The Ruins of the Future: Speculative Fiction in Arabic

On July 12, 2019 at SOAS, scholars hosted a discussion around Arabic Science Fiction, attempting to shift the discussion from chest-beating over the supposed lack of Arabic SFF to an exploration of future-facing fiction. Although the majority of the books discussed were written by men, there are several works by women that appear, including Ibtisam Azem’s The Book of Disappearance, tr. Sinan Antoon and works in Palestine + 100 and Iraq + 100:

By Sneha Alexander

Last month SOAS shifted the conversation around Arabic Science Fiction from lamenting the supposed lack of Arabic texts in the genre to exploring nuanced ideas of dystopia and alternate temporalities in future-oriented Arabic works. In the words of organizer Dr Tasnim Qutiat, Science Fiction Beyond the West: Futurity in African and Asian Contexts centered around “the contested space of the future, how it is envisioned and theorized, and what this reveals about our present moment.” The program’s speakers extended the critical and theoretical discussion about futurity in the early 21st century to regions – including the MENA – which have tended to fall under a framework of exceptionalism and developmental rhetoric.

As organiser July Blalack said in her welcoming remarks, “Speculative Fiction is a means to shift the conversation around the postcolonial world from ‘can they develop enough to catch up’ or ‘can they think scientifically’ to the worlds that help us understand or move beyond the present moment.” The decolonial imagination brings the sharpest insights to issues considered the domain of speculative fiction, making it clear that posthuman domains are not necessarily postracial, that the violence of ecocide is not inflicted on humanity equally, and that space can be more than a place of colonisation.

Although the day included works from across Africa and Asia, this write-up focuses on the speakers who engaged with speculative fiction from Arab-majority countries.

In her opening remarks for the conference, Dr Lindsey Moore (University of Lancaster) discussed Piercing Geometries: Horizontal and Vertical Axes in Contemporary Arab Dystopia. Moore introduced the topic of contemporary speculative literature written in the Arab world, drawing attention to Utopia (Ahmed Khaled Tawfik), Frankenstein in Baghdad (Ahmed Saadawi) and the short story collection, Palestine +100 (edited by Basma Ghalayini). Moore suggested that these texts demonstrate that many people in Arab world are intimately familiar with the concept of living under dystopia.

Moore questioned the concept of temporality – exploring the different ways writers imagine temporal existence and what that might mean for the writing of sci-fi beyond the West. She introduced the concept of “a dischronotopic imaginary,” which deals with a fraught sense of the present that compresses other temporalities into it. She then proposed to interrogate this temporal struggle in terms of the horizontal space of the street, or square, and the vertical space of the tunnel. She discussed the relevance of these geographies both regarding the texts she will talk about and the events of the Arab Spring.

Moore’s exploration of the horizontal axis of dystopia questioned what she called the “horizontal life spirit” and the ways we attach the future to the past. Moore challenged purely linear and horizontal understandings of temporality as she drew attention to the indelible traces that remain from what was, even after processes of erasure. In terms of vertical geographies, Moore described the towering apartment blocks of the French banlieues as a vertical dystopia lived by the marginalised, drawing parallels with the Grenfell tower fire. She suggested that vertical struggles can be clearly mapped on urban space in France and the UK:the higher the story you live on, the more likely you are to be on state assistance. Moore sees this as a structural result of biopower, the culmination of which ends in the ‘cement supercolony’. She ventured that the banlieue is in fact representative of the afterlife of empire, imagining French social housing as a rationalisation of space and time.

Moore astutely pinpointed the racialised geographies of threat, citing Larissa Sansour’s co-directed work ‘In Vitro’ made with Soren Lind. In this film, Sansour uses a split screen to show the parallel worlds of Palestine and Israel, here literally occupying the same space – reflecting the reality of contemporary Palestine; where one can see over the border but cannot travel beyond it. Moore then questioned which is the utopia and which is the dystopia, citing Thomas More’s Utopia where utopia is demonstrated to exist relationally rather than objectively. Drawing back to themes central in Science Fiction writing, Moore asks how questions of cloning, hybridity and mass productions are, in fact, reiterations of questions about heritage and perceived authenticity. Moore ended her talk by discussing Kader Attia’s installation Reflecting Memory, suggesting the productive estrangement of these texts in which the world is mirrored back to us and compressed into this tensile present. In this respect, Moore offered new ways of thinking about temporality, especially when looking at science fiction beyond the West.

The panel, Decolonial Histories and the Future, brought together Annie Webster (SOAS), Ella Elbaz (Stanford), Pius Vögele (University of Basel)and Dr Edna Bonhomme (Max Planck Institute or the History of Science). This panel was chaired by Dr Tasnim Qutait.

Webster’s talk, “Ruins of the Future: On The Possibility of Life Amidst the Atlal,” discussed the tradition of “ruin-gazing” as a generative act for narration, story, and trope. Opening with a discussion of The Mushroom at the End of the World (Anna Tsing), Webster highlights the notion that progress implies ruination. She then complicates this narrative further by citing Sara Pursley’s Familiar Futures, in which attempts to pursue a democratic future are revealed to have neocolonial implications. Webster then discussed imaginaries of Iraq after the war and suggested that predictions became a laboratory for “familiar futures” instead of anti-colonial progress. Webster cited the Science Fiction collection Iraq + 100, as a colonial encounter in literary terms, as the stories were specifically commissioned to be translated into English and presented as “the first Iraqi Science Fiction collection.”

However, she also argued that Iraq + 100 constructed unfamiliar futures by presenting a cacophony of temporal patterns. In addition to this, she argued that the book can work a means to engage with colonial ruins without it becoming poverty porn or war porn. Webster also raised the difficulties of asking Iraqi writers to speak of the future rather than the past, before asserting the importance of recognising and writing Science Fiction in conversation with traditions of the Atlal (the ruins which feature as the beginning of Classical Arabic odes).

Elbaz’s talk, “Can the Future Speak? The Rise of the Palestinian Futurist Novel and its Folklorist Roots,” contested the ways that non-realistic narratives are imagined as antithetical to Arab novels. Elbaz challenged the concept of Science Fiction writing as new to Arab literary traditions and interrogated the reasons for Arab Science Fiction currently receiving publicity in the West. She proposed to interrogate Western fascinations with Arabic futurism by re-examining Palestinian writing, then drew connections between Science Fiction and long traditions of thefantastic, magical, and uncanny in folktales and popular fiction. She also asked what it might mean to speak for the future subaltern in the case of Palestine, interrogating how Palestinians could speak their future and what that might mean. Using the example of Ibtisam Azem’s novel Sifr al-ikhtifa (The Book of Disappearance, tr. Sinan Antoon), Elbaz draws attention to how Palestinian voices are appropriated in the text, with one diary of a disappeared Palestinian being translated into Hebrew. Here erasure translates from our past and present to an imagined future; the future subaltern cannot speak.

The panel, A Wilting Planet, Ecology and Dystopia, brought together Chen Ma (SOAS), Ouissal Harize (Durham University), Tabea Wilkes (SOAS) and Dr Emilia Terracciano. This panel was chaired by Dr Nora Parr.

Harize’s talk, “The Promised Land in the Imaginary of the Anthropocene: Palestine in The Second War of the Dog and Larissa Sansour’s Trilogy of Science Fiction” contested that readers of Palestine +100 would regard Science Fiction as disconnection from contemporary struggles. Harize posited science fiction as both a mode of engagement and act of resistance by those people who were continually cast as alien in their homeland. She discussed the novel The Second War of the Dog (Ibrahim Nasrallah) in which Nasrallah complicates the differences between self/other or human/posthuman. Harize tied this to cultural ambiguities that accompany colonial expansion then expanded on the link between colonial alienation and futuristic imaginaries by drawing on Larissa Sansour’s film A Space Exodus (2008). Harize connects the death of the planet in A Space Exodus with Palestine (the Promised Land) and wondered whether the promised land will end up as nothing more than a futuristic wasteland. By aligning the dread of dispersal in science fiction with that of colonial diasporic subjects, Harize demonstrated how science fiction in Palestine is a useful tool for the present even as it imagines the future.

The final panel Beyond Earth, Liberated Space or the Final Colonial Frontier?, brought together Dr Jörg Matthias Determann (Virginia Commonwealth University, Qatar), Nat Muller (Birmingham City University) and Rachel Muller (Goldsmiths University). This panel was chaired by Dr Sinead Murphy.

Determann’s talk “Envisioning Extraterrestrial Life in Muslim Science Fiction” revealed the relationship between Islamic scripture and science fiction, as well as discussing the attitudes of people in Muslim-majority states towards science fiction. Determann acknowledged that Muslim-majority countries are not often associated with the genre of science fiction. However, Determann contested that even extremely authoritarian Muslim majority countries have been home to the pursuit of imaginative pursuits of knowledge, in particular astrobiology. Determann argued that the Islamic tradition has in fact nurtured, rather than repressed, conceptions of extraterrestrial life. He drew attention to how the Qur’an often refers to Allah as “lord of the worlds” and then explained that Muslim scholar went on to use such phrases as a basis for both astrobiological research and the writing of science fiction. Determann also suggested that Muslim majority governments supported a great deal of scientic research and writing, while politically taboo topics forced authors towards science fiction; contemporary politics were reconfigured through science fiction novels set on different planets or in future time zones. Determann closed his talk with some of humanity’s biggest questions: Are we alone in the universe? And what would it mean for one of our greatest faiths, if we are not?

Nat Muller’s talk “Fly me to the Moon? Retrofuturism and the Ruins of Modernity” in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s A Space Museum discussed the Retrofuturist movement, which centres imaginations of the future that have been created in an earlier time. Muller discussed the Rachid Karami International Fair in Tripoli, whose building was disrupted, leaving in lying in ruins to this day. Architect Oscar Niemeyer was commissioned to design the Rachid Karami International Fair in 1963 but it was discontinued with the onset of civil war in 1975. Muller described this as a failed nation building as well as a vision of the future that was never fully realised. Muller discussed Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s project A Space Museum (designed in the ruins of the Rachid Karami International Fair) as a contemporary iteration of identity and futurism, as unrealised potential from the past is brought to life by an interaction with our present. Muller suggested that this created a loop of sorts, paralleled by the work itself where both historical and contemporary video clips are played continuously, rejecting organisation by chronological time. Muller posited that the Space Museum can therefore be viewed as a historical monument that recovers time rather than material objects, creating the possibility of the museum as a retrofuturist space.

Sneha Alexander is a freelance journalist and editor, who writes about fiction, postcolonialism and popular culture.