By Desiree Custers
Though fervent readers of science fiction (SF) will already be familiar with SF from the Arab and African regions, it remains underexplored for many readers and writers of the world. This despite the fact that Arab and African SF works having been published since the start of the previous century. And though the two regions are often artificially divided in the social and political sciences as well as literary studies, they have much in common, similarities which are translated in their SF. Using broad strokes, this essay will show that Arab and African SF literature has three common functions: it envisions the future, reclaims the past, and reflects on the present.
SF as a genre
Science fiction (SF), I believe, is one of the most effective literary genres to shape and express our imagination of the future. Its odd narratives achieve cognitive estrangement by being set in an alternative or altered reality and by describing circumstances that go beyond the confines of the normal human experience. In doing so, SF addresses philosophical questions on what it means to be human: as an individual, as a society, as a religious being and as related to the environment and technology. Over the years different subgenres have developed within SF, including Afrofuturism, Feminist SF, and Arab- and Africanfuturism, the latter two of which this essay will see as included in the definition of Arab and African SF.
An own SF
When in 1993 author and culture critic Mark Dery coined the term ‘Afrofuturism’ (which explores intersections of blackness, race, speculative fiction, technology and the future), he wondered why few African Americans wrote SF while it was par excellence the genre that described encounters with the ‘stranger Other’. He asked: “can a community whose past has deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” A clear answer to this question is the fact that Afrofuturism has come to include a vast tradition. African SF has often been categorized as Afrofuturism, and it’s overlap in themes with Arab SF have also not remained unnoticed. Palestinian researcher Lama Sulaiman writes in 2016 that the experiences Afrofuturism discusses, such as “power regimes of colonialism, racism, marginalization, displacement, and collective identities of self-victimization”, relate to the Palestinian experience. Yet she adds that Palestinian narratives of loss, dispossession, and catastrophe have to be seen as part of wider Arab narratives and from within a Pan-Arabist perspective.
In a 2015 manifesto entitled Towards a possible manifesto; proposing Arabfuturism/s (Conversation A), Jordanian artist Sulaiman Majali, who lives in Scotland, writes: “Arabfuturism is a re-examination and interrogation of narratives that surround oceans of historical fiction.” His manifesto thus suggests framing Arabfuturism as a reflection that redefines representations of the Arab world.
There have also calls for a seperate category of SF that is specific to the African continent, away from the Afrofuturist tradition. South African novelist Mohale Mashigo wrote in the preface to her short story collection Intruders (2018): “we need a project that predicts (it is fiction after all) Africa’s future ‘postcolonialism’; this will be divergent for each country on the continent because colonialism (and apartheid) affected us in unique (but sometimes similar) ways.” This resulted in the term ‘Africanfuturism’, coined by Nigerian-American fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor in 2019.
Reclaiming the Past
Researcher Lydie Moudileno in 2020 describes the novel La Vie et Demie (1979, English translation Life and a Half, 2011) by Congolese novelist Sony Labou Tansi, as a hybrid of magic-realism SF that “achieves a new representation of African historicity which not only reclaims the past, but also projects the continent into the future, a future which, in the case of Africa, has been famously denied by Western philosophy (most notoriously Hegel), impeded by colonization and arrested by successive dictatorial regimes”.
Like the African American experience, identity and visions of the future in the Arab and African regions have been denied, either by different shades of colonization or by authoritarian regimes and all-encompassing conflicts. Thus, one could argue that much energy is consumed by reimagining of the self away from these historical disruptions and reflection on these disruptions. Importantly, African and Arab SF actively includes traces of history through cultural and historical references.
Nnedi Okorafor writes that Africanfuturism is rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view. In her novel Who Fears Death (2010), in which a young woman in postapocalyptic Africa discovers special powers that can prevent the genocide of her people, the author refers to Igbo traditional beliefs. Ugandan writer Dilman Dila in his 2015 blogpost Is Science Fiction Really Alien to Africa?, mentions examples Acholi folk tales that feature technology and can be used in SF writing. In the Arab case, researcher Ada Barbaro has described how modern Arab SF makes use of classical Arabic literature such as philosophical and utopian works, but also folktales. The tales of 1001 Nights, for example, depict advanced technologies. One such tale is The Ebony Horse, a story about a mechanical horse that can fly to outer space to the sun. Barbaro also mentions aja’ib (‘marvels’) literature, which emphasizes real or imaginary phenomena that challenge human understanding.
Imagining the Arab and African Future
In imagining the future, as expected in SF, technology plays an important role. It is sometimes portrayed as a tool to oppress populations or to manipulate and control their body, two familiar tropes in SF. Some examples of African and Arab SF depict this dystopian technology based on historical connotations. Ian Campbell in his 2018 book Arabic Science Fiction, argues that technology in Arab SF relates both to the discontinuity between “past progress and current stagnation” as well as tensions between technological modernization and technology as a dehumanizing foreign (Western) tool.
An example can be found in Saleem Haddad’s Song of the Birds in the short story collection Palestine +100,which imagines Palestine hundred years after the Nakbah (‘catastrophe’) of 1948, when the state Israel was declared and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted. It centers a young girl who, along with all other Palestinians, is imprisoned in a virtual simulation. Her brother, who managed to escape, tells her: “we are the first generation to have lived our entire lives in the simulation. We are at the frontier of a new form of colonization. So it’s up to us to develop new forms of resistance”. However, other SF works frame technology as an empowering tool and advocate for its development, or at least partial embrace. Egyptian Nabil Farouk’s detective-SF series titled Milaff al-Mustaqbal (The future file, 1980s), for example (which includes more than 100 books) depicts the crew of scientists of the ‘High Command of Egyptian Scientific Intelligence’. When in the series earth is occupied by alien warriors who destroy the planet’s scientific developments, the team manages to regain earth and Egypt becomes the world’s leader in science and technology.
Topics discussed in Arab and African SF also include questions of environmental change, migration, urbanization and religion. Rajul Taht al-Sifr (The man with a temperature below zero, 1965) by the Egyptian Mustafa Mahmoud is an example of this latter. It’s main character, a professor, predicts Egypt’s future as one in which human life is controlled by materialistic interests. The novel forecasts that people will only be able to turn to God for redemption. It is one example of what Reuven Snir in 2000 called Islamic science fiction.
An example of a novel that, among others, addresses environmental degradation is Lagoon (2014) by the earlier mentioned Nnedi Okorafor. In it, aliens have landed in the ocean near Lagos, Nigeria, where they plan to clean up the polluted water. They seek collaboration with three human protagonists to work towards a post-petroleum, utopian Nigeria. But their efforts are challenged by the citizens of Lagos, many of whom plan to use the aliens for their own agenda.
Reflecting on the Present
In describing the future, SF reflects on the present by enlarging certain aspects of current reality, whether social, political, environmental or technological. It has been used by African and Arab authors to criticize social, political and economic and other regional and global realities, including authoritarian regimes and disruptive foreign intrusions from the colonial times to modern-day interferences. In countries where writers face censorship, imprisonment and even torture, the ambiguity of SF offers writers the benefit of concealing social and political critique and providing plausible deniability when confronted with scrutiny. Egyptian SF writer Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, for example, once said that writing SF was a safe way for him to express his opinions without being considered against the government and allowed him to escape censorship.
Tawfik’s 2008 novel Ūtūbīa (English translation Utopia, 2012) is set in 2023 Egypt where society is divided in two separate territories: the marine-protected land of the rich, Utopia; and the land of the poor ‘Others’. As a rite of passage, the protagonist leaves Utopia to hunt and kill an ‘Other’. However, he gets stuck, and it is Gaber, from the land of the poor, who protects him. Criticizing class inequality and corruption, the novel is described as reflecting on the conditions leading to the uprisings in 2011 and showing how such protests lead to a further consolidation of power by the authoritarian regimes.
The earlier-mentioned novel Life and a Half by Tansi is set in the fictional republic of Katamalanasia, where Martial, leader of the resistance to a murderous dictator called the Providential Guide, is killed. The events that follow cumulate into an apocalyptic war that is fought with super science weapons such as mutant flies. The novel uses elements of SF to criticize dystopian dictatorial powers in Congo akin to the Mobutu era. Using elements outside the realm of reality, Tansi was able to outmaneuver official censorship. He has insisted that his book was a fable because he did not have the opportunity to write about real events.
Present-day conflict in the Arab world is often reflected in dystopian SF works. In the novel Harb al-Kalb al-Thaniyah (The Second Dog War, 2018) by Jordanian/Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasrallah, a dystopian war breaks out when citizens of an unnamed country start to look alike. This metaphor can be read as a warning against the increased loss of authenticity in an ever-globalizing world, a call for future generations to celebrate their traditions and culture, or a warning against the continuation of conflicts that leads to the annihilation of the Arab world through the loss of lives.
Iraq +100 (2017) offers an example of SF criticizing foreign intervention. In the collection of ten short stories different Iraqi writers describe their country in 2103, 100 years after the US-led invasion which had devastating consequences such as increased sectarianism. In the story The Worker by Diaa Jubaili, the tyrannical theocrat ruler of the city Basra downplays the city’s dire situation by referring to historical events, forcing on the starving citizens a perverse moral relativism: “Have any of you reached the point where you’re hungry enough to steal children, cook their flesh, and sell what’s left to the starving at a discount? I therefore advise you all to look around and not complain.”
SF novels from different parts of the world have interacted, inspired each other and developed in parallel, despite the Western tradition remaining the most dominant. This essay aimed to show that SF is mouldable to the cultural, historical or future context that it represents. SF’s estranging quality, ambiguity and speculative nature offer authors a medium to reclaiming the past, imagining the future, and criticizing the present while asking questions on what it means to be human. While this essay focused on Arab and African SF, it acknowledges that within these geographically overlapping regions there is great diversity. This, combined with their shared functions of SF, invites to more detailed studies of Arab and African SF and Arab- and African futurism in the future, including in the field of arts, architecture, and music.
Over de auteur:
Desiree Custers is vertaalster van Arabische literatuur naar het Nederlands. Voor haar masterscriptie van de opleiding Arabistiek en Islamkunde aan de KU Leuven schreef ze over Arabische sciencefiction, een onderwerp dat haar mateloos blijft boeien. Haar scriptie werd in 2019 genomineerd voor de Vlaamse Scriptieprijs. Voor een eerdere editie van de Poëziekrant (januari-maart 2021) vertaalde Desiree gedichten van de taalkundige, filosoof en politiek criticus Monem Mahjoub. Ze vertaalde ook de roman Brusselse Vrouwen (2019) van de schrijfster Nisma Alakouk, uitgebracht door uitgeverij BitBook. Op het moment werkt Desiree aan het vertalen van de roman Schaduw tussen twee bladzijden van de schrijfster Randa Awad.
De afbeeldingen bij dit artikel zijn van haar hand.
© 2020 – 2023 Fantasize & Desiree Custers