Science fiction from the Arab world has been capturing the attention of western audiences as of late. This year, sci-fi across the fields of literature, film and art in the region is getting much of the critical attention it lacked in the past. Next month, the Middle East Film and Comic Con will take place in Dubai (9-11 April), featuring Sohaib Awan who will show the animated series pilot of his digital comic Jinnrise. It follows a cosmic battle between an invading race of aliens known as the Kibrani that exercise terror through scientific and technological advancement and a despised forgotten race of Jinn that reveal their strength through ancient mysterious powers – all witnessed through the eyes of an international student in Morocco.
This year, Iraqi author Hassan Blasim is slated to release Iraq +100, a futuristic anthology that imagines Iraq in 2103. While it is still unknown whether Nabil Ayouch, Morocco’s most well-known director, will this year release the futuristic film that envisions the Arab world in 50 years. In addition, cultural festivals like the Shubbak Festival and Emirates LitFest will be holding panels on Arab sci-fi, while leading international art fair Art Dubai will be featuring the work of sci-fi-influenced artist Mehreen Murtaza.
Arab sci-fi hasn’t always been in the spotlight. In fact, up until recently the Middle East and North Africa has mostly featured as a landscape and figures in narratives from the West – mere tropes such as can be seen in Dune or Star Wars. In fact, the lack of attention given to the genre’s perspectives and voices from the Arab world has been so pronounced that both Western and Arab commentators have bemoaned its absence.
In fact, science fiction in the Arab world can be traced as far back as the 13th century, when Ibn Al-Nafis wrote Theologus Autodidactus, believed to be one of the first theological sci-fi texts, putting forth concepts like spontaneous generation and the apocalypse through a child living alone on a deserted island. Considered proto-science fiction, One Thousand and One Nights introduced fantasy narratives of robots, underwater adventures and journeys through the cosmos.
In the modern era, Egypt led the revitalisation of Arabic science fiction in the 1940s with productions like Youssef Izzideen Issa’s radio-broadcast sci-fi dramas, wherein he would narrate to rapt Egyptian audiences tales of super-intelligent donkeys overtaking mankind and violet rays falling on Earth to make all humans appear identical.
Among various Egyptian writers, like Nabil Farouq, Ahmad Suwailem, Omayma Khafaji, Nihad Sharif and Muhammad Al-Ashry, who began to explore the genre was Mustafa Mahmud, who published three sci-fi novels—The Man Below Zero (1965), The Spider (1965), and Rising from the Coffin, in 1967.
Others followed suit: in Morocco, novelist Mohammed Aziz Al-Habbabi published The Elixir in 1974, and Mohammed Abdelsalam Al-Baqqali wrote The Blue Flood in 1979. In Iraq the 1980s saw a rise in sci-fi literature, including Kassem Al-Khattat’s The Green Stain (1984) and Ali Karim Kathem’s The Green Planet (1987). In Syria, Taleb Omaran has written numerous popular sci-fi novels, like Planet of Dreams (1978), In Transit Behind the Sun (1979), There Are No Poor People on the Moon (1983), Secrets from the City of Wisdom (1985), and Fountain of Darkness (1995).
Other sci-fi novels and short story collections were soon produced by writers across the region, like Tiba Ahmad Al-Ibrahim in Kuwait, Ashraf Faqih in Saudi Arabia, Musa Oald Ibno in Mauritania, Sulaiman Mohammed Al-Khalil in Jordan, and Lina Kailani in Syria.
In the past few years, critical attention to Arab science fiction has surged. The winner of last year’s influential International Prize for Arabic Fiction was Frankenstein in Baghdad by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi. It is a gothic horror tale of a man who haunts the streets of Baghdad, scavenging human body parts on the scene of explosions to sew together a human corpse. Upon completion, this Frankenstein, or “what’s-its-name” as he calls it, is unleashed on a search for revenge. The West’s increased interest in the region’s science fiction saw Ahmed Tawfiq’s futuristic bestselling novel Utopia, a tale of a dystopian Egypt set in the year 2023, translated to English in 2011.
The Gulf, in particular, has proven to be fertile ground for Arab sci-fi, various festivals and fairs have been at work promoting the genre. In 2013, Ibraheem Abbas and Yasser Bahjatt wrote HWJN, a romantic sci-fi novel featuring a jinn-human love affair. Published in English and Arabic through their own publishing company, Yatakhalayoon, it quickly became a bestseller in Saudi Arabia, confirming a sci-fi demand from the Gulf.
Prompted by the novel’s success, they published another novel Hunaak! (Somewhere!) last year, and have been inspired to work on a movie adaptation, novels, a television series, and action figures. Conversely, Emirati writer Noura Al-Noman has not yet decided to translate to English Ajwan, her young-adult sci-fi about a 19-year-old alien who escapes the destruction of her water planet and goes on an interplanetary quest to rescue her kidnapped baby. She claims she wants focus to remain on the Arabic sci-fi text, which has remained a challenge, albeit a valuable one, due to a lack of existing Arabic terminology to encompass fantasy narrative.
But the futuristic cityscapes defining the Gulf have also been influential in the work of, for example, Qatari writer and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria who, with Ben Robinson, filmed a sci-fi musical comedy called Topaz Duo: Cosmic Phoenix. It follows the adventures of an Egyptian lounge-singer couple on a quest to stop the alien destruction of Earth. Al-Maria’s 2007 Sci Fi Wahabi, a mixed video and essay production, reflects on the speed with which the Gulf was thrust into hypermodernity while maintaining tradition. In reflecting upon the Gulf’s hypermodern structures, globalised consumerism, cultural kitsch and repressive rules, she develops the concept of “Gulf Futurism” (which she coined, along with artist Fatima Al-Qadiri) through her other artwork to critique what she conceives as a dystopian future that is today’s reality, stylistically rendered through the Gulf paradox of a desert horizon against a gleaming skyline of steel skyscrapers.
Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour also explores Arab futures through a dystopian lens, but her context is far from the Gulf. With Palestinian territories already fragmented via checkpoints, towers, detours, into Zones A, B, and C, it is difficult to imagine how to extend this already dystopic reality into a further dystopic futuristic scenario. In her short Nation Estate, Sansour envisions a world where the entire Palestinian population is housed in a sterile high-rise building – reducing segregated territories, roads, buses, etc., to access to one building.
As far back as 1973, Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed, The Ill-Fated Pessoptimist showed the transformation of the protagonist into an extra-terrestrial alien to escape the occupation. Part of science fiction’s momentum to “imagine unimaginable futures” is undergirded by a desire to confront and struggle with an unyielding present, however bleak its future developments. But what if the unimaginable does not have to be imagined?
Al-Maria’s concept of “Gulf Futurism” where a dystopian future is today’s reality could really be extended to various parts of the Arab world – where the unimaginable has been surpassed and what we are left with is the present, as is the case with Palestine and Iraq. The political reality of engineering immobility in these places where permits, walls, checkpoints divide communities and families already collapses into the realm of fantasy. What much of Arab science fiction makes clear is that the fantastical frontiers it imagines are often already here: today’s bewildering national landscapes.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.