In the fierce heat, Yehya stood in a long queue that extended from the end of the wide street all the way to the Gate. A whole hour and he’d moved no more than two steps forward, and that wasn’t because there had been progress at the front of the queue. Some inexperienced soul—probably someone who had never been to the Gate before—was overcome with boredom, got discouraged, and left.
The sun was beating down on his left side, dividing him in two just as it did every day in the noon heat. His body felt heavy, but he didn’t move from his place in the queue. In front of him stood a tall woman, her eyes darting around. She wore a flimsy black galabeya and a black veil, which hung alongside her bare neck, mingling with the wrinkles and creases it fell across. The young man standing behind him asked what time the Gate opened, and Yehya shrugged. He had no idea when it would finally happen. But he still left his house each morning, dragging his feet and his stomach and his pelvis, all of it heavy, to stand in the queue without ever reaching the Gate.
The woman was dark, just like her clothes; slender and elderly but naturally strong. Given her sturdy build and the milky whites of her eyes, Yehya guessed she was from the far south. She turned halfway around, quickly sizing him up with a sharp glance, and seeming to find him acceptable, she launched headlong into conversation.
She’d arrived at the Gate yesterday, she said; she came to file a complaint and get a certificate notarized while she was there. She fell silent for a moment, to give him the opportunity to ask her what the certificate was for, but Yehya said nothing. She started up again, despite his indifference, saying that for the first time in her life she hadn’t been able to buy government-made baladi bread, the kind she’d bought for years without fail. She looked at him again, expecting to have aroused his curiosity, but he was preoccupied and hadn’t followed what she was saying. Annoyed, she turned away and looked around again, then picked up her story where she’d left off, finding more attentive ears among her other neighbors.
The plump woman in front of her adjusted her turquoise veil with both hands and stepped closer—the subject of an official complaint had won her over. She had a young face, despite how heavy she was; she was maybe thirty years old, with thin eyebrows, a sharp nose, and well-cared-for skin. She sympathized with the old woman and asked in surprise whether bread, too, was really now that hard to come by. In a thick Southern accent, the old woman began her story.
“That low-down son of a bitch, that man, I was a customer of his for ten years, and every day I get my bread from him, so what happened, eh? I go just like I do every morning, to get my two pieces of baladi bread, and he asks me, ‘Who did you pick?’ I tell him I checked the box next to the candidate with the pyramid symbol. He gets real mad, flashes his teeth, and tells me, ‘I know your kind, the whip is what people like you deserve. Lady, didn’t I give you the purple list so you’d pick one of those candidates?’ So I shut up and hold out a one-pound note, but he throws it on the ground, snatches back both pieces of bread, and shouts at me, ‘We don’t have any bread! And don’t come back!’ The nerve of that man! So I go to the European bakery, but it was all shut down. The next morning I go out early, to the bakeries in the market, but turns out they heard what happened, too. They tell me the same thing and won’t let me have any bread, either. My neighbor told me if that’s the way it is, I should file a complaint with the Gate. Told me I needed to apply for a certificate—I forget what it’s called—the one with a government stamp, ’cause they’ll be sure to ask me for one when my complaint gets investigated.” She shoved her hand into her vast galabeya and pulled out a small piece of cardboard, the words Certificate of True Citizenship written upon it.
The young woman patted the old woman’s shoulder consolingly. Things weren’t what they used to be, she thought, and they weren’t going to get better any time soon. Politics had eaten away at people’s heads until they in turn had begun to devour one another. She too had chosen the pyramid symbol on her ballot, but unlike the old woman, she never admitted who she’d actually voted for, not to anyone. If she was honest with herself, she was too scared. In recent months the question “Who did you pick?” had spread like the plague, but she was cautious, wary, and knew it was better to keep quiet. Things had gotten to the point where she often relied on an old trick to avoid answering. Her response each time was to turn the question around on whoever was asking and follow their reply—whatever it was—with a wink, a shy smile, and the reliable phrase: “That’s who I voted for, too.”
She’d only made a mistake once, a few days ago. A student in the Arabic class she taught handed in an essay she’d written, just an ordinary homework assignment, the kind all students did. The girl had written a long, brilliant paper about the conditions in the district where she lived, and then went on to speak more broadly about the state of the country and developments in the region. The girl’s words echoed what Ines herself might say if no one were listening. She was so impressed that she began to doubt the student, suspecting that one of the girl’s older sisters, or perhaps a parent, had written the essay. The students usually did better on homework than exams, but perhaps someone else had written at least the outline for her. The girl swore she hadn’t had help from anyone in her family, that every thought and sentence was hers alone. Ines was inclined to believe her, so she gave the student a nearly perfect grade, had the class applaud her, and asked the girl to read her essay in front of the other students, as an example of outstanding work.The next day, the girl was absent from school. A soft-spoken inspector arrived at the principal’s office, asking to see Ines’s Personnel File and inquiring as to how she’d been hired. He informed the principal that Ines was missing certain forms and that she needed to go to the Gate to obtain a Certificate of True Citizenship. He told him that if she didn’t, he would be forced to refer her to the Administrative Office, where she would be retested and reevaluated, and they would determine whether it was truly in everyone’s best interest for her to continue as a teacher. Before leaving the school, he left a cassette tape with the principal. Ines later learned that it was a recording of the girl reading her assignment.
Unlike other children, who flit from one idea to the next, Ines had always wanted to be a teacher. As a child she often lined up her dolls in a long row on the bed, taking a ruler in hand and explaining a lesson. She would ask them questions, one doll after the next, and imagined their answers. When she grew a bit older, she continued her favorite game by seating the neighbors’ children in a row on the stairs of their building. Holding a branch she’d snapped off a tree, she gave her students colored stones as rewards or smacked their shoulders with the stick to reprimand them for their ignorance. But now, she was the one standing there like a student who had committed the gravest mistake, waiting to be disciplined. Maybe this one slip-up would prevent her from pursuing the only thing she knew how to do. She glanced at the others standing in the queue before pausing to contemplate Yehya’s gaunt face. He was staring off into the distance.
Yehya hadn’t interrupted the old woman since she’d begun to talk. He was oblivious to her, immersed in his own thoughts. He didn’t hear a word of her story, or of the other conversations around him, but she hadn’t stopped chattering away, nor had she given up her stubborn efforts to win his attention, as if it were a personal challenge. Ines watched the scene unfold. “Everyone’s got enough of their own problems,” she whispered under her breath.
Weariness crept across Yehya’s face, and deep furrows formed between his eyebrows. Nagy, who was squatting on the ground beside his friend, had become restless and wanted to leave. Yehya bent over slightly and groaned softly, and Nagy stood up and grabbed Yehya’s arm, telling him to sit in his place for a little while. He’d been reclining under the shade of a yellow cloth banner whose colors had faded in the weeks since the election but still showed the candidate’s face, his big red heart logo, and the familiar violet party symbol. Yehya turned down Nagy’s offer, not out of pride, but because the pain was so bad he couldn’t bend his knees to lower his body that short distance to the ground. He searched in his pocket for a strip of the painkillers he always carried with him but found just an empty packet. A handsome young man in front of them had been eavesdropping over Nagy’s shoulder, and he offered a couple of pills of an over-the-counter medicine, the kind for headaches. He also offered to save Yehya’s place in the queue, if he wanted to lie down at the man’s place for a bit, but Nagy thanked him on Yehya’s behalf, saying he’d heard that the Gate would open today. It seemed certain this time, he said, and they couldn’t miss a chance that might not come again soon.
The young man took a step closer and, whispering, asked them what they needed from the Gate. Yehya gave Nagy a soft jab in the side, so slight that no one else noticed, and quickly replied, “Oh nothing, just permission for medical treatment. I’ve got this silly little stomach pain. It keeps me up at night, and I need some special medicine for it—the doctor gave me a prescription when I went to the hospital, and I asked around at several pharmacies, but no one’s got it. People who take it say it’s available in public clinics, but you know how it is—they need permission from the Gate to fill your prescription.”
The young man nodded solemnly and looked like he was about to say something else, but then changed his mind and returned to where he’d been standing. The old woman interjected, saying that medicine only made you sicker, while a cup of warm mint tea would bring back his health and get rid of his pain too. She tutted disapprovingly, leaned over to Ines, and pushed some dried mint stalks into her hand. “Tomorrow I’ll get some hot water from the coffee shop around the corner and make you tea with this,” she said. Nagy leaned over and whispered in Yehya’s ear that if he had half the faith she did, it would do him a lot of good. With a grin, Yehya shot back, “If you had half her faith, we wouldn’t have to listen to you ramble on all the time.”
From THE QUEUE. Used with permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2013 by Basma Abdel Aziz. Translation copyright © 2016 by Elisabeth Jaquette.