Fadi Zaghmout’s second novel, Paradise on Earth, takes readers eighty-odd years into the future, imagining a Jordan where we have control over the aging process:
By Jona Fras
Fadi Zaghmout’s Paradise on Earth (Janna ‘ala l-ard; Dar al-Adab, 2014) has been labeled a “science fiction” novel — although a more precise description might be “speculative fiction with futuristic elements.” It is the Jordanian writer’s second novel, following The Bride of Amman (2012), to be published in English translation by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp later this year. Like Bride, Janna explores interpersonal relationships and the issues individuals face when their desires and ideals clash with societal norms — but this time, with a futuristic twist: The novel’s central premise is a form of medicine that can reverse human aging, and in effect grant eternal life.
Janna is set in Amman, Jordan in the 2090s, and is narrated through the eyes of Janna Abdallah, a renowned journalist facing a family drama, as her brother Jamal — a famous scientist who contributed to the invention of many of the biotechnological and medical advances we see in the novel — decides to forgo life-extending medication and let himself die. Her support for Jamal’s death wishes and the right to his inheritance make Janna come into conflict with her possessive sister-in-law, Jehan. She also needs to deal with her estranged husband, Zayd, who wishes to return to adolescence, and is herself haunted by her desire for Kameel, the grandson of a man (also named Kameel) with whom she’d had an affair many decades ago. During all this, Janna experiences a dream-vision in which she is visited by her deceased mother, and much of the novel revolves around her struggles — legal, biological, and social — to bring her back to life via a genetic clone.
Amman also has a subway network now, a utopian concept if there ever was one.
In Zaghmout’s vision of 2090s Jordan, this is not such a strange idea at all. Cloning and assisted reproduction have advanced to the stage where it’s perfectly possible to give birth to one’s own parents. The most notable medical breakthrough, though, has to be the “golden pill”: a medicine with an active ingredient of nanorobots that stop cell deterioration. They are able not only to prevent aging, but also make people younger (at least those who can afford it). Age-reversal treatment has now become as ordinary as any number of other futuristic technologies also used by Janna and her peers. Eyes are fitted with “smart lenses” that can bring up the social networking profile of anyone you run across in the street. There are watches, belts, and other devices for viewing digital content, and tissue “printers” that can produce any kind of foodstuff (or human organ) with the right ingredients. (Amman also has a subway network now, a utopian concept if there ever was one.)
Zaghmout gives us snapshots of these technologies as they’re used in daily life, but he doesn’t shy from exploring broader social implications, either. The medical advances in particular all have economic, legal, and political correlates. The preponderance of age-reversal treatment brings up questions on whether death itself should be outlawed. Reproductive rights are strictly limited, and the only time a child can be born is when there is a death in the family; hence the significance of Jamal’s fate, and who — his sister Janna, or his wife Jehan — should “inherit” his right to life.
Since lifespans aren’t limited, younger people are effectively blocked out of the top spots in various professions, as they simply can’t compete with the experience and renown of their older peers. The science underlying all this might be far-fetched, but its effects feel entirely believable — in no small part because they seem like the natural outcome of trends already familiar from contemporary society (such as conceptualizing old age as a “disease” that can, and should, be treated).
[T]here are more than a few inside jokes scattered around for those familiar with Jordan: the transportation network, for one, and also the fact that the Jordanian regime still seems to be “undergoing reform” in the 2090s, with a Parliament still dug deep in bickering about election laws.
There is also a firm sense of place woven through the novel; sketched out, or suggested, more than described in any kind of rich sensory detail, though it’s still made very clear it is a futuristic Jordan the story is set in, rather than an undetermined “future place” shorn of any distinctive features. This is particularly important in terms of the speculative fiction genre as a whole — where, especially in the past few years, writers and audiences alike have become hungry for settings and subjectivities beyond (white) Euro-America. Jbeiha and Abdali, of course, have as much right to be the setting for an imagined future as any major European or North American city. And there are more than a few inside jokes scattered around for those familiar with Jordan: the transportation network, for one, and also the fact that the Jordanian regime still seems to be “undergoing reform” in the 2090s, with a Parliament still dug deep in bickering about election laws.
More than geography or politics, though, Janna’s focus remains on characters and interpersonal relationships, and the way in which human social relations — kin, love, friendship — might be affected by life-altering technologies. Janna recounts at some length how strained her relationship with her husband was when she declared to him — back in the days before the age-reversal pill — that she didn’t want to have children with him. But once treatments become available that make eternal life a workable possibility, there is less need for such familial legacies:
It’s as if [Zayd] calmed me down when he told me he no longer dreams of having children, or of a son that would carry his name, now that his years on Earth were no longer limited as they had once been. (p. 82)
As the novel goes on, Janna herself also experiences personal growth, or at least change. The events and experiences of the novel transform her, making her perhaps not a different person — she’s still introverted, still highly sensitive to the feelings and opinions of others — but certainly affecting her convictions about the ethics of life-altering technologies. The central ethical conundrum presented by the novel — between advocates to the “right to death,” and those who wish to outlaw it — is a plausible extension of current debates of the morals of biotechnology. It’s far from just an abstract philosophical debate, given how closely it affects Janna’s personal and familial relationships.
…such is the case with the Christian community of Fuhais, who in a literalist reading of the Bible have all decided to live their lives in the same blissful childhood state.
True to genre tradition, Zaghmout also explores some of the more disconcerting corollaries to the technological advances he posits. Age manipulation can make entire families physically appear to be of a single generation: such is the case with the Christian community of Fuhais, who in a literalist reading of the Bible have all decided to live their lives in the same blissful childhood state. And one particularly memorable scene gives us a grotesque introduction to the possibilities of tissue-printers, by taking place a room full of disembodied female breasts.
Janna is not without its issues. The narrative style is relatively straightforward: not particularly ornate, and at times heavy with exposition. And while it might make for a smooth read, the concepts and debates it tackles are certainly far from light. At times the novel feels like it’s slipping into something like a catalogue of technological advances, where a device appears only to move the plot forward (as is the case with the tissue printers, and the subway). Also, it should be noted that the principal characters are all members of a very particular — and quite privileged — segment of society; Zaghmout doesn’t lack for class awareness, though it should be noted that the more disadvantaged characters only ever appear in (relatively agentless) supporting roles.
And it is a bit too neat in storytelling terms to have all these talented and brilliant people — Janna and Jehan are both well-known journalists, and Jamal a renowned scientist — so closely related; though the conceit only feels contrived in one scene towards the end of the novel, where a supporting character reveals an entirely unexpected skill of which there was previously no indication.
Still, Janna makes for an intriguing read. It fits well into the class of genre fiction that explores the impact of technology on society and interpersonal relationships. Reading it will inspire musings on bio-ethics, and the compatibility (or lack thereof) of our accustomed personal and familial arrangements with different horizons of biomedical possibility. It also places its speculations in a context that is still somewhat underrepresented in genre storytelling. All in all, Janna is a strong follow-up to Zaghmout’s debut novel, and it will be exciting to see where his creativity takes him next.
Jona Fras is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh currently conducting research on colloquial Arabic and radio in Jordan. His musings on this can be found on his blog (https://areluctantarabist.wordpress.com/) and occasionally on Twitter (@jonafras).
For those interested in Zaghmout’s debut novel, The Bride of Amman, it’s been translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and is now available for pre-orders.