Arabic Science Fiction: From Imagination to Innovation – an evening with Sindbad Sci-Fi

A hundred of us were gathered in the Science Museum’s Directors Suite for this year’s Arab Science Fiction event put together and hosted by Sindbad Sci-Fi: From Imagination to Innovation (part of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Nour Festival). It’s a fantastic venue, with double tiered bookcases rising the two storeys of the room, and just the right tone for the forthcoming discussion. CA - SSF
The panel is chaired by journalist and broadcaster and science fiction fan Samira Ahmed who introduces the panellists in turn, each having a spot to introduce themselves and their work.

First up is Saudi Arabia’s Yasser (“The Jedi from Jeddah”) Bhajatt, an engineer by profession who, on a global scale, investigated the relation between a country’s science fiction scene / output and its level of scientific development.

CA - YB As transpired the correlation was exceptionally high, and in all cases except Germany (there’s always one). He’s up front that proving causality is exceptionally hard, or at least which way round the causal relationship primarily operates, but Saudi Arabia is on the lowest end of both. Bhajatt, with friend Ibraheem Abbas, cofounded Yatakhayaloon (“The Imagining”) the League of Arabic SciFiers with mission is to establish Arabian science fiction as a distinct genre and use SF to inspire young scientists.

Seeing potential in Abbas’ novel HWJN, they began the process of taking it to market. Undaunted by round rejection by Saudi publishers (“No-one’s going to publish this crap”) they published it themselves. It hit and remained at the number one spot in Saudi Arabia’s book charts. We’ve all been treated to a copy of the English translation of title, Abbas having insisted on Bhajatt’s credit as being co-author given the reinterpretation required for it to work in English – and more on that in our review / story of here

They’re working on TV, Film, Graphic Novels… Actually, given the vibrant and evocative covers to their books – an intense wreath of smokeless flame representing the titular Jinn Hawjan and his ilk for one – it might be the medium of graphic novels through which the League of Arabic SciFiers might make a big splash internationally. But that’s all for the future. For now there’s the mission – to ignite imagination in the hope of stimulating scientific progress and achievement.

 

Next up is Ehsan Masood, a scientific journalist and editor who spends half his time in the Middle East and Asia and the rest in Europe. It’s noteworthy that Masood had been curious as to what he could contribute to the panel, and is present due to the persistence of event organiser Yasmin Khan. Indeed, as we are to discover, he brings a rather different voice to the panel.

Then there’s Hassan Abdulrazzak, a scientist and writer of Iraqi descent who notes the influence of both 1984 and his uncle Mahmoud al-Bayaty on his SF work. We get a synopsis of his short story Kuszib which culminates in a creature having sex with itself – which, aside from anything else, firmly pulls the rug from assumptions of what the Arabic science-fictional imagination might concern itself with.

Lastly and not leastly we have Larissa Sansour, a pan-media artist majoring on photography and film in her representations of the fantastical. We’re treated to footage from ‘A Space Exodus’ in which Sansour lands as the first Palestinian on the moon to the theme of 2001 to arabesque chords; also her dystopian-futuristic Nation Estate. Sansour’s work juxtaposes the Middle East and Science Fiction in the attempt to shine fresh light on the issues therein. CA - Larissa Sansour
This indeed is what much of this discussion is about. There’s the identifying and establishing the distinct voice of Arabian Science Fiction which “exposes the richness of Arabian culture”. There’s building the scene. And there’s the genres use in shining fresh light on issues of within the originating culture – but also to use that light to see where it might useful lead…

 

So what would make Arabic science fiction recognisably its own thing? The panel look first to Japanese science fiction as a non-Western contributing culture, noting that what differentiates it is the spirit. It’s highlighted that, in comparing shop video from scenes in an earthquake: Western people bundle straight toward the exit while, in some Japanese footage, a woman stays put and holds up the shelves. It’s a cultural statement of how the individual relates to society – possibly commodities as well, but certainly society.

We return to HWJN (or Hawjan after the titular character) because western readers have raised, aside from thoroughly enjoying it, that surely this is fantasy? Bhajatt and Abbas are emphatic though: it is science fiction and herein lies a clue. Western Science Fiction is categorised as such without necessarily the hard science backing up the premises within. We suspend disbelief about FTL and teleportation and any other SF staples and premises. We buy into – without really thinking about it – technological development that somehow fits in with science fact while enabling the world of which we read. And yes, at first glance, HWJN would seem fantastical to the western reader given it’s about Jinn CA - HWJN Front Cover

But Jinn appear in the Qu’ran and elsewhere in Arabic / Islamic texts and tales so HWJN raises numerous, very apposite points. The existence of Jinn is the basic premise, a second race, good and bad and in-between, Muslim and otherwise. Beyond the story itself Abbas explores how they interact with the world, and science as we understand it. The story takes in the many worlds theory and existence – as understood by Jinn but not humans – in multiple planes simultaneously; also psychology and neuroscience. And, similar but different to western novels that might likewise be categorised more as ‘social’ than ‘hard’ science fiction, it takes the view that there are simply whole realms of science not even apprehended by humankind.

The example gives a partial hint as to what might characterise Arabic science fiction, a cultural imagination that embraces science within belief as part of a created universe, to be explored, championed and made sense of. But the panel are in agreement: there’s no defining answer just yet: it’s still in the process of becoming.

 

But if the identifying comes later, the originating culture can be discussed and elaborated upon. And for all the hope and intent of exposing its richness and quality the panel are not afraid to expand on its more negative attributes, issues that stem not from faith but the political dimension and what Yasser Bhajatt later describes as deep routed problems in the social psychology of the Arabic World. Ehsan Masood comments that a lot of European SF is to do with betterment and improvement, also the anti-authoritarian – not something, he notes, commonly associated with religion.

Ehsan Masood

Ehsan Masood

And this brings us on to censorship, a big thing, as we’re told, in the Arabic World and all the more so since the Arab Spring.

CA - Hassan

Hassan Abdulrazzak

Hassan Abdulrazzak, a playwright as well as an author of fiction, comes in here, summarising an ongoing scenario of serious creative bravery on the theatrical scene in Iraq: how friends submit plays to the censors for approval – only to stage the show in question with rather a different message. HWJN, almost inevitably the target of accusations of blasphemy and the occult whether because of content or popularity, had received the approval of the censors; though overturned, a ban on its sale was established throughout Saudi Arabia within 48 hours when the rumours began. Larissa Sansour has had her work censored, and in the West as well as the Middle East.

And that’s as things are. There are quiet moments in which the subject of ISIS being around the corner is broached. It goes without saying that suppression of creativity and free-thought in ISIS-controlled areas is low down on the list of immediate concerns. In large respect they’re the antithesis of the hopes and enterprises of the panellists. And if they’re the extreme of the extreme, there are plenty of other groups that would not welcome an aspect of culture that promotes ideas, knowledge, free-thinking and progress (in a sense the European betterment aspect of SF alluded to earlier by Ehsan Masood). Yasser Bhajatt notes that, before you even get to the extremes, people in ‘retrograde’ Middle Eastern countries are told to take the given interpretation of religious texts at face value, not to question them or consider others.

But Masood does note that we hear much of the growing radicalisation, but not perhaps the stories about people who’ve been extreme and journeyed back. Certainly in the UK the tabloid noise centres on outrage, anger and fear, and not the quieter, more dignified daily instances of harmonious multicultural interaction. Masood’s cautionary optimism aside, the other panelists are unconvinced that concerns are immoderate next to the reality of the spread of Islamic extremism. It’s a sombre period in an upbeat discussion – but it does express a commitment on behalf of the panel to be unflinching in the face of reality in the challenges ahead.

Still, as a member of the audience notes, it’s when people lose hope that they are vulnerable to extremism. We cannot be so wide-eyed as to look to one genre to address such deep and widespread problems. But in the promotion of thought and ideas, possibilities and hope, Science Fiction undoubtedly has its place, not to mention the passion for the genre that unites the room and what it may achieve.

 

And now we’re into questions from the audience and which SF ideas most interest the panel. Interestingly, Hassan Abdulrazzak’s immediate response is roundly taken up by the panel: teleportation.

For Abdulrazzak it’s the social implications, and not necessarily the full-blown transport revolution as depicted in the likes of Star Trek, rather, amongst others, the possibilities for waste disposal (definitely a story in and around that). For Bhajatt it’s the relevance of this SF staple to the Holy Qu’ran, given that teleportation is performed by one of Solomon’s scientists; indeed exploring the SF elements of Solomon is on the agenda for the Bhajatt-Abbas partnership. And, having now read HWJN, it seems that this will be a consistent theme in their writings.

Because Arabic culture is suffused with religion – it’s noted that religion in Islam is a science unto itself. The Western mind needs to reflect that the division of science and religion and sense of each is culturally particular, further that the word ‘religion’, perhaps especially with regard to Hinduism and Buddhism, is only the closest we have for the term as it would be understood anywhere in Asia. CA - 1001 Nights
And it was the Islamic World during the superstition and ignorance in the medieval west in which the science, philosophy and learning of classical times was retained and built upon. Indeed it’s where we see examples of ‘proto-SF’ in A Thousand and One Nights and Ibn al-Nafis’ theological novel Theologus Autodidactus. It’s the Bible in which the use of ‘magic’ by Solomon or his followers is inferred, for feats (including but not limited to teleportation); to the Islamic mind there is no reason this shouldn’t be the work of one of his scientists in conjunction, perhaps, with the Jinn they employ.

Larissa Sansour then takes the subject and the discussion in a new direction, though one that ironically and usefully takes us back to the core of the talk: what interests her is how reality mimics fiction rather than the other way round.

This is the other dimension to Bhajatt’s causal relationship between science fiction and science. Aside from one scene building the other it’s how the progressive generation of ideas in the world of fiction gives people and whole societies the opportunity to take on board a destination that is right for them and – consciously or otherwise – work their way toward it. It was Sansour earlier who noted how she attempts to shine light on political and social issues through her science-fiction themed work; but, in the collective creative endeavour, the light is shone forward to see where people might possibly go or, perhaps, back as a guiding light.

Hassan Abdulrazzak, returning to Yasser Bhajatt’s starting point, agrees that science fiction and science go hand in hand, noting that the great names of western sci-fi were scientists: Science, as he says, gives you the tools to think differently. Mind for genuine change from this corner of the Arabic world a critical mass of both is necessary. But what we’ve seen this evening is just a small slice of that mass building.

 

So what is Arabic Science Fiction?

For one thing, inherently or by intent, it will be highly political. It explores territory largely new to the culture in which it originates. Betterment, if not overt anti-authoritarianism, is entirely on the agenda and if, as Ehsan Masood earlier noted, that’s one of the hallmarks of European SF it will not make Arabic Science Fiction any less distinctive. In Japan, looking back to the start of the discussion, the genre wasn’t taken seriously as being anything but for children until after WW2, the scene developing in large part from an influx of American paperbacks during the occupation. Since then Japanese sci-fi has become very much its own thing; Arabic science fiction will likewise find its own voice,

As in western SF also scientific experts will be among its driving force. However in all likelihood, at least initially, it will locate itself in the social side of science fiction, providing a relatable voice and context through which to explore ideas and engage with science. Some will see it as a threat. Censorship will be its challenge – perhaps also its ironic champion.

It will offer western readers an insight into Arabic culture, and a different perspective through which to view science and engage with its ‘spiritual dimension’; and, with disagreement of the characterisation of HWJN in mind, it will challenge what science fiction is and can be. But, where much of western SF may, primarily, be entertainment (however intelligently written) Arabic creators clearly have a transformative agenda in mind, using imagination to overcome cultural obstacles and promote social innovation. And that will be one major contribution to the global science fiction scene in terms of example and possibility, quite apart from what it will have given to Arabic culture.

 

***

 

The event ends with the announcement of who won which book in the prize draw, all examples of fantastical Arabic fiction (depicted here at the bottom) and a chance to talk a little more in person with the panellists. We leave with memories of a thoroughly enjoyable evening and many, many ideas provoked…

 

Further information

Sindbad Sci-Fi http://sindbadscifi.com/
http://carabas.co.uk/events-profile-sindbad-sci-fi/
https://twitter.com/SindbadSciFi

Yasser Bahjatt – https://twitter.com/YBahjatt / https://www.facebook.com/Eng.Bahjatt

Samira Ahmed – https://twitter.com/SamiraAhmedUK / http://www.samiraahmed.co.uk/

Larissa Sansour – https://twitter.com/Lsansour / http://www.larissasansour.com/

Ehsan Masood – https://twitter.com/EhsanMasood / http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ehsan_Masood

Hassan Abdulrazzak – https://twitter.com/abdulrazzak / http://abdulrazzak.weebly.com/

 

TED Talk with Yasser Bhajatt:

 

Books donated to the event – from sindbadscifi.com

1. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (Courtesy of Gollancz) – A traditional swords and sorcery fantasy set in a very untraditional world.

2. THE 99 Produced by Naif Al-Mutawa – The first comic featuring superheroes based on an Islamic archetype.

3. Ajwan and Madnan by Noura Al-Nouman – A space saga series for young adults written in Arabic.

4. Astra by Naomi Foyle – An allegory for the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

5. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi – A dystopian gothic horror novel set in a future vision of Iraq after western invasion.

6. Phoenix by SF Said – A spiritual space adventure illustrated by Dave McKean

7. The Apex Book of World SF, Edited by Lavie Tidhar – An anthology featuring a short story written by Jamil Nasir.

8. The Apex Book of World SF III, Edited by Lavie Tidhar – A newly published anthology featuring a short story by Amal El-Mohtar.

9. Hieroglyph: Stories Visions for a Better Future , Edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer – An anthology that reignites an optimistic vision of the future.

10. Utopia by Ahmed Towfik – A grim futuristic account of Egyptian society in the year 2023.

CA - SSF PRIZES