Arab sci-fi: ‘A revival of the imagination’

‘Sketch’ In Vitro (2018) © Larissa Sansour & Soren Lind
Updated 04 May 2018

Arab sci-fi: ‘A revival of the imagination’

  • UAE author Noura Al-Noman is translating a sci-fi classic into Arabic
  • Panelists at ‘Spicing Up Sci-Fi: The Dunes Strike Back’ explore the genre in the Middle East

LONDON/DUBAI: “The Muslim psyche is craving new types of stories — ones that can inspire and empower the co-creation of more inclusive futures.”
So said Yasmin Khan, founding producer of Sindbad Sci-Fi. Khan was discussing a panel — “Spicing Up Sci-Fi: The Dunes Strike Back” — that took place on April 28, organized by Sindbad Sci-Fi as part of the inaugural MFest in London, a festival of culture and ideas dedicated to Muslim communities.
UAE author Noura Al-Noman, writer of “Ajwan,” was also part of the panel. Al-Noman is currently translating the epic Sci-Fi novel “Dune,” widely regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, into Arabic.
She expressed her excitement that her publishing house is bringing the work to Arab speakers and said she sees huge potential among young Arab writers to bring their own voice to the sci-fi field.
Panel chairman, award-winning journalist and playwright Faisal Al-Yafai, agreed. “There is an increasing appetite for sci-fi in the Gulf region,” he said. “But one of the problems is that you tend to get a lot of Western writers – but not so many Arab writers. But young adults are being encouraged by Noura and others to write their own stories.”
Al-Yafai noted that the first movie used to ‘relaunch’ cinemas in Saudi Arabia last month was the superhero film “Black Panther.”
“That film is described as ‘Afrofuturism.’ One of the aspects we want to explore is ‘Arabfuturism’,” he said. “It would be great to have more Arab-centric themes in literature and movies. I would like to see a day when we have such movies being made in the Arab world for Arab consumption, funded to a very high degree, made by Arab filmmakers dealing with Arab themes.”
He added: “Saudi Arabia opening up is, in itself, fascinating. (There are) young Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis with an amazing ability to write creatively. When this talent is backed up with money and infrastructure it is going to be fantastic to watch what develops.”
While sci-fi is often viewed (by non-fans) as fantastical, cartoonish nonsense, the panel revealed just how valuable the genre can potentially be, culturally. As Sindbad Sci-Fi stressed in its press release, “Science fiction acts as a bridge between the arts and sciences, offering a realm where new ideas can be tested and explored. As a prism for expressing contemporary fears and fascinations about repressive regimes and alien cultures, science fiction offers readers a safe platform to envision a future beyond the Arab uprisings that transcend the margins of current geopolitical narratives.”
Sci-fi, the release continued, has the potential to “play an instrumental part in stimulating scientific and technological progress” in the Middle East.
Speaking to Arab News after the event, Khan elaborated on that belief.
“The main angle I’m trying to champion is that the role of science and technology in society is fundamental to any kind of progress in civilization. And while Muslims were once the beacons in that sphere, sadly they’ve lagged behind for various reasons,” she said. “And I think fundamental to reigniting that is a revival of the imagination. Historically, storytelling is a fundamental part of Arab tradition, but now you have to ask where that has gone. For me, innovation is driven first through the imagination. Science fiction is a wonderful bridge that can bring those two things together: Imagination and innovation.”
Journalist and “Zero Point” author Nafeez Ahmed, another panellist, has experience of that.
“When I wrote ‘Zero Point,’ I wanted to explore what I saw as the huge lack of accountability within the military industrial complex,” he said. “Governments have outsourced a lot of work to the private sector, making it harder to track.
“It’s one thing to have your own government involved in secret activity, but another thing entirely to have large companies with a bottom line to meet also involved. They have no duty of care to citizens and an enormous amount of control.”
He added: “There is a great deal of research being undertaken in, for example, anti-gravity technologies. For the sci-fi writer, the risks and dangers of this type of activity — especially if it goes out of control — are fascinating to explore.
“In fact, science fiction in general is a useful tool to explore what the future holds in a region where we see the challenges of climate change and water scarcity,” he continued.
Danish author Soren Lind, whose work with Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour was recently shown in Jeddah as part of The Group show, said the idea for their film “In The Future They Ate From The Finest Porcelain” evolved from the perception that archaeology is a form of warfare and plays an important role in shaping the national imagination. In the film, a narrative resistance group makes underground deposits of elaborate porcelain ‘belonging’ to an entirely fictional civilization. Their aim is to influence history and support future claims to their vanishing lands.
“Using sci-fi to address the Palestinian situation has proved a very fitting match,” Lind said in the panel press release. “With no present to speak of, the Palestinian experience tends to be suspended between the past and the future, oscillating between nostalgia and ambition. I find this territory very inspiring, with sci-fi as a discipline capable of reminiscing while embracing and accelerating any looming dystopia.”
Khan, too, sees great potential for science fiction to explore the challenges facing the Arab world — and humanity in general.
“It’s a really interesting opportunity for the Middle East,” she said. “Because it’s almost as if technology is running ahead of (mankind’s) morality and ethics and our ability to think through scenarios. If technology is going to be at the heart of our future, which is what we’re told, what does that mean for the Arab world? We’re at a point where the Arab world can ask, ‘Okay, where are we in all of this? Are we just going to jump on the bandwagon? Or are we going to consider what this means for us? What can we produce that means something of substance, that retains our identity, and still has something to offer to inspire others?’
“Imagine something different,” she continued. “There are different versions of the future that you can conjure up, if you want to. And we need different possibilities of different futures, because the future we have ahead of us is not inclusive. If you extrapolate where we’re going now, the Arab world will be the big loser. But an inclusive future is a mission we can all work toward. It’s just enabling that to happen.”

Yara Shahidi honored with Spotlight Award

Yara Shahidi was honored with an award at the 25th Annual Elle Women in Hollywood Celebration. (AFP)
Updated 16 October 2018

Yara Shahidi honored with Spotlight Award

DUBAI: Actress and social activist Yara Shahidi was honored with an award at the 25th Annual Elle Women in Hollywood Celebration on Monday and took to the stage to give a speech.

The Iranian-American star of TV show “Black-ish,” who has her own spinoff show called “Grown-ish,” was given the Calvin Klein Spotlight Award at an event attended by the likes of Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lopez and many more.

The 18-year-old Harvard University student is one of a star-studded list of honorees, including Lady Gaga, Shonda Rhimes and Mia Farrow.

The event also celebrated the female cast of “Black Panther” — Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o — at the event in Los Angeles’ Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Shahidi sat down with the magazine for an in-depth interview published in its November 2018 issue. The teen, who hails from a highly accomplished family — one of her cousins is the rapper Nas, while another, Anousheh Ansari, was the first Iranian-American astronaut — covered everything from women in Hollywood to her political activism.

“We’re holding people accountable for their actions. There’s an intentional knowledge disparity in any industry, which is tied to the maintaining of power. I love the fact that this community of women is disintegrating that. I’ve been able to reap the benefits of it, and I’m also fortunate to have my parents with me, guiding me,” she told the magazine.

Shahidi has talked openly about her family in the past, including in a revealing social media post about her parents during the uproar about the proposed US immigration ban in 2017.

“If my baba was stuck in an airport because of a Muslim ban 39 years ago, he would have never fallen in love with my mama. I would not exist and I wouldn’t have two amazing brothers,” she posted on social media at the time.

The actress has been vocal about her Iranian-African-American heritage and even called herself “a proud Black Iranian” on Twitter.

In her most recent interview with Elle magazine, the actress expands on what causes are close to her heart.

“Immigration, gun control. There’s been a lack of humanity, especially in the policies of these past two years, policies that alienate minorities,” she said.

Lady Gaga was also awarded at the ceremony, and took to the stage to give a powerful, emotional speech about being a survivor of sexual assault.

“As a sexual assault survivor by someone in the entertainment industry, as a woman who is still not brave enough to say his name, as a woman who lives with chronic pain, as a woman who was conditioned at a very young age to listen to what men told me to do, I decided today I wanted to take the power back. Today I wear the pants,” she said at the event.