Sci-fi
Fig. 1. Courtesy of Nidal el-Khairy.

Al-Akhbar English, based in Beirut, recently published two articles on science fiction literature in relation to the Middle East. Arabic Science Fiction: A Journey Into the Unknown by Yazan al-Saadi examines the history and current situation of the Arabic sci-fi, and offers several links to more detailed articles, studies and interviews. Warring Worlds of Fiction by Leah Caldwell looks at Islamic themes in sci-fi works written in the West.

Excerpts from Arabic Science Fiction: A Journey Into the Unknown:

Despite its rich history (refer to box below), Arabic sci-fi today is not as ubiquitous as other genres. Being relatively microscopic compared to the Euro-American sci-fi behemoth, commentators like The Guardian’s Nesrine Malik have asked: What happened to Arab science fiction?
For Malik, “fatalism” and “helplessness” within Arab society has crippled imagination. She sees a persistent obsession within Arabic fiction to recapture past glories and a general public suspicion of science and science-fiction as “foreign.” Malik also points to the dominance of monotheism, which has ultimately denied Arabic sci-fi’s flowering.

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Others describe Ibn al-Nafis’s Theologus Autodidactus, written in 1270, as one of the first theological sci-fi novels. It’s of a story of a feral child on a deserted island. As the tale progresses, elements of futurology, apocalyptic destruction and other wild concepts arise, all explained by Ibn al-Nafis through scientific concepts.

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Egypt, a trend-setter as always, was the scene for the first modern Arab sci-fi awakening during the 1950s and onwards. During this period, Yousef Izzedeen Issa wrote and produced a popular sci-fi radio series broadcast on Egyptian radio.

Excerpts from Warring Worlds of Fiction:

Taking religion to other universes is ultimately an act of imagination and experimentation, but it also involves tapping into a vast trove of speculative possibilities. With God’s War and its follow-up novel Infidel, Hurley said that she was interested in “how our interpretations of existing [religious] teachings might change once people fled to the stars.” When conceiving the world and peoples of Umayma, Hurley had to consider, “Would we draw from the same religious texts? Add to them? Take out parts no longer relevant? How would they be reinterpreted by people who had never even heard of Earth?”

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The opposite side of the coin is the “jihad” sci-fi – often written by military folk –that has emerged in the US since 9/11. If Hurley’s and Ahmed’s work hint at how Islamic and Arab histories can help create new, texture-rich worlds, then this marginal strand of jihad sci-fi represents how racist and insular leanings can produce its opposite. Books with titles like Celestial Jihad feature Americans (most often Christians) meting out speculative ass-kickings to no-good Muslims as some abstract comeuppance for 9/11. One of the most common themes is Americans traveling back in time to prevent a nuclear apocalypse at the hands of Muslim extremists. These narratives have a redemptive feel. The US might’ve suffered a blow with 9/11, but in the future, only Americans can save humanity.

Visit Al-Akhbar English website to read both articles.