Afro, Indigenous, and Palestinian Futurisms: Writing Across Space and Time

The annual DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival (DCPFAF) hosted a panel on “Radical Imagining: Afro, Indigenous, and Palestinian Futurism, weaving together what M. Asli Dukan calls “abolitionist futurisms”:

By Marya Hannun

“Hope is a discipline.” Along with many others, I find myself repeating the words of prison abolitionist and activist Mariame Kaba a great deal these days, as life in the US grows ever more characterized by the hallmarks of a dystopia: global pandemic requiring masks and social isolation, protests eliciting surveillance and police brutality, widespread economic precarity as those in power play politics with relief, and a political discourse increasingly filled with propaganda and falsehoods.

Kaba’s words recall those of Syrian playwright, Saadallah Wannous, who in a famous 1996 speech, shortly before his death, lamented the absence of open and multi-lateral dialogue between individuals and societies He presciently noted what became manifestly clear in the age of Trump, that the globalization taking shape at the end of the 20th century was not one of a single world united by justice and equality, but, in Wannous’ words, “the very opposite of that dreamt-of utopia.” However, his conclusion was not abject pessimism. Rather, he said, “our lot is to hope.”

It is no coincidence that two people in such different times and places presented strikingly similar statements about the relationship between hope and dutiful struggle. At least this was the contention behind a recent event organized by the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival (DCPFAF) in our 10th year. The panel, “Radical Imagining: Afro, Indigenous, and Palestinian Futurisms,” intended to explore the connections between these three different bodies of speculative work in their confrontation of power, oppression, and dystopian realities.

The conversation picked up on a thread that began in the 2016 festival, when filmmaker M. Asli Dukan reflected on Afrofuturism alongside a screening of speculative shorts by Palestinian filmmaker Larissa Sansour. 

At the 2020 festival, Dukan returned to moderate a conversation centering Afrofuturism as the wellspring from which Indigenous and Palestinian futurisms have emerged. She was joined on the virtual stage by Dr. Grace Dillon, an Anishinaabe professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies program at Portland State University and editor of the first anthology of indigenous Science Fiction, Walking the Clouds. Also joining her were Basma Ghalayini, the editor of Palestine +100, the 2019 collection of speculative short fiction imagining Palestine one hundred years after the Nakba, and Saleem Haddad, whose short story “Song of the Birds” was included in the volume.

Dukan began by narrating the genealogy of Afrofuturism, the subject of her own documentary work. She described Afrofuturism as a “ubiquitous term” defined by culture critic Mark Dery in the 1990s as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and African-American concerns in the context of 20th century techno-culture.” Unlike the traditional genre of science fiction—embedded and written within the context of white supremacy, settler colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism—for Dukan, at the heart of the history of Afrofuturism is “a conflict of imagination between those wielding authority and those wielding their pens.” She cited pioneering figures like Octavia Butler, whose speculative work centered Black lives and race and took on our entrenched political systems.

Among cultural critics of Arabic prose, there has been a tendency towards handwringing about an apparent lack of Arab speculative or science fiction —the sense that perhaps the lagging state of scientific knowledge in the Arab world, or the intense preoccupations with the political present, have rendered the genre frivolous. 

Yet, as Dukan suggested of Afrofuturisms, across the panel, we heard about indigenous and Palestinian futurisms that engage and reimagine the very systems that some would suggest hold the genre back: technological knowledge, global inequality, and politically tumultuous everyday lives.

Redefining science

For example, in Dr. Dillon’s volume, one of the subthemes explored at length is redefining science in a way that does not erase traditional forms of knowledge and myth by relegating them to the “primitive.” Meanwhile Saleem Haddad, citing Palestine +100’s predecessor, Iraq +100, noted how the use of Iraqi myth and ancient history opened a portal to new possibilities for him as a writer. This allowed him to move away from the more confining dimensions of collective memory or nostalgia and toward a multi-dimensional repurposing of the past. 

This idea of speculative narratives that employ knowledge based in indigenous or distant pasts brought to mind Larissa Sansour’s short film, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain. In this film, manufactured plates, painted with keffiyehs, are dropped like bombs on the ground for future archaeologists to unearth. Palestinians quite literally wield the idea of the past, in the present, in order to determine their future representations.

In addition to time, wresting control of space emerged as another theme across the conversation. Stories in Dr. Dillon’s volume explored the idea of indigenous people as “border crossers,” between space and time. One excerpt, taken from Sherman Alexie’s novel Flight, depicts a character appearing and disappearing from the gaze of a security camera as he space/time travels. She related this theme to a larger feature of settler colonialism, dividing space by drawing borders atop existing indigenous nations across the world. 

Such links between boundaries and settler colonialism also feature heavily in Palestine +100. For example, in Majd Kayyal’s story “N,” the two-state solution morphs into a two-worlds solution, as parallel realities are set up in the same geographic space: one for Palestinians and one for Israelis. Only Palestinians born after the establishment of these worlds are permitted to travel between them. This again recalls the work of Larissa Sansour, whose short film In Vitro,  featuring a post-Apocalyptic Bethlehem, was also shown at this year’s DCPFAF. In the wake of an eco-disaster, the characters are living below ground in a bunker and planning to plant saved heirloom seeds to revitalize the land above. The film uses a split screen, and depicts the Bethlehem of the past, which the scientist born in the bunker has never seen even as she hopes to rebuild it.  This gives viewers the ability to traverse space/time even as the subjects cannot. 

Locating hope

Dukan noted one overarching theme that runs across and between these futurisms—their role in confronting and reflecting a dystopian present (as opposed to warning of a dystopian future), as well as their attempts to balance these dystopias with hope.

Indeed, the Palestine of today, as Saleem Haddad noted, is a rich canvas for science fiction precisely because, “it’s the frontier where tools of subjugation and occupation are experimented with and used.” His words echoed Arab Lit’s recent interview with Lindsey Moore, in which Moore said, “Palestinian writers deal with a dystopian present reality — the wearying, dehumanizing, everyday struggles of life in a carceral non-state.” 

Given this present, it is perhaps not surprising that both Haddad and Ghalayini, reflecting on the broader work of Palestine +100, said it was hard to find hope in the stories themselves. However, they agreed the very act of writing these stories and the process of imagining and creating new forms of narration represented a kind of hope.

Dillon, too, finds hope in the act of imagining. She cited one description of Octavia Butler as an “impossibilities specialist” — writing stories that encompass despair and still manage to look forward to some version of adaptation, if not triumph, stories that are written by and within communities “striving for self-determination.” In Walking in the Clouds, a whole section is devoted to the apocalypse, stories exploring and subverting the sci-fi trope of the apocalypse, because indigenous populations have faced apocalypses already and survived.

The conversation in its entirety made me think differently about the very nature of the question we were asking: about Palestinian futurism as a distinctive body of work, and how and whether it relates to Afro- and indigenous futurisms. 

The US metropolitan police forces that receive training in Israel have fallen under increased scrutiny in the wake of the George Floyd protests. While writing this, I learned that the same private company that provides Israeli prisons with security and surveillance technologies was hired in 2016 to assist the US police with their militarized response to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as they protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. If our carceral states and technologies of oppression are not just operating in parallel but are intimately entwined, can we really draw a line between these dystopian realities? And if our dystopian presents are connected, might our imaginations and capacity for hope—our futurisms—be as well?

This is where M. Asli Dukan has arrived in her own work, as she moves away from the label of Afrofuturism towards a more unifying vision, what she has started to call “abolitionist futurisms.” In this, she is channeling the work of prison abolitionist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who she quoted

“Abolition has to be “green.” It has to take seriously the problem of environmental harm, racism, and degradation. To be “green” it has to be “red.” It has to figure out ways to generalize the resources needed for the well-being for the most vulnerable people in our community, which then will extend to all people. And to do that, to be “green” and “red,” it has to be international. It has to stretch across borders so that we can consolidate our strength, our experience, and our vision for a better world.”

For Dukan, it is in this vision that hope exists. What she calls, “a future for futurist thought.”

Marya Hannun is a doctoral candidate in Arabic & Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. She is also a festival organizer for the DCPFAF, a volunteer run annual Palestinian film and arts festival based in Washington, DC.