What Is Arabic ‘Science Fiction,’ And Who Gets to Write It?

Alice Kloker went to the recent London talk “From Sindbad to Sci-Fi: Reimagining Arab Science Fiction” and shares her impressions:

By Alice Kloker

Image: Murat Palta. More here.

What is science fiction and who gets to write it?

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have considered myself a fan of the genre.  Sure, I grew up in the 1980s and enjoyed watching Star Trek Voyager, the (original) Star Wars films and even got in a few episodes of Dr. Who.  But for the most part, I confess, I couldn’t really get into it.  It seemed like a bit of a boys club, with lots of gadgets, laser guns, and female characters that served a primarily ornamental function.  It wasn’t clear to me why two thousand years into the future, women were still wearing loads of make-up and running around spaceships in stiletto heels and mini-skirts.  Also, the whole notion of these giant spaceships being on a voyage of benevolent discovery reminded me a little too much of the so-called “civilizing mission” of the imperial project.

My attitude towards science fiction changed completely after a friend turned me on to Octavia Butler.  I started with Parable of the Sower, Lilith’s Brood and then of course her classic Kindred, about US American slavery and time travel.  I then began to re-think what science fiction was really all about, and a whole new set of questions emerged.  What role might science fiction play in the struggle for human liberation?  How might science fiction help us deconstruct what the 21st century reader assumes to be “natural” ways of organizing human societies?  What could science fiction teach us about imagining new ways of coexisting with each other?  Butler continues to inspire new thinking around these questions, even after her untimely death.

I recently moved to the United Kingdom, and was immediately drawn to Arab Lit’s post of an upcoming salon: “From Sindbad to Sci-Fi: Reimagining Arab Science Fiction.”  What could be more interesting to discuss right now than the diversity of literary traditions engaged in science fiction, and the big questions that are possible to ask within the genre?  What other voices, like Octavia Butler, were out there in the literary universe that would expand my understanding of what science fiction might be all about, and what might they tell us about time, space and other worlds?

Lucky enough to get a ticket to this sold-out event, I can report that it lived up to its promise in the Nour Festival of Arts brochure to deliver a “panel of luminary speakers discussing why a revival of Arab Science Fiction is more important than ever.”

Ziauddin Sardar, a public intellectual, Professor at Middlesex University and widely published author, most recently of Future: All that Matters, started the panelists’ remarks by reminding the audience that science fiction is not just about space in the sense of a galaxy far, far away but how we think and feel about “the other.”  Science fiction, he remarked, can be thought of as a mirror of society, in that it reflects the anxiety and the predicaments of contemporary times.  He noted the examples of suicide bombing and torture treated in the 21st century version of Battlestar Galactica to illustrate this point.

Sardar said that science fiction, taking place in the domain of future time, can serve as an instrument to examine and perhaps even solve society’s problems, and that as a genre science fiction encourages societal self-reflection.  He placed contemporary Arabic science fiction works such as Naguib Mahfouz’s Journey of Ibn Fattouma and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen within a tradition that dates back to the House of Wisdom and the golden age of science in what is now Iraq during the 8th through the 13th centuries, and declared that there was no reason to place Zakariya al-Qazwini’s Awaj bin Anfaq outside of this tradition, as it fulfills all the proper criteria for what we understand today to be a work of science fiction.

Samira Ahmed, a prominent British journalist, opened with a brilliant analysis of the movie Argo as a 1970s zombie apocalypse film, where radical Islam is an alien virus that overnight has transformed a city into a thoughtless mob.  I have since visited her delightful website, where you can read more of her thoughts on this matter in “How the Middle East Became Another Planet.

Returning to the example of Battlestar Galactica, Ahmed cited an episode from the original series where, in search of an element (tylium rock) needed to fuel its ships’ nuclear engines, members of the fleet visit a planet that on the surface appears to have an economy based on pleasure.  Of course, this pleasure palace hides a much darker secret beneath.  (For those interested in Battlestar Galactica, I suspect she was referring to the 1978 episode, “Saga of a Star World.”)  Ahmed suggests we might see a metaphor here for Bahrain.  After all, doesn’t much of science fiction require a lot of fossil fuels, or its equivalent, to make these long journeys into space?

I was utterly charmed by the third panelist, Lebanese-Canadian science fiction author Amal El-Mohtar.  Her infectious enthusiasm for the subject was evident as she recounted reading Dr. Who novels as a child, and other science fiction in English and French, but never Arabic.  El-Mohtar smartly criticized mainstream science fiction for its unimaginative gender roles and use of people of color only in alien roles.  She asked the audience to imagine what kind of privilege was necessary to take one’s own culture and experience and posit it as universal, as is so often the case with mainstream science fiction texts.

El-Mohtar encouraged an expansive view of Arabic science fiction, which is inclusive of fantasy and mythology, and not one limited to space exploration.  For example, Arabic science fiction might imagine a world in which colonialism had not occurred.  She provided some helpful sources for finding Arabic Science Fiction titles, including http://www.islamscifi.com/, the World SF Blog (which apparently is no longer maintained, although it does include an entry on Arabic Science Fiction: http://worldsf.wordpress.com/tag/arab-science-fiction/) and Sofia Samatar’s blog: www.sofiasamatar.com.  El-Mohtar also recommended Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ.

The final panelist, Kyhle Alexander Raja, presented what he termed as a Muslim rather than a regional perspective on moderator Quentin Cooper’s original question concerning the effect a revival of Arab science fiction might have.  Raja, an artist and architect, pointed out that the larger questions posted by science fiction – such as “Are we alone in the universe?” and “What lies beyond space?” – are also spiritual questions that were explored a thousand years ago by scholars in the Middle East.

I left the salon determined to incorporate many of the titles mentioned into my winter reading list, and with a greater appreciation of just how large and diverse the tent of science fiction really is.  At its best, science fiction is not an avenue for escape from reality – it is one of the tools at our disposal to transform the planet right here where we live.  And by reading authors who reflect the full diversity of our known universe and its rich histories and traditions rather than a small minority with universalist pretenses, readers are equipped with a better set of tools to build a world that serves us all.

downloadOriginally from Minneapolis, Alice Kloker is a recent transplant to Southampton, where she tweets at @alicekloker.


    1. At the evening? Not sure, my impression (from afar, just reading a few pieces about it, like http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24403002) was that it focused not on being a compendium of Arabic sci fi but on the possibilities of the genre generally.

      For a more complete survey, there’s Ada’s book:

      If you read Italian, do read it! Otherwise, we’re urging Arabic & English translations…

  1. Glad you enjoyed the evening. My Battlestar Galactica metaphor was more about Dubai and the idea of a pleasure city built on nothing except the hidden suffering of the immigrant/Asian labouring inhabitants they fed on.

    1. Samira, thank you so much for the correction – sorry I’m just seeing your comment now! A much longer time elapsed between my attending the event and sitting down to write up my scribbled notes than would have been ideal, and I had “Bahrain” written next to your description of the episode but it makes much more sense that you were talking about Dubai and immigrant labor. I’d like to edit the entry so that any future links to it from Tweets are accurate (and of course with a disclaimer that it had been edited and all of that – I’m not a journalist so I don’t know the conventions for this, but our esteemed curator will I’m sure have a sense of the best way to do this). Would that be okay with you?

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