Finding refuge in dystopian novels

Basma Abdel Aziz's novel, The Queue, represents a new wave of dystopian and surrealist fiction from Middle Eastern writers after the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Basma Abdel Aziz's novel, The Queue, represents a new wave of dystopian and surrealist fiction from Middle Eastern writers after the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring.PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

Bleak post-revolutionary literature takes root in the Middle East as writers grapple with the disappointments of the Arab Spring

Basma Abdel Aziz was walking in downtown Cairo one morning when she saw a long line of people in front of a closed government building. Returning hours later, Abdel Aziz, a psychiatrist who counsels torture victims, passed the same people still waiting listlessly - a young woman and an elderly man, a mother holding her baby. The building remained closed.

When she got home, she immediately started writing about the people in line and did not stop for 11 hours. The story became her surreal debut novel, The Queue, which takes place after a failed revolution in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. The narrative unfolds over 140 days as civilians are forced to wait in an endless line to petition a shadowy authority called The Gate for basic services.

"Fiction gave me a very wide space to say what I wanted to say about totalitarian authority," she said in a recent interview.

The Queue, which was just published in English by Melville House, has drawn comparisons to Western classics such as George Orwell's 1984 and The Trial by Franz Kafka. It represents 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.

Five years after the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, a bleak, apocalyptic strain of post-revolutionary literature has taken root in the region. Some writers are using science fiction and fantasy tropes to describe grim political realities. Others are writing about controversial subjects such as sexuality and atheism or exhuming painful historical episodes that were previously off-limits.

In a literary culture where poetry has long been the most celebrated medium, writers are experimenting with a range of genres and styles, including comics and graphic novels, hallucinatory horror novels and allegorical works of science fiction.

There's a shift away from realism, which has dominated Arabic literature. What's coming to the surface now is darker and a bit deeper.

KUWAIT-BORN NOVELIST SALEEM HADDAD, whose new book is narrated by a young gay Arab man whose friend has been imprisoned after a political revolt

"There's a shift away from realism, which has dominated Arabic literature," said Kuwait- born novelist Saleem Haddad, whose new book, Guapa, is narrated by a young gay Arab man whose friend has been imprisoned after a political revolt. "What's coming to the surface now is darker and a bit deeper."

Dystopian themes in Arabic fiction have become much more prominent in recent years, publishers and translators say. The genre has proliferated in part because it captures the sense of despair that many writers say they feel in the face of cyclical violence and repression. At the same time, futuristic settings may give writers some measure of cover to explore charged political ideas without being labelled dissidents.

"These futuristic stories are all about lost utopia," said Ms Layla al-Zubaidi, co-editor of a collection of post-Arab Spring writing titled Diaries Of An Unfinished Revolution. "People really could imagine a better future and now it's almost worse than it was before."

This new body of postrevolutionary literature shows a sharp tonal shift from the ecstatic outpouring that arrived immediately after the Arab Spring, when many writers published breathless memoirs or dug out old manuscripts they had stashed away for years.

Celebrated Egyptian novelists such as Ahdaf Soueif and Mona Prince wrote first-hand non-fiction accounts of the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. Syrian novelist Samar Yazbek published diaries she kept during the Syrian uprising. A new generation of writers drew inspiration from the stunning scenes of citizens rising up together against entrenched dictatorships.

"There was something about the experience of the revolution, where suddenly you had a voice and your voice had weight and it had meaning," said Yasmine el-Rashidi, an Egyptian journalist whose first novel, Chronicle Of A Last Summer, about a young woman's political awakening in Cairo during and after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's rule, will be published in the United States next month.

In the years since the revolution, that optimism has withered and the authorities have cracked down on creative expression across the region. In Saudi Arabia, poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death last year for his verses, which religious authorities called blasphemous. After an international outcry, his sentence was reduced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes.

In Egypt, under the strict rule of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the government has shut art galleries, raided publishing houses and confiscated copies of books it views as controversial. Last year, Customs officers seized 400 copies of Walls Of Freedom, about Egyptian political street art, and charged that the book was "instigating revolt".

"We are concerned now with what we publish," said Mr Sherif Joseph Rizk, director of Dar al-Tanweer Egypt, an Arabic publishing house. "If something is banned, it does create commercial problems."

Despite explicit protections for free speech in Egypt's 2014 Constitution, the authorities have targeted individual writers and artists. Novelist Ahmed Naji is serving a two-year prison sentence for violating "public modesty" with sexually explicit passages in his experimental novel The Use Of Life. Many fear that his imprisonment will lead to more self-censorship.

"The Arab Spring and the revolution broke people's fears and gave them the initiative to express themselves," said Abdel Aziz, whose novel was published in Arabic in 2013. "Now we are back to oppression."

She started writing The Queue in September 2012. It follows young salesman Yehya, who was shot during a failed uprising. Denied medical treatment, he is forced to wait in an endless line to petition The Gate for a permit to have surgery. As he grows weaker, the line only gets longer, stretching on for miles.

Abdel Aziz uses coded language for loaded political terms and events throughout the novel, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. The 2011 uprising against Mubarak is called "the First Storm". A later civilian revolt that ended in bloodshed is referred to as "the Disgraceful Events".

Abdel Aziz worries about the growing scrutiny Egyptian writers and activists face. About a dozen of her friends are in prison, she said. She has been arrested three times for taking part in demonstrations and protests. But she feels that living in fear is futile. "I'm not afraid anymore," she said. "I will not stop writing."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'Finding refuge in dystopian novels'. Print Edition | Subscribe