From Sindbad to Sci-Fi: Summing Up a Salon on Arab SF

I recently had the pleasure of participating in an event discussing “Arab Science Fiction” under the auspices of the Nour Festival, a London-based celebration of Arabic culture now in its fourth year. Conceived of, organised and produced by Yasmin Khan (and recently covered by the BBC), “From Sindbad to Sci-Fi” was a salon-style discussion involving Samira Ahmed, Ziauddin Sardar, Khyle Alexander Raja, and myself, moderated by Quentin Cooper.

The evening was to be divided into two parts: in the first half, each of us would be invited to speak for up to ten minutes about our relationship with or views about science fiction as related to the Arab world, and in the second, we would form a panel to discuss questions posed by Cooper, respondents, and members of the audience.

Ziauddin Sardar was the first speaker, and put forward a broad thesis suggesting that the absence of science fiction in modern Muslim society is symptomatic of its decline. He spoke eloquently about science fiction’s capacity for articulating views of the Other, and discussed science fiction as it existed at the height of the Islamic Golden Age, citing Al-Farabi’s “Virtuous City” and Ibn Tufail’s ?ayy ibn Yaq??nas early examples of science fiction literature.

He then made the case that rather than continue to look to the future—and, in so doing, create literatures reflecting upon it—Muslim societies became “backwards-looking,” obsessed with their own history. Science fiction, he argued, reflects the anxieties and predicaments of the present-day in a forward-looking way that motivates change, whereas the past cannot be changed—only reinterpreted. He recommended novels by Naguib Mahfouz, G. Willow Wilson, and Saladin Ahmed for further reading.

Samira Ahmed’s talk was geared more towards representations of Arabs and the Arab world in film and television, elaborating on her famous statement that “the Middle-East has always been another planet to the West.” She pointed out the cinematic fascination with the bazaar, and how such Eastern-inspired markets crop up in Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica whenever someone needs to create an atmosphere of exotic foreignness. She also, conversely, spoke of the revolutions in Egypt, and how former president Morsi gave an interview in which he misinterpreted the message of Planet of the Apes—or, to be generous, read it against the grain—by saying in an interview that its message was one of limiting inquiry and showing the danger of asking too many questions of one’s sacred texts.

Khyle Alexander Raja reflected on the relationship between his Muslim spirituality and the expression it takes in his art, which he describes as “an exploration of the relationship between The Creator, Humanity and the Universe.” He spoke of the term “radical” as relative to language and its roots, saying that “to be radical is to return to the origin of a thing,” and how doing so in language interests him. He also said how interested he was in seeing the future figured in synthetic and biological terms rather than digital ones, arguing that the biological has surpassed the digital in the same way that the digital surpassed the analog, and wants to see us articulating a language that can encompass new technological developments—worrying that, if we don’t, we won’t be in a position to make decisions about where to take technology, instead allowing the technology itself to determine where we will go.

For my part I spoke about the patchwork of my identities and how I felt the legacy of colonisation in the Middle-East was a force to be reckoned with when writing science fiction—that science fiction is as much about curating the past as it is about imagining the future, and that the latter is not possible without the former. I pointed out that though I discovered the bulk of my formative interests and literary influences (Doctor Who, Tolkien, Shakespeare) in Lebanon, I hardly ever had the opportunity to read fairy stories, folk tales, and mythology in Arabic while living there—only works in English and French (with the disclaimer that this doesn’t mean those stories weren’t available, only that they weren’t available to me). I said that as a consequence any writing that I do as a Lebanese-Canadian is constantly informed by and resisting the fact that I’m colonized twice over.

The Dana Centre was packed with a very diverse and very supportive audience; wherever I looked, whether I was on stage or seated, I saw attentive faces, and during the break between formats I and the other panelists found ourselves approached by many people expressing appreciation for our talks and asking interesting questions. In fact the questions were so engaging that I almost missed my cue to get back on stage for the question session itself, during which time the event became a good deal more diffuse.

As it turns out, the label “Arab Science Fiction” is entirely made up of contested terms: determining who “counts” as an Arab, and which of several possible definitions we were using for “Science Fiction,” complicated the discussion almost to the point of obscuring the topic itself. For instance, if we talk about the thriving SF written by Muslims in Bangladesh, are we talking about Arab SF? Are we talking about SF written in Arabic? What about Iraqi fantasists? Are we talking about SF as space opera, dystopia, first contact, steampunk, post-humanism, or all of the above? One audience member (quite rightly) pointed out that they were uncomfortable with how, during our discussion, the terms “Arab” and “Muslim” seemed to be used interchangeably; we acknowledged this was a problem, which further took our discussion along a pretty necessary tangent. We also discussed issues of finding writing in translation, the relative conservatism of mainstream publishing where translation and distribution are concerned, and diasporic writing.

My recollection of this portion of the evening consists of a fervent desire to have a salon-style discussion of almost every sentence my co-panelists spoke. There was so much potential ground to cover, so many beginnings of so many fascinating conversations, and running through them all was a kind of urgency that came from knowing there wouldn’t be enough time to get to them all. I felt like everyone in that room was brimming with interesting things to say and good points to make. If science fiction written by Arabs got something of a short shrift during the event, I’m nevertheless tremendously grateful that it provided us with such a fantastic fulcrum for necessary discussions in a positive and encouraging atmosphere.

We ended the event by polling the audience on whether or not they felt a revival of Arab SF was important; though we received a few tongue-in-cheek observations about the inadequacy of that question’s formulation, the answer was overall a resounding “yes,” which felt partly like the audience’s ultimate approval rating of the event. The next twenty minutes were a blur of talking to energetic and enthusiastic young people about things we’d discussed, exchanging email addresses, twitter handles, business cards and web pages, which felt like nothing so much as the need to ensure that the conversation we’d begun that evening could spread out and continue across different media—which was, in turn, a fittingly science fictional conclusion to a fantastic evening.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey. She has twice received the Rhysling award for best short poem, and her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter, where she talks about cats, the weather, and the complex geo-politics of her inward self.


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