Emad El-Din Aysha on ‘Arab and Muslim Science Fiction’: ‘Our male heroes aren’t criticized for crying’
By Jörg Matthias Determann
A recently released volume entitled, Arab and Muslim Science Fiction: Critical Essays (Jefferson: McFarland, 2022), explores the struggle facing Arab and Muslim authors of the genre across the world, whether living in their own countries, or the diaspora, through a series of first-person perspectives from a broad range of activists in the science fiction field. It refines and expands on comparable publications like Ian Campbell’s Arabic Science Fiction and this writer’s own Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World.
Written for both the casual reader and the specialized academic, the essays are mostly by authors, but also academics, translators, and publishers, combining theory with real-world experiences. The book offers readers a rare insight into the challenge of writing science fiction in the Arab and Muslim sphere—the genre to date a non-mainstream literature in the Middle East with its authors often self-published. Two mainstream sci-fi authors in Egypt are Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and Nabil Farouk (whether in their pocketbook series or their more recent full length novels). There is also the Syrian author and sci-fi patron, Taleb Omran. A good selection beyond this are Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, Ahmed Al-Mahdi’s Malaz: City of Resurrection, Ammar Al-Masry’s The Black Angel, Emad El-Din Aysha’s The Digital Hydra and Other Stories, Comma Press’s Palestine+100 and Algerian author Faycel Lahmeur’s Amin Al-Ulwani.
The book was co-edited by ophthalmologist, university professor, and literary patron, Hosam A. Ibrahim Elzembely, and Emad El-Din Aysha. A former adjunct assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, Emad is currently a freelance journalist, translator, researcher, and science fiction author. Based in Cairo, he is also a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction and its chief translator.
The book’s table of contents and contributors can be found at the publisher’s website.
ArabLit contributor, Jörg Matthias Determann, spoke to Emad El-Din Aysha about the history of sci-fi in the region and some of the key trends the genre is undergoing:
How did you and your co-editor, Hosam Elzembely, come to work on Arab and Muslim Science Fiction?
Emad El-Din Aysha: The project began in the heady days of 2018. I’d been with the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF) since 2016, only having started writing sci-fi in earnest since 2015. And I’d only joined through some fortuitous circumstances. It was Dr. Hosam’s idea, not mine, and he’s the editor/author.
Dr. Hosam wanted the book to be a series of personalized essays by individual authors, and I went about tracking people down, beginning with our personal contacts and then via social media and some SF-related friends of my own (translators, bloggers, academics) from my days at the American University in Cairo. This includes the advice of the dearly departed James E. Gunn, a golden age author and founder of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction.
Then the book went through another evolution as contributors (fiction writers) suggested easier formats for their chapters, such as interviews, while introducing us to other potential contributors (including editors, publishers). This pooling of resources in turn helped us map out the book and as a consequence, you have a wonderful sense of proportionality as you read. Section I gives you a basic introduction to science fiction and the subject of the book; section II covers geographic regions with both similar and diverging experiences, beginning with the story of Arabic sci-fi (accounts from the East and West of the Arab world), and section III is an appraisal of everything that followed while highlighting new issues. The largest chapters respectively are at the center of the book and towards the end of the book, taking you from the more lighthearted anecdotal accounts to in-depth academic analysis of history and trends.
It took some time, as you can see, with the book coming out in March 2022 but it was well worth the wait. We practically covered all the bases—the economics of publishing, literary communities and critical reception, anecdotal accounts, history, science and society, etc.
What makes Arab and Muslim science fiction special?
EA: That’s the million-dollar question. I’d say we place the spirit center stage. We want to shelter it from corrupting influences, technological arrogance included, which is a Quranic injunction. Evil suggestions don’t just come from the devil; they come from within. And the world on the outside is perceived as mystical and miraculous.
We have a lot in common with sci-fi from the Global South, too. Our concerns lie elsewhere, whether it’s turning the deserts green or maintaining family values, or honoring religion. As Arabs especially, we love gardens and vines and family get-togethers in our mini-utopias. As Muslims, we have a much more holistic vision of the future, of what the future should look like, with peaceful coexistence and a much more genteel attitude to everything, from mental and spiritual health, to alien contact and space exploration. Our heroes, while predominantly men, aren’t criticized for crying during profound moments and women are surprisingly well represented and proactive in our stories. There’s still room for improvement though.
Of course not all Arab and Muslim sci-fi is quite so benign and optimistic, especially post-Arab Spring, but you can still feel that positive force in the background, even as younger authors take on the mantle of alien invasion epics and dystopias. You find chivalry and redemption creeping in through the back door. Our humor is very tongue-in-cheek too.
Where and when did Arab and Muslim science fiction begin? Who are some of the first authors and what did they write?
EA: For the Arabs it technically began in Egypt in the 1950s-60s thanks to the valiant efforts of Tawfik Al-Hakim, Ezz El-Din Essa (both wrote radio plays as well as stories) and Mustafa Mahmoud, a novelist in his early days and an Islamic thinker. They had an overriding concern with popularizing science among Arab readers and listeners, but were also tremendously hostile to ‘modern’ science seen as inherently Western and materialistic. They predominantly wrote stories about imbalances with nature caused by discoveries like immortality and people not needing each other in a techno-mania future.
Amazingly, what kick-started this whole process of fermentation was the Space Race between the superpowers, opening up new horizons of technological advancement for us all, coming out in everything from sci-fi to modernist poetry.
That being said, after doing our book we were humbled to find precursors of Arabic sci-fi in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with Francis Marsh, Adeeb Ishak, Farah Antione, Michelle Al-Saqal, and Musa Salama. (We’re eternally grateful to Dr. Kawthar Ayed from Tunis for enlightening us on this). This was Utopian literature influenced in part by the same genre of literature in the late Ottoman period. There was also a very early sci-fi novel from Tunisia in the 1930s with Sadek Rezgui, with Muslim sci-fi also developing very early in the 20th century in Iran, sadly in complete isolation from the Arab literary scene. (Thanks are due to Dr. Zahra Jannesari-Ladani from Iran and our Turkish colleagues from Bilimkurgu Kulübü). Encounters with modernity and slowly creeping Western colonialism are the common denominator here.
We’re so busy communing with and learning from the outside world, the West, forgetting our neighbors. So much wasted time. We had to wait, in the Arab world, till the 1950s for a spark of inspiration, from the West, to create a cascade effect, and even then the only full-time sci-fi writer came in the 1970s, Nihad Sharif. Even Iran and Turkey, and Tunis, lost touch with their early achievements till much later and Syria and Lebanon were almost completely derailed.
What are some of the most interesting trends in Arab and Muslim science fiction for you?
EA: The explosion of subgenres. In Egypt sci-fi writers are going through a dystopian phase that’s dragging on a little longer than it should, thanks to the post-Arab Spring, with Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Utopia (2008) being a prophetic precursor. But there’s so much else going on underneath the radar. Cyberpunk and Steampunk are accelerating and gaining ground and with distinctive contributions given the stylistics of these subgenres in the West.
Other developing trends are the growth of Young Adult sci-fi (along with fantasy and horror) and the growth both of mega-sized novels (500 page plus) alongside the much smaller pocketbook series type novels about youthful heroes, either secret operatives or university students, trying to save the world.
The biggest change of all, however, something Dr. Hosam has charted, is the growing sense of cultural authenticity. We’re searching for our roots, our history, formulating our own identity, and no longer taking Western modernity as our litmus test while not outright rejecting it either.
What are you hoping that your book will achieve?
EA: Proving that we have more to offer the future than our past literature. That we can dream up words and worlds other than The 1001 Nights, with complete respect to that classic. That and getting our names in the papers, the ESSF, and finally pooling resources with fellow Arabs and Muslims and our counterparts in the Global South.
We also want to get specialized sci-fi magazines going, one of the best ways to popularize SF among Arab readers. To date there’s only one Arab sci-fi print magazine, in Syria (Science Fiction), and a few online (on Facebook and elsewhere). This is unacceptable. Sci-fi in the 20th century in the West began in magazine form from the era of the pulps onwards. Academic recognition of our book will get the ball rolling, especially if we can get the book standardized; university courses on sci-fi or modern Arabic literature.
Is there anything else about Arab and Muslim science fiction that might surprise our readers?
EA: Something very distinctive about us is that we’re more in touch with our past than modern English-language sci-fi is. We’re actually living right next door to our history and heritage, architecture and food, customs and religion, and social stature and we bring that to our sci-fi literature in interesting and original ways. We construct our future world through resurrecting bits and pieces from the past—social orders, technologies, practices and precepts, crises and wars—in a very functional, in-depth, and colorful way. We don’t need to research it, in academic fashion. It’s almost second-nature to us.
Local readers likewise can relate to it and immerse themselves more readily in the world of the story and its narrative. Take a look at Ahmed Al-Mahdi, one of our contributors. The moment I picked up his Steampunk novel Malaz: City of Resurrection I could recognize the telltale signs of the Mamluks, Egypt’s legendary slave soldiers who ruled uncontested for centuries. Read his apocalyptic novel The Black Winter and the cannibalism on display automatically recollects the horrible period of famine in the Fatimid era, along with more modern references to opportunistic merchants and heavy-handed officialdom. Ammar Al-Masry practically charts the whole of Islamic history, rise and decline of empires and civilizations, in his Atlantis trilogy, through alien surrogates, but coupled with zap-kapow action on a par with Japanese anime.
Now that your book is out, what are working on?
EA: The next logical step, and we had this in our sights from the very beginning even when writing our proposals for various publishers, is translation. We have Turkish and Farsi and Malay speakers out there who want to connect with us, and European readers beyond the English-language sphere. Not to forget China.
Emad El-Din Aysha was an adjunct assistant professor at the American University in Cairo and has also taught at the British University in Egypt and Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development. He is a managing editor at The Levant newspaper and formerly wrote for The Egyptian Gazette, Daily News Egypt, and Egypt Oil and Gas. He is published mostly in English but has one (Arab) sci-fi anthology to his name. He has participated in several online conferences on sci-fi- related topics, and has translated numerous novels and stories from Arabic into English. He is a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction and the Egyptian Writers’ Union.
Jörg Matthias Determann is an associate professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. He also serves as an associate editor of the Review of Middle East Studies. He holds a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and masters degrees from the University of Vienna. He is the author of four books, including Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life and Space Science and the Arab World.