Bridging Arab mythology with Western sci-fi

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Ibraheem Abbas gives a TEDx talk.
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Ibraheem Abbas pushes the boundaries of Arab culture in the 21st century. (Photos by Amina Al-Jeffery)
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Abbas’ first novel, “HWJN”, is about a 90-year-old jinn.
Updated 19 May 2017

Bridging Arab mythology with Western sci-fi

Novelist Ibraheem Abbas is a pioneer in a genre that is more than a century old. Taking the best elements of science fiction popularized in the West by such greats as Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” to anything by Arthur C. Clarke, Abbas has added a Saudi twist with his own stories by conflating Arab mythology and SciFi.
Abbas is a rare breed in Saudi Arabia. In addition to mixing sci-fi, fantasy and adolescent adventure, he is also a creative director and filmmaker. He co-founded Yatakhayalon (The League of Arabic SciFiers), a publishing house, and hopes to enrich the Kingdom by encouraging an Arabic sci-fi culture.
Sitting with Abbas, one feels he is a unique sort of blend between a moderate and ideologue, both in his writing and as a person.
The common denominator in each of his pieces is his singular ability to blend Arab history with a futuristic punch.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, being the closest to his aspired field of graphic and 3-D design.
He also worked in marketing at Procter & Gamble. Springing from one field to another, seeking a position where his talent could be exercised and prosper, Abbas was eventually rescued by the burgeoning Saudi advertising industry during the time in which he found the title “creative director.”
Certainly working as a creative director provided an outlet for Abbas’ fertile imagination, but it was writing fantasy and SciFi that fulfilled him.
His first novel, “HWJN,” is the story of forbidden love between a 90-year-old supernatural jinn, who experiences his first interactions with the human dimension through a relationship with a young woman.
The novel is told from the perspective of the supernatural creatures and cleverly conveys their standpoint on humans. (In Islam, jinn are extraterrestrial, invisible creatures believed to have been made from “smokeless fire by God.”)
In writing “HWJN,” Abbas had no intention of publishing the story. It was merely a medium where he could channel his “personal creative journey” in which he allowed his notions to roam free.
But when he ultimately decided to publish “HWJN,” Abbas and his partner, Yasser Bahjatt, hit a brick wall. Publishers didn’t want it. It was too fantastical for Arab tastes. As a result, they were compelled to launch Yatakhayloon where it was successfully published.
Thereafter, “HWJN”, according to Wired Magazine, fueled “rumors, particularly from parents, that it was promoting sorcery and devil-worship” among the youth.
As the book received more attention, religious authorities were reluctant to see “HWJN” on Saudi bookshelves for the same reason.
Nevertheless, the book hit the top of Saudi Arabia’s best-seller list in 2013. Readers were quick to latch onto Abbas’ stories hoping it would establish a dialogue between Western and Arabic sci-fi.
After gaining positive recognition internationally, the January 2014 New York Review of Science Fiction said, “It’s a great YA (young adults) novel... one which would go down very well with a Western YA readership.”
Not all Western sci-fi readers shared the same enthusiasm and some skeptical Saudis had difficulty accepting other aspects of the story. It was thought to have presented a view of women that would be deemed patronizing to Western readers. Arab-English book reviewer Ian Campbell said: “The ending is deeply problematic from a liberal Western viewpoint.”
Having said that, Abbas acknowledges the fact that this very detail “sneaks into another kind of patronizing expectation that a book can only be good if it reflects our prejudices. This is a book that we SciFi readers in the West can learn from.”
Subsequent to success the of “HWJN,” Abbas was encouraged to write Hunak. In lieu of writing sequels, as is often a convention in a second-book release, Abbas seamlessly ties the knot with his third book, “Binyameen.”
His latest piece, “The Hypnotized Ones,” is a narrative of three Arabic historical figures, each possessing their own pronounced characteristics that are the direct antithesis of the others.
He carefully refrains from burdening his writing with philosophical meanings. His distinctive style is the product of employing limited resources to spark inquisition in the minds of his audience.
He says his objective is to deliver “entertainment,” plain and simple.
“Sometimes, yes, some of my readers discover strong messages I had not even intended on,” Abbas said.
Abbas tells Arab News that creating a “fun” experience for people is what prompts him to write. Furthermore, he wants to encourage open-mindedness in his readers’ minds and challenge engineered societal conformities.
Abbas possesses a fiery passion for sci-fi. He thrives a little on pushing boundaries.
Promoting a genre that is more or less ignored in this region, he pares away everything pertaining to the mere shadow of orthodoxy.
He advises young talents to pivot their predominant and transient aspirations of reaching fame to finding fulfillment in doing what they love to do. He believes that young Saudis answer to, and perform better, in competitive networks. He suggests that more platforms, where they can showcase their work, would generate more Saudi talent and produce higher quality work.
Abbas notes that as young Saudi talent rises, impediments they face grow proportionally. They become subject to the abrasive censuring of a society whose principal concern is the way in which the next person perceives them. Measured by the unregulated and variable interpretations of the “norms,” individuals construct a meager and feigned attempt at creative art, he believes.
“A false and enforced perfection,” Abbas observes.
The very act of molding art to please conflicting ideologies in society will undoubtedly render the product watered down.
Often Abbas feels that myriad Saudi dreams have died at confronting the question, “What will other people think of me?”
He believes that being raised by parents who anchored tolerance in their home contributed to his experimental nature. In a large family, however, where undivided attention is scarce, Abbas said he learned “to create my own atmosphere, and invent my own toys, my own fun.”
Abbas is realizing his plans of converting “HWJN” into a movie. He has faith it will be a quantum leap in the sci-fi genre and will excite a succession of productions in the region.

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Netflix Review: ‘Leila’ offers a frightening fictional glimpse into India under draconian rule

Netflix’s original six-episode series, “Leila,” is an unflinching look at a fictional futuristic India run under a draconian political, social and cultural structure. (Supplied)
Updated 19 June 2019

Netflix Review: ‘Leila’ offers a frightening fictional glimpse into India under draconian rule

CHENNAI: Netflix’s original six-episode series, “Leila,” is an unflinching look at a fictional futuristic India run under a draconian political, social and cultural structure.

Adapted from Prayaag Akbar’s novel of the same title, and directed by Deepa Mehta (known for bold films such as “Fire,” “Earth” and “Water”), Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar, “Leila” is set in 2047, a century after the country had gained independence from the British Empire, and is a daring take on what India could become if authoritarianism and radical forces had their way.

India, in “Leila,” is called Aryavarta, a dictatorial state ruled by Joshi (Sanjay Suri) with the help of a ruthless police force, where painful segregation of people on the basis of religion, caste and economic status is routine. They are separated by formidably tall walls to ensure purity of race.

Children of mixed parentage are whisked away from parents, and women who marry outside their religion are sent to places resembling concentration camps, where they are reformed and re-educated.

One of them is Shalini (Huma Qureshi), whose marriage to Rizwan (Rahul Khanna) outside her community is branded a crime. Her little daughter, Leila, is taken away, and her husband murdered.

The series follows the distraught mother as she goes looking for the girl. Hurt and humiliated by a draconian administration which relies on thugs and a highly intrusive surveillance system to maintain order, Shalini befriends a state-appointed minder, Bhanu (Siddharth).

Penned by Urmi Juvekar, Suhani Kawar and Patrick Graham, the series is slightly different from the book, and runs like a thriller showing chases, brawls for water (“Bandit Queen” director Shekhar Kapur had once wanted to make a movie on water wars, but could not) and torturous living conditions in filthy slums.

Qureshi portrays flashes of brilliance as a deeply troubled woman who pines for her child, but her character is often roadblocked in her quest by an unfeeling regime with a zero-tolerance approach to dissent.

Order is enforced through inhuman forms of punishment, and at one point Shalini has to roll over plates of half-eaten food.

With Netflix outside the purview of sometimes rigid Indian censorship rules, Mehta and the other directors have been able to present most graphically a scenario that is well within the realms of possibility.