Arab science fiction in the here and now
It might be billed as a story from “a long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away”, but when the director J J Abrams and the production crew of Star Wars Episode VII landed in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, the effects of the visit by the much-loved movie franchise rippled well into the future, too.
As newspapers and websites creaked under all the coverage, it seemed to reaffirm not only the popularity but also the importance of science fiction in the region, a genre that can claim a local lineage dating back to stories from the famous 13th-century polymaths Ibn Al Nafis and Al Qazwini.
“But what needs to happen next is that we encourage the idea of Arab science fiction,” says the writer Yasmin Khan, who organises a series of science-fiction events under the Sindbad Sci-Fi banner.
“Having the landscape as a backdrop isn’t enough. We want to see Arabs exploring their own experiences through science fiction. But yes, Star Wars can be a good starting point.”
What happens next is the question posed by Khan’s next Sindbad Sci-Fi gathering, which will be held at the Nour Festival in London this month.
Avid Arab sci-fi watchers might remember there was a similar event at the festival last year, but 12 months on, there’s been a tangible shift in the way Arab science fiction is viewed.
“A year ago, the question was really: ‘Does contemporary Arab science fiction even exist?’” says Khan. “Now it’s a case of following the trail. I find new things every day.”
These new things include a new short story by the Iraqi author Hassan Abdulrazzak, one of the panellists in London. The scientist and writer has fashioned an intriguing tale of an ostensibly normal couple with marital problems who end up at a party, rejecting wine made from grapes and instead asking for “normal” wine made of blood – it turns out that they are aliens who have colonised the planet.
“It’s a satire on the recent invasion of Iraq – and on science fiction itself,” says Abdulrazzak. “I grew up watching alien-invasion films but they always go to America first. So my aliens go to Baghdad.
“How would the rest of the world react if they did land there? Probably be fascinated and alarmed – but I believe it would still be quite distant. A bit like how we deal with Ebola in Africa.”
Abdulrazzak cites Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 – which similarly subverted usual sci-fi tropes by setting the story in a dystopian South Africa, making fascinating comments on apartheid, xenophobia and multinational corporations – as an influence.
“That’s the power of successful science fiction,” he says. “When it works, it becomes like a crystal – the meanings refract in many more ways than the author intended.
“I’m sure George Orwell didn’t think: ‘I must write an instructive tale for a boy from Iraq,’ when he wrote 1984. But that book explained Iraq under Saddam for me better than anything else before or since.”
The idea that science fiction might not just make sense of the present but could actually encourage scientific thought is at the heart of the work of another panellist at Sindbad Sci-Fi, Yasser Bahjatt.
The Saudi computer engineer, writer and entrepreneur set up Yatakhayaloon – or the League of Arabic SciFiers – to investigate in greater detail his belief that science fiction and science fact are intrinsically linked ... and ended up publishing a book that has been a Saudi bestseller for more than a year.
“I found a distinct correlation between a culture’s exposure to science fiction and the amount of scientific thought – experiments, inventions, patents and so on – that takes place,” he says.
“Unfortunately, our region has been near to zero on both fronts in recent years and, although I am an engineer and scientist, I couldn’t really increase scientific activity to a meaningful degree. What I could do, however, was increase the exposure of science fiction.”
Which is where the novel HWJN came in. Written by Bahjatt with Ibraheem Abbas, its mix of fantasy, romance and sci-fi, featuring djinn and parallel universes, was so popular that Bahjatt says a bootlegged version became the most downloaded book in Arab history.
He puts its success down to a lack of contemporary Arab fiction for a generation who are highly connected with the world and keen to explore fictitious universes.
All of this would seem to suggest that, in the year Ahmed Saadawi won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for Frankenstein in Baghdad (Abdulrazzak will read from it at Sindbad Sci-Fi), Arab science fiction is having a “moment”.
“There is a long way to go,” cautions Abdulrazzak, “not least because there is a really dispiriting anti-science campaign in certain sections of the Arab world.”
“I don’t know whether Arab science fiction really exists yet,” agrees Bahjatt. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire for that to be the case. I mean, we’re not just looking at publishing books with Yatakhayaloon. We’re working on a movie adaptation, graphic novels, a television series – even action figures.
“We’ve seen that the demand is there – it’s just feeding it now.”
Its dunes may have doubled as Tatooine in Star Wars, but there’s more to the notion of science fiction in the UAE than just sand. Its stunningly futuristic buildings also lend a sense of the sci-fi movie to the here and now, which Hassan Abdulrazzak says can only be beneficial for the imaginations of a new generation of writers in the country.
“When you go up the Burj Khalifa and gaze across this city in the desert, there are so many science fiction tropes right there,” he says.
“I find it an inspiring place to be in as a writer – although I have to admit that sometimes it takes me on dystopian journeys. I was with a friend as we looked out from the observation deck, and he said to me: ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to live up here?’ I told him it would feel like being in an aeroplane the entire time, to which his delighted response was: ‘Exactly!’ How odd – and sci-fi – is that!”
• Sindbad Sci-Fi’s event, Arab Science Fiction: From Imagination To Innovation, is at the Science Museum, London, on November 15. www.sindbadscifi.com/
Updated: November 9, 2014 04:00 AM