Amal El-Mohtar on Fantasy, The Middle-East, and a Conversation with Saladin Ahmed
Over the last nine years, I’ve had occasion to be startled, and then to cease to be startled, by the extent to which my Middle-Eastern-ness gets conflated with Muslim-ness as a matter of course, as well as the extent to which people feel entitled to learning my religion along with my name. This is not the space in which I want to think about why precisely that is – I have a blog too, after all – but it is the space which Ms. Awesomesauce Cooney offered me to talk about the ways in which we might see the Middle-East positively represented in fantasy, as well as showcase a writer of fantasy literature who does in fact happen to be Muslim.
I totally hear that. I felt that way coming across words that were clearly borrowed from Arabic in works by J. R. R. Tolkien, and seeing a dark-skinned boy say “salaam” in Ender’s Game. I thought, hey, here is something that speaks to me, directly. It was a huge, huge deal for me at sixteen.
Of course, the… shall we say sophistication of those depictions is an open question. Fantasy novels tend to trade in archetypes. As a reader, that’s a big part of what I love about them: the taciturn swordsman, the spunky princess, the befuddled old wizard, the crazed priest of an ancient god.
But archetypes are only a step removed, if that, from stereotypes. This is the case even when fantasy novels are dealing with Europe or pseudo-Europe. It’s even more the case when dealing with ‘other’ places and peoples, though, and often leads to reducing ‘Islam’ and ‘Arab’ to a stock set of signifiers – fanaticism, honor, violence, sexism, absolutism, scimitars, veils, turbans, and, above all, the harsh, unforgiving desert that produces a harsh, unforgiving people.
This is the case even when we’re dealing with a secondary world – if you’ve got a fantasy map at the beginning of the book, you can be pretty sure that, to the east of the Europe-ish landmass, there will be a big ol’ desert, and it will be inhabited by fierce, proud nomads who wear flowing robes and chop people’s heads off. This handful of central casting shtick is a stark contrast to history’s reality of remarkably varied Islamic cultures.
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