Arabic Science Fiction: A Journey Into the Unknown
By: Yazan al-Saadi
Published Sunday, June 3, 2012
The genre of science fiction, with its spectacular imaginations and inventive possibilities, has enjoyed an overshadowed history in the Arab world; a history that goes back many centuries.
There are over thirty definitions on what constitutes a science fiction story. Quite fitting for a genre of such a wide breadth, with tales spanning time, reality, the human condition, and much more.
Sci-fi’s greatest power, like most fiction, lies in its ability to inspire and provoke ideas, reflecting society back onto itself. As Issac Asimov, a giant of sci-fi literature, once said, “The core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”
When examining Arabic science fiction, one inescapably stumbles into perplexing knotty questions regarding the Arab world’s relationship with fiction and science, and its mounting struggles in determining it’s political, economic, and cultural destiny. Under this context, the fate of Arabic sci-fi is holistically connected and molded by the burdens and predicaments faced by the region.
Under a Western Shadow
Despite its rich history (refer to box below), Arabic sci-fi today is not as ubiquitous as other genres. Being relatively microscopic compared to the Euro-American sci-fi behemoth, commentators like The Guardian’s Nesrine Malik have asked: What happened to Arab science fiction?
For Malik, “fatalism” and “helplessness” within Arab society has crippled imagination. She sees a persistent obsession within Arabic fiction to recapture past glories and a general public suspicion of science and science-fiction as “foreign.” Malik also points to the dominance of monotheism, which has ultimately denied Arabic sci-fi’s flowering.
Placing aside the redundant Orientalist undertones in Malik’s criticisms, there is a kernel of truth in her conclusions.
Between the heydays of proto-science fiction stories centuries ago until the the latter half of the 20th century, Arabic sci-fi stories appeared to peter out, eventually eclipsed predominately by European and North American sagas.
The decline of indigenous forms of sci-fi during this period can arguably be linked to the decline of Arab society under Ottoman rule and the brutality of Western colonialism. Added to this, censorship by various Arab governments, whether for political or religious justifications, unmistakably played a part in restraining the ability to weave and share sci-fi tales that sharply criticize the status quo.
From books, television, comic books, video games and cinema, foreign sci-fi stories resoundingly outmatch their Arab counterparts in terms of size, scope, and profit.
According to a July 2011 press release by Simba Information, a market intelligence firm which watches the publishing and entertainment media closely, in 2011 more than 3,700 sci-fi books were published in the United States alone - with 78 titles by 58 authors performing strongly in best seller lists.
Granted, foreign science fiction - particularly in the United States - has higher production values and stronger marketing drives, all wrapped in an operatic space spectacle. Nevertheless, a stage is set for an inferiority complex. Under such a monumental shadow, Arab sci-fi works are usually perceived locally and externally as feeble imitations in form, content, and consumption. Arabic science fiction, parallel to Western sci-fi’s experience, is still trying to gain mainstream legitimacy and canonization.
This unequal relationship unsurprisingly seeps into scholarships studying the genre, Arab or otherwise.
Reuven Snir, an Arab-Jewish academic for Haifa University, is one of the few within Western academia who has attempted to shed more light on Arabic sci-fi.
In an article published in 2000 for volume 77 of Der Islam, Snir noted that Western analyses of Arabic literature systematically ignore sci-fi. Out of the many academic journals and sci-fi publications he researched, only The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, published in 1995, actually acknowledged the existence of Arabic science fiction, doing so in merely four short passages.
Regarding Arab scholarship, mainly conducted by short-story writer Yousef al-Sharuni, Snir concluded that while it is naturally more detailed, such studies are usually marginalized to the fringes of literary discussions. In effect, Arabic science fiction, parallel to Western sci-fi’s experience, is still trying to gain mainstream legitimacy and canonization.
Similarly, Achmed A. W. Khammas, an Iraqi-German author and translator, noted this academic blindspot in a 2006 article for the German Internet magazine Telepolis.
Khammas pointed out that Western literary experts have only counted 35 sci-fi novels written in the Arab world up until the 21st century. “This figure,” Khammas wrote, “cannot be entirely correct, since in Egypt alone there were more than twenty novels published by the turn of the millennium…”
Suspicious of Science?
While Khammas recognizes that the Arab public are not inherently suspicious towards science, he, like Malik, saw an apathy within Arabic culture, a lack of scientific appreciation, and the shackles of determinism as constraints. He added power politics, economic interests, and lingering traditional structures as major obstacles for sci-fi to overcome.
These problems, according to the Iraqi-German writer, are reflected in the lack of “futureness” within Arab society, where the public are unconcerned with science shaping their life. Ultimately, Khammas argued, this has caused Arabic to fail in seamlessly incorporating new scientific terminologies.
Indeed, science and fiction have their kindred problems in the Arab world. For science especially, these difficulties have ensured that Arab scientific and technological breakthroughs pale in comparison to achievements elsewhere.
The lack of scientific or technological development is perhaps the most common denominator voiced regarding the rarity of Arabic sci-fi.
A similar assessment was expressed by Syrian writer Taleb Omran during the first unofficial Arab science fiction conference held on June 2007 in Damascus, echoed by Arab sci-fi authors Lina al-Kailani and Aziza al-Subeni in the Second Science Fiction Literature Seminar hosted again in Syria two years later.
The difference with Khammas, however, is that these writers saw Arabic sci-fi’s potency in nurturing imaginative scientists as a step forward in scientific and technological innovation. The dilemma was not Arab culture or Arabic itself, rather it stemmed from inadequate support from the governmental level.
Furthermore, Arabic’s limits is seen by some sci-fi writers as an opportunity to revitalize and expand the language. In one case, Emirati writer Noura al-Noman, during a casual blog interview to promote her upcoming sci-fi novel Ajwan, elaborated on how she developed a different writing style from classical Arabic, including coining new terms, in order to captivate the teenagers she was writing for.
Likewise, Maan Abutaleb, a writer whose works have been published in Al Quds Al Arabi and Jadaliyya, saw great public appeal for Arabic science fiction as long as it reflected people’s sentiments and experiences.
“I think there would be appetite for Arabic sci-fi, especially if it is relevant to the Arab world and deals with it its specificities in new and original ways,” he told Al-Akhbar through an email correspondence.
“I think Sci-Fi as a genre is perfectly capable of providing the scope needed for this sort of balance.”
Constraints of the Arab Entertainment Industry
There’s something to be said about structure of the mainstream Arab entertainment industry and market, where venues and funding are heavily controlled. Most are centered around capital; in other words, the Gulf.
Abutaleb, in his correspondence with Al-Akhbar, linked the problem affecting Arab science fiction’s visibility and regularity to the nature of the neo-liberal petrodollar mentality within the general entertainment industry. “They want for easy, nice, non-problematic content,” he wrote.
When a book is written and published, it has to deal with a weak domestic marketing infrastructure – word of mouth is essential how books become famous. Moreover, there is a desire to be acknowledged and legitimized by the West, widely perceived as a major step in being “successful.”
Like Egyptian author Ahmed Khalid Taufiq’s Utopia, a tale of dystopian Egypt in the year 2023, which has surpassed three reprints, his ascendancy as a writer is defined by the fact that his work will be translated, marketed, and sold abroad. The initiative by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, which released an English version of Utopia last June, ensures that this trend is commercialized.
Outside of literature, Arabic sci-fi film and television faces resemblant, and possibly harder, “struggles to be seen.”
Consider the mundane art of television scheduling. Regionally, most shows clamor around the Ramadan season, where viewership is high and much profit is to be made. The ‘Ramadan entertainment industry’, as well, cautiously straddles between religiosity and amusement. Shows green-lighted during this period tend to be historical dramas or comedies, no more. Understandable, since producers and TV stations in this business are very risk-averse in experimenting with alternative genres and a good sci-fi story is not easy and is usually provocative.
In this tough scene, Ben Robinson and Sophia al-Maria, attempting to “shake-up” Arab cinema, have produced and filmed their sci-fi musical comedy called Topaz Duo: Cosmic Phoenix. The plot centers on a married pair of Egyptian lounge singers as they attempt to thwart a megalomaniac alien’s plans for world destruction.
“I was fascinated by the collision of technology and concepts of 'the future' in the Arab world. Especially in the Gulf, people are fixated with the future, and the rush to hyper-modernity,” Robinson wrote in an email to Al-Akhbar regarding the development of the film. But when a trailer was shown to Qatar TV in hopes to develop an on-going television series, it was “just too weird for them.”
“We [then] screened the trailer at the recent first comic convention in Dubai, where all the science-fiction, horror, comic-book and fantasy fans met for the first time and realized that we're one big family. The trailer went down very well, so we know there is an audience for Arab sci-fi,” Robinson added.
Topaz Duo: Cosmic Phoenix may not be as extravagant as the Avengers, an American superhero sci-fi film that has already scored more than one billion dollars internationally since its release early May, nevertheless, the film is a modest, telling step for Arab sci-fi’s headway on the silver screen.
Robinson is not the only one, either. He made reference to a number of low-key Qatari sci-fi films such as The Package and Lockdown: Red Moon Escape both directed by Mohammed al-Ibrahim as ones to watch out for.
What Happened to Arab Sci-Fi?
This past decade has seen a shift in the Arab zeitgeist.
There is an acute confidence among creators and audiences which is propelling Arabic sci-fi forward. Over the past years, more writers, filmmakers, artists and many others have utilized the genre in a number of fascinating, creative ways to overcome the various political, economic, and social restrictions in place and be heard.
The internet, its effects on society yet unfathomable, has allowed alternative spaces for creators and their audience to connect beyond traditional, restrictive routes. The various uprisings in the region has opened brave new worlds for artists and thinkers to explore, the tropes of sci-fi appropriately tailor-made for the journey.
Meanwhile on the macro-level, the first number of symposiums and conferences dealing with sci-fi have been held in Morocco, Syria, and the Gulf. The Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) announced plans at the end of the 2009 sci-fi conference held in Damascus to bolster support towards Arab sci-fi, including establishing a literary prize exclusively for the genre, which has yet to be actualized.
What happened to Arab science fiction?
It’s in middle of a resurrection.
Arab Sci-Fi: A Brief Journey through Time
Sci-fi is not something novel or strange to Arab culture. Indeed, some of the early proto-sci-fi stories were produced regionally, with some claiming the Epic of Gilgamesh as a foundation.
One commonly noted example is the work of second century author Lucian of Samosata called A True Story, in which he wrote of tales of voyages to space, wars between celestial planetary bodies, and interactions with alien life as a parody of Homer’s Iliad.
Others describe Ibn al-Nafis’s Theologus Autodidactus, written in 1270, as one of the first theological sci-fi novels. It’s of a story of a feral child on a deserted island. As the tale progresses, elements of futurology, apocalyptic destruction and other wild concepts arise, all explained by Ibn al-Nafis through scientific concepts.
The most iconic example of proto-science fiction tales are recounted within One Thousand and One Nights that include fantastical journeys through the cosmos, brass robots, and an adventure under-sea to a community governed by a primitive form of communism.
After the glorified era until the mid-twentieth century, Arab production of science fiction gradually became dominated by translations of European and North American sci-fi stories, particularly during the last two centuries.
Egypt, a trend-setter as always, was the scene for the first modern Arab sci-fi awakening during the 1950s and onwards. During this period, Yousef Izzedeen Issa wrote and produced a popular sci-fi radio series broadcast on Egyptian radio. Mustafa Mahmood, cited as “the father of modern Arab sci-fi literature,” wrote a number of famous novels including The Spider (1964) and A Man Under Zero (1967) which encouraged other Egyptian writers to dive in, such as Nabil Farouq, Ahmad Suwailem, Omayma Khafaji, Nihad Sharif, and Muhammad al-Ashry.
The growth of Egyptian sci-fi inspired other Arab writers throughout the region. The list goes on and on, including 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.