The Director of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction on Arabic SF’s Past, Present, and Future

FThe Egyptian Society for Science Fiction director Dr. Hosam El-Zembely talked with ArabLit about the history of Egyptian science fiction and where it’s headed:

What role do you think popular books by prolific authors such as Nabil Farouk (Future Files) and Ahmed Khaled Towfik have played?

Dr. Hosam El-Zembely: I envision Nabil Farouk and Ahmed Khalid Tawfik as a frontier for the ‘third’ wave of SF writers in Egypt and the Arab world. The first wave was by the early pioneers of Arab literature in general, Tawfik Al-Hakim. And Mustafa Mahmoud. The works of these writers were sporadic and inconsistent. But they made the beginning.

Then came the second wave that was led by Nihad Sharif, who was a milestone in the long march of Arab-Egyptian sci-fi. He “specialized,” for the first time in Egypt and the Arab world, in only writing SF. Nihad Sharif was a lighthouse that guided the next generations (the third and fourth generation of writers). Then came Nabil Faouk and Ahmed Khalid Tawfik as the third wave, that greatly helped to reach the vast majority of the Arab and Egyptian youth. They instilled the culture of sci-fi in the fabric of Arab-Egyptian societies. The Egyptian Society for Science Fiction lead the fourth wave of Arab and Egyptian writers: spreading the message, encouraging and helping young writers, establishing the first SF series – “Shams Al-Ghad” (شمس الغد, Sun of Tomorrow) – and the first SF salon in the MENA region.

Why aren’t more “serious” Egyptian authors interested in science fiction, as Tawfiq al-Hakim once was?

HE-Z: A conventional concept present among Egyptian writers is that science fiction is not genuine literature. They have that conception towards SF being “fake” literature or science camouflaged in literature.

The tide nowadays is turning. The third and fourth wave of Arab-Egyptian SF writers managed to convince the public and consequently gain the approval of many literary critics.

Why are you personally interested in SF? What were some early influences and your favorite works?

HE-Z: I was a high school student in London in the early 1980s. I witnessed the beginning of the Star Wars series, and how fascinated British society was with sci-fi. That planted the first seed of love in me. This seed remained dormant till I returned and paid two life-changing visits. The first one was to the house of Nihad Sharif, with my father. He gave me a collection of his works as a present. The second visit was to Mustafa Mahmoud, with my father also, whom I gave a draft of my sci-fi novel. Unfortunately he died before I could get his feedback on my writings. Believe it or not, being a friend of Dr. Nabil Farouk never kept me from reading his Future Files series, which I really enjoyed. Later I decided to carry the torch.

What are your favorite novels?

HE-Z: For Arabic SF, they are: The Spider and A Man Under Zero by Mustafa Mahmoud.

For global SF: Interstellar, by Gregory Keyes.

How many people are in the society, and how active is the group?

HE-Z: The active founders and participants are only about 20 individuals, ranging from writers, critics, translators, and even interested readers. But the monthly sci-fi salon is attracting an increasing number of academics and journalists and even foreign enthusiasts and researchers.

What do you do at a typical salon gathering? Are the participants largely men? Or are there also active women writers in the SF group? Is science fiction in Egypt male-dominated at the moment, and what are you doing to counter this?

HE-Z: The cultural salon is held on the last Friday of each month. The typical salon usually is at 6pm. The program is always determined in advance. We choose to discuss and critique one of the SF novels written by Egyptian authors. We normally have at least two academic literary critics, then we open the discussion for all attendants. We are planning to have a workshop at the end of each coming salon of about 30 minutes on the art and science of fiction and short-story writing.

Egyptian and Arab sci-fi is (unintentionally) dominated by men. Our door is open for all participants. We have distinguished women authors in our publications, including Manal Abd al-Hamid, Hebatallah Ahmed, Abeer Mufti, Yusra Ahmed Hassan, Doaa Ahmed Shukri, and Nadia Al-Kilani. This has led to increased participation of female writers in our publications. Our latest publication, Al-Samidoun (الصامدون) had a ratio of 14 stories by men to 9 by women, while the previous publication – Al-Muntasiroun (المنتصرون) had a radio of 16:8, an improvement. The tide is turning!

What would encourage more Egyptian SF?

HE-Z: Breaking the barrier between books and cinema is the event we as Arab and Egyptian sci-fi writers aspire to. It’s quite a tough job as the Arab-Egyptian cinematic societies are not yet interested in making sci-fi movies.

If a donor in Egypt wanted to give a million euros to support more science fiction, what should they invest in? Prizes? Conferences? Magazines? Support for young writers?

HE-Z: I would invest that sum of money in building an infrastructure for sci-fi culture in Egypt. I envision such infrastructure as creatively designed sci-fi clubs. We need to create and design the first such club, then duplicate it in each governorate. We need such a model to be unique, attractive, sustainable and a continuous learning entity. To get such characteristics in one model, we may hold a competition among architects and thinkers to produce or design such a model. My second objective is to buy tools to breach the high wall between the writer and the filmmakers.

Why is SF an interesting genre for Egyptian readers and writers? What sorts of questions can it address?

HE-Z: The Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, with its writers, is pushing a particular brand of science fiction. Beginning with myself, the founder, as well as some young writers like Ahmed Al-Mahdi, Ammar Al-Hakim, and Ahmed El-Sayyed, we are trying to create an authentic Arab-Egyptian sci-fi literature, creating novels that wander among the fabrics of the Arab-Islamic civilization.

Our ideas and writing are guided by three guiding values: one, the acceptance of the other (other civilizations); two, elimination of hate speech; three, the ambition for the renaissance of the Islamic-Arabic civilization.

What are the most interesting SF books being written in Egypt right now?

HE-Z: For today and yesterday.

Number one, Tawfk Al-Hakim’s radio play “Journey to Tomorrow” (رحلة الى الغد).

Two, Mustafa Mahmoud’s novels The Spider (العنكبوت) and A Man Under Zero (رجل تحت الصفر).

Three, Nihad Sharif’s The People of the Second World (سكان العالم الثاني).

Four, Nabil Farouk’s Future Files (ملف المستقبل).

Five, Raouf Wasfiy’s Nova series.

Six, Dr. Hosam El-Zembely, The Great Space Saga: The Half-Humans.

Seven, Ahmed Al-Mahdi’s The Black Winter, which I have likened to Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall”.

What about horror and other genres that are popular in Egypt? Do you think there’s a general rise in the interest in genre fiction and other more accessible literary forms?

HE-Z: There is a definite rise in the writers and readers of horror literature. The reason for this is that writing horror is much easier than sci-fi. The latter requires higher scientific background that might be lacking for the wide base of Arab literature.

What are your future plans?

HE-Z: Personal plans? On the personal level, I intend to create more time to write SF novels and short stories. On the national level, to break the barrier between writers and movie makers. On the regional level, I intend to create a sci-fi entity that would boost that kind of literature among the people of the region.

We are also, at the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, contributing to children’s sci-fi. Our most recent edition of the “Shams Al-Ghad” series is called The Futurists (المسطقبليون). This book is the output of a competition among Arab-Egyptian SF writers dedicated to children and adolescents.

Finally, your advice for young Arab SF authors?

HE-Z: I have three pieces of advice.

First, read a lot about science, scientific theories, theoretical physics and foreign sci-fi novels; watch as many sci-fi movies as you can.

Second, attend writing workshops and sessions, especially those held by academic professionals.

Third, write and write, and don’t be hasty in picking up the fruits of your work.

Dr. Hosam El-Zembely is the author of three novels and the founding director of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction. For an analysis of his ‘Great Space Saga’ novel, please see this extended review, in English and in Chinese.

Thanks to author and translator Emad El-Din Aysha for his assistance with this interview.

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