A Close Encounter with Arab Science Fiction

By Marie-Jeanne Berger 

Science fiction is that marvellous space between the real and unreal – a literary form that lets the reader observe an alternate existence, unmoored from the constraints of the mundane just slightly enough to truly disturb and reshape your impressions of reality. But what if this reality isn’t your own, but rather, one that views you as the alien, or outsider?

Throughout the history of sci-fi “the Middle East has largely consumed, or has been the object of intrigue in [work] produced by the West,” says Yasmin Khan, the organiser of a conference held in London on Saturday through Sindbad Sci-Fi and the Nour Festival. Frank Herbert’s Dune was an extended metaphor for the West’s dependence on Gulf oil, with a host of characters identified by their Arabic names wandering through barren deserts. Star Wars’ jedis were based on the Arabic al-jeddi (a master of the mystic warrior way), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was set in Baghdad, and Flash Gordon – the comic strip character – had his harem.

Though the genre dates back to the thirteenth century in the Arab world, with writers like Ibn Al Nafis and Al Qazwini writing of feral children raising themselves in caves and fantastical creatures, little has been produced in the last century. But recently, a group of Arab writers, fans, and scientists have claimed the genre for their own. Through their original films and books, they are introducing complex questions about class, gender and society to a new generation of readers in the Arab world. And so far, they are getting past the censors. A number of these creators were present at Saturday’s talk – Arab Science Fiction: From imagination to Innovation – to discuss the impact of this genre on imagination, science and development.

“This re-imagining of the past,” says journalist Samira Ahmed leading the discussion “is the perfect venue for a re-imagining of the future”. Ahmed was referring to the reconstructed Victoriana of the library, where shelves upon shelves of leather-bound medical and scientific textbooks mingled with extravagant Greek crown mouldings, and large chandeliers cast a warm light over the attendance. Indeed, this was the perfect backdrop to discuss the relationship between East and West and literature, and just how they evolve to reflect a moment in time. Some kind of pulsing videogame music was drifting over the hushed crowd, and a large screen in the middle of the library was displaying an old Arabic film poster, a woman gaping in horror as a spaceship traversed the lower section of the flat inky blue sky. Interspersed around the library were other such posters – one of a blonde woman straight out of an Archie comic in her space suit, ready for take-off. The Arabic title read: Adventures in the Space Age!

Ahmed was first joined by Yasser Bahjatt, self proclaimed “Spartan Jedi” (as per his roots in Michigan and Jeddah) and co-author and publisher of the immensely popular HWJN book and co-founder of Yatakhayilloon (League of Arab SciFiers). Bahjatt – a computer engineer by profession – outlined a frame of thinking that followed through the rest of the discussion. He conducted an informal study, looking at the biggest scientific developments of recent history. “Is there anything that we use today that did not appear in science fiction first?” he asked the crowd. Bahjatt came to the conclusion that it was the imagining of a thing that came before the thing itself: “There is no science if there is no science fiction!” He saw a correlation between the biggest sci-fi literary traditions in the West and scientific development. And for Bahjatt, in the Arab World, few scientific breakthroughs were accompanied by a non-existent sci-fi literary tradition in the genre. So he set about to change that.

With his partner Ibraheem Abbas, Bahjatt wrote and funded the publication of a book that would shatter the expectations of book sellers throughout the Gulf. HWJN  a love story between a human and a jinn – soared to the top of the best-seller charts, becoming so popular that it was even banned for a while following a Facebook post accusing the book of “blasphemy and devil-worshipping.” Bahjatt jokes about the incident now: “I asked the Minister of Information to ban it officially, because if he did, the government would have to buy all of the books at retail value, and we had just ordered another print run!” Their new book Somewhere! or Hunaak! in Arabic, is proving to be just as popular.

Joking aside, Bahjatt suggests that even with the approval of censors, science fiction can still push readers to consider society through carefully constructed metaphor. But for the next speaker, science writer Ehsan Masood, it is not the metaphor, or fantasy that so irks him about science fiction, but its proximity to reality. “My biggest difficulty,” Masood says, “is that so many forms of science fiction don’t really feel like fiction – things like global warming, artificial intelligence, nuclear war. Given that Boko Haram and ISIS happen, who needs [Margaret Atwood’s] The Handmaid’s Tale? Who needs [John Wyndham’s] Day of the Triffids?”

The next speaker was Iraqi molecular biologist, writer and playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak who argued that the importance of fiction is to create a culturally specific narrative – one that applies to, and is understood by a people. He reads an excerpt from his uncle, writer Mahmoud Al Bayati’s Geography of the Soul, a story that spirals outwards from the bed of a couple about to make love back to the origins of the universe. “As you know we [Arabs] did invent everything, and so my uncle [Al Bayati] wrote [Geography of the Soul] 17 years before Terence Malik’s Tree of Life,” he chuckled. Abdulrazzak discussed his own recent work, a story called Kuszib. The title riffs on the Arabic words for male and female genitalia, and is the name of a character that pleasures itself. The story is set in Baghdad after aliens invade.

The next guest artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour has approached science fiction from a distinctly political angle. For her, “science fiction is a model or a frame to hang ideology – a shorthand”. Through her stunning short films, she utilises a set of comfortable cinematic cues to unsettle our images of the Palestinian experience. Space Exodus (2009) is screened for the audience, and the camera pans out from our view of earth, hurtling deeper into the dark sky. Sansour has used the immediately-recognizable music of Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey but adapted it, with each stanza ending on a short oud riff. As the film ends, the artist is walking on the moon, planting a flag for Palestine. “A small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind,” she says. The theme of displacement is also treated in Sarsour’s more recent film, Nation Estate (2012) which lends the same visual meticulousness to a dystopic vision of the future, where the population of Palestine exists solely in a fenced-in colossal high-rise, with facsimiles of Palestinian culture displaced onto floors of the building. Jerusalem is on the thirteenth floor, Bethlehem the twenty-first.

Certainly, while Sansour is the only speaker to discuss her work in directly political terms, it is clear that the power of the genre is its potential to re-imagine or re-image the past, modernity, and the future. As the discussion comes to a close, Bahjatt confirms this. “The opportunity of science fiction is that it hides a message in plain sight. We put everything out there, but within the boundaries [governments] set for us. The universe is a big dark place and sci-fi is like a flashlight”.

Marie-Jeanne Berger is a Media Analyst and a Masters Student at SOAS University in London, studying Media and Islamic Art History. She tweets under @MJ_Berger

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