Welcome to Tiamat’s Terrain! In this first roundup, we follow fantasy from its birth 1000 years ago all the way to present-day Jarmusch-like retellings of vampires in Iran. But this is why we’re here right? To see what happens to genre fiction that emerges from a region stuffed with a deep complicated history of culture and literature and hits the equally complicated vectors of our contemporary world. Chaos and madness, bombs and monsters. Let’s get started!
Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange
The Arabian Nights, or One Thousand and One Nights might well be the most famous collection of fantastical short stories. Scheherazade’s never-ending tales to her Persian king and husband, dating back to the 15th century, came to the Western world’s consciousness in the 1700s through Antoine Galland’s translation and have been assimilated into Western story telling every since.
And quite simply, Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange is the prequel to The Arabian Nights that you never knew existed.
Translated for the first time into English by Malcom C Lyons, Tales of the Marvellous is a collection of stories that predates The One Thousand and One Tales by about 600 years, making them one thousand years old. Six of the eighteen stories in this collection made it into The Arabian Nights but otherwise these ancient fables haven’t been read by English-readers before.
So what do these tales have in store for us?
Penguin writes of their latest release that
“Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange has monsters, lost princes, jewels beyond price, a princess turned into a gazelle, sword-wielding statues and shocking reversals of fortune. A mix of comedy, romance, derring-do, fantasy and, often, a dark ruthlessness, these stories illuminate a medieval worldview about gender, sex, power, faith and ambition as well as domestic traits of humor, forbearance and daily life.”
In other words, you won’t find any modern sensibilities in this exciting collection—rather it’s a glimpse into how an ancient culture exercised its imagination. Robert Irwin, an expert in Arabic literature and history, writes that the word ‘marvelous’ in the title comes from the Arabic, ‘ajiba’:
“Ajiba is an adjective which means ‘marvellous’ or ‘amazing’ and its cognate plural noun, aja’ib, or marvels, is the term used to designate an important genre of medieval Arabic literature that dealt with all things that challenged human understanding, including magic, the realms of the jinn, marvels of the sea, strange fauna and flora, great monuments of the past, automatons, hidden treasures, grotesqueries and uncanny coincidences.”
Automatons, jinn, monsters, and treasure hunting? Sign me up. This is the stuff that fantasy is made of.
Building and Rebuilding Alexandria
Nael Eltoukhy’s latest book, Women of Karantina, has been heralded as a groundbreaking novel in Egyptian literature, both for its use of language and dialect and its irreverent vision of Egypt in 2064. A fast-paced story set against a recognizable yet unrecognizable Egyptian backdrop, Eltoukhy’s novel follows two lovers, Ali and Injy and their escape from a murder charge in Cairo to a train station in Alexandra. “Fugitives, friendless, their young lives blighted at the root, Ali and Injy set about rebuilding, and from the coastal city’s arid soil forge a legend, a kingdom of crime, a revolution: Karantina.”
Laden with sharp-edged humor that’s deftly translated into English by the award-winning Robin Moger, Women of Karantina rolls out a crazy, unpredictable journey where the reader witnesses three generations building and rebuilding Alexandria. Novelist Mahmoud El-Wardani describes it thusly:
“Each generation passed on its genes to the next, expanding, destroying and reconstructing a different part of the city on the Mediterranean, eventually constructing one large mural of Alexandria that is both real and imaginary. This new Alexandria of El-Toukhy is built on madness, imagination and humour.”
Eltoukhy himself balks at considering himself a straight science-fiction writer despite setting the bulk of his novel in the future. And sure, while Women of Karantina doesn’t embrace sci-fi gadgetry, it nonetheless delves into a world that utilizes underground tunnels locally and globally where much of the criminal and governmental forces of the future meet, clash, and war. Says Eltoukhy:
“[T]echnology develops very quickly and no one can really predict what new inventions will be around sixty years from now, and the kind of books that offer predictions were never a model as far as I was concerned […] I thought that if I wasn’t able to create a sense of the future by describing technological innovations then at least I could provide a feeling of strangeness, and this led me to come up with the idea of the tunnels as the place to which I could transport the conflict over Karantina.”
Women of Karantina, even in translation, holds on to that feeling of strangeness. Epic, rip-roaring, subversive and ever contradictory, Eltoukhy’s story pushes the New Egyptian Novel into fresh territory.
Vampires in Bad City
An Iranian vampire movie filmed in California: it sounds like this movie could go either way. But so far A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour’s black-and-white directorial debut, has been met with rave reviews. The film’s eponymous Girl is an Iranian vampire, wrapped up in a hijab while she stalks and sometimes skateboards the streets of the fictional Iranian town of Bad City feeding on bad guys.
Dark and beautifully shot, Amirpour’s film is reeling with Americana influences even as it embraces Iranian culture, from the Girl’s religious garbs to the Iranian pop-songs in its rich soundtrack. Sheila O Malley gets it just right in her review:
“Along with Jarmusch, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is steeped in other influences: Spaghetti Westerns, 1950s juvenile delinquent movies, gearhead movies, teenage rom-coms, the Iranian new wave. There’s an early 1990s grunge-scene club kids feel to some of it, in stark contrast to the eerie isolation of the nighttime industrial wasteland in which the film takes place. The number of influences here could have made A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night yet another movie-mad parody or an arch exercise in style; instead, the film launches itself into a dreamspace of its own that has a unique power and pull.”
Check out the trailer below.
Sindbad Sci-Fi at Nour Festival, London
Sindbad Sci-Fi is an initiative to explore and cultivate Arabic science-fiction and once again they formed a panel at London’s annual Nour Festival to discuss the state of the field. Last year Amal El-Mohtar attended and wrote about Sindbad at Nour Festival here at Tor.com.
This year seemed to be a similar affair with speakers ranging from journalist and sci-fi expert Samira Ahmed, through Yasser Bahjat, co-founding member of Yatakhayaloon (League of Arabic SciFiers), to UK-based Iraqi Hassan Abdulrazzak who used to be a molecular biologist but is now a full-time writer. Marie-Jean Berger has a full summary of the conversation that took place.
Monocle Podcast with Hassan Abdulrazzak
Hassan Abdulrazzak also gets interviewed over at Monocle’s Culture-Edition 162. He talks about Arabic sci-fi and the short story that he’s written for Iraq +100—an anthology of short stories by Iraqis about Iraq in a hundred years, to be released by Comma Press in 2015.
Check out The Apartment in Bab el-Louk by Donia Maher, Ganzeer, and Ahmed Nady, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. An extract was published earlier this year over at Words Without Borders. It’s been described as a “fabulous noir poem,” with Maher’s prose-poetry, taut and beautiful, running against and sometimes with Ganzeer’s stunning blue, black, and white drawings.
The Internation Prize for Arabic Fiction
2014 saw an SFF novel win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF): Frankenstein in Baghdad by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi. The novel’s protagonist, Hadi al-Attag, lives in Baghdad where he picks up the body parts of those killed in explosions in the Spring of 2005 and sews them together to create a new body. When he’s finished a new being comes to life that seeks revenge on the perpetrators of the bombings.
Frankenstein in Baghdad hasn’t been translated into English yet but novels that win the IPAF are usually pushed into translation—so if Arabic isn’t your forte, keep your eyes peeled for when this one finally comes out in English.
Alex Mangles lives in the Levant and is confident that she’ll discover the lost city of Atlantis any day now. She tweets from @alexantra.