Noura al Noman is a science fiction writer from the United Arab Emirates, author of new novel Ajwan. Here, we are delighted to publish the English-language version of an interview with her, conducted by Cristina Jurado, and published by permission of the Sense of Wonder blog.
Noura al Noman Interviewed by Cristina Jurado
Cristina Jurado: Ajwan is an Arabic sci-fi novel for young adults. I would love to hear from you a small synopsis for our readers.
Noura al Noman: Ajwan is a real female name in Arabic – it is derived from the word “jown” which means a small sea or cove, Ajwan is the plural of it. She is a 19-year-old girl who is from a water-breathing race. The novel opens with total emotional devastation describing how she narrowly escapes being killed by a natural disaster, which destroys her planet, and annihilates her race. The traumatic experience awakens a latent ability in her -Empathy. She is further traumatized by the news that she is carrying a child – her husband had died in the disaster. How is she to go on with her life as a refugee in this vast universe? Meanwhile, violent acts taking place around the sector of the universe leave investigators stumped. Soon these mysterious events impact Ajwan’s life further traumatizing her. In order to take back her life, Ajwan is faced with a tough choice – to abandon the path of non-violence and to become a soldier; but can she do it when she is also an Empath?
CJ: I’ve read that you started to write Ajwan because you could not find an Arabic young adult novel for your daughter. How did you come up with the plot? How long did it take you to finish it?
NN: Yes, I have two adult sons and four teenage daughters, and they all grew up around my library that is filled with sci-fi and fantasy novels which I’d collected since the mid 80s – of course all in English. Around four years ago I looked for Arabic teen literature and found next to nothing specifically written for teens, and whatever was available could never compete with what I had in my library. My husband and my close friends urged me to write in Arabic.
Since I’d always loved the TV series Man from Atlantis, I chose for the protagonist to be a water breather. In the beginning, I only knew that she will have empathy as her special power (I think there isn’t enough empathy in this world, and there are too many destructive super powers out there), and what it is that will cause her to cross paths with the antagonist. The rest came as I began to write paragraph after paragraph. I was inspired by issues from my part of the world: disenfranchised and marginalized people, and how unscrupulous power hungry individuals may use such groups to further their own agenda through terrorism and violent acts.
In order for me to actually finish such a project, while keeping a job and having a large family and commitments, I promised myself to write 800 words per day. I finished the manuscript in nine months resulting in 91,000+ words.
CJ: I believe that your novel is very courageous. First, you tackle a genre that has very little tradition in Arabic. Second, you choose a girl as a main character. Third, the story contains references to social and political issues. Was it difficult to find a publisher to back up your project?
NN: I tend to be an anomaly in a lot of the things that I do. As a teenager, I used to read English novels when I knew no one around me in my parent´s families or my school who did that. I used to wear jeans and t- shirt in the late 70s, early 80s when it was completely unheard of. In the mid 90s I was the only Emirati female to open a legal translation office of her own. I simply do not do things to please other people. The first Emirati publisher to read Ajwan (they had already published my first two picture books) said that they didn’t feel it is appropriate for under 18s. Two Arab publishers said they didn’t publish sci-fi, and the rest simply ignored my emails. One Emirati publisher read 3 pages from the middle and urged me to give it to him. I respected his work; but I was worried about his distribution (a problem most Arab publishers had) and also I have seen some of their work and the editing left a lot to be desired. You can say, I stuck it out till I got the right offer. I’d known that Nahdet Misr had translated The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, so I personally approached the chairwoman while she was in the Sharjah International Book Fair and she was very positive. Being picked up by Nahdet Misr finally showed me that I was not just a “geek” who thought she could write.
CJ: With a background in English and Translation, do you have any plans to translate Ajwan into English?
NN: Actually, almost as soon as I had finished writing it, a close friend who had been very supportive of my writing but who doesn’t speak Arabic asked me if she could read it. It took me a leisurely seven months to translate it. Of course, it remained just a translation, and needed proper editing – not by the translator. A month ago the editor sent it back all edited very nicely. Thankfully just in time for me to send it to the German publisher and the Turkish publisher who had contacted me after the launch to ask about Ajwan. And while all my friends are urging me to publish it in English, I cannot do so too soon. The problem we have in this part of the region is that our teens are reading English and almost no Arabic. The whole idea behind Ajwan was to provide Arabic content for teens. My 17-year-old daughter read it in Arabic and liked it. Three young ladies of close age tweeted to me saying it was the first Arabic novel they had ever read. This means that the subject matter (sci-fi) made Arabic seem more approachable to them. In short, I am going to wait a bit before I publish it in English.
CJ: In an interview you mention the difficulties of writing sci-fi in Arabic as certain new ideas are hard to express. How complex was to write sci-fi in Arabic?
NN: Writing Ajwan has been an education. Both in writing novels and in Arabic sentence and paragraph structure. I know it sounds funny; but it felt like I was writing in a second language – not my own mother tongue. I have a BA in English Lit and Masters in Translation. And I must admit I owe a lot to my professor, Basil Hatim for making me look at Arabic in a different way, and for helping me appreciate its nuances and guiding me to good reference books in the early 2000s.
Even then, I had almost no frame of reference, because I was driven to write the story, and I had little time to refer to Arabic novels or Arabic structure. While tackling “scientific jargon” problems, I had bigger problems trying to figure out how to write “action” scenes. How do I describe a fight? In fact, how do I describe simple things which we do every day like “she clicked her tongue”, “he folded his arms as he leaned against the desk.” I had two writer friends (Salha Ghabish &Fatma Al Nahidh) both are accomplished Arabic writers, and neither one could help me. Quite frustrating!
Thankfully, I live in a country, which subtitles all movies on the screen. So a viewer with little to no English background can still follow a sci-fi movie. This helped me in figuring out how “worm holes” and “ion/plasma drives” could be translated. I admit that they are not ideal (we really need our own jargon in Arabic); but at least I didn’t have to start from scratch. All in all, this has been an amazing experience for me, and I am thrilled to go through it over and over again, as I tackle new issues and push the boundaries of writing in sci-fi. In book 2, I have invented a word for an anti-gravity bike. I feel quite good about it.
CJ: Are you an avid reader of sci-fi? Which are your favorite authors and why?
NN: From 14 to around 28 years of age, I read almost nothing but science fiction and fantasy. Later I got interested in other genres and moved away from sci-fi; but continued to read fantasy. After I finished Ajwan, I decided to go back to reading sci-fi. My fascination with sci-fi started when I caught the trailer of Star Wars in 1977. It owned me completely. One of the first works, which introduced me to “world-creation” is Frank Herbert’s Dune. Up till then, the books I had read were obviously of adventures around galaxies etc.; but when you see a complete world you are totally drawn into it and you even start to make your own little character, culture or adventure inside that world. Other authors were Alan Dean Foster with his Humanx universe.Anne McCaffrey with her Pern series. Julian May with her Saga of Pliocene Exile and the Galactic Milieu Series. Each and every one of these series taught me the virtues of creating a rich world with detailed backgrounds; they allowed for spin offs and sub plots at a later date. I wanted to do the same thing for Arab readers. However, I didn’t want to be bound by my own culture; if sci-fi is about the future, then I envision a future where Earth ethnicities have been so diluted that they are no longer recognizable. I think a lot of people will be upset by the lack of “Arab” culture in Ajwan. But I did that on purpose.
CJ: It was very surprising to learn that there are very limited sci-fi titles in Arabic. Why do you think is the case?
NN: I am not sure really. I must admit that I have not read any Arabic novels in decades. The last full novel I read was Ahmed Khalid Tawfiq’s Utopia because I heard that it was a SF novel and I was curious to see how Arabs write SF. Even though I enjoyed it, I didn’t really learn much reading it. It was about Egypt in a few decades. I read “reviews” of other novellas by male and female Arab authors. It seems they all had the same “limit” – they were all earth-bound and were not too far into the future. I don’t know why really, and I cannot make an analysis of this as I am not specialized in this field; but there has to be a reason for it. Also they seem to always tackle “Arab issues”, political or social ones; which isn’t wrong per se (as Ajwan also does the same); but I think they can be a bit depressing as a read. Does SF have to be an instrument for “fixing” things? Can’t it be about creating worlds where there is the possibility for so much more? I have read a lot of SF in my youth, and if it wasn’t for its leaps of fancy, for the other-world-ness of its plots and issues, I would not have been attracted to it. I am worried that this is why our youth do not read (or write) SF in Arabic. I could be wrong. Another related element is the educational system, which has failed to make the youth interested in science as a study and as a career. Without science, there can be no science related writings and, of course, no readers either. And the tragic consequence of that is also the fact that the Arab world boasts little to zero scientific patents too. It is funny how people underestimate sci-fi, when it has the capacity to bring us back to the fore of scientific advancement.
CJ: What do you think that sci-fi can bring to young Arab audiences?
NN: Like I mentioned in the last answer, it can produce the Arab scientists of the future. It can also show them that some predictions of the future actually do happen and that they have to be prepared for that change in the future, whether it is good or bad change. But one of the best things which sci-fi taught me and I think it can teach others is that we have more in common with each other than we have differences. We have to celebrate the similarities and to respect the differences without trying to impose our ideals on others. By using aliens to introduce these ideas, we can send a subtle message, which can create a more tolerant generation, and hopefully a more peaceful future. But then I have been told I am too naive.
CJ: In relation with the last question: what can Arab culture bring into sci-fi?
NN: I think every culture has a unique attribute which when fused with sci-fi can produce content which will appeal to readers from other cultures that have perhaps been jaded by the same old stories from their own culture.
CJ: There is s lot of Spanish influence in the names of the characters and scenarios of the story. You mentioned a story behind it. Our Spanish readers would love to hear it!
NN: When you create a world, you have to have a premise for it. My premise was that humans in the future will have left Earth and colonized other habitable planets. This has taken them away from our own solar system and they have completely forgotten where they originated from. However, as is the nature of humans, they travel in ethnic groups. My world has Russians colonizing a few planets of their own. Chinese, Indians, Japanese and Spanish doing the same. On their planets, names of rivers, mountains, cities and even people originated from the language spoken by the first settlers. In Ajwan, Esplendore is a planet, which contains a slightly similar group of settlers. There are Spanish, Turks and Italians who have made up their own “countries/kingdoms”. When I decide I want the events to take place on a new planet, I decide which nationality settled the planet, then I come up with a concept (courage, beauty, violence, function etc.) and use Google translate to produce words, which I then use as names. Esplendore has several kingdoms, and one is a “Sultanate” named Segovia. The Sultana of Segovia is being manipulated by someone, so I chose the name “Marionetta” for her. Her son, who is heir, is called “Heredero”. Now, remember these names are transliterated in Arabic, so the Arab reader sees them simply as names without meaning (unless he speaks Spanish, then I am in trouble). I have done this to practically every name in the book.
CJ: You are currently working in a sequel. Do you plan to make it a saga?
NN: So far I have the plot for 3 more books. Book 2 will see the end of the quest, which Ajwan started in book 1. However, more and more things need to happen to her before she becomes the woman she deserves to be. This is all about character development.
I also have the first chapter of a fantasy book for YA, which takes place in the UAE, and takes the heroes (a group of teens) on an adventure all around the seven emirates. Sadly, this will have to wait till I finish Ajwan 4, unless I go live on a desert island on my own and produce 5000 words per day. I can dream! It all started with a dream anyway.
Cristina Jurado Marcos writes the sci-fi blog Más ficción que ciencia on Libros.com. Having a degree in Advertising and Public Relations by Universidad de Seville and a Masters in Rhetoric by Northwestern University (USA), she currently studies Philosophy for fun. She considers herself a globetrotter after living in Edinburgh, Chicago, Paris or Dubai. Her short stories have appeared in several sci-fi online magazines and anthologies. Her first novel From Orange to Blue was published in 2012.
Fascinating interview in Arablit with new Arabic SF writer Noura Noman.
AL: Do you think science fiction could (should, will?) have a wider Arabic-reading audience? What will help grow the audience for Arabic sci fi?
NN: From the response I have had on twitter, and from the handful of young writers who said they read it in English and were interested to read it in Arabic and write it to, yes, I think this is the time for Arabic SF. What I believe would make it more popular is to avoid using it as a way to “fix” Arab issues. I also feel that we need to break away from the boundary of planet Earth and write about other planets, other life forms. I think that’s what will get the young generation to become interested in it. They are sick and tired of our age old issues which we never succeeded in conveying to them in a way that would make them hope for a better future. – read the full interview!
Cheryl Morgan interviews Egyptian writer Ahmed Khaled Towfik. Originally published in Locus.
Ahmed Khaled Towfik Interview
By Cheryl Morgan
Ahmed Khaled Towfik is one of the most prolific authors in Egypt, having written over 500 books. A trained doctor himself, he specializes in medical thrillers and horror, but he has also written science fiction and it is his latest foray into that field, Utopia, that has been published in English translation by BloomsburyQatar.
Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
If you want to divide science fiction into genres then I’d call it a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The vision of a near futureEgyptthat it paints is something that has been very real recently. The rich are becoming richer, the poor are becoming poorer, and the rich are sequestrating themselves in colonies on the north coast. One of them is even called Utopia.. When I found that out I had to put a disclaimer in the front of the book to make it clear I wasn’t writing about them.
The major innovation I have made, for theEgyptof 2023, is to make a rite of passage for young men from the enclaves to go out and hunt one of the poor, and take his hand for a trophy. So the hero and his girlfriend go out amongst the poor in search of someone to kill.
I based this in part on a true story. A young man from a relatively poor family had got into university to study engineering. His parents had saved a lot of money to give him this start in life. He was invited by fellow students to visit one of these enclaves. They were out swimming, and some rich people were playing on jet skis. The student was hit by one of these jet skis and killed. There was no investigation or trial. The rich are above that.
This sort of setting is the basis of a lot of cyberpunk.
That’s not really what I’m doing here. I have written a cyberpunk trilogy. It is called WWW, and it is about the adventures of a computer virus as it moves from one computer system to another. There’s nothing like that in Utopia.
How did the book come to be translated?
First of all it was very successful in Egypt.. Everyone who reads fiction was talking about it. So Bloomsburyapproached me and asked for a translation. I don’t think it is a masterpiece as such, but it is essential for understanding how people are thinking in Egyptat the moment. There is another book called Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? by Galal A. Amin, he’s an economist at the American University in Cairo. You won’t understand what happened in Egypt, and how the revolution came about, unless you read this book. And I see my Utopia as telling the same story, but in novel form.
There are some horrible things in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? and indeed in the revolution as a whole. There was the brutal murder, by the police, of a young man called Khaled Saeed. I think he was one of my readers for sure. You can Google the story. He was beaten to death in a cyber café in front of many people. I think this was one of the events that helped spark the revolution.
How well known is science fiction in Egypt?
I have translated a lot of science fiction. Young people in Egypttoday can read Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov. I am very proud to have done this. But science fiction is a relatively new innovation in Egypt. People there have only been writing novels for just over 100 years, starting with Francis Fathallah in Syriaor Haikal in Egypt. Before that we had very little fantastical literature, except for the Arabian Nights. Sophisticated new inventions such as science fiction are very rare. Most people still are not aware of it, or don’t understand it. It will take 50 to 100 years before it is respected.
There are works in English from Tawfiq al-Hakim and Mustafa Mahmud, but they date from the late 1940s. What has happened since?
Only one writer has concentrated exclusively on science fiction in Egypt. That was Nihad Sherif, who died recently.. He wrote several important works, including The Olive Pearls, The Conqueror of Time, which was made into a movie, and Number Four Orders You. There are a number of other authors as well, such as Nabil Farouq and Raouf Wasfi. But there is one thing we all have in common, myself included: we have all depended on what we read in Western literature. I have yet to see any genuinely original Egyptian SF. Possibly the closest we have come is a story called “The Spider” by Mustafa Mahmud, which I think is available in translation.
Of course some people have identified the Epic of Gilgamesh as the first science fiction work in history, and then you have the Arabian Nights. But their connection to SF is tenuous. Even the early writers such as al-Hakim did not see themselves as producing SF. The idea of specifically sitting down to write science fiction in the manner of Asimov and Clarke developed, forEgypt, with Nihad Sherif.
What about fantasy – is there anything like George Martin or Tolkien in Egypt
No. We are very impressed with those writers, Tolkien has a lot of fans in Egypt, but we don’t write anything like them. For us everything refers back to the Arabian Nights, as indeed it does for many Western writers. H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King have mentioned them as inspiration. But the reputation of the Arabian Nights is so enormous that no one wants to try to write like that.
Do people write novels set in the time of the Pharaohs?
I have tried that a few times, but there is one author who works exclusively in that period. His name Muhamed Soleman and he is very good.
What about the rest of the Arab world. Do other countries where Arabic is spoken produce science fiction?
There was a very good science fiction writer fromSaudi Arabiacalled Ihsan Al Faqeeh, but he met with no success there so he emigrated toCanada, where he is doing very well.Syriahas a thriving science fiction community. They have held conferences and they give an award for science fiction in Arabic, the Assad Prize, named after President Assad. The first winner was Nihad Sherif.
Is a work written in one Arab country understandable in all other Arab countries, all across North Africa and Arabia?
The language varies somewhat from country to country, especially the slang. And the accents are very different. If they show an Algerian movie on Egyptian TV they provide subtitles. But there is a traditional form of the language called Fosha that should be understandable everywhere. Also most people understand Egyptian slang as we produce the most movies in the Arab world.
You have written a huge number of books.
Yes, but I write mainly very short forms, usually novellas from maybe 17,000 words. Even Utopia is only between 35,000 and 40,000 words. I think short books are less effort. Also I have a very hungry audience. They are always wanting more books from me.
And your audience is mainly young people, college students?
That’s right. They are the only people who read fiction. There are statistics that say that the average Arabic reader reads only 20 pages a year, whereas the average Japanese reads 40 books a year. We have newspapers, of course, but they are full of nonsense. People should read more books.
Is there anything we can do to help get more Arabic science fiction translated?
I think there is a growing interest in Arabic literature, ever since Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize. That was very important. And also The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, which is a very famous novel, translated into many languages. These things have drawn the attention of the world to Egyptian contemporary literature. Hopefully if Utopia sells well then Bloomsbury will translate my next book.
Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar writes on Arabic Science Fiction: A Journey into the Unknown:
This past decade has seen a shift in the Arab zeitgeist.
There is an acute confidence among creators and audiences which is propelling Arabic sci-fi forward. Over the past years, more writers, filmmakers, artists and many others have utilized the genre in a number of fascinating, creative ways to overcome the various political, economic, and social restrictions in place and be heard.
Over the past years, more writers, filmmakers, artists and many others have utilized the genre in a number of fascinating, creative ways to overcome the various political, economic, and social restrictions in place and be heard.
The internet, its effects on society yet unfathomable, has allowed alternative spaces for creators and their audience to connect beyond traditional, restrictive routes. The various uprisings in the region has opened brave new worlds for artists and thinkers to explore, the tropes of sci-fi appropriately tailor-made for the journey.
Meanwhile on the macro-level, the first number of symposiums and conferences dealing with sci-fi have been held in Morocco, Syria, and the Gulf. The Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) announced plans at the end of the 2009 sci-fi conference held in Damascus to bolster support towards Arab sci-fi, including establishing a literary prize exclusively for the genre, which has yet to be actualized. – read the full article!
From Saladin Ahmed, finalist for the Nebula and Campbell Awards, comes one of the year’s most anticipated fantasy debuts, THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON, a fantasy adventure with all the magic of The Arabian Nights.
The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, land of djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, Khalifs and killers, is at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings:
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “The last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.
Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s young assistant, a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety, is eager to deliver God’s justice. But even as Raseed’s sword is tested by ghuls and manjackals, his soul is tested when he and Adoulla cross paths with the tribeswoman Zamia.
Zamia Badawi, Protector of the Band, has been gifted with the near-mythical power of the Lion-Shape, but shunned by her people for daring to take up a man’s title. She lives only to avenge her father’s death. Until she learns that Adoulla and his allies also hunt her father’s killer. Until she meets Raseed.
When they learn that the murders and the Falcon Prince’s brewing revolution are connected, the companions must race against time–and struggle against their own misgivings–to save the life of a vicious despot. In so doing they discover a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn Dhamsawaat, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin.
It was back in September 2009 that The National reported that teenage fiction in Arabic “doesn’t exist”. Publisher Dareen Charafeddine, of the Sharjah-based Arabic publishing house Kalimat, said: “If you find any [such books], they are very traditional. Nobody knows how to write for this age group. Children’s literature in general isn’t very developed in the Arab world.”
It was due to this lack of so-called “young adult” science fiction novels in Arabic that Noura Al Noman first decided to write her own. She scoured bookshops in search of suitable books in Arabic for her daughter and found none, and so her novel Ajwan was born.
“For something to be popular, it has to first exist. If you look for English novels in the genre, you’d find plenty, and I believe it is popular – it was popular for me when I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But if you look for Arabic sci-fi then you will find that it is virtually non-existent,” said Al Noman.
Ajwan is a 19-year-old girl on a journey of empowerment, who comes from a “water planet” with the ability to breathe both air and water. “Jown” is Arabic for cove or a small sea, while “Ajwan” is the plural. Having survived the destruction of her planet, Ajwan finds herself having to survive in a universe of diverse races and nations. This is harder than it first seems after Ajwan’s infant son is kidnapped by a mysterious organisation, intent on conquering the sector with the help of a super-army, which wants to turn her child into a super-soldier. Ajwan realises she must learn how to find a balance between being someone from a peaceful nation and becoming a trained killer in order to save her son.
“She had to have an Arabic name,” Al Noman said, “because I feel that Arab teenagers need to be proud of Arabic names and concepts. However, the rest of the characters’ names are derived from many cultures and concepts in other languages.” – continue reading
A number of futuristic works of the last few years have tried to inscribe a sort of national story in futuristic books, such as Utopia, by Ahmed Khaled Towfik, (trans. by Chip Rossetti, 2011), Revolution 2053, by Mahmoud Osman (2009), and Donkey Flu, by Amal Sedik Afif (2010). These books imagine “futures” — particularly in the case of the engaging Utopia – that are pretty darn similar to the present.
However, Ali Abdel Mohsen’s new solo show “Razor-Sharp Teeth,” hints at a fresh Arab sci fi universe, which underpins his often narrative and highly detailed collection. The show opened last night at Mashrabeya. – read the full post.
Strange Horizons reviews Ahmed Khaled Towfik‘s Utopia:
Utopia, the first novel by the prolific and popular Towfik to be translated into English, was published in Cairo in 2008. It was an instant bestseller, and has been reprinted four times. Set in 2023, it depicts a bleak Egypt divided into the pampered inhabitants of Utopia, and the Others. The people of Utopia have everything; the Others, next to nothing. Utopia is located on Egypt’s northern coast, while the land of the Others comprises a ghastly Cairo devoid of water or electricity, where drug-addled and hungry youths hunt the few remaining stray dogs through defunct subway tunnels. The book has two narrators: a teenager from Utopia, who takes the name Alaa at one point, though it’s clear this is not his real name; and Gaber, a young man of the Others. Alaa’s sections carry the title “Predator.” Gaber is the “Prey.”
Alaa has everything, and he’s bored. He describes his daily routine in a laconic style that communicates the monotony of his life: “I wake up. I take a leak. Smoke a cigarette. Drink coffee. Shave. Fix the wound on my forehead to make it look terrible. Have sex with the African maid. Have breakfast” (p. 16). Alaa goes on to puke on his mother’s bedroom carpet, get high, and listen to “orgasm music,” and he’s out of things to do. The wound on his forehead—a decoration designed by an Israeli doctor—hints toward a central theme of the book: violence as entertainment. Alaa wants to go hunting. The hunt is the one thrill left to the youth of Utopia: stalking one of the Others, and cutting off an arm as a souvenir.
Alaa sneaks out of Utopia on a bus full of Others heading home after a day of work in rich houses. With him is Germinal, a girl from his clique and occasional sex partner—a weak character whose motivations remain unclear throughout the book. The two of them lure a young woman off to kill her and cut off her arm, but are discovered by a gang of Others before they can manage it. Gaber saves them, and takes them home to live with him and his sister Safiya until they can find a way back to Utopia.
Reading Utopia in 2011, it’s impossible not to think of what’s being called the “Arab Spring,” and particularly the uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The world of Utopia is an only slightly exaggerated twenty-first century Egypt, recognizable in the gap between rich and poor, the crumbling of government services, the privatization of space and resources, the anger at the links between the Egyptian, American, and Israeli governments, and the yearning for revolution. The strongest aspect of the book is its depiction of the frustration of young men, both rich and poor, who have run out of options. Alaa is bored and powerful, but Gaber, bored and weak, suffers the same debilitating sense of the meaninglessness of life. A life without dreams, Gaber thinks to himself, is “one looooo(what are you waiting for?)oooooo(nothing)ooong, grim present” (p. 52). That the very rich and very poor experience a similar “grim present” suggests that Utopia addresses those who are both poor and rich: the educated and unemployed young people who played such an important role in Tahrir Square. “A society without a middle class,” reflects Gaber, “is a society primed for explosion” (p. 108). – continue reading.
Islamscifi.com interview Achmed Khammas:
Backgound: This is the first interview in a series of interviews with Muslim Science Fiction authors and people who have written about Sciene Fiction with Islamic themes. Achmed Adolf Wolfgang Khammas has written on the subject of the lack of Science Fiction in Arabic Literature and has written Sciene Fiction stories himself. Achmed was born in Berlin in 1952 to a German mother and Iraqi father and grew up in Damascus. Currently he is also active in the field of sustainable energy.
Ahcmed Khammas’s Official Website: http://www.khammas.de/
M. Aurangzeb: You have written about the lack of Futurism in Arabic literature. Do you think the literary culture is going to change in the future?
Achmed: Off course I HOPE – but I can’t believe it … because of the lack of scientific thinking in the whole society. There are nearly ZERO new innovations, inventions, patents in the Arabic world. Also there is a BIG lack on the practical side. No modern industry, so everybody use imported mobile phones… but 99% don’t know ANYTHING about how they work, this is just ONE example.
M. Aurangzeb: What types of cultures do you think are more receptive to Science Fiction?
Achmed: Any cultures with a solid ground of good education, technical-industrial interest and understanding, open mind, forward thinking etc.
M. Aurangzeb: Outside of the Arab world what scope do you think Science Fiction has in the Muslim world?
Achmed: I can’t tell because I never lived there.
M. Aurangzeb: You also write Science Fiction yourself, can you please tell us about your work?
Achmed: I wrote half a dozen short stories since the 1980ies but never find the time for a novel. Also I started with sketches for a big ‘parallel-world’ work playing around 1830 at the time of Muhammad Ali in Egypt. I write only in German, because this is my first language.
My Stories are mostly ironic – and show sometimes religious influence. ‘Der Wettbewerb’ (The competition) is about the coming of the Messiah ,this is a part of my real life also, as ‘Mohammed Superstar’ tell the story of cloning the prophet Muhammad.
M. Aurangzeb: What attracted you to Science Fiction in the first place?
Achmed: It opens my mind to new and newer and brand new ideas. Every story or novel is a kind of simulation of the recent world of today. Other people need to travel far away on holiday to recover. I only need a new space opera on 600 pages to read to be completely recovered.
M. Aurangzeb: What is your favorite Science Fiction author and why?
Achmed: Well – I think I will give an unconventional answer: They are some German authors as Wolfgang Jeschke (for his marvellous ‘Der letzte Tag der Schöpfung’ about the USA triying to steal the Arabian oil 65 million years back in the past) and Thomas R. P. Mielke (for his ‘Grand Orientale 3301’ in which the retarded Europe sells windpower-made electricity to the high developed arab countries).
M. Aurangzeb: Currently you are also involved in work related to sustainable development, can you please tell us about it and does Science Fiction inform this work or vice versa?
Achmed: And yes – in SF you find a lot of new ideas concerning energy … also you can notice the influence of renewable technologies on the modern authors. As example there is a great novel by Andreas Eschbach ‘Ausgebrannt’ (Burn out) about the ending of the Saudi Oil and the influence of this matter on modern German society. You can also have a look on my synergy website.*
M. Aurangzeb: Any words of advice for writers of Arab or Muslim background who might be interested in writing Science Fiction?
Achmed: Oh yes!! I would advice them to READ, to read, to read… and not ONLY Science Fiction. But they should as much as they could – and in any possible language. I mean, there are universes and universes of written imagination and not only Star Wars – or Matrix!. Then they should try to stay up to date in scientific development, also through reading in pages, newsletters, magazines etc. There happens SO MUCH recently that as a sci-fi writer you have to write quick … before reality pass by :-))
* Note: Achmed is referring the following website in German http://www.buch-der-synergie.de/ The following video clip has some information about his work with English subtitles: http://www.buch-der-synergie.de/trailer.html
The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) have just announced the nominated works for their annual Nebula Awards. French author, and Apex Book of World SF contributor Aliette de Bodard is nominated for Best Novelette, with “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, from Asimov’s, while the forthcoming Apex Book of World SF 2 Indian contributor Shweta Narayan is also nominated for Best Novelette, with “Pishaach” from the Beastly Bride anthology. And Apex Book of World SF 2 contributor, Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor, is nominated for her novel Who Fears Death.
The Apex Book of World SF 2 will be published later this year.
In addition, huge congratulations are due to our publishers, Apex Book Company, for having two stories on the ballot this year: Lebanese-Canadian writer Amal El-Mohtar‘s “The Green Book” (published at Apex Online) is up for Best Short Story, alongside Jennifer Peland‘s “Ghosts of New York” (published in Apex anthology Dark Faith).
This is probably the most diverse short-list in the award’s recent history – congratulations to all the nominees and to the SFWA!