Monday, May 30, 2016

Dark Surrealism after the Arab Spring

The news from Cairo:
Basma Abdel Aziz was walking in downtown Cairo one morning when she saw a long line of people standing in front of a closed government building.

Returning hours later, Ms. 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 didn’t 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,” Ms. Abdel Aziz said in a recent interview.

“The Queue,” which was just published in English by Melville House, has drawn comparisons to Western classics like 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 current political realities. . . .

“There’s a shift away from realism, which has dominated Arabic literature,” said the 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.”
Fascinating how this same literary impulse has surfaced again and again when writers confront repressive rule, from Lenin's Russia to dictator-laden Latin America, and now to the Middle East.

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