Science Fiction in Arabic Literature
While European literary scholars and critics have been studying contemporary Utopian literature for several decades now, the first symposium on "Arabic Literature and Science Fiction" did not take place until April 2006. The faculty of literature and humanistics in the Moroccan city of Casablanca hosted a discussion about whether there is even an awareness of SF in the Arab world, why Arabic-language writers don't seem to enjoy SF at all and what was behind the lack of popularity of this genre of literature, even among academics.
A book is like a garden you carry in your pocket.Arabic proverb
At a meeting chaired by the professor for Arabic literature, Dr. Idriss Qassouri, delegates discussed the few novels by Arabic-language writers which address issues of the future. Participants analysed the current state of affairs and then criticised the fact that literature critics were also guilty of not paying enough attention to this genre. However, it proved difficult to produce a well-founded analysis, because there is "much too much Western theory for much too little Arabic material."
In terms of how this genre of literature is treated, the typical viewpoint until now has been as follows: in 1987, at a big symposium on children's books in the Gulf states, SF literature was still described as "stimulating in principle" but it was also noted that it would be better to set stories and TV series in surroundings already familiar to Arab children, to derive them from Arab culture and to adapt them to the religious principles of Islam. The motto was: "A child's imagination should be liberated - but within recognised limits."
It wasn't until mid-2005 that Sifat Salameh, an Egyptian SF expert living in the US, was able to criticise Arab education systems, which she accuses of failing to give enough encouragement to children's imagination and creativity. She called for the integration of SF in normal classes at schools and universities in the Arab world:
The importance of the SF genre of literature lies in its ability to stimulate the reader's creative phantasy and strengthen his/her ability to envisage imagined scenarios. It is indeed necessary to develop the ability to invent and to discover creative and exceptional children at an early stage, so that our Arab world can receive a generation of inquisitive scientists and academics.
In an essay published in the London-based daily newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, the also quoted the Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail, who is of Egyptian descent:
The true scientist who loves his work, must dream, for if he does not dream up the world himself, he will for ever do the same thing as his predecessors and add nothing new.
At the 1st International Conference on Cyber-Law, held by the Arab League in Cairo in August 2005, the League's information technology advisor Zayn Abdelhadi spoke of the influence of SF on modern-day legislation. He thus proved that, in a roundabout manner and via new technologies, SF is gradually gaining in acceptance in the Arab world - even if he cites William Gibson's famous novel with an Arab-romantic-style misinterpretation, calling it "New Romancer".
The Arab world's current difficulties with imagination and vision are actually surprising, since, just as in Europe, we have known early visions of "perfect societies" for centuries - take for example those of the philosopher Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi in his work "Opinions of the residents of a splendid city". 500 years before the "Utopia" of Thomas Morus, al-Farabi described a life of happiness and prosperity in a perfect state that had done away with humanity's evil tendencies. Or take al-Qazwini's futuristic tale, written around 1,250 a.d. about "Awaj bin Anfaq", a man who came to earth from a distant planet. But in contrast to Europe, these texts remained rare exceptions in the Arab world. They were written far too early and for that reason were unable to exercise any influence.
Today, however, there is criticism of the poor scientific education of the masses (and of writers), although not without a certain level of self-criticism. But the Arab world still does not have any academics like Hoyle, Asimov or Sagan, who think, write and thrill beyond the limits of what is known.
Utopian Novels in a State of Emergency?
Dreams can be more subversive than political ideologies, which is why they are so threatening to self-declared realists.Arno Gruen
There have already been numerous observations as to why - after the devastating Mongol storms, five hundred years of Ottoman occupation, after the struggles against attacking crusaders and later against European colonial powers - today hardly any Arab harbours any illusions: because neither the national liberation movements, nor any pan-Arab vision, nor religiously-motivated movements, nor state socialism (with their often truly Utopian five-year-plans) have managed to keep their promises of universal prosperity. A step forward is often followed by two or even three steps back. Furthermore, of the 28 efforts to unite two or more of the arbitrarily created "Arab states", not one has been a success. All of these visions paled all too quickly in the light of power politics and economic interests.
In addition, traditional clan and clientele-based structures are not exactly the most fertile ground for the development of Utopias because they derive their sustainability from the preservation of the status quo. Only those who exist in constant redundancy with the total tradition is respected - new ideas, on the other hand, seldom fall on open ears.
This basically sounds illogical, since neither Arabic writers nor their readers have any fundamental problems with phantasy per se. Even the early arabesque work "Arabian Nights" includes numerous examples which, from an academic point of view, could easily be categorised as SF literature (Example: Flying Carpet). But this perception is a "western" one and not that of the Arab reader, to whom modern technology is something strange and foreign, technological containers which can be imported and used without any analysis of their actual content (Example: Digital Koran). Put in general terms, the Arab views the concept of a mobile telephone as entirely foreign until he actually uses one himself, after which it becomes something he takes entirely for granted. Is this not Allah's will?!
The Future in God's Hands
A scientific novel which is connected with phantasy cannot fall on fertile ground in an environment of preprepared answers and rejection of a culture of knowledge.Dr. Omar Abdelaziz
The almost complete lack of the element of "Futureness" is characteristic of Arabic literature in its entirety - as it is of broad aspects of life. For the future is in the hand of God only and it is almost sacriligious to want to phantasise about his plans.
If the people of Europe went on the offensive to escape the dark ages, most Arab countries have yet to take this step. Until then, they prefer to hark back to a glorious past, which, in hindsight, appears brighter and shinier than any imaginable future in these desolate economies, under these rigid regimes and under the increasing pressure of globalisation. This behaviour is understandable, since these things are constantly present in everyday life for most Arab people. And for many, the daily reality proves that the war is a long way from being over.
The only surviving promise of healing is that of the religions. But their protagonists, too, are a long way from showing people credible alternatives and models of a desirable future. Furthermore, phantasy in the strict Islamic sense means creative power - and creation is the domain of God alone. Tough times ahead, therefore, for Arabic-language SF writers.
No Interest in SF?
I personally have been reading Utopian novels, as they were then known, since I was thirteen. Thanks to the Goethe Institute in Damascus, I already had access to the Goldmann publishing house's first translations in the 1960s. Since I was completing my Arab school education at the same time, I was able to captivate my friends time and again with summaries of these SF stories. Young people's willingness to embrace visions and Utopias appears to be a universal phenomenon that crosses cultural borders.
In the 1980s, I wrote some stories myself, which I had published by the Heyne house under the pseudonym Ghassan Homsi. But in my Arab surroundings, interest in possible models for the future appeared to shrink drastically with adulthood - there was hardly anyone left whom I could please with my reports of orbital elevators, nanotechnologies and Dyson Spheres. The social machine had struck and time stood still. Even today, the only names mentioned in Arabic articles or interviews are Verne and Wells, perhaps also Orwell, Asimov or Sturgeon.
On the other hand, younger people are just as familiar with SF films and TV series as their contemporaries anywhere else in the world. The forums show us that, in addition to Terminator, Star Wars, Alien and Matrix, the films 2001, Blade Runner and The Guardian have left a huge impression. Why, then, should these young people have no interest in Arabic-language SF?
Egypt at the Vanguard
The first Arabic SF in modern times was written over fifty years ago in Egypt, other Arab countries followed about 25 years later. But the response to these works was modest. Literature experts count 35 SF novels which have been written in the Arab world up to now. This figure cannot be entirely correct, since in Egypt alone there were more than twenty novels published by the turn of the millennium with titles such as "Inhabitants of the Other World" or "Flight into Space" as well as at least 15 collections of short stories (e.g. "Save this Planet" or "Five Minutes to Live"). For many Arabic writers have flirted with SF - but only a handful of them have written any more than a single novel or short story. Furthermore, their novels are usually on a modest scale, somewhere between 100 and 150 pages long.
Youssef Izzedeen Issa wrote several SF radio plays, which were broadcast from 1957 onwards by Egyptian radio. The novel "The Spider " (1964) by Mustafa Mahmud is often cited as the first real SF, the author subsequently published "A Man Under Zero " (1967). Ahmad Suwailem wrote two books of poetry full of SF motifs, "Travels and Medals" (1983) and "Splinters" (1994) and the first SF novel by a woman was "The Crime of a World " (1992) by Omayma Khafaji. The writers Nihad Sharif and Muhammad el-Ashry are even more active.
Nihad Sharif, who was born in 1932, is considered a representative of a disciplined Arabic SF, which does not want to get out of hand altogether. Sharif, who studied the science of history, began writing in 1949 and his texts were published in most Arabic newspapers and magazines. Muhammad el-Ashry has published four novels so far. The 38-year-old geologist from Cairo, who also has a degree in translation, has already been honoured with a number of awards. As a child, he read about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and immediately wanted to build a "negative bomb", which would soak up and compress all the radioactivity. Healing and damage limitation are also the subjects of his subsequent books, which are often inspired by life in desert camps. And the solution always lies in love - true to oriental romanticism. This conclusion can also be drawn from his Arabic language blog, in which he also comments on the general condition of Arabic SF:
The failure of SF to take hold in Arabic literature lies in the scientific backwardness of our life. (...) Most new technological terms appear are strange and difficult to us, so that we hardly use them.Muhammad el-Ashry
It is in Egypt that we encounter the shadow of the 1950s, when even in the western world cheap novels and trivial literature were largely ignored and their authors written off as lacking literary qualifications. For hardly anyone dares to mention Nabil Farouq, born in 1956, who has written and published numerous Crime and SF series, which are read mainly by children and teenagers and remind us of "The Three Investigators" transplanted into space.
Farouq, a doctor from Egypt, who has not practised medicine for years now, was awarded the Tanta Cultural Palace Prize in 1979 for his short story "The Prophesy" - with which he began the series "Cocktail 2000" - and in 1984 he won the competition initiated by the Kuwaiti magazine "Book Worlds" for his short story "Deadly Rays"- with which he then launched the series "Future File". In this series, a fearless group of young Egyptians of both genders fight against the whole gamut of crime, from illegal arms deals through invaders from outer space, who have been hiding in the innards of our earth for millions of years. Farouq makes use of all the tricks of the trade, from parallel worlds to travels through time and space. He weaves in plenty of "life belts" in the form of philosophical observations, so that the stories do not descend into a flood of mere action. These series have made Nabil Farouq the most well-known SF writer in the Arab world.
The Other Arab Countries
Elsewhere in the Arab world, the novel "The Elixir" (1974) by the Moroccan Mohammed Aziz al-Habbabi is viewed as the first SF book, but it was to remain this author's only effort too. Another novel from Morocco is "The Blue Flood" (1979) by Mohammed Abdelsalam al-Baqqali.
In Iraq, the first SF books to be published were in the mid-1980s, with the novel "The Green Stain" (1984) by Kassem al-Khattat and the collections of short stories "She Pulsates with Life" by Muwaffaq Uays Mahmud and "The Green Planet" by Ali Karim Kathem (both 1987). The novel "The Multiple Man " (1992) by the Kuwaiti writer Tiba Ahmad al-Ibrahim, who went on to write two more books - was the first work of SF by a female Arabic writer, alongside Omayma Khafaji in Egypt.
In the 1990s, the number of writers taking an interest in the genre grew, with the likes of Kassem Kassem in Lebanon, Mustafa al-Kailani in Tunisia, Abdallah Khalifa in Bahrain and Mussa Oald Ibno in Mauretania. The female Syrian writer Lina Kailani wrote forty texts, the Jordanian Sulaiman Mohammed al-Khalil dealt with cloning with a black humour all too seldom seen in Arabic literature and in Saudi Arabia, the short story collections "Ghosthunters" (1997) and "Yearning for the Stars" (2000) by Ashraf Faqih found their way into the book stores.
Worthy of special mention is Taleb Omaran from Syria, who was born in 1948 and is also regarded as a pioneer of Arabic SF. By August 2005, his bibliography included 45 novels and short story collections. Omran has a doctorate in Astronomy and presented a science programme on Syrian television for more than 14 years. He is currently head of the department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the education faculty of al-Rastan.
After his debut "Planet of Dreams" (1978), novels like "In Transit Behind the Sun" (1979), "There are no Poor People on the Moon" (already in its third edition 1983, 1997, 1999) or "Fountain of Darkness" (1995) followed. The novel "Secrets from the City of Wisdom" (1985) was translated into English in 1992 and published in India. After that, his novels and short story anthologies were published in three main batches by the Islam-oriented Dar al-Fikr publisher in Damascus. They are usually between 100 and 150 pages long and cost US$2 to $4. Perhaps the statistics do reflect a genuine trend of growing interest, for only four books were published in 1997, while the number rose to eight in 1999 and twelve in 2004.
Omran himself, however, grumbles about the fellow travellers who destroy the genre with illogical or unscientific phantasies. He gets particularly annoyed when, for example, an "Arab spaceship" "lands" on Jupiter (a planet made of gas!) or even on the rings of Saturn, when an elevator breaking through the roof of a house flies on to the moon or when a child in an air bubble is blown far away in the sky. In his view, things like that belong to the style of "Arabian Nights". For in "Arabian Nights", anything is possible, there are no limits to the imagination and no end to the stories...
Until now, there have been just a few serious and "proper" Arabic SF writers. And there is still no Arabic-language Perry Rhodan, - the hero of the oldest German Pulp SF - to find a solution for how to locate the right direction to face Mecca for prayer from Hyperspace. So far, the writers are always measured by the high standard of traditional literature - and come in for harsh criticism if they address taboos. Sales and marketing are generally inadequate - even within the individual Arab states - and awareness of what neighbouring countries are producing is generally modest, despite numerous book fairs. It is only since the advent of the Internet that an exchange between young writers has been taking place. The net could prove to be the saviour from the great disaster. But gradually, other people are also taking notice:
In February 2006 the Lebanese daily newspaper al-Nahar announced that it would in future also be dealing with SF in its literature section. The journalists Jumana Haddad and Zaynab Assaf called on writers to submit texts. However, to their frustration, they found that even the young writers to whom they had written directly failed even to respond. In their analysis, the two journalists are not sparing with criticism but they also challenge received wisdom. No scientific milieu? Cyrano du Bergerac did not have one either, 300 years before Apollo, they argue. Not enough imagination? That cannot be right, they say, although Arab phantasy does tend to exaggerate and its verbal art forms are generally to be found in poetry rather than prose. Obsession with bread, sex and survival? Is it not the case that some of the best SF books were written in the light of personal, national or even global disasters? Thus, the two al-Nahar journalists come to the conclusion that the language is the main culprit:
The Arabic-language is downright "unfriendly" towards the terminology of science. This nomenclature is neither harmonious nor reconciliatory with the language. Because of the fact that, in many schools, science subjects are taught in French or English, scientific thought is disconnected from our Arabic language. Translations are difficult if not impossible.
Publishers' reluctance to issue translations is quite understandable when we see, for example, that "Hard SF" is literally translated as "difficult SF"! Along with the following explanation: that this SF is so "difficult" because it deals with scientific laws and theories of the greatest precision - and therefore requires a high degree of specialisation by the author! Given such circumstances, what publishing house would wish to tackle Banks, Brin or Vinge?!
At the Symposium mentioned at the start of this essay, on "Arabic Literature and Science Fiction", delegates agreed that further research of SF within Arabic-language literature was urgently needed. Perhaps a few new SF novels can be presented at the International Symposium planned for April 2008 in Casablanca - a few new pocket-sized gardens of imagination. The youth of the Arab world would be grateful!
Last but not least, one small pearl: on 24 December 2005 the Lybian Baqer Jassem Mohammad published a SF short story entitled "World Without Colour" on an independent leftist Web Site "Civilised Dialogue": in it, scientists try to find out which colour environment is most advantageous for humans. Five cities are painted entirely in a single colour, all buildings and vehicles, clothes, simply everything is the same colour. The statistical analyses of this ultimately catastrophic experiment reveal that the damage was exactly the same in all five cities - for a world with just one colour is a world without colour.
In the Arab world, there are many reasons for wanting to call out these words.
Translation from German: Don Mac Coitir
9 (Achmed A. W. Khammas)