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Arab Science Fiction: Thriving Yet Underappreciated

Some literary historians believe the first science fiction writer was a 13th century Baghdadi physician. The Arab world has influenced George Lucas and Frank Herbert. But what exactly is Arab science fiction? And why hasn’t this genre gained the same readership and critical attention as other forms of Arab literature?

A panel of writers, journalists and artists attempted to answer these questions in London this month. Organised by Sindbad to Sci-Fi, a group whose slogan is “reimagining Arab science fiction,” the discussion was held in London as part of Nour Festival of Arts, an annual cultural festival now in its fifth year focusing on contemporary Middle Eastern and Northern African arts and culture.

According to Sindbad’s curator, Yasmin Khan, Arab science fiction actually dates back several centuries, with the earliest examples including Ibn al-Nafis’ Theologus Autodidactus in 1270 and some of the tales in One Thousand and One Nights including the famous Sindbad the sailor.  Furthermore, a 2013 BBC article traces the first science fiction author back to Zakariya al-Qazwini in 13th century Baghdad and claims Islam and the Arab World influenced several Western science fiction heavyweights such as Lucas’ Star Wars series and Herbert’s Dune.

By the twentieth century, the genre had become dominated by translations of Western science fiction. But Egypt became hub of original science fiction and entertainment in the 1950s with author Mostafa Mahmoud’s novels and Yousef Izzedeen Issa’s sci-fi radio series.

The genre’s marginal existence today—at least in comparison to the mammoth Western science-fiction industry—is due to a combination of factors that include lack of scientific development in the Arab world, as well as censorship and minimal audience exposure, according to the event’s panellists.

Yasser Bahjat, a Saudi Arabian computer engineer and publisher, took matters into his own hands when publishers refused to publish a novel he had co-authored, HWJAN. He self-published the novel, and it has gone on to become the number one best-selling novel in Saudi Arabia for the past year and a half. It has amassed a cult-like following among Saudi teenage readers.

The novel’s success has inspired Bahjat to expand into science-fiction films, television series and merchandise. He is also the co-founder of Yatakhayaloon, a league of Arab science-fiction fans who aim to promote Arab science fiction and scientific development.

Bahjat believes that there is a strong correlation between the two.

“The more exposure to science fiction, the more scientific development there is,” he said, admitting that there was no way to prove causality.

Bahjat hopes that his work and that of other writers would help define the genre as more than translation of Western science fiction. “There has always been this stereotype that science fiction is dominated by the West and we are trying to dispel that,” he told the audience. “We want to figure what we as Arabs are going to do differently.”

The lack of reader awareness of Arab science fiction meant that most of HWJAN’s readers had refused the book’s category as science fiction. Its central character was a jinn set in a dystopian world. (There’s debate over the definition of “jinn:” They are living spirits under some Islamic definitions and more supernatural genies under Western ones.) Readers were accustomed to the stereotypes of space ships and aliens, none of which existed in his novel.

Co-panellist and science journalist Ehsan Masood said that science had become such a big part of his work and personal life that it didn’t feel like fiction anymore. He pointed out that scientific advances today made him rather cynical about the novelty of science fiction.

“So many forms of science fiction come very close to fact,” he said. “You’ve got novel food, artificial intelligence, nuclear war and global warming… It can be very hard to be surprised by what sci-fi can throw out at you.”

The discussion also turned to religion.

“What’s interesting about the material coming out of the Arab World and the Islamic world is how religion and faith are being wrapped into the fiction,” he said.

Bahjat suggested that science fiction could be the antidote to the disturbing rise of religious extremism and violence in the region.

“Our part of the world has spent a long time telling people to [switch] their minds off and accept the texts,” he said. “With science fiction you force your audience to use their mind. Once they have to [think], extremism is not possible.“

Fellow panellist and Iraqi writer-playwright Hassan Abdelrazzak read an excerpt from Geography of the Soul, a science fiction novel by his uncle, Mahmoud Al Bayati, that was both hilarious, touching and surreal.

His own novel, Kuszib, is about an amalgamation of male and female genitalia and is set in post-apocalyptic Baghdad dominated by aliens. The award-winning writer spoke about the unsettling similarities between science fiction and modern-day Iraq.

“The novel that took the greatest hold on me was 1984,” he said. “It explained a lot to me about Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s reign. This is what science fiction can do when it creates a parallel universe.”

Abdelrazzak added, rather morbidly, that modern-day Iraq could be a source of inspiration for science fiction writers.

“All of what is happening in Iraq is terrible, but for any writer who wants a treasure trove of dystopian events, this is the right time to look [at Iraq],” he said. “What’s happening is a complete catastrophe.”

Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour screened two short films on Palestine, both of which were heavily political and based on science fiction. Her first short Space Exodus borrowed the famous soundtrack from Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, with an Arab variation through the use of an oud riff, an Arabic rhythm and her slightly accented voice-over. In the second short Nation Estate, Sansour created a dystopian world where the entire Palestinian population was housed in a meticulous, sterile high-rise building.

Her political themes led her work to be censored in Switzerland, where she was asked to withdraw from a festival after her material was deemed “too pro-Palestinian”.

Bahjat also struggled with censorship in Saudi Arabia, after HWJN’s jinn character prompted rumours that the book was teaching black magic to susceptible teenagers.

“Within 48 hours, the book was banned in all bookstores in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “So we asked the Minister of Information to officially ban my book, because if they do, then—by law—they have to buy every copy and pay me the retail price for all 20,000 copies.”

Bahjat’s case shows how conservative readers can prompt censorship more than the state. “It is a question of whether the readership is ready,” he said.

While science fiction could expand the boundaries of censorship within the Arab World, Abdelrazzak insisted that there would always be sensitive issues that could offend conservative readers.

“Whichever way you head [with your novel], you will hit some red lines,” he said.

Sindbad Sci-Fi is an initiative for spurring the discovery of and engagement with Arab Science Fiction through dialogue. It has been part of Nour Festival for the past two years.

HWJN is available on Kindle and Amazon. For further information on the group, visit the League of Arab Sci-Fiers.
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