Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the January 2016 issue

The Queue

Document No. 3

Examinations Conducted, Visible Symptoms, and Preliminary Diagnosis

The patient is conscious, alert, and aware of his surroundings; blood pressure and pulse are normal; visible symptoms include: signs of choking and irritation to the nerves, blood surrounding entry and exit wounds caused by a [word crossed out], sign of recent abrasions and bruising on the back, pelvis, and forearm regions, [word crossed out; “injury” written above it] penetrating the pelvic region along with profuse bleeding, deviation of the wrist. Procedures conducted include [long sentence, crossed out].

Required: Complete blood workup; kidney and liver function analysis; ultrasounds of the abdomen, pelvis, and chest; X-ray of the right forearm.


Tarek read the document again and again. Each time he flipped the page over to check the other side, and each time he found it blank. He was searching for the detailed description he had written and signed off himself after seeing the X-ray, but it wasn’t there. There were pages missing; he did not know how they had disappeared, but some other hand had clearly been through this version in front of him. All the useful information had been crossed out and replaced with a superficial report; not even a fresh graduate would write something this worthless, and he hadn’t an idea who had altered it.

He vividly remembered stopping the bleeding and performing a bit of first aid, and then being forced to close the wound, leaving the bullet where it was next to Yehya’s bladder. An act like that would never have occurred to him; he was a surgeon with a solid understanding of his work, and aware of its repercussions. But a younger colleague had informed him he would need a special permit if he intended to extract the bullet. After a heated debate, the other doctor went to the filing cabinet, took out a stack of papers placed carefully on the top shelf, and pulled out a light yellow document. He threw it down in front of Tarek, fed up with his naïveté, and told him to read it before making a decision. Tarek picked up the document, and was struggling to understand when a high-pitched whistle shot through their confrontation.

An ambulance had arrived and the injured patients were meticulously divided into groups, Yehya Gad el-Rab among them. Their injuries were assessed, and then they were taken to the government-run Zephyr Hospital, which, according to announcements on the radio and TV, had gone above and beyond in its preparations for admitting the injured.

In his office now, Tarek left the file and folder on his desk and went to sit in the chair on the other side of the room, taking just the third document with him. This was the page that really bothered him, because every time he took it out of the folder, began to read, and reached the end of the first paragraph, he remembered everything that had happened afterward. The morning after the events, an official-looking doctor appeared at the hospital and requested to meet him: him, Dr. Tarek Fahmy. The man refused to take a seat, and turned down the cordial offers of tea or water while he was waiting. Tarek was summoned minutes later and tentatively approached to find a grave-looking doctor in his fifties pacing the lobby and pondering the imitation oil paintings hanging on the walls. Tarek invited him into his office and extended his hand, which the man shook haughtily.

As soon as they shut the door behind them, the doctor produced the type of official ID one did not dare question, inquired about Yehya’s X-ray, and then opened his briefcase and produced an order to confiscate it. Tarek asked if he would like some juice or something hot to drink, but the man firmly declined these too. He stood up, impatient for the X-ray, and asked Tarek for every copy there was. However, looking back, Tarek realized the man didn’t actually ask for anything. He hadn’t phrased things in a way that left room for his request to be refused, no. The words that left his lips were direct orders, deftly coated with a sheen of courtesy, but containing greater authority than any doctor from outside the hospital possessed.

Tarek called the head nurse and told her to bring Yehya Gad el-Rab’s file at once. The moment she knocked, the doctor grasped the handle, wrenched the door open, and snatched the file from her, while Tarek stood there, his empty hand outstretched in her direction, where it remained suspended in the air for several seconds. The doctor told her to leave and not to disturb them, and shut the door again. He took a leisurely seat in Tarek’s leather chair, engrossed in the X-ray and ignoring Tarek, who stood rooted in front of the door. The man took everything out of the file and then nodded, satisfied. He carefully removed the X-ray with a single word—“excellent”—and then left the room and disappeared.

Despite having suffered a nearly unbearable level of humiliation, Tarek kept silent until the man left. Even if he’d been given a chance, he wouldn’t have dared object or question the doctor—he knew full well the visit had something to do with the Northern Building Gate. Tarek would have been a fool to think there wouldn’t be consequences to crossing a man like that, especially in such difficult and uncertain times. A few hours later, he heard that the new X-ray machine in the basement had severely malfunctioned, and Sabah mentioned that she’d seen a Gate car with tinted windows take it away to be checked and repaired. Yehya returned to the hospital two or three days later, utterly exhausted. The wound Tarek had stitched up with his own hands was bleeding, and Yehya looked like he was about to pass out. Yehya introduced himself, though he didn’t need to, and asked if Tarek could help him start the hospital admittance procedures. He wanted to proceed with treatment to have the bullet removed, he said, and had left the Zephyr Hospital to come here because the doctors there couldn’t conduct the surgery he needed. After so many other injured people had arrived, they had told him his condition was relatively stable compared to the others, and had postponed the operation.

It made Tarek uneasy to remember how it hadn’t felt like the right time to tell Yehya about the official visit he’d received, and the doctor who had been interested specifically in his case, despite all the other injured patients. He knew he would not be able to hide it forever; he knew Yehya would go looking for the X-ray when he came back, that one way or another he would discover it had been taken to the Zephyr Hospital against his will, and that he wasn’t likely to see it again. The scene that followed flashed through his mind: the empty room to which he’d helped Yehya walk, the door he made sure to close so no one could eavesdrop, the cabinet from which he took the yellow document, the same one that had stopped him from performing the operation when Yehya had first arrived, injured. He recalled how the papers felt as he flipped through them for the first time so they could read what it said together, and he remembered the look on Yehya’s face as he softly read aloud from the page in front him: Terms and Provisions Issued by the Gate on Conducting Work in Medical Facilities.

Article 4 (A): “Authorization for the Extraction and Removal of a Bullet.” The extraction of bullets and all other types of firearm projectiles, from the bodies of persons killed or injured, whether in clinics, private or public hospitals, and the like, is a criminal act, except when performed under official authorization issued by the Northern Building Gate; parties excluded from the above are limited to the Zephyr Hospital and its auxiliary buildings, which are direct subsidiaries of the Gate.

Sanctions Imposed on Those in Violation of Article 4 (A): Anyone who violates Article 4 (A), deliberately or inadvertently, shall be penalized as follows; First, they shall cease all work; and Second, they shall be imprisoned for a period to be determined by a judge. After the period of his/her punishment has ended, s/he shall not be allowed to return to the same position or occupation, except after s/he undergoes a rehabilitation program, the length of which shall be specially determined by the Northern Building Gate; and the individual shall be required to undergo a periodic performance review, at a minimum of once every month, or less frequently, as the situation requires.

There were a few lines written by hand in the margins, as if someone reading it had added a couple of points he thought might help the comprehension and implementation of the law. “To explain the article and its provisions—this measure has been taken in response to current critical circumstances; as a rule, bullets and projectiles may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization.”

Sitting in his leather chair now, Tarek smiled. He remembered feeling the tension lift when he first absorbed that passage and realized the fate he had narrowly escaped. He had come so close to being investigated and interrogated, and yet unwittingly avoided it. Any shame he felt towards Yehya vanished; he had clearly taken the right course of action. He had concealed his relief at the time, saying he was deeply sorry and advising Yehya to wait his turn at the Zephyr Hospital, then had jumped up and handed him some powerful antibiotics and a few boxes of painkillers. He walked Yehya to the door, promising to perform the surgery if the Zephyr Hospital was still too crowded, just as soon as Yehya brought him a permit from the Gate. Yehya should come see him any time, he said, any day of the week, there was no need to make an appointment.

Tarek would later learn that Yehya had indeed gone to the Gate. It was recorded in Document No. 5 in the file lying before him on the desk, which stated that Yehya had arrived at the queue with a friend in early July, and while the date was not specified, the time was printed clearly at the top of the page: 9:25 am.

From The Queue. © 2013 by Basma Abdel Aziz. Translation © 2016 by Elisabeth Jaquette. Forthcoming 2016 from Melville House Books. All rights reserved.

Read more from the January 2016 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.