Noura Al Noman’s Ajwan was the first-ever winner of the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in the Young Adult category:
Mariam F. Al-Doseri
Impressing young adults is a difficult undertaking, and Noura Al Noman admirably attempts to reach teen Arabic readers with Ajwan, almost certainly the first contemporary Arabic science fiction novel for young adults out of the Emirates.
The novel, winner of the 2013 Etisalat Award for Young Adult Fiction, is written in an accessible, descriptive language and is full of action that is bound to keep young adults entertained. It was followed by two other books in the Ajwan trilogy: Mandan (2014) and Sydonia (2016).
Essentially, Ajwan is the story of an 18-year-old “Haviki,”a civilized species that inhabit underwater cities, who rebels against her family and marries an earthling “Okamo” before her planet is destroyed by an asteroid. The titular Ajwan manages to catch the last spaceship leaving for safety and tries to adapt to her new situation on a military base, only to be informed that she is with child. The action speeds up as Ajwan is abducted, operated on, and her child is taken away from her.
To find her child, Ajwan joins the Special Forces of the Planetary Union and trains to become a killing machine.
This all happens against a backdrop of a terrorist plot to undermine the peace and prosperity of the universe. Fortunately, Ajwan is not just an ordinary Haviki. Like the criminal mastermind behind the nefarious plots, Ajwan possesses special powers. While the antagonist is capable of neuro-linguistically programming pawns on his galactic chessboard, Ajwan is endowed with powers of empathy: she can feel what others do and can influence their emotional state. She is also capable of telekinesis.
The plotting is extensive, and, at times the fragmented structure leaves the reader adrift. The structure oscillates between parallel narratives and flashbacks that intersect with the main story line. This is further complicated by the lack of shared spatial referential points in the novel. It is not uncommon in science fiction to leave the geography open to the readers’ imaginations; however, the multiplicity of worlds, planets, regions, and sectors might have been outlined in a separate map, for reference.
A map, or a contextual introduction, also could have served the reader well in better understanding the background of this world.
Without lecturing its young readership, Ajwan addresses several social issues that do not come to fruition in this first novel in the trilogy. Here, there is a Planetary Union challenged by a terrorist plotter who capitalizes on the grievances of marginalized segments in the Ajwan universe, although the reader doesn’t yet understand their grievances or their validity.
The novel also addresses issues of othering and social demarcation, as marked by Ajwan’s decision to marry an outsider despite the ostracism and the social stigma her family must endure. Yet Ajwan is not all hero. Her rebellions against her parents and society for restrictions over public display of emotions and for expectations of an arranged marriage of equals come across as a typical case of teenage hot-headedness rather than heroic.
The narrative also voices concern over immigrants and refugees, as when Ajwan questions the situation of survivors of her planet’s destruction. They are treated as outsiders, quarantined and sorted before a decision is made as to where they should be sent to next. However, once Ajwan is befriended and sheltered by the commander of the military base, the issue seems to fade away.
Young Ajwan also grapples with motherhood, and it’s hard to detect an organic emotional bond between mother and fetus/child, the sole survivor of two extinct species. Perhaps paradoxically, this emotional distance becomes her driving force to reunite with the child, and it’s how she justifies later actions. From a rebel without a cause, an unsuspecting victim, an unwitting heroine, to an inevitable assassin, Ajwan is still a teenager finding her feet.
Despite Ajwan’s shortcomings, Al Noman’s efforts cannot go unrecognized as giant leaps for Arabic literature into the uncharted frontier of science fiction. The trilogy, and Al Noman’s establishment of Manuscript 2559, the language’s first all-science-fiction-and-fantasy publishing house, will cater to a growing audience of young Arab inquisitive minds.
Mariam Al-Doseri is a feelance scribbler based in Bahrain. She’s interested in arts and culture, with a focus on literature and languages.