From utopian dreams to dystopian nightmares, could a new wave of Arabic science fiction spur us to reimagine alternative futures in the Middle East and beyond? Into the Unknown’s cultural consultant Yasmin Khan tells us how fantastical storytelling in Arabic doesn’t begin with and end with The Thousand and One Nights. In fact there is a steady resurgence of speculative thinking in Arabic literature and art.
The work of Jerusalem-born artist Larissa Sansour focuses upon the tug-and-pull between fiction and reality to find a new formula to address the reality on the ground. Sansour’s video, A Space Exodus (2009) subverts existing stereotypes of power and occupation through posing the idea of the first Palestinian in space. In Nation Estate (2012), Sansour postulates a vertical solution to Palestine’s diminishing claim to land: future citizens reside in a single colossal skyscraper, each floor embodying a Palestinian city; a contemporary equivalent to the modernist ideal of the high-rise building as a model for a future utopian society. The latest installment of her Sci-Fi trilogy, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain (2015), is a timely parody of the use of politicized archaeology as a state-building tool carried out in present day Israel/Palestine. Viewers of the film are left with a chilling conclusion that forces us to question the status quo of our reality.
Ahmed Khaled Towfik is another master of the Arabic dystopia genre. His bestselling novella Utopia (2011) is set in 2023 on a US Marine-protected colony on the Egyptian coast. Here, an upper-class minority of overindulgent youth live in superficially ordered enclaves, devoid of compassion towards the bitterly impoverished ‘Others’ who live in chaotic slums outside their gated colony. The ‘Others’ become voyeuristic kill-targets for sport simply to quench the boredom of the rich, culminating in a violent revolution; eerily prophetic of the uprisings that subsequently emerged in Tahrir Square.
The realm of science fiction offers us a space to reconcile these surreal aspects of modernity in a way that realism cannot
Ironically, the devastation of war can be an impetus for creativity. For instance, Ahmed Saadawi used his raw insights working as journalist in Iraq to concoct an award-winning first novel. In Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014), Saadawi transports the gothic horror of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) into present day Baghdad. A destitute rag-and-bone man named Hadi Al-Attag stalks the city, collecting the human body parts scattered from different car bomb blasts. He then stitches these together to form a patchwork human corpse referred to as the ‘what’s-its-name’. Once the man-made monster gains sentience it embarks on a stealthy campaign to avenge each of the various bomb victims from which it is made. Saadawi’s haunting novel is more than just a metaphor to the endless cycle of violence currently plaguing his home country.
Whilst the political status quo in much of the Middle East today can be interpreted as stranger than fiction, the realm of science fiction offers us a space to reconcile these surreal aspects of modernity in a way that realism cannot. Into the Unknown will beam up a stellar array of visionary writers and artists who each offer a unique take on that dangerous question: ‘what if?’
Now just suppose any of these outlandish visions come to fruition…
Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction takes place from 3 June –1 September.
Originally published in the June Guide 2017