Arabic SF – Subversive Futures by Alberto Mucci

June 20th, 2014 reset - +

CAIRO, 2023. The country is split in two: within the high walls of a gated community perched in the north east of Egypt lives a super-rich and secluded elite in a compound called Utopia, while the rest of the population, named The Others, lives in a post-apocalyptic Cairo riddled by poverty, drug abuse, and violence.

“I wake up. I take a leak. Smoke a cigarette. Drink coffee. Shave. Fix the wound on my forehead to make it look terrible. Have sex with the African maid. Have breakfast,” says Alaa, one of the protagonist of Ahmad Tawfiq’s 2008 novel Utopia, translated into English in 2011. Alaa is a bored youngster who is attracted to violence, a combination that soon leads him, together with his friend Germinal, to catch a bus full of Others on their way to Cairo.

In 2023 the Egyptian state has collapsed. The country has been confined to geopolitical irrelevance after the discovery by U.S. scientists of an alternative fuel able to bypass American reliance on Middle Eastern oil, a scenario that might have been not so far from reality if Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, had not been forced to resign amid popular uprising. Almost prophetically half way through the novel, Gabel, one of the protagonists, says that “a society without a middle class is a society primed for explosion.”

As any good SF novel, Tawfiq’s work constitutes a head’s up for all its readers; a warning sign stating that if the current situation in Egypt remains the same what is presented as a dystopia might in a not-too-far future become a reality. 

SF affords the possibility to envision different futures. It is the art of taking the status quo and imagining how a technological innovation, a natural catastrophe, or adverse political conditions might — for the better or worse — radically change the future. And because most SF describes an alternative future and by doing so creates a contrast with the present, it is by its nature intrinsically political.

Tawfiq’s Utopia is the most famous Arabic science-fiction novel in recent years, a period that has witnessed several Arab authors come at the forefront of a genre that in previous decades the region had pushed to the margins. 

So much that in the Guardian columnist of Sudanese origins, Nesrine Malik, asks in an article “What Happened to Arab Science Fiction”? Among her conclusions is her belief that the region is dominated by “a sense of fatalism and helplessness inculcated by years of social and political stagnation  [which has]… suspended imagination” and that “so little has changed in the Arab world over the past few decades that one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing ever will.”

But, historically, SF is nothing new to the Arab world. “Forms of the genre known in academia as proto-Sci-Fi have been present in the Arab culture since the middle ages,” says Vahid Behmardi, associate professor of Arabic and Persian literature at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. Among the most famous examples of proto-SF is the work by Syrian Lucian of Samosata. His book, A True Story, was published in the second century B.C. and centers on the story of a space voyage, on wars between celestial planetary bodies, and encounters with forms of alien life.

Another classic of Arabic literature considered an early example of SF is the 1270 publication of Theologus Autodidactus by Syrian doctor and theologian Ibn al-Nafis. Here the story is set on an island where the protagonist is a spontaneously generated child that through different experiences reaches a disenchanted conclusion about the world around him. “Also, the classic Arab tale of One Thousand and One Nights can be considered as an early form of science-fiction,” Behmardi continues to explain. Some of the book’s stories include fantastical journeys through the cosmos (“The Adventures of Bulukiya”), brass robots (“The Ebony Horse”) and voyages in search for an ancient community governed by a primitive form of communism under the ocean (“Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman”).

“Proto-sci-fi mixes elements of sci-fi, philosophy, fantasy and utopia,” states Ada Barbaro, author of the book Sci-Fi in Arab Literature, “but it cannot be considered to fully fit within the standards of sci-fi.”  This should not come as a great surprise. In Western literary tradition for example, books such as Utopia by Thomas Moore are often not considered to be strictly part of sci-fi genre. And even much later books such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are often the objects of debate among people trying to define the boundaries of the genre. 

Less contentious is the importance of technological advancement in the SF that started in Europe and the US at the end of the nineteenth century and earlytwentieth century. In the Arab world, an area where technology has historically been consumed rather that produced, SF writings with a modern technocultural orientation begin to appear in the 1950s driven by the new scenarios fostered by the anti-colonial and pan-Arabic struggle together with a renewed will to imagine a region governed by local authorities and not by foreign powers.

As Bermardi puts it in conversation, “up until the 19th century technology and technological specialization was not part of the realm of the Arab world. It all started after the defeat of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. The defeated ruler wanted to discover the reasons behind the military loss and decided to send a delegation of Egyptian students to France to study what were then called ‘external sciences.’”

It is for these reasons that modern Arabic science fiction had to wait for the translations of Western classical works in order to come up with its first recognized text and authors. In the fifties, the first editions of George Orwell, H.G. Wells, and Philip Dick started to circulate in the Arab world. In the same decade, author Yousef Izzedeen Issa wrote and produced a popular SF radio series broadcasted on the Egyptian network. Mustafa Mahmood, often cited as “the father of modern Arab SF literature,” wrote a number of famous novels including Al-Ankabout/The Spider and Asr el-orood/Age of Monkeys, which encouraged other Egyptian writers such as the Egyptians Nabil Farouq, Omayma Khafaji, Nihad Sharif (the first to publish an article with “Sci-Fi” written on the cover) to start working on their own books.

This new wave of Egyptian writers inspired authors in other parts of the region. These include the Moroccan author Mohammed Aziz al-Habbabi, Iraqi author Kassem al-Khattat, Kuwaiti author Tiba Ahmad al-Ibrahim, and a number of Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Bahraini, and Saudi Arabian writers such as Kassem Kassem, Lina al-Kailani, Taleb Omaran, Sulaiman Mohammed al-Khalil, Abdallah Khalifa, and Ashraf Faqih.

Yet, after this burst of production and attention towards the genre, the general public quickly forgot about Arab SF until very recently. According to Yasmin Kahn, producers of Sinbad, a festival of Arab SF that took place in London in 2013, it is not so much an increase in production we are witnessing over the last year, but rather “a growing number of people in the Arab world are paying attention to this genre” and are pushing it through more mainstream channels such as magazines and conferences. Still it might be too early to talk about a revival of the genre as “most people in the region have too many basic needs they strive to fulfil to be thinking of escapist literature,” Kahn adds.

Nora Razian, a museum curator specializing in the Arab world, believes the increase in interest in Arab sci-fi to be linked to the rising interest towards the genre in other parts of the world. “The increase in interest in the genre is global – she says – it has to do with a shift in paradigm, to the financial crisis and its apocalyptic consequences. In these times of protest and growing discontent nobody can imagine a different short-term future. This impossibility is at the heart of the revival of Sci-Fi. As the near future becomes harder to envision, the far one, the radically different one, becomes the best option”.

Women writers are at the forefront of this wave of new interests towards Arab SF. This is especially true in the Gulf States. One woman especially, Sophia al Maria, is leading the pack. Her first novel, The Girl That Came from The Sky (2012)is a personal memoir that sets some of the ideas of what is known today as the “Gulf Futurism” movement. Based on the ideas of the Italian movement from the start of the twentieth century, it seeks to portray the Gulf as an existing future, a place where the highest technological level and buildings of futuristic shapes coexist with deeply rooted religious traditions not too far from those of hundreds of years ago. In the author’s own words: “One of the most ancient ways of living came head-on against extreme wealth and capitalism – ‘glass and steel against wool and camels’ … There’s been a quantum leap and there’s a temporal gap”.The gap that that a great number of artists and writers from the region seek to explore. Women SF writers also add a feminist slant to the genre’s production. The reason is simple: their work helps (re)imagine a future where women’s role in society is not confined to the margins but, on the contrary, placed in the center. As Emmanuel Haddad rightly points out in Le Courier International, what such writers are doing is similar to what their counterparts are attempting to do in a number of sub-Saharan African countries: inserting in their stories a future full of people of African descent in order to represent a realm less dominated by white Europeans and Americans in the hope that by imagining a different future, the present will also be able to change. 

Meanwhile the first symposiums and conferences dealing with SF have been held in Morocco, Syria, and in a number of Gulf countries. In addition, at the end of 2009, The Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) announced plans to hold a conference in Damascus to bolster support towards Arab SF, including establishing a literary prize exclusively for the genre.

Recently the Egyptian author Ramez Naam and his novel Nexus, a story that unravels in a world where use of drugs allowing mind-to-mind communication is on the rise was shortlisted for the Clark Prize, the most important science fiction prize in the United Kingdom, along with Throne of the Crescent Moon, a novel by Saladin Ahmed which was nominated at the Hugo Award in 2013, a coveted prize chosen by the World Science Fiction Society. 

Fadi Zaghmout, a Jordanian author of an upcoming SF novel that takes place in Amman, the capital, in a post-ageing society, says that he wouldn’t be surprised if a resurgence in interest appear in the genre because it has been missing from Arabic literature. When asked if its increased interest could be related to the Arab spring he states that: “It could be, there is nothing better than a Utopian/Dystopian novel to portray a critical picture of current affairs.” There is of course no univocal explanation for the region’s growing attention to SF. But one thing is certain: despite its many failures, the Arab revolts ignited a new sense of self-determination and hope in many Arabs. Dictatorships that were perceived as unmovable were challenged and at times defeated; a future rarely imagined to be different from the present suddenly was open to new possibilities. It should therefore be of no surprise that in times of political flux, more Arabs seem to be taking an interest in a genre whose duty is to imagine futures different from the present, the very same one that a great number of Arabs seek to change.

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