Eternal Nightmares of the Hounded Mind: On ‘Post-Revolutionary Egyptian Dystopias’

Among the talks at London’s Shubbak Festival — which closed this weekend — was a discussion of literature, dystopia, and post-2011 Egypt:

By Andrew Leber

The Queue (Melville House) – Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

Otared (AUC Press) – Mohammad Rabie, translated by Robin Moger

The Solar Grid (website) – Ganzeer

From left: Basma Abdel Aziz, Mohammad Rabie, Elisabeth Jaquette. Looming above: Ganzeer. Photo credit: Andrew Leber.

While in London on a barely planned layover, I had the good fortune to hear about the Shubbak Festival – as it says on the tin, “London’s largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture, bringing new and unexpected voices alongside established artists to London.”

Shubbak (“Window”) represents a truly enormous offering, from musical performances and film screenings to art installations and dance shows. I only caught the merest part of it, a panel organized by my friend Elisabeth Jaquette (about whom more below) entitled “The Waking Nightmare: Post-Revolutionary Egyptian Dystopias.”

It should not be surprising that a region most often studied in my area of study – political science – as a window into persistent authoritarianism and sectarian conflict has begun to give rise to genre fiction that grapples with the dismaying realities of life in the Arab world by magnifying present processes of repression and control.

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad – winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction – drew on the horrors Mary Shelley’s original reanimated monster to give life to the horrors that have wracked Iraq since the 2013 invasion. Likewise, Comma Press recently collected short works of science fiction imagining Iraq in 2103: ten increasingly dark futures for a country already engulfed in some form of war or blockade for three and a half decades (I translated one of the stories therein – “The Worker” by Diyaa al-Jubeili).

Egypt, the homeland of each of the panel’s authors, may have been spared the apocalyptic levels of violence Iraq has witnessed, yet is certainly filled with enough fears and frustrations to fuel an entire library of literary interpretations. “Ordinary and political people are exhausted and polarized,” noted author Basma Abdel Aziz. “Frustration reigns in Egypt.” The rule of former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has certainly taken a darker turn than even the days of authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. The dozen-odd cases of death-by-torture that Abdel Aziz once heard of as a psychiatrist working with the regime’s torture victims has now mushroomed into the same number in a month – or mere days.  

Together, the three authors on the panel – Abdel Aziz, Mohammad Rabie, and multidisciplinary artist Ganzeer – describe and animate oppression and despair at the individual, national, and international level. Where past frustrations fueled the prison memoirs and realist narratives of an earlier generation of authors, their works to bring such grim developments into focus by taking a step back into imaginative works. “We are trying to take this reality and reshape it… to build a stranger world so that the reader has a reaction,” stated Abdel Aziz.

Abdel Aziz’s The Queue – translated by Jaquette – drills into the psychology of running up against the all-seeing gaze and suffocating embrace of the state, while questioning whether its power truly lies in its coercive capacity or in the fears and hesitation of the populace it dominates. In her novel, Yehya is injured in an uprising, only to find that no doctor will operate on the bullet lodged in his pelvis without authorization from the faceless government – for which he must wait in an unmoving queue before the impassive Gate. “Is this authority really that clever and strong, or is it the people’s imagination that makes it terrifying?” she asked.

In a passage read for the audience in both English and Arabic, a friend of Yehya’s is slowly “disappeared” – deprived of all her senses by unseen authorities as she pleads with them to return her to the land of the living. The anonymity of the oppressors – and the lack of any heroic protagonist – is a key point for Abdel Aziz. “No one is going to save everybody and make for a happy ending,” she said, as much commentary on the present political scene as summary of the novel.

Moving beyond individual psychology, Rabie’s Otared brings the horrors of city-leveling war to Egypt, recalling the country’s histories of invasion, occupation, and rebellion through a hideously violent Cairo-of-the-future, divided between the invading “Knights of Malta” and a fractious resistance of former police officers. A passage read aloud anthropomorphized Cairo’s landmark buildings – the Magama‘a, the Arab League – in profane and demeaning terms; the Semiramis Hotel, for example, appears as a father calmly pissing all over himself as he grips the hands of his wife and children.

Framing his story along the lines of Dante’s circles of hell in his Inferno, Rabia certainly cleaves to the words that announce the poet’s entry into the underworld: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. “I think hope is a myth we created to live out our lives and get through the day,” Rabie explained to Jaquette. There certainly seems to be a market for such a stark view – Otared has run through five printings, certainly a mark of high praise for the region.

Ganzeer’s graphic novel Solar Grid – for which he was named one of one of Foreign Policy’s Leading Global Thinkers in 2016 – zooms out even further to spin a story of exploitation and repression on an interplanetary scale. Far into the future, the world has been sucked dry by the inhabitants of the global North, who have migrated to the plains of Mars, and whose corporations mine the clouds of Earth for remaining stores of moisture.

Fusing together story ideas that involved the destruction of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam and the trash-picking zabaleen of Cairo, Ganzeer’s serialized production – already two years in the making – picks its way along towards an inevitable conclusion (Ganzeer revealed it in the course of the talk) while incorporating references to the here-and-now of world politics.

In contrast to Ganzeer’s past work – including provocative graffiti art around the streets of post-Revolutionary Cairo – the piece-by-piece development of the serial has allowed him to “get in the heads” of the characters he creates, such as Mehret and Kameen – two orphans of Earth picking through the waste left behind to survive. “[Writing] a graphic novel is a slow process – it allows ideas to percolate and cook slowly.”

Anybody familiar with Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone will know that science fiction stories have long been a means to smuggle sharp political commentary to willing readers while evading the eyes of the censor. Read closely enough in the newer editions of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874) and the anti-Imperialist messaging isn’t too hard to spot – it was clear enough to contemporary English eyes that translators purged it.

In encoding their ideas in the garb of the fantastic, the authors on the panel no doubt hope that the questions about power, authority, and human agency will find their way to an audience interested in answering them. “[Science fiction] is a way by which to imagine a different, possible better way of living,” noted Ganzeer, while Basma Abdel Aziz expressed her belief that “If you put something out there, then hopefully somebody will find it.”

Reaching readers is an ever-present challenge, with Otared’s printings amounting to just over 5,000 copies sold; a solid release in the Arab world can run in the realm of 2,000 (according to Rabie, who works in the Cairo-based branch ofArabpublishing house), while sections of Solar Grid presently have a readership that numbers in the hundreds.

Yet the development of new narratives and genres in Arabic literature stands poised to attract a wider following in the region, especially as best-selling novels and stories are adapted into films and television series with an even wider reach. One hopes, though, that amidst the despair, authors in the region seeking to make sense of their surroundings continue to leave some small space for optimism. Jill Lepore recently wrote out a lengthy sigh of exasperation with English-language dystopian writings for New Yorker, lamenting their descent into a mere “fiction of submission.”

As Abdel Aziz noted to close out the discussion, despite the dark, depressing state of the Middle East and North Africa at present, it is still too early to abandon all hope. “We have to remain optimistic – that is the meaning of life.”       

Andrew Leber is a PhD student at Harvard University’s Department of Government. He occasionally translates and writes about other things when time permits.