Interview. As a psychiatrist, how would you describe the collective psyche of the Egyptian people today? ‘There is deep and generalized discontent.’

Basma Abdel Aziz: Black humor and dystopia, Egyptian literature reveals the face of authority

Basma Abdel Aziz is a writer, psychiatrist and human rights activist. She lives in Cairo and in recent years has published highly successful novels (The Queue, translated into Italian for Nero Editions, and Here is a Body) that pull the reader into dystopian realities, seemingly impossible to imagine, but mirroring today’s Egypt and its sprawling system of social control.

How has Egyptian literature and its way of narrating the country’s transformations changed since the 2011 revolution and the 2013 coup? 

The revolution opened spaces for many narrative paths, and gave women writers the space to publicly express their emotions, feelings, despair. What happened after the Revolution brought back nihilistic, anger-filled thoughts, the notion of not being able to cope. There was a high price to pay for Egyptians, whether artists, writers, politicians, citizens. A lot is still being written and published today, but with less enthusiasm. They are more reflective works.

So is the creative drive born with the Tahrir Revolution still alive? 

It is, although it’s changed: it is no longer the same one that told stories of hope, dignity and pride. It is a literary wave of sarcasm, dark humor, weighed down by the notion of being manipulated by authority, of being, at the core, taken for a fool. It reveals the way in which the system has redefined collective consciousness. This drive will not end, regardless of the assaults and detentions.

You write dystopian novels, a genre increasingly popular in the Middle East for the fact that it reveals the realities of countries under authoritarian regimes.

The theme of The Queue was aimed at everyone. It had a more general and symbolic meaning: the things that happen with every dictatorship in the world. In my writings, I am interested in exploring how authority figures manipulate people, control their behavior, change their perceptions, make them obedient and easy to handle. I try to show the disgusting face of oppression and the real meaning, dark and diabolical, behind devious positivity-filled language.

You write about poverty, repression, the distance of those in power from the people, the use of religion to maintain social order. But also about the various tools used to prevent an uprising. How scared is the Egyptian regime today of a possible uprising?

There is real fear on their part. The socio-economic situation is deteriorating fast, inflation is rising to unbearable levels, the wages of most classes are no longer sufficient for a decent life. People have their backs against the wall. I think it’s only a matter of time before the people decide they’re not going to accept this anymore.

As a writer, but also as a psychiatrist, how would you describe the collective psyche of the Egyptian people today? It’s a society with a thousand different identities, but is it possible to identify some common elements? 

It’s not easy to describe it. It’s clear that there is deep and generalized discontent, there is anger and there is also guilt. Even among those who supported this system from the beginning: a significant percentage have turned their backs on it, and some are saying it out loud. People feel trapped, they don’t know what choices to make, and they’re not certain that they have any real prospects for the future.

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