of Saint-Domingue and Cuba and much of Latin America and Africa) for the colonized.

Another interesting tangent he goes on in the beginning that I see coming back is the Marxist idea of the uneducated or non-intellectual colonized (who I think Marx called like limproletariat or something like that) who bring the ultra-despair that compartmentalized defeat in battle (p 50) or the deafening isolation of the compartmentalizing bureaucracy in setting up a nationalized-decolonized state (p 50), mostly because his whole thesis seems to be this idea that decolonization is not liberation, just substitution (something I find extremely relevant given Fidel Castro’s statement about Pres. Obama visiting Cuba and wishing for better future relations).

Nonetheless, as my title outlines, I am mostly concerned and interested in the argument Fanon is making that the colonist (and by proxy the West) takes a narcissistic highground of (A) geographical, (B) economic, (C) ethical, (D) linguistic, (E) biological, and (F) historical narratives. He (the colonist), in compartmentalizing the structure of everything surrounding the life of the colonized, has forced a dominance over it all not only in a physical, tactile way but in the way of narrative. Thus, it is not only a physical domination by the colonist that anticipates the last becoming first, but the colonist’s control over a narrative of a Manichean forever-battle that breeds nationalist fascism following and as a direct result of the process of decolonization.

 

Fanon says–

A—p 39-40 “The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession–all in manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well…This world divided into compartments, this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species.”

Here we have this idea of a geographical dominance over the colonized. This is a very physical, tactile dominance, of course, but I am more interested in the interaction between the way this ties to an overlying idea of claim — the narrative of claim. He talks in the essay too about the dignity of owning one’s own land–in the philosophical tradition a very Western ideal (Anglo even, via Locke). So my question here is who has access to the narrative of geographical claim? Who has access to the language, to the rhetoric of claiming land–you see this is different from who has right to land, something much less able to be substantiated.

B—p 40 “In the colonies the economic substructure is also superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

This one is also about access to narrative. Economics, especially in a Marxist and therefore anti-capitalist essay, may seem to be a centerpiece of a tactile argument about colonialism, but I am still yet more concerned with who has access to a narrative of economics. If the very domination of the colonized by the colonists is in imposing these compartmentalized sectors, including economic pressure and exploitation and more significantly for me the Western economic narrative, then the argument is made for the colonists before the question gets asked. What I simply mean is that the very economics we are to call into question (in the tactile evaluation of economics) are already in the very language of the West, part of the Western economic narrative, not the economic narrative of the native. Thus, a cause-as-consequence narrative dominance for the colonist.

C—p 41 “Native society is not simply described as a society lacking in values. It is not enough for the colonist to affirm that those values have disappeared from, or still better never existed in, the colonial world. The naive is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values.”

For the native, the ethical narrative to which he will never be allowed access is that of the colonists. This point I think Fanon goes into deeper quite nicely. It reminds me of the AbuLughod essay when she pointed out the fact that there are already narratives and practices and people and ideas on the ground prior to the colonist’s imposition. The self-gratifying nature of the colonist is also in denying the mere existence of an already in-place ethical system (which Fanon brings up in the African institution of a society that endorses self-shaming). Again, the denial of access to the ethical narrative for the native.

D—p 42 “At times this Manicheism goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the native, or to speak plainly, it turns him into an animal…When the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary.”

This is perhaps the most straightforward of the denial of narrative just because it is linguistic. The very language used to describe (even in poetry and fiction–think “fiery tropical eyes” and the eroticism/over-sexualization of the native female by the colonists) native is only decided by the colonists. The access or control in narrative itself is compartmentalized and dominated by the colonist.

E—p 43 “The native knows all this, and laughs to himself every time he spots an allusion to the animal world in the other’s words. For he knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at the moment he realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory.”

This quote interests me the most–there is something here about the fact that a biological narrative of dominance is from the point of view in the essay of the native: here we see the rhetorical function flipped from colonist-centered to native-centered. I don’t know what to make of this or whether it matters, but I’m certain it does. Perhaps something about the notion of imposing dominance through violence becomes a biologically-distinct reaction of violence.

F—p 51 “The settler makes history and is conscious of making it. And because he constantly refers to the history of his mother country, he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension of that mother country. Thus the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves.”

This one is the the one that really set it off for me, the one that made me go back through what I had read and find where we have the narrative dominance. As the saying goes, the victors write history. Colonists are the victors every time and, as Fanon’s argument perfects, de-colonists still do not write the history. There is a narrative dominance in history that the colonist will always have if even just because of chronology–but moreover, I think what is much more thesis-driven is access to a historical narrative. This quotation sums it up perfectly–as the domination of the capitalist-colonist continues its raid, the access to historical narrative is simultaneously compartmentalized and unified into one common narrative that the victor and only the victor dictates.

 

So, yea I know this post is long but I’m most concerned with this idea of access to narrative and the western narcissistic high-ground (narcissistic because of its paradoxical setup: cause as consequence and consequence as cause) and high-ground itself a paradox, leaving out any low-ground because the low-ground was destroyed and dominated. I didn’t really get into the narratology part of my argument, but basically I think it’s just really awesome when form and content mesh well and precisely what Fanon is arguing has destroyed the colonized–Manichean compartmentalizing is exactly how his essay is set up: it’s compartmentalized (as any essay is) that follows from the visceral, more tactile-favored compartmentalizing to the philosophical and cultural compartmentalizing that ultimately itself leads us to the climax of his own thesis at which point he decolonizes his own argument. I don’t have the wordcount to explain, so disregard it if that made no sense.