The Story of Egyptian Science Fiction… and my Late Night Contribution!
de Emad El-Din Aysha
One of the best ways to talk about the story of Egyptian SF, and Arabic SF for that matter, is to note its most basic problem – a lack of accumulation. Everyone in the field, myself included, wants to start from scratch instead of building on what has been accomplished before. You can see this in the diverse stories of science fiction writing in various Arabic countries. Some of the earliest SF ever written in the Arab world was in the Levant, specifically Lebanon and Syria, with Francis Marsh, Adeeb Ishak, Michelle Al-Saqal and Farah Antione in the 1860s. But, despite this, we never heard of any kind of SF coming out of the Levant till Dr. Taleb Omran in Syria in the 1980s. In Tunis the first SF novel was penned in 1933, by Sadek Rezgui, with hardly anything till the 1980s again. Algeria had Mohammad Dib and Safia Ketou in the 1960s but again nothing after that till much, much later. Egypt had an SF novel as far back as 1924 then nothing till the 1950-60s with the monumental efforts of Tawfik al-Hakim, Yousif Ezz Al-Din Issa and Mustafa Mahmoud. And even then there were no Arab authors specialised in science fiction till Nihad Sharif in the 1970s, in Egypt again.
Even in the here and now, the younger generation of writers tend to take their inspiration from SF in the West – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Moorcock, along with movie classics like Stars Wars, online video games, downloadable audiobooks and newer genres like Steampunk. Speaking to Arab authors you find a similar pattern, with writers taking inspiration from Aldous Huxley and Jules Verne more than the first generation of Arab SF works. A small exception to that rule would be Nabil Farouk and Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, pioneers of the pocketbook (pulp sci-fi) series in the 1990s, that inspired a whole generation of writers across the Arab world, but they’re seen more as a success story to emulate than sources of themes, stylistics and worlds to build on. These discontinuities across the Arab world are to be expected given that the publishing industry generally isn’t interested in our risky genre while there isn’t any real institutionalisation of SF at the level of clubs, conventions, associations and print magazines, as my friend and colleague Ahmed Al-Mahdi has made painfully clear in his interview in these pages.
Fortunately the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, established in 2012 by Dr. Hosam El-Zembely during the heyday of the Arab Spring, has tried to remedy this with its monthly cultural salons and its compendious anthologies and attempts to reach out to the world of SF enthusiasts lying beyond our borders, and in more than one language. That’s where I enter the picture, as a newcomer to Egyptian and Arab SF, only getting involved with the ESSF and befriending authors from 2016. As an academic as well as an author I’ve been diligently trying to make up for lost time and see what it is that Egyptian SF has to offer and see also where it’s lacking and plug these thematic and stylistic gaps once and for all.
Here’s what I’ve been able to figure out so far, zooming through the seven editions of the ESSF anthology series – Shams Al-Ghad (Sun of Tomorrow), 2012-2020 – and what I’ve been able to contribute along the way.
A Microcosm of a Microcosm
Looking through the short stories published by the ESSF is like looking through the problems, and distinctive contributions, of Egyptian and Arabic science fiction to the literature at large. One of our most basic problems in the genre is distinguishing between SF, fantasy and horror. The Arabic word for SF is khayal ilmi (خيال علمي) or science imagination, after all. The word ‘imagination’ becomes the measure of things and the science component gets quietly forgotten. Walk the streets of Cairo and ask at bookstands for SF and they’ll hand you horror and supernatural thrillers; much the same goes for bookstores. We have scores of stories in the Shams Al-Ghad volumes that are supernatural scare stories and in some cases just stories about delusional people who think there is a zombie or vampire war going on. We often have mainstream literary judges which tells how misperceived SF is in Egypt.
Another problem posed by Egyptian SF, which is an opportunity at the same time, is our notion of Utopia. Technology and material comfort are no doubt important but we think about Utopia in a very different way to Westerners. We think of material bliss itself as a chimera, a kind of deliberate distraction meant to medicate us into looking the other way and neglecting what is important in life – family, spiritual values and the Godly-ordained nature of things. These themes come to the fore in a short story in Volume 3, “A Dialogue with my Martian Friend” by Eman Baha A-Din, with a human journalist called Adam who spends most of his free time talking to his one-eyed Martian friend ‘3033’, despite the breakdown in relations between both planets. He’s a caring, affectionate person whereas everyone on earth has become selfish and materialistic. People live in buildings rising up into the sky, with 7000 or more floors, while hospitals and schools have become a thing of the past thanks to robot servants. In this world serotonin is injected into the air to make people happy and drugs are perfectly legal, consumed like chocolate on a daily basis. The catch is, as always, that people live in isolation while only a tiny handful of people can enjoy the good life – machines cause mass unemployment – and an impending ecological disaster is threatening mankind with extinction.
All the bumble bees have died and so the earth council of elders wants to invade Mars to keep their own planet alive. Adam tries to convince them not to go to war but he gets put under house arrest and wakes up one day to find the announcer saying the Martians have been slain. Then something magical happens. The Martians have a saying, which is that when I die I want to come back as a bumble bee on earth, and Adam finds a bee landing on his palm – the soul of his slain friend 3033.
Another common feature of Egyptian SF is its sense of humour. SF is no stranger to satire but apart from Robert Heinlein Western SF authors seem to disdain the presence of jokes and dealing with tragic situations through humour. (The Strugatsky brothers would be perfectly at home in the bosom of Egyptian SF). Two stories in Volume 4 help illustrate this. “Shadow of the Moon” by Muhammad Ali Ali is a romantic story about a poet walking by the seashore in the middle of a storm – for inspiration – who finds a lovely girl, fallen on the ground. He rescues her but hesitates to go to a hospital, because the laws in Egypt blame you for the condition of the patient you deliver. (It turns out she’s from the moon and later invites him to her magical kingdom). More cynically humorous still is “Blind Spot” by Ahmed Badran. The story begins in a dentist’s clinic with an anxious patient rummaging through the yellow newspapers and starlets magazines in the waiting room. He finds a magazine called Blind Spot and his eyes fall on an article about an incident that occurred in a certain Cairo district where some industrial fumes were released and hurt some children and pregnant women living close by. The following day the accident happens and his pregnant wife loses the baby. He makes his way to the office of the said magazine and threatens the editor-in-chief if he doesn’t tell him the truth. He explains to the hero that time is cyclical and that his magazine is trying to help people alleviate terrible accidents and industrial disasters – caused by neglect or corruption – by writing about these incidents indirectly so nobody will suspect they can see the future.
Then the hero gets zapped from behind, waking up in the dentists’ clinic again. He finds the magazine but minus that too explicit news item. Nonetheless the accident does happen but he rescues his wife beforehand. The dialogue about the function of the magazine, referring to things indirectly, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the function of the media in a country like Egypt. As a former journalist myself I can confirm that we always talk in generalities and ‘hide’ information, between the lines, to avoid getting into trouble with the authorities, and still try to serve as a check and balance on the abysmal state the country is in.
A final problem with Egyptian SF, thanks in part to the success of the pocketbook series in the 1990s, is that characters tend to be flat and not have a life of their own while the narrative itself, the way the story is told, tends to be predictable and straightforward. Egypt was also a socialist country at one point in time so we take role-models, clichés and stereotypes too seriously in our writing.
You would think that these kinds of problems would be more pronounced in short fiction, given length restrictions, but amazingly you find quite a lot of literary experimentation going on. A supreme example in Volume 1 is “The Dark Rectangle” by Mustafa Seif Al-Din. It’s a detective story with a policeman and his partner at a murder scene, the third of its kind, where a woman is slain in plain daylight with claw marks in her throat and blood everywhere. The only thing the latest victim has in common with the previous two is that all are women. Fortunately she was a model and her boyfriend was taking pictures of her at the time. The man in charge of the case notices something in the fatal photograph and heads off inexplicably to a magician. The magician, and his wife, do the old sawing a woman in half act, just without the box. The man and his wife take a look at the photo, notice the half-invisible ‘thing’ in it and recognise it as their son. They confess that they are humanoid aliens who come from a distant, dark planet of harsh hearted being that sends out a male and female pair to other worlds, and they have to select and murder four individuals of ‘pure’ hearts. Once they are slain a beam of pure light emerges, forming a rectangle, and a pan-dimensional door opens that allows the armies of their world to invade.
In the case of their son (the magician’s wife was pregnant when they came here) he is trying to carry out his people’s mission and is picking on girls who represent the four corners of ‘happiness’ – sacrifice, mercy, acceptance and love. (All the victims are located in the same district of the unnamed city they are in). You aren’t told which country this is happening in but you guess that it’s Egypt, since the detective comments on how it’s impossible to find happy people anymore, especially people who are unselfish, romantic, accepting and completely truthful!
Then he remembers the famous case of a girl who exposed corruption in the health sector, refusing to change her testimony in court, and he guns down the magician’s son, but fails to save the girl. And yet, no dark portal opens heralding an alien invasion. When he queries the magician afterwards the man explains that the ‘darkness’ you humans have on the inside protects you. No one is completely pure or honest or unselfish, something he and his wife learned when they first began slaying victims on their mission of conquest. (Another rectangle is for creative genius, covering taste, forbearance, truthfulness and love). In the process, they gave up and learned to befriend earthers and dedicated their lives to making them happy, through their so-called magic act – using their scientific powers to mimic magic routines. Sadly their son couldn’t relate to the humans and isolated himself and reverted to form.
Interestingly, and innovatively, the story is not told from the perspective of the detective who leads the hunt for the killer, but his partner, who is quite passive and in a state of wonderment half the time – standing in for the reader. Notice also that the story matches a fairytale, a moral fable, but it is nonetheless hard SF and cynical and humorous all at the same time. And that’s not half bad for newcomers on the block like us.
Thinking Small, Acting Big
I’m the odd one out in all this as I was born in England and hardly read any Arabic fiction till settling down in Egypt in 2001, only coming into contact with Arabic SF in 2016 when I met and befriended Dr. El-Zembely and Ahmed Al-Mahdi. Plus, I’m only half Egyptian. Hence, my first published story, “A Detour in Space” (2017), about the trials and tribulations of the first Arabic colony on the recently terraformed Mars. The pan-Arab space agency has to beg and grovel for money from Gulf Arab patrons while the Syrian neighbourhood in the Arab city on Mars is fracturing into mini-neighbourhoods on the model of the Syrian civil war. The ‘observer’ in all this is the nameless hero, a Palestinian dispatched to Mars by the Egyptian head of the space agency who consoles himself with the fact that the Turks, Malaysians and Iranians on Mars are doing very well indeed – and that Saladin ultimately wasn’t an Arab himself.
My problem, as you can see, is that I think like a historian and social scientist. I did my PhD in International Studies (2001) at the University of Sheffield and have been teaching at universities and writing in journalism – all English language – ever since. Worse still I’m also a movie reviewer and have a degree in philosophy, so I’m overly self-conscious in my enterprises, looking at things from the point of view of a literary critic and also a sceptic when it comes to history and social theory. I identify what’s wrong with something – politics, economics, a period in history, what’s been written about it in stories and how – and try to fix it. Hence, my story “Demigods in Time”, a time-travel epic where I go to great lengths to correct how Gilgamesh was presented in legend. As for my detour story, it mushroomed into an entire novel when I was trying to serialise it into a handful of episodes, covering huge swathes of Arabic history with the advantage of hindsight and this came out in compressed form in my story “Lambs of the Desert” in The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume IV. Here the Arab quadrant on Mars ends up in a war with the Americans and it is the Bedouins who defeat the Western imperialist presence on the red planet, deploying camels against tanks; with the help of an Englishman, admittedly. This, and a story I’ve been struggling to publish named “Body of Resistance” helped me dream up the theme for Volume 7 of Shams Al-Ghad, dedicated to resistance literature. A likewise compressed version of Body of Resistance appears in it where a computer engineer and medical doctor in Iraq devise an original way to liberate their country from the American occupation. If you read the MA thesis of Syrian author Muhammad Al-Yassin (2008) you find that nobody in early Arab SF ever talked about the Arab-Israeli conflict or Western imperialism head on. Shams Al-Ghad seemed the perfect venue for rectifying this and energising Egyptian SF through this thematic. I’ve also tried to put Arab resistance SF on the literary map through a quasi-academic article on the topic, before Volume 7 had even been completed.
It’s panned out I’m glad to say. It’s our largest volume to date in terms of word length and we had 22 stories in total; about a quarter are directly about Palestine. Most of the stories in the book are positive, with the good guys winning through the proper appliance of science coupled with morality and human sympathy. Some of the stories are told from the point of view of the occupiers and women generally play a proactive role in the volume, although only two of the twenty two stories were written by female authors. There are many stories I’m especially proud of in this volume, more than any other volume. There’s the dystopian “Book of Nothingness” by Muhammad Al-Murabit; the title modelled on the Biblical Book of Genesis or Exodus. You have a world where people live underground, with the warmth of the sun being nothing but a distant memory, slaving away in mines at the service of feudal lords hungry for jewels that they use for energy. Population growth is kept under strict control – no more than three members to a family – while girls are for the entertainment of the lord. One particular digger, despite being an illiterate, realises that these gems are also a storehouse of memories of the past, of when things were better and he tries to foment descent and teach his comrades about how in the past people believed in one God and had a holy scripture called the Quran.
He’s eventually banished to the outside world with his wife, something he wanted all along because she’d become pregnant outside of the allotted period when people are allowed to mate. He tells his fellow miners not to despair because they don’t need his leadership to be free, or else he’d become another despot himself, and when he leaves he insists on going to the jungle full of wild beasts that have evolved a taste for man because at least there he can hide in a cave and be free. (He also wins the sympathy of some of the guards, who’ve suffered themselves at the hands of their lord and he learns likewise not to judge people). The perpetual darkness these people live in is a reference to the state of the Arab world nowadays and digging up jewels of the past, or pearls of wisdom, is an allegory for connecting with your past to learn who you are and learn the lessons of those before you; prerequisites of having a future. As for living in a cave, this is a critique of so-called advancement and progress. Early cavemen may have been better off than us because they were free to live their lives as they saw fit.
History and learning from the mistakes of the past is a theme in Dr. El-Zembely opening story, “The Message”, where a quantum physicist sends two young boys back to the time of the Mongol conquest and destruction of Baghdad, to warn the caliph beforehand about who he can and cannot trust in this fight. In the closing story President Sadat is given a second chance in the time-travel story Wael Abdel Raheem and I wrote, “Hero of the Arabs”.
So, all in all, Egyptian SF is wriggling out from underneath the weighty constraints placed on it. Its slow progress but steady as she comes. Time for a game changer, however, and in my humble opinion its translation. We need to reach a wider audience, win international SF contests, and earn hard currency too. Given the translation skills forced on me by working in journalism – nobody wants original writing anymore – I’m making the switch to literary translation with The Curse of Sobek and the intro chapter to Ahmed Al-Mahdi’s Malaaz. Also the more translation we do for ourselves the more we decide the shape of the international market for SF, instead of the market telling us what to translate to satisfy its belated, exotic demands.
Getting famous internationally, moreover, will break the discontinuity problem outlined above since not knowing what’s happening in the country right next to you forces you to start from scratch. Thanks to translation everybody in the Arab world knows Hassan Blasim and Ahmed Saadawi from Iraq, a country that absolutely nothing to do with science fiction until very recently. They heard about the translation first then got the Arabic original. Publishing directly in English, French and other international languages also opens up the opportunity to develop ‘series’, with recurring characters, themes, technologies and timelines, which can then be taken up by other writers afterwards on the models of Asimov and Heinlein, expanding on and refining your accomplishments.
This is something I’m trying to do with my hero in A Detour in Space who reappears in Lambs of the Desert, with a whole series of sequels and prequels – in short story form – before I’ve even published my planned novel. In the meantime, I have to get my friends Ahmed Al-Mahdi and Ammar Al-Masry to translate my writings, given my typing skills in Arabic, and I drive them up the wall with my elliptical style of prose. Or as Ammar once put it, there’s too much English in my English!
 For a periodisation of Egyptian SF please see my article, “Better Late than Never: The Transmutations of Egyptian SF in the Work of Hosam El-Zembely”. Foundation 131. 47(3), Winter 2018: 6-14.
 Please see my academic article, “Trouble in La La Land: Arab Utopian Science Fiction in Comparative Perspective”, MOSF Journal of Science Fiction, 3(3), 21/12/2019, https://publish.lib.umd.edu/?journal=scifi&page=article&op=view&path%5B%5D=481