The Story of HWJN – and the League of Arabic Sci-Fiers

You couldn’t make it up: words used when reality outpaces the shock of the invented. HWJN, a book named for its titular protagonist Hawjan, has a story of how it came about for which those words are entirely appropriate.

CA - YB Yasser Bhajatt, a Saudi Arabian computer engineer and lifelong fan of science fiction, had researched the relationship between a country’s levels of science and its science fiction output and scene. In all cases (Germany being the one exception) the correlation was too close to be chance. With a mission to ignite and foster science fiction in Saudi Arabia with a distinct cultural voice – and the hope to stimulate interest in science and progress along with – Bhajatt and his friend Ibraheem Abbas created Yatakhayaloon: the league of Arabic Sci-Fiers.

What next? Well to put out the first work of Saudi Arabian science fiction.

Bhajatt had faith in Abbas own writing. To that point his experience of publishing had been rejections of Star Trek books by the western publisher in question. HWJN fared no better with Saudi publishers (“No-one’s going to publish this crap” they were told). Undaunted in the enterprise they published it themselves; it went to number one in the Saudi Arabian book charts and stayed there. CA - HWJN Front Cover
Now the author is emphatic that HWJN is a work of adult science fiction; that’s despite a massive YA following and especially of girls, not to mention the rest of the world trying to classify it as fantasy rather than Sci-Fi. Interesting on both points and entirely valuable in the scheme of what Yatakhayaloon are presenting as their individualistic Saudi Arabian science fiction. For one thing it seems, unlike ourselves, the author is (blissfully) unaware of the glut of supernatural YA romance centring around an adolescent girl and a paranormal paramour. So much the better – we can take it on its own merits. And such books are normally about humans getting into trouble, where our protagonist here is a Jinni.

Fantasy, you cry. Well we’ll come to that – first there’s more to say of its journey post-publication.

 

Because the size of the younger following in Saudi Arabia was such that what starts as the inevitable frustration of jaded educators at the latest fad of youth erupts into a viral indictment of a book that blasphemes and teaches occultism. Really? Well presumably it came as a surprise to the government who read and endorsed it for publication… but who were not slow to impose a ban on its sale (48 hours did the job).

Blasphemous? It would be hard to argue because, believe it or not, the stories of Jinn represent them – just as humans – as being helpful and malicious, good, bad and in-between… Moreover HWJN is an Islamic work, by which I mean that Hawjan himself is straightforwardly, passionately and devoutly Muslim and as much as any of the immediate human cast who, with their hopes, flaws and values, represent the best of people, Muslim or otherwise.

The thing is that, especially in strongly religious Christian regions, there’d likely be an intake of breath in the western world with the same outrage – assuming it was popular. Because the way human and Jinn begin to communicate is through a Ouija board.

But we need to remind ourselves of two things. Firstly, this was always intended as a science fictional work. The existence of Jinn, their nature, their powers, were framed within a religion that positively encouraged discourse and science in the time that One Thousand and One Nights was compiled; and the Jinn were of a scientific nature in the created world. It’s the superstitious western mind, especially where it seems Ouija is more notorious, that would worry about the implications. Secondly, for all its popularity among the younger age group HWJN was always intended as a work for adults.

In any case the book was pulled from sale in Saudi Arabia with, by this stage, over 20,000 copies in circulation. Launching the first Saudi Arabian science fiction work is one thing. But, given they’d already given it the censorial thumbs-up, the government would be obliged to purchase all copies – and at retail. For the publisher this would have been a financial windfall and sufficient publicity for selling into to virtually any other country and further titles at home. In any case the ban was overturned and HWJN went on to enjoy success in its country of origin and beyond.

And now we have the opportunity to enjoy it in English, Yasser Bhajatt being credited on the author’s insistence as Co-author given the amount of reworking alongside translation for it to make sense to the English reader.

 

The world in which Jinn live is separate but overlaps the phenomenal world of humans. Most have pulled away from places where humans are present but Hawjan, his mother and grandfather have adopted an unsold villa after the city of Jeddah expanded into their village. It is when a human family buy the property that the story begins.

CA - HWJN Jeddah Skyline

Skyline of Jeddah (Source: Wikipedia)

Sawsan is the young woman who moves into the unseen Hawjan’s room. An ill-natured Jinni follows Sawsan and her friends into it, a Jinni capable of sufficient interaction with our world to scare them.

CA - HWJN Villa in Jeddah They take out the Oujia board they’d previously ‘played’ with to dispel the spirit they imagined they’d summoned and Hawjan, having seen off the mischievous Jinn, makes a fateful decision: thinking to put their minds at rest he helps move the pointer to ‘Goodbye’. There was nothing supernatural about the Ouija board, but through it Hawjan and Sawsan begin to communicate, moving on from it (and stepping beyond occult concerns) by using her computer to continue do so.

And a relationship blossoms.

Actually you can imagine the montage moment in the film version (to some upbeat arabesque track naturally), the camera circling and panning between their overlapping worlds as Hawjan’s hands guide Sawsan’s and they learn about the other’s world and each other…

But there are troubles ahead. There are Jinn, powerful Jinn in a class above the others – Efreets and Marids – and those who would become such through murder and sorcery, who work with and through impious humans, and who manoeuvre Hawjan into an impossible position… especially after he learns Sawsan’s painful secret. But there are a few secrets in Hawjan’s lineage that have a chance of changing the game.

CA - HWJN Red Sea

Saudi Family on Jeddah Beach (Source: Wikipedia)

What unfolds is a rapidly twisting drama in which Hawjan desperately tries to take control of the situation and save Sawsan while doing right by others who are drawn, willingly or otherwise, into the situation.

 

So: Science Fiction?

Well it’s the reverse of Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently explicable ‘magic’ becomes indistinguishable from science.

Where ‘Hard SF’ is grounded in cause and speculates possibility, HWJN, like much of western social science fiction, take this supernormal world and race and speculates how they interact with ours and our understanding of relevant fields of science. The fictive leap is accepting the existence of Jinni and the additional dimensions in which they exist; but the context is the scientific rather than the fantastical. CA - C3L

In its own fashion and on its own terms it’s science fiction in the way that, though incomparably different in plot and setting, Peter Hamilton’s Night Dawn Trilogy is. Aficionados of China Mieville and ‘new weird’ will likely get a buzz from the ideas it throws up and how – to the English reader – it likewise treads the line of SF and Fantasy.

 

Is it perfect? Well it’s sufficiently excellent that we can do away with such platitudes as ‘my Arabic is nowhere near as good as their English’. There are typos, minor mistranslations – all more than forgivable in the scheme of the tale and the story and vision behind it. The narrative is thoroughly engaging, framed as a story being told us by Hawjan for reasons he is not completely aware of. Italicised asides clue us in as non-Jinn and English readers alike, informative, at times intrusive, but similarly forgivable next to the emotive and distinctive voice of the narrator.

Abbas and Bhajatt, whether by perspective and / or intent, communicate ideas and values that transcend culture and geography. Hawjan emotes about Dr Abdulraheem and his wife Mrs Raja, Sawsan’s parents. He respects the genuine and mature love between them, the sexual spark that remains, the empathy they share. He relates to the desperate irreligious lengths Sawsan’s father goes to for her sake. He admires him as a man of science and logic, as well as of faith. No one is condemned for a lack thereof: that is reserved for those who pretend at it and abuse the faith and pain of others.

Hawjan and Sawsan’s relationship is more problematic: does its forbidden nature endorse a more conservative perspective where duty outstrips the importance of love? Hawjan’s mother is entirely against it while being an entirely positive character. Mind for all that Hawjan, young for his kind, is 94 this isn’t some trashy paranormal romance where the ultimate older guy bad-boys (vampires) might change their nature for the sake of their mortal loves: it’s a complicated relationship of mutual regard that sidesteps entirely such modern, western cliché. And, again, it’s intended for an adult audience.

On the other hand, while Hawjan expresses respect for human and Jinni of both genders, there is a moment where a negative light seems to be cast on the emotional character of women. Perhaps this is simply an issue of translation rather than spirit. It’s not as if some of Hawjan’s observations of humans are intended to be read as anything but flawed – added to which his only ally, humanly flawed as they are, might well be someone he has made understandable but imperfect assumptions of…

 

On our way to the end, whatever it may be, stake after stake is added and the pace is appreciably swift. The tension is maintained throughout, latterly by a well considered flip of narration, leaving us guessing as to the outcome until the final pages.

In the context of what Yatakhayaloon have set out do HWJN, as their first work, undoubtedly succeeds. It has a distinct voice. It has ignited the science fiction scene in Saudi Arabia. It offers an insight into its culture. But perhaps its biggest contribution to the genre internationally is in challenging what Sci-fi is and can be.

As a read, as an insight, in support and purely out of interest, I’d thoroughly recommend HWJN to anyone who loves science fiction – fantasy as well; but certainly science fiction.

And I’m looking forward to reading more.

 

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Read more about Arabic SF in our article on Sindbad Sci-fi’s fantastic Arabic Science Fiction: From Imagination to Innovation event.

 

 

CA - HWJN Back Cover