The State of Arabic Science Fiction (in Translation)

Ray Bradbury, maestro of English-language sci fi, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 91.

How much does contemporary English-language science fiction, like Bradbury’s, owe to the fantastical proto-science fiction of A Thousand and One Nights? Well, who knows. But certainly English-language spec fic has little to do with its contemporary Arabic-language colleague.

Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia was translated in 2010, by Chip Rossetti, and published by a forward-thinking BQFP. This year, the book is a finalist for the English-language Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. But outside of Utopia, there’s been little spec fic that’s crossed the line from Arabic into English.

But there’s certainly interest. In November 2010, Apex magazine did a special “Arab / Muslim themed” issue, calling widely for translations. And every time there’s a story about Arab & Arabic science fiction, it seems to get batted around quite widely (perhaps to prove that Arabs don’t do sci fi, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt).

Yazan al-Saadi, writing in Al Akhbar, wrote this week that Arabic SF is in the middle of a resurrection. Authors like our Sharjah-based correspondent-novelist Noura Noman, for one, are moving into science fiction because of a life-long love of the speculative and fantastic.

But reader-blogger-novelist-scholar Sofia Samatar worries that science fiction might not be interesting to traditional English-language publishers because works in translation often favor the realist-ethnographic.

Certainly, though, there are other avenues for interested translators and authors: A number of science fiction magazines pay real money for stories and there are many sci-fi readers who would be interested in new works with fresh visions.

On the Arabic-language side, Naguib Mahfouz — for one — wanted to see more Arabic science fiction. Why? Maybe because, as commentator Ed Finn says in the Huff Post this week, it has its revolutionary side: “As it turns out, science fiction is a great educational tool for getting people to think seriously about the future.”


  1. I just saw Saladin Ahmed reading from his Throne of the Crescent Moon at the RAWI conference in Dearborn MI.

    1. Sounds to me like Dima wants to do a guest post…mish kida?

  2. While I was in Cairo, I read about someone who’d done a sci-fi graphic novel (not yet translated). I believe they have it at CIC, but I never got over there to ask about it.

    Excellent point in Ed Finn quote!

    1. Yes, I wanted to say that science fiction is thus revolutionary…but I guess I hit post first. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the mention, M. Interested folks should check out Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad’s excellent site Islam and Science Fiction. Disclosure: I write book reviews for it. But it’s got much more than reviews. Check it out!

    1. Oh, wow, it’s changed a lot since I last saw it. Thanks, SS!

  4. Thanks for the mention of Utopia! As for contemporary Egyptian sci-fi, don’t forget about George Azmy and Ganzeer’s “sci-fi pulp” graphic novel, Atlal al-Mustaqbal, from a few years ago. Only a snippet of it is (imperfectly) viewable online: I wish the book itself was available to the public, but as I recall, there was some management issue with the artists’ group that published it, which means that the remaining copies are stuck in the warehouse, I think…

    1. Oh, yes, Ganzeer! He’s also one of the co-parents of contemporary Egyptian graphic novels. I think the marriage of sci fi & graphic novels is killer.

      Thanks for the link, Chip!

  5. Hi, i’m currently writing a doctoral thesis on themes in Arabic SF and know of at least 3 more people who have recently completed doctorates on Arabic SF-related themes. Are you in Cairo at the moment? I’m here for a week more trying to do some research and interviews, hopefully meeting Ahmed Khaled Towfik next week. Just been back to the bookstands at Ezbekiyya as I still need to get hold of a couple more rare books. If you are around would you like to meet for a coffee and I will show you some of the amazing pulp covers?
    The Islam and Science fiction site has a link to Achmed Khammas’ excellent 2006 essay ‘The Almost Complete Lack of the Element of Futureness’:
    This provided me with my starter bibliography! Nabil Farouk (Egyptian) and Talib Omran (Syria) are two of the most prolific writers.

    1. I’ve read Nabil Farouk but not Talib Omran…where are you staying? I’m going to email…

  6. Hey M & Barbara! I’m not in Cairo (coming in Jan. insha’allah) but hook me into that email thread, please! I want to be in touch. 🙂

    1. Hi Sofia,

      Thanks – are you coming to Cairo for research? I like Aurangzeb’s site; this was also one of my first introductions to Arabic SF. Are you a student / journalist / writer?

      I know of three scholars who have completed doctorates on Arabic SF – Kawthar Ayed in Tunisia, Gary Boutz recently at Georgetown and Isam Asaqilah at Haifa in 2003.

      Are you Sci Fi Wahhabi from Qatar? I was just about to recommend her website (her name is Sophia Al-Maria).

  7. Thanks for the great post Marcia. I have a comment on how far any SF is influenced by The Thousand and One Night. That would be fantasy but SF as you know is always close to science. It will not bring anything that opposes the natural law. That was not born till probably the 19th century. Tawfik Alhakeem comes close with some plays like ” A poet on the Moon”, ” A Moon Report” and ” If One Day the Youth would know!”. Sa’ad Mekawy wrote something as well.

    1. Mona, I’m not suggesting that “A Thousand Nights & a Night” influenced Arabic sci fi, but rather that it may have (with its robot-like creatures and interstellar travel) influenced the origins of English-language sci fi. Who knows. 🙂

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