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.

Perception and Performance Inherently Bonded To Action

For this post, I am reading Hassan Blasim’s story “The Reality and the Record” from his collection The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, which was translated by Jonathan Wright and published with Penguin Books. “The Reality and the Record” was first published by Comma Press in 2008 in Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East, edited by Joumana Haddad.

“We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad.”

p 156, “The Reality and the Record”

“I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum”

p 161, “The Reality and the Record”

 

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how laws are called “acts” — as in the Affordable Care Act or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Questions surrounding the way that laws are inherently actions, they operate not only philosophically or legally or in some abstract realm, but in the most fundamental, semantic way, they are actions. And while I recognize that, unlike Remy and Laura, I’m not versed in law or legal language, I think this is still something that we, as connoisseurs of words, can discuss.

Now obviously each story has action — in fact, what is a story without it? (A tract? a theory?) The very form of narrative requires it. In other ways, the very form of our lives is narrative, and thus requires action. So I don’t want this to be too immersed in the notion of how “action” happens in the story (and out of the story) — of course it does. I want to instead focus on the ways perception and performance are inherently bonded to action.

Take the first quote above, “We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad” (156). Perception begets action. The Professor is known as the professor — but then he is also mad because they hate him. He is both called professor and called mad. This is to say, again, that action derives from perception. This, too, gets us to a “so what?” question. So perception begets action. What does that do for us that we know it? Or Of course it does. Duh.

But take the second quote above, “I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum” (161). This complicates the notion of asylum because it is the very act of story-telling that gains one access to a “right.” It is the details of the narrator’s story that will allow him/her to receive “the right of asylum.” I want to pause here, too, on the word “right.” To (very) loosely quote Rachel Maddow (political correspondent/academic/badass), “[the point of having rights is that you don’t have to qualify them with any sort of voting or action. That’s why they’re rights!]” And yet, within this story we see the complications of seeking asylum — itself only realized if one does something to prove they deserve it (which by the way, does not make it a right — it makes it a privilege, a reward and as we all either know and/or must accept, those who have money or access to the higher tiers, or the people who run the higher tiers) of the hierarchical structure get their privileges first and foremost).

Access to one’s “right” to seeking asylum is itself tied to action. It is the performance of one’s story — in other words “what matters…is the horror” (167).

As we have also briefly discussed the work of Hannah Arendt, I think it relevant to mention that Arendt’s point that human rights do not exist in a vat — that guaranteeing human rights is dependent on the existence of a state that guarantees and protects those rights — is imperative to our understanding of this text and of the refugee crisis itself. Gaining access to an asylum from authoritarian governments that commit countless (with the aid of other governments — like the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China) human rights violations itself involves the admission of one’s own state’s inability or disinterest in preserving one’s human rights and seeking the preservation of those rights by another state. Thus, we have again come up to the inextricable link between action and law, between what is perceived to be true and what becomes so, between what can be done and what is done.

Abdulrazzak’s “Shadow of Their Former Selves”

For this, I am pulling from the Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar collection entitled We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. The image used here is also used as the jacket art for the book, entitled Iraqi Landscape 2005 by Hashim Al-Tawil.

 

“Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes,
Through a night hole hastily sprung,
Emerging on the other side to the warmth
Of an interrogation cell.”

“Shadow of their Former Selves”
Hassan Abdulrazzak

 

The first thing I notice about this stanza of the poem is the second line: “Through a night hole hastily sprung” where the predicate and subject in the syntax have been inverted in the sentence. It still grammatically makes sense, but it doesn’t take much to see the difference between “Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes” and “[Father was] through a night hole hastily sprung.” What does this syntactical inversion do?

For me, my experience reading this, that second line threw me out – I was confused and I didn’t really know what it was saying. I was forced to re-read the line so I could understand. So, there’s this pause then. A stop that interrupts the otherwise consistent syntax of the stanza and the poem. In the same way, the father in the poem’s being taken was a brief pause in the regular on-goings of the poem.

Most of the readings acknowledge that the experience of the Iran-Iraq War, the sanctions, and then the 2003 invasion and on-going occupation were all a slow cakewalk, each step different and more severe than the one before it. But most of them acknowledge a specific moment where it’s obvious there is no going back – a pause in the syntax of their ongoings where an inversion occurs.

I want to hastily resist pushing all of these pieces into a one-size-fits-all understanding of the obvious plurality that Iraqi art and experience showcases in We Are Iraqis, so I will digress on this point – with the acknowledgement that while Al-Ali and Al-Najjar demand the collection’s mosaicity, the very existence of this collection seems to be an attempt to invoke that collectivity while still demanding “collection”’s lack as a term.

Back to Abdulrazzak’s third stanza, second line: I’m also drawn into the words (whether it’s because in English the syllable stresses are on these) “night hole” and “hastily sprung.” The term night hole is not one I’m familiar with and after an extensive google search it seems to be an Abdulrazzak neologism, but I’m guessing from the fourth line of the stanza that the night hole is perhaps the keyhole? door of some sort? that leads into an interrogation cell. And yet it isn’t called a keyhole or door. It’s called a night hole. What is the effect of calling it a night hole? A hole is a hollow space in an otherwise solid body or surface. To call it a “night” hole, as if its very existence depends on the time of day seems to imply that the darkness (literal and figurative – invoked from the first line “black Mercedes”) of night is something the hole requires. A hole is also defined informally as a small unpleasant place. But this unpleasant-ness or this informal image of the hole seems to contrast the “warmth” in the third line. The whole both requires its night-ness and its warmth. Now I’m thinking of a damp, hollowed out place in the ground. The warmth from the dirt. But the warmth doesn’t come from the dirt in the poem, it comes from the interrogation cell, from the interrogation. “warmth of an interrogation cell” – So the interrogation is heated? Is what makes the hole warm and nightly the interrogation combined with the feeling of being whisked off in a black Mercedes.

 

Spring/sprung

To spring means to move or jump suddenly upward or forward. He was sprung into the interrogation cell’s warmth via the night hole. But to spring also means to originate from, as in “to spring forth from.” Thus, Father was not only hastily thrown into the warmth of the interrogation /interrogation cell, he has also come from that night hole. I don’t know that there could be a more perfect understanding of this piece than being both sprung into and sprung from. The speaker’s parents are simultaneously themselves and shadows of their former selves. As Sinan Antoon puts it “I am forced to return [home] every day, but not to a physical space … Thousands rot…selling their future after having been robbed of their present and past” (25). Father is both originated from the night hole and sprung into it the same way Antoon’s Barbarian is both forced to return home “as much as [he tries] not to” and home is the place from which he originated.

 

What does it mean to be the shadow of one’s former self?

Just briefly, displacement is where I want to move with this question. To say the speaker’s parents are not themselves, not their former selves, but shadows of their former selves. That’s three degrees of displacement. Refugee status is granted to those who apply and are accepted by the U.N. as people who have been physically displaced for fear of violence or death. But what about emotional displacement? Could a shadow of one’s former self be the definition of an emotional refugee? This relates to a notion of both being sprung into and sprung out of one’s home because the emotional refugee may not ever truly be ‘displaced’ the same way one can be physically displaced. Instead, in a muddled way, saying someone is a “shadow of their former self” still acknowledges the self in there. In other words, this emotional displacement – status as an emotional refugee – may be the experience of being both simultaneously sprung out of home and sprung into home.

However, again I want to be careful not to lump all refugees into any sort of box. Nor do I want to try and take this poem as an understanding of The Refugee, as in all refugees. So, while I’m beginning to reach for larger scaled understandings of the refugee experience, I want to acknowledge that making statements about the emotional status of a refugee neither acknowledges the complexity of humanness that exists in every refugee nor can it ever be complete in its definition in the same way the human experience can itself never be completely explained.

Continual War In Silence: Deixis in Sitt Marie-Rose

 

For this, I read PART II of James L. Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East: A History, Fourth Ed. from Oxford University Press as historical background and the first sixty pages of Sitt Marie-Rose by Etel Adnan, translated by Georgina Kleege from The Post-Apollo Press.

 

“There’s no noise in this world. That’s why the war doesn’t stop. Nobody wants to stop it.”

p. 43, Sitt Marie-Rose

 

The first thing that strikes me about these three lines is the deixis in the second sentence. The deictic “that’s” seems to refer back to the previous sentence, qualifying the phrase “why the war doesn’t stop” with “there’s no noise in this world;” however, the third sentence complicates this by seeming to be a different qualifier of “why the world doesn’t stop: “nobody wants to stop it.” In other words, the deixis in the second sentence functions for both the first and third sentences and I want to explore how each case is different from the other.

Case 1: reason why the war doesn’t stop is because there’s no noise in this world OR (as conditional) If there were no noise in this world, the war would stop.

Case 2: reason why the war doesn’t stop is because nobody wants to stop it OR (as conditional) If somebody wanted to stop the war, the war would stop.

Case 2 seems to be the more direct and yet it becomes the second case, as it chronologically comes last in the phrase. By ‘more direct,’ I mean the claim that nobody wants to stop the war and that’s why it continues is a much more useful, used, understandable, and straight-forward claim than Case 1. It is logical to say nobody wants to stop the war; therefore, the war doesn’t stop. Case 1’s two clauses seem to be unrelated: there is no noise in this world and therefore that means the war does not stop. What does noise have to do with continual war? Why would having noise make war stop?

Case 1 leads us to a subplot functioning in Sitt Marie-Rose: the deaf-mute students at the school where Marie-Rose teaches. We get to see, with the shifting points of view, what may be several or at least one student of hers. It is one of these students that says our chosen quote. So, again I ask: What does noise have to do with continual war? Why would having noise make war stop?

I think in many ways, these children understand the world to be noiseless and one of them comments on their ability to dance by feeling the beat rather than hearing it. In the same way, they can feel the drumming of the bombs. They are ostracized by their communities and families, beaten by their parents, and loved only by Marie-Rose. But this still doesn’t qualify that a silent world means the war doesn’t stop.

Nonetheless, the indirect connection between hearing and peace here is interesting. If we go on this connection further, in what ways does the ability to hear grant one the ability to make peace OR, to combine Case 2 into the discussion, in what ways would the ability to hear grant somebody the want to stop the war?

The figurative function of hearing in the text is thus: Marie-Rose seems to be claiming, in so many words, during her fight with Mounir that he (and the militia) are not hearing her argument or the argument of the Palestinians. She says

“our survival depends on theirs…The Arab world is infinitely large in terms of space and infinitely small in its vision.”

p. 56-57

Here, Marie-Rose invokes a different sense: sight. Literally speaking, she’s saying that of all the geography the Arab world takes up, there doesn’t seem to be much sight. Figuratively, though, she’s talking about vision: a perfect word the translator chose here. It comes with a connotation of the supernatural or of an optimistic future: as in “visionary.”

So, as clichéd kumbaya as this might sound, what Marie-Rose and Case 1 are alluding to is this notion that until we all listen to one another, until we see each other as people instead of as “sects and sub-sects, ghettos, communities, worked by envy, rotten, closed back on themselves like worms” – as enemies – then the war will not end.

The Prince of Dust: Saadi Youssef and Modern Poetics in The Occupied Arab World

This is a blogpost written for my class “Literature of the Middle East and North Africa” taught by Dr. Angela Naimou in Fall 2016. Our assignment every week is to write 500 words on our reading assignment. This week we were instructed to pick one or two lines from one of Saadi Youssef’s poetry (trans. by Khaled Mattawa), which we read alongside Mattawa’s introduction to his volume of translated Youssef poetry Without an Alphabet, Without a Face

 

I do not want your hand. Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.

— “Reception,” Saadi Youssef (trans. Khaled Mattawa)

 

I. Punctuation

The punctuation is simple, predictable. Just two periods annotating the end of each statement. The first sentence seems more open than the second, not only because the first is declarative while the second is imperative but also because quite literally the first sentence requires open-mouth to form the vowel for “I do not…” while the second sentence begins with a consonant — which are verbally more assertive. Thus, we go from the open (perhaps more amiable) “I do not want your hand” to the critical, more essential “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” However, while the second sentence may seem to be more explosive, it is still punctuated by a period. So while it may begin with a slightly more explosive sound with the consonant and its feeling as an imperative may begin as a louder tone, the sentence as a whole feels more instructive with a subdued, offended anger rather than a fed-up revolutionary or war-like anger.

This reminds me of Mattawa’s introduction of the material when he talks about Youssef’s preference of the whisper over a declamation, “as it captures both the intimacy and the urgency of an utterance.” I think that seems to be what we see here in this quotation from “Reception.” This is not a shout. It begins with the intimacy of both image (a hand) and sound (open vowel sound of “I” and first-person) and then arrives at the more-urgent “Do not” with the consonant and (in the second sentence more abruptly) with the imperative.

 

II. POV and rhetorical position & function

The first sentence is in first-person POV and the second sentence has an implied second-person POV. Together, these two also create a close intimacy – that of the (implied) “you” and the “I.” While this may seem like a short and simple explanation without excitement, in the context of the poem itself, which is a meditation on all of life, this is extremely intimate.

The speaker is juxtaposing several images (in a single line even) that may line-by-line not hold much correlation but that wholly become an essence or microcosm of a greater identity. By this, I mean while one or two lines may not give us any sort of lead about what a poem quote-unquote “is about,” reading several lines and indeed the entire poem gathers into this wider essence that itself is a microcosm of some memory, location, event, and/or people.

The poem features these intimate moments in different POVs – some are in third-person, some in first-person. The only imperative sentence in the entire poem is in my quotation: “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” Plus, it is one of only two sentences in the whole poem in second-person. What does this do for the poem? Well, it means our most intimate moment is an imperative, a command. The other second-person sentence is “They are chanting for you, girl of the harbor tavern.” Because the “you” is named in the appositive at the end of the sentence, the sentence does not have as close intimacy as second-person normally has. Thus, again, the most intimate moment in the entire poem (between “you” and “I”) is these two sentences, the first a repudiation of help and the second a command.

 

III. [I don’t know what to title this section…Conclusion, maybe?]

I’ve already reached my word-count talking about the functions of the specific mechanics of these two lines in the poem so I won’t spend much more time here, but I haven’t even talked about why I chose these two lines. What interests me most about this material specifically is what Mattawa calls Youssef’s “greatest contribution to contemporary Arabic poetry [: …] to preserve the dignity of personal experience, despite and within a context of difficult socio-political realities in his native Iraq and in the Arab world at large.” My quotation shows and intimate moment that does emanate personal dignity: I will not take your help; I did not ask for it; Do not pretend to care for me by giving me your second-rate “help.”

If indeed “the creation of personal freedom was the third frontier for Arab poetry” after (1) wrestling stagnant traditions and (2) wrestling the forces of colonialism, then that freedom also includes the freedom to say no. I think what we’ll encounter (especially once we get to the Lila Abu-Lughod piece) is that no genuine intimacy is ever established between the West and its colonial subjects in the Middle East, no intimacy that would allow for the freedom to say “No, we don’t want your help;” because while we become a part of our own self-rendered colonial narrative of granting Freedom, we do not seem to wonder (1) why we have the right to ‘grant’ it at all and (2) whether those to whom we grant it actually asked for it.