Review: The Intertwined Histories of Arab Science and Arabic SFF

Jörg Matthias Determann’s newly released Space Science and the Arab World examines the links between science, history, politics, and speculative fiction:

By Emad El-Din Aysha

Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East (2018), by Jörg Matthias Determann, is a book that has been a long time coming. Both for the author himself, who has been researching it since his days as a PhD candidate, and for us. It’s filled a gap in knowledge about Arab space science. I had no idea that scientists, scholars and politicians from the late 19th century in Arab countries were desperately trying to revive the science of astronomy in the Arab world to help usher in a renaissance of Arab science and resurrect Islamic civilization. Not just old, esteemed countries like Egypt and Syria, but smaller countries like Lebanon and newly formed countries like Saudi Arabia. And not just pushing astronomy, but the wider dream of space travel and rocket technology.

I never knew the story behind Arabsat: that it was actually a space agency dating back to the Cold War, and not just a provider of satellite channels saturated with soap operas and music videos. (Arabsat’s full name is Arab Satellite Communications Organization.) I had no idea that Qatar was a major sponsor of science, via the Qatar Foundation, and that astronomers and scientists in Qatar had even helped identify new planets in the universe.

I had no idea how ‘serious’ the UAE was about actually getting to Mars and setting up the first colony there, with a wide range of Arabs participating. I also had no idea that Arab science fiction was part and parcel of this drive to modernize and renovate Arab-Islamic civilizations, with sci-fi visions helping guide the decision-making process.

Much of the Arab media has been profoundly ignorant, if not downright hostile, to these real-world accomplishments and even more ambitious plans — but we also misunderstood our history. We adhere too much a narrative and a historical account of what went wrong with our scientific history that focuses on a Golden Age that needs to be “revived,” an issue taken up in Determann’s compendious book. Alas, that past age wasn’t as golden as we thought, and science is not the product of willpower alone, or even state financing. There’s policy continuity, independent sources of wealth, the management of that money, and the proper staffing of projects, along with institutional checks and balances. And there are combinations of vested interest groups who make it their job to push for technological advances, regardless of what the person at the top — the unelected king or republican dictator in question — is thinking.

Pros and Even More Pros

The first thing that needs to be said about the book is how much fun it was to read. While absolutely jam-packed with information, it only took me about a week to finish. This speaks to Dr. Determann’s impeccable English — he’s German originally — and extensive knowledge of Arabic.

While saturated with citations, it isn’t written in an excessive academic, style and is just as accessible to the layman as the professional. I would chalk this up to the fact that Dr. Determann is a historian by training and natural disposition. Space Science and the Arab World is a very ‘conversational’ book, written in an easygoing style, and with a lot of passion. You really get into the frame of mind of the historical figures he talks about — people like Ibrahim Helmi Abdel-Rahman, Farouk El-Baz, Taleb Omran, Mohammed Fares — and you do feel that the author is highly sympathetic to the Arab cause while busily chronicling the facts, however unflattering.

The second strong point of the book is how well ordered it is. It’s not ordered chronologically but on the basis of headings that tell what you need to know straight away. And each chapter in turn is ordered into subheadings, helping you go through the phases of Arab space science along with debates about the longer history of Arab-Islamic sciences.

Finally, it highlight a whole swathe of interrelated issues we’re unaware of us, such as the balancing act between nationalism (pan-Arabism) and cosmopolitanism. Nationalism makes automatic sense to us as Arabs, whether its Egyptian patriotism or pan-Arabism, but what about cosmopolitanism? Arab scientists are actually more cosmopolitan than their Western counterparts, and Arab sci-fi has played a noble role in pushing for scientific advance through cosmopolitanism than we care to think.

Not Everything that Glitters is…

Concerning Arabic history and past scientific achievements, here is a revealing little titbit of information: “With the exception of the Maraghah Observatory in 13th-century Iran, and unlike many madrasas or hospitals, rulers did not create endowments for observatories. As a result, most observatories did not survive longer than a generation.”

We always think of waqf (religious endowments) as funding all walks of intellectual activity in the Muslim past. Sadly, astronomy was the exception to that rule. From the 19th century onwards, this situation was fixed, in part, through proper state financing through government ministries and research institutes and university departments. Still, that’s not quite enough. The great thing about waqf was it was beyond that state’s control and provided an important supplement to people’s incomes, particularly wives and widows, and so it was a source of investment as people put their savings into this form of institutional finance. Waqfs need upgrading to the modern trust model, no doubt, but government pay just wasn’t worth the trouble. As for vested interests pushing for scientific advancements in the Middle East, Dr. Determann was right to note that only “Egypt and Iraq perhaps came closest to having a military-industrial complex as sophisticated as Israel’s during the 20th century.” (And we all know what happened to Iraq, don’t we!)

A distinct pattern emerges in the book when you look at success stories like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and even Algeria. When they’re on the verge of a scientific transformation, a war of civil conflict emerges. In the meantime, politics and bureaucracy and party loyalties tend to get in the way. ‘Koftagate’ is a good example of this — the Egyptian device that would somehow magically cure AIDS and Hepatitis C. Egyptian scientist Essam Heggy was the first to expose that fiasco, along with comedian Bassem Yousef, but it didn’t do them any good in the end.

Corruption is also a factor. Dr. Determann writes: “In December 1985, Arab communications ministers dismissed Ali Al-Mashat as the organization’s director general because of malpractice that had resulted in delays and the failure of Arabsat-1A. Al-Mashat had ordered some inferior parts, omitted other parts from the satellite and pocketed the money he had saved.”

The Arab Cosmonaut, Fact and Fiction

An old SF-themed Samir comic.

Cosmopolitanism, it emerges, has been part and parcel of Arabic science fiction. If anything, it is more evident in Arab SF than in Arab scientific and political practice: “In the introduction to his science-fiction novel Flight into Space, the Egyptian journalist Husayn Qadri wrote that ‘men like us’ set their feet on the moon. ‘It does not matter, whether their names are John, Peter, Shatalov, Mustafa or Hasan.’”

The novel came out in 1981 and envisioned a “global space center” belonging to the UN and dedicated to the “benefit of mankind as a whole,” with 1,200 scientists “from all countries” led by a “board of directors consisting of twelve senior scientists, each of whom had a ‘different nationality.’”  If you’re familiar with the likes of Neil Armstrong and Carl Sagan, you’ll know they express the exact same sentiments.

Arab astronauts and cosmonauts, likewise, always note that when you look down at the blue expanse of the earth up against the harsh, cold blackness of space, you fall in love with humanity and no longer see the artificial dividing lines — more commonly known as borders — that hold nations apart. It was wonderful finding this sentiment spelled out in detail in the book. And, as always, art is always one step ahead.

In point of fact, it was Arabs who made NASA into a genuine cosmopolitan enterprise. As Dr. Determann says: “Egyptians such as Farouk El-Baz and Salah Hamid made the American space programs even more global than Germans such as von Braun and Geiss did, as they represented a leading country within the Non-Aligned Movement and the Global South. Not formally with or against either NATO or the Warsaw Pact, Egypt, like other African countries during the Cold War, sought cooperation with, and development aid from, East and West.” Even before the race to get to the moon, there was Ibrahim Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian astrophysicist who was also the head of the Egyptian Institute of National Planning, Egypt’s representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and later the UN commissioner for industrial development in 1963. In 1966, he became the very first executive director of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

It was not nearly as wonderful finding that the Arab media, as back as the 1950s, exhibited no interest whatsoever in the role of foreigners in our respective space programmes. The one exception to that was the Egyptian magazine Al-Hilal, which “printed an interview with the British futurist Arthur Clarke entitled ‘We Will Travel to the Moon’” way back in 1950. Not to be outdone, in 1959, an SF movie came out called Journey to the Moon that “depicted the launch of a German-built rocket with two Egyptians and one German on board.” Yet the Egyptian media is notoriously anti-scientific, and Arab contributions to space exploration and satellite technology come in for specific scorn. Essam Heggy is a classic example, in relation to the media aftermath of Koftagate, but also the dearly departed Ahmed Zewail, who had accumulated enemies in the Egyptian print press before he even got the Nobel Prize.

Arab SF, again, is one step ahead in this regard. Dr. Taleb Omran, a Syrian who is both a scientist and a sci-fi author, outlined his vision of an Arab science city in his 1997 book Space as Wide as a Dream. It was a pan-Arab institution, naturally, where everybody spoke classical Arabic and left nationally distinctive accents behind. Nonetheless, the city was located under the ground, to guard it against prying spy satellites, and on an isolated island at that. And as he clearly states, the scientists had “escaped the ‘foreign monopolies’ that controlled the countries where they had previously worked.”

Dr. Omran is also a big patron of SF, possibly the biggest in the Arab world, a man who clearly believes that to promote science in the Arab world you need to promote science fiction first.

A German Portrait in Anglo-Arab Times

What about the man behind the book? What would interest someone born in Munich, Germany in 1984 in the historical ups and downs of Arab science and Islamic civilization? What would posses him to become Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and author three whole books on such related topics: Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East (2014) and Researching Biology and Evolution in the Gulf States: Networks of Science in the Middle East (2015), and then Space Science and the Arab World?

Speaking to Dr. Determann himself, you discover that he began his university education in 2003, the same year of the American-led invasion of Iraq, and that he was in secondary education in 2001, when the September 11th attacks occurred. Politics was always his favourite topic of discussion growing up, so the Middle East automatically pressed itself on his mind.  It was the “center of world politics at the time,” as he said over email, which prompted him to study History and Arabic Studies at the University of Vienna. He grew to like Arabic, and at the same time that he was taking courses on the history of modern science in Vienna. And, as if that wasn’t enough, his commitment to improving himself also took him to the University of Malta (2006- 2007), through the Erasmus Programme, in an effort to improve his English language skills. The next stop on his learning career was enrolling at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in 2009. As he explains, he was “attracted to studying Arabic texts on history as a way of improving my knowledge of the language and of learning about Arab perspectives on history. My doctoral thesis was on Saudi historiography.”

In the process, as he says, he found a way to combine his interests in modern Arab history and the history of science.

Note that the first Arab in outer space, the Saudi prince Sultan bin Salman, was cajoled into describing his trip onboard the shuttle discovery in 1985 as “reliving’ the Islamic civilisation’s past achievements in the sciences, which formed ‘the basis for what we see now in the space program’” in a CBS interview. Prior to that he “did not think of himself as ‘the personification of the Islamic renaissance’, as one paper described him.” And almost every scientific figure in modern Arab history insisting on a revival-renaissance of the Islamic Golden Age of astronomy and science, as Dr. Determann amply documents. What seems to have happened then is that Arabs and Muslims have unconsciously imbibed the European model of history. They see what they are going through now, the period of stagnation and decline in Arabic science, as a Dark Age and see it as their duty to usher in a renaissance of what lay before. And a reformation of Islam as a religion, along Protestant lines, is part of this baggage of ideas, something that was quite explicitly stated in Egypt in the 19th century at the time of Sheikh Muhammad Abduh and Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani.

In Conclusion: More Science Fiction

Let’s not forget the role of science fiction in all this. The Gulf Arab countries have been doing exceptionally well. A great many decision-makers, extending into the numerous members of the royal families across the Gulf, have bought into this desire to revive the Islamic scientific heritage as well as building the infrastructure that will drive it; development is, after all, meaningless without ‘sustainable’ development. And science fiction is part of the futurist vision they have of themselves: “Michael Winterbottom shot his 2003 film Code 46 partly in Dubai… parts of The Force Awakens were shot in Abu Dhabi,” as Determann’s book notes. Note the transition eastwards, since the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars is actually the desert town of the same name in Tunisia, where much of the filming was done. The UAE has, of late, provided financial incentives for Western movie producers, itself part of its wider diversification away from oil strategy too. The same goes for their Mission to Mars.

As one project manager explains, the mission, according to Omran Sharaf, speaking in Determann’s book, “is not about reaching Mars but about inspiring a whole new generation and transforming the way youth think within the region… The goal here is hope, for humanity, for the region, for youth in countries with lots of conflict.” Cosmopolitanism once again.

That’s precisely what this book does for the Arab reader. It fills him full of hope for the future, while also giving him the tools to create that future in a practical, cost-efficient and sustainable way. History, to me at least, is the handmaiden of science fiction. The buzz you get from holding an archaeological artefact in your hand is the same as the thrill of travelling to a new world and meeting an alien race. History is there to take us forwards, not backwards. But you have you to go backwards first, study the past and its many pitfalls, to go forwards. And if Dr. Determann’s book can play a part in this enterprise, you’ve simply got to read it.

Emad El-Din Aysha is an academic researcher, freelance journalist and translator and also an active member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction.

Comments are closed.