At the 2013 Hugo Awards, the Michigan-based author Saladin Ahmed was up for Best Novel, an award that has previously gone to William Gibson and Philip K Dick. His book, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is set in a fantastical version of Caliphate-era Baghdad, where an ageing “ghul-hunter” gets embroiled in a struggle between a tyrannical caliph and a Robin Hood-style thief.
It didn’t win, but there was a consolation. “George R R Martin was the first person to come over and say: ‘Don’t feel too bad, I lost the first three years I was nominated,’” Ahmed says. “He sat me down and had a drink with me.”
Growing up, Ahmed latched on to the few Arab characters he could find in pop culture, such as Indiana Jones’s Egyptian sidekick Sallah. “You look back and think: ‘Gosh, that was pathetic that I got so excited.’ He was a sidekick, a happily colonised guy, but, hey, he looked like he could be my uncle.”
When Ahmed started writing his own fiction, “I knew from the get-go that I was going to write something with a kind of Arab, Islamic flavour to it,” he says. This was partly because of current political tensions. “We live in such a demonising time that just to have a book where all of the heroes are quasi-Muslim and they’re all also either quasi-Arab or quasi-African, that’s a radical statement in itself. I don’t know that there’s a more demonised ideology out there right now and an awareness of that fact is always, always there for me.”
Despite all this, Ahmed is keen to point out that Throne of the Crescent Moon is hardly a political tract. “In the beginning and at the end,” he says, “it’s a swashbuckling adventure, so more than anything I hope that people feel like they spent some nice time in another world. But I do hope that when they come back to their world, they look at it a little differently.”