ArabLit Re-runs: Science Fiction in Arabic Was Not Born All of a Sudden’

ArabLit’s sister-site in Italian — editoriaraba, curated by Chiara Comito — interviewed Ada Barbaro, author of the new book La fantascienza nella letteratura araba or Science Fiction in Arabic Literature. This piece initially ran in September 2013:

Editoriaraba: Has science fiction in Arabic always existed or has it developed only recently?

Cover image by Larissa Sansour, “Palestinauts.”

Ada Barbaro: Like all the other literary genres, science fiction’s birth is due to a mixture of different elements. Arabic sci fi comes in a relationship to the production in English. But we have to open a post-colonial discourse here: the Sci-Fi in English comes with industrial development, which comes late in the Arab countries. Not to mention that the “novel” arrives late in these countries, being an imported literary form. We can say that the  sci fi in Arabic was born in the ’50s, more or less.

However, these new elements integrate themselves into a substrate that already belongs to the Arab world, just as happened with sci fi in English or in French: It was not born all of a sudden.

In the book, I dedicated a section to the so-called “proto science fiction”: namely, I researched those elements that the modern writers might have considered and later re-elaborated, which made sci fi a not entirely imported genre.

ArabLit: What do you see the biggest influence on Arabic science fiction? Classical Arabic texts, the maqama form, the time-travel/fantasy of 1,001 Nights? Or mostly Western science fiction?

AB: As for the sources in Arabic, first of all there are the “mirabilia,” the travel journeys, the tales on the animal world, or the cosmos stories from the classical period. During the  Jahiliyya, people already used to question what they thought was weird or things that could not been explained rationally: tales and stories were told about natural phenomenon, such as the sudden rain, the storms, the changes of the seasons. People used to imagine “other” realities that ruled these events.

Besides the mirabilia, there are the Sindbad travels. In one of them, something really curious happens, which will appear also in the 1,001 Nights: Sindbad the “terrestrial” meets up with Sindbad the sailor and the two of them confront their societies. In the 1,001 Nights there are tales like the one featuring the ebony horse, or the bronze archer who attracts the leading iron-made structures of the boats.

There are also philosophical works: For example, in my book I mentioned the philosopher Ibn Tufayl and his book  Hayy ibn Yaqzan, where the author imagines a deserted island on which a child is growing up alone, learning from the nature how to be a better human being. Some wanted to see in this book a sort of forefather of Tarzan or Robison Crusoe — both of these are not sci fi at all! As you can see, there is a utopian vision behind this tale.

This leads us to what I think is the most important element related to science fiction: the utopian novel. We are here in the nineteenth century with al-Manfaluti and al-Kawakibi, who writes about an imaginary conference held in Mecca by the representatives of the major world religions where the future of the nations is at stake. What we see here is a utopian form aimed at smoothing those situations that in the real world are different and difficult to manage.

We also have Farah Antun and his The Three Cities, and Ahmad Ra’if, the Egyptian author of The Fifth Dimension, a play in which he examines some very interesting themes: a fight Cold War-style where he imagines the end of the USA-USSR conflict.

The science-fiction novel arrives on all these elements, even though sometimes it is hard to distinguish between the fantasy, the fairytale, the mirabilia.


I am not saying here that this is all sci fi but still, it is true that in whatever culture science fiction has developed, it has drawn from its own literary heritage. There is someone who has argued that there are signs of sci fi in the Quran, but I keep away from that. For example, in the “Sura of the Bees” there is an always-creating-God: It is said that if He has created this world, how many other worlds will He be creating? Or, let’s think at the concept of “ghayb”, the absent, which recurs many times in the Quran: some have considered it as something hidden, invisible, arcane.

As far as the Western influences are concerned, first of all we must remember that many writers could read perfectly in English. It was first English sci fi that had influence over these authors: Wells, Huxley and Orwell, by whom the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim was inspired. His play Voyage to Tomorrow was born out of this inspiration. In my book, I compare some of the Orwell topics that happen to be found in the Egyptian author’s works, as in the play I’ve just mentioned, where many parts resembles Orwell’s masterpiece 1984.

AL: What tropes of science fiction have you found to be the most common? (Travel to other planets, dystopia, time travel?) Why do you think that is?

AB: Time travel is definitely the most used topic, and here we have one of the peculiarities of the Arabic literature: the notion of time, which in the Arab world comes in a different fashion vs. time in the Western world. When we talk of [traditional] Arab societies, we talk of societies mostly based on ritual, where the day is punctuated by the prayer. Time has an important value and is always controlled by the Eternal: This is the reason why trying to attempt this control, wanting to cross the limits imposed by God, is a way to take one’s time back.

It can also helps to go beyond the stereotyped vision of the Arabs as subdued by God’s will when actually they can rebel against It. Crossing the time boundaries is a real form of transgression, although very often science fiction novels do not have happy endings. What happens is that, even though the characters succeed in winning time – speaking of which, the biggest conquest is immortality, just think how blasphemous that can be – in the end the result is always negative. There is always something  that destroys and deletes all the things that the power-possessed man wanted to achieve. It is like as the “bad” example had to be deleted.


Coming back to your question: The most explored topics are time travel and also travels to other planets. In my book, I identify Space and Time as the two main reading keys, and I quote some examples. As far as immortality is concerned, this can be reached through the elixir of life, hibernation, or surgeries on cells. In the book I mention — a book written by Kuwaiti author Taibah Ahmad al-Ibrahim — the title of which is The Faded Man (al-Insan al-Bahit, 1986), a title that refers to the pallor of a man who falls asleep following some experiments and wakes up after a long time as if nothing had changed. Obviously, no one recognizes him at all, although he remained the same.

alensan-albahetHave you read The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Well, he has not changed, but he has lost everything: he remembers nothing from his past and so starts to learn things, but in a mechanical way. He gets educated like a child, but he is much faster and in doing so he exposes many contradictions and paradoxes of the Arab society.

E: Who are the most representative authors, and novels, of this genre?

AB: The father of the sci fi in Arabic is undoubtedly Nihad Sharif, an Egyptian writer who passed away not long ago. His novel  Qahirah al-Zaman (Victory of Time) is considered a milestone in the production of science fiction. But there are many other writers who, although they did not dedicate themselves entirely to this genre, at some point they did have a short sci-fi period: like the Egyptian author Sabri Musa who wrote a dystopia, a theme which actually was born with him in Arabic literature.

The most interesting thing I noted was the presence of sci-fi autors even in countries still considered pretty much traditional, suchit would be impossible for them to generate science-fiction. I am referring here to Yemen and Mauritania: as for the latter, Italian professor  Isabella Camera d’Afflitto, in an article appeared in a special number of “Oriente Moderno” (an Italian scientific magazine) devoted to the literature from Maghreb, describes The City of the Winds, a novel by a Mauritanian writer which is science-fiction with no doubts.

The Yemeni writer  Abd al-Nasser Mujalli is by contrast quite famous: he wrote a novel, Geography of Water (Jugrafiyat al-Ma’), in which he imagines the disappearance of the water on the Earth due to the inhabitants of a “white planet” melting because of the gases produced by our planet. They are so angry at us that they decided to take the water away. This is an ecological novel, and it is worth mentioning that the ecology is one of the main features of science-fiction production.

There is also Talib Umran,  a prolific Syrian author who wrote a science-fiction series of books. I mention him in relation to his post 9/11 production where the fantapolitical element is more evident.

It is worth noting that these are contemporary writers in their 40s – 50s, and they all have a solid scientific education.

E: It seems a very rich literary genre…

AB: It is. In the book, I do mention several novels and authors, but I chose to focus on those who seemed to me more representative and of more impact, also I focused on what concerns the censors. While writing, I realized that it would be impossible to cover everything, but since there is no textbook dealing with this topic, not even in English, I decided that I wanted to write a book that served as a reference text, like a general framework, for everyone researching on this topic who is having a hard time finding the original texts in Arabic.

E: What language do these authors use in their works: fusha, darija, neologisms, loan words…?

AB: They all write in fusha and do not use darija/ammeyya. But, what I have observed is an in-depth linguistic research, which comes from the need to adapt Arabic to the ongoing changes. In the book, I have dedicated a section to the language, and I quoted some neologisms, all very interesting. Think about the expression “science fiction” and how has been translated into Arabic, namely:  al-khayal al-ilmi, which means scientific imagination. Or “cyberpunk” that became “al-saybir bank”. Or think at the word “dystopia”, translated as  “naqid al-yutubiya”, which means the opposite of utopia. There are some giant linguistic efforts been made in this field: We may say we are witnessing a language renewal, so typical of the Modern Standard Arabic by which new words are being created from the Arabic roots.

AL: Have you found any way to judge the popularity of science fiction titles in Arabic? What have been strong sellers (or strongly pirated)?

ajwanAB: Looking for information in those Arab countries in which I conducted my research, I realized that there is a lack of information among the readers. This happens because the Arab readership has found out about the science fiction in Arabic only recently. One can find online only the most recent titles, such as Ajwan, by the Emirati writer Noura al-Nouman, Bab al-Khorouj, by Egyptian writer Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, Utopia by Ahmad Khaled Tawfiq and the books by Talib Umran.

Some information is reported on a few blogs devoted to this topic. Even at academic level, this production is mostly unknown. There might have been three or four conferences, in which the science-fiction in the Arabic literature was an issue: the one held in Cairo in 2010 dedicated a panel on it but considered it still “experimental.” It is not an accredited genre so far.

E: Who are the readers of science-fiction in Arabic today?

AB: Mostly young people, females and males, who are also readers of English science fiction. There exist many translations both of the early science fiction and of the most recent titles, but we all know that young Arabs can easily read in translation. Still it is a good thing that the publishing houses publish these translations because it means that the readers want to read these books and that there is a rising interest in this particular literary field. It is also true, though, that the local production in Arabic is still at the edge.

AL: Are there differences in science fiction regionally? What “science fiction” means in Morocco v. Syria v. the Emirates v. Egypt? How it expresses itself?

AB: Egypt is without a doubt the most important center, as often is the case. I did not notice great regional differences except for those countries more tradition-related. Consider Yemen, which I mention when I speak about Mujalli, an author who lives in the US and has been definitely influenced by the cosmopolitan and high-tech American society. However, his sci-fi is typically related to the Yemeni context. The “prophecy” element, for example, is very strong in his works. In one of his books, when the human is kidnapped by the alien, which tells off him and other humans off for mistreating the Earth, he was in the middle of a friend’s night, telling traditional tales and chewing qat. And do you know what is the first thing the aliens ask him to do when he arrives to them? To take a bath, because he has to purify himself! So, when I read this book I am well aware of where I am, I can tell what the context and the background are. And I find the contrast between the traditional context and the encounter with the green-handed alien very interesting.

To conclude, the only regional differences I have found are due to the fact that in certain regions science fiction has found a cultural vividness lacking elsewhere.

E: Do these authors know each others?

AB: There have been only a few literary magazines devoted to science fiction: the Majallat al-Khayal al-Ilmi, founded in Syria in August 2008, which featured in its scientific committee authors from Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, Lebanon and Syria, which I mention in the book. I have also found other studies in Arabic in which the authors review and study other authors’ works.

AL: Do you have any comparative sense of science fiction in Arabic vs. other languages regionally (Urdu, Malayalam, Persian, Turkish) to which it’s not “native”?

AB: I do not have many information in this regard. I vaguely studied this field as it is  post-colonial literature but I did not deepen it. Here, as it is the case with the Arab world, this phenomenon should be read in the light of the post-colonialism framework: the science fiction arrived late because so did the industrialization. When I researched the proto science-fiction I also studied [work] by the Pakistani Mohammad Iqbal, in which the author imagines a meeting between the sufi Rumi and an educated alien.

AL: Why is science fiction a particularly interesting genre (vs. fantasy or detective stories or murder mysteries)?

AB: Science-fiction to me has a definite edge because of its didactic value: it teaches, it exhorts, but more than anything else, it is a literary genre of strong denunciation and in doing so, it is very different from the detective story or noir. The thriller is also a new genre, but it does not expose injustices: these writers tell us things we already know. When I reads a thriller, I have not a doubt of what I’m reading; everything is clear to me. Science fiction is more subtle: Its authors use narrative patterns to tell us something else, which a careless reader may not see. Science fiction makes you, the reader, think. It involves you at a deeper level.

7129434Moreover, through science fiction you can break many taboos of the Islamic society, like sex. The Lord Arrived from the Spinach Field (al-Sayyid min haql al-sabanakh) by Sabri Musa is actually a dystopia: the writer deals with sex and though he is quite explicit — still a careless reader would not say that this book is about sex.

By and large, these are authors who harshly criticize their society. Take the sci fi short story “In the Year One Milion,” by Tawfiq al-Hakim, in which the author imagines a man who has lost all of his human qualities: reproduction is created in lab, decapitation means switching heads. It is quite obvious that a writer important as al-Hakim was using science fiction to protest against the regime and especially criticize the death penalty.

E: Were these books censored?

AB: No, because it was quite hard to figure out their deep meaning.

E: Do you think science-fiction in Arabic might find a readership also in the West? And in Italy?

AB: I would hope it! Because science fiction is genre that could both attract attention and curiosity and break the still existing stereotypes on the Arab world. Luckily enough, it seems that we passed this phase and now we are overwhelmed by the number of publications on these issues.

Anyway, I would like to see some science fiction authors in translation. To be more specific, I would love Nihad Sharif’s value to be recognized. His Victory of Time might be a good choice, even if the book was written in the ’60 and it may sound a bit old-fashioned. The Yemeni author is also interesting, his Geography of the Water is really unusual.

E: Naguib Mahfouz once said that he would have loved to read more science fiction in Arabic, maybe because in it there is a strong connection with society, technology and progress. Do you think that science-fiction in Arabic today can be a way to imagine a different future for the Arab societies?

AB: Absolutely. Science fiction creates spaces where the reader can find a confirmation of his or her own fears towards the progress, which can be frightful, but also life-saving. It gives us the chance to see how things can made in an other way, how conflicts that are difficult to manage can be solved, how we can handle the relationship with our “Other,” namely the alien. The human in the beginning of these kinds of novels is always cautious in relating with the alien because he is scared. And it may be that these authors want to show us something they have experienced, hence the relationship with the West, the need to overthrow taboos and clichés. In the sci-fi worlds, there are relationships that do not exist in reality, we are given the possibilities to imagine future and utopian worlds and societies ruled by justice and good governance.

Maybe science fiction represents a refuge for the reader, instead of being related to progress. This reader maybe lives in a reality where a changing society can overwhelm him or her, but in the end, he or she knows that the scientific developments will lead him or her to a better world. Science fiction also helps the reader to look back on past mistakes: because progress is seductive, but makes you do everything in your power in order to be successful. It brings your values into questions.

So when often science fiction novels talk about future dehumanized societies, where the human being has lost its purest feelings and values, the reader is forced to think about what he or she has done in the past and what to do to avoid recreating the same mistakes all over again.


Nihad Sharif said the science fiction has a “vital value” and defined it as “the literature of the future, a place in which to share things.” In his opinion, science fiction was a means to create debates on matters of vital importance and a way to talk about them in an original way.

Ada Barbaro (@adinaminshamm) is a researcher at the Italian Institute of Oriental Studies at Sapienza University in Roma. She teaches Arabic Language and Literature in several universities; she also published translations and wrote essays on  modern and contemporary Arabic literature.

Her book, La fantascienza nella letteratura araba, has been published by Carocci editore, Roma – 1° edition July 2013. Euro: 29.