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!
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.
March 2011 will see the first ever regional comic-con in the Middle East, hosted at Abu Dhabi’s National Exhibition Centre.
From the Jerusalem Post:
Fans of comics, sci-fi and fantasy in the Middle East will now have their own comic convention. In March 2011 Abu Dhabi’s National Exhibition Centre will be the first in the region to host its own version of the San Diego Comic-Con International.
The event in San Diego started in 1974 as a meeting point for people interested in science fiction, comic books and movies. It has since grown into a four-day event with over 140,000 visitors and important industry events involving computer games, pop culture, Japanese cartoons known as anime and sale of memorabilia and merchandise.
The organizers of the event in the United Arab Emirates are expecting 10,000 to 15,000 visitors.
Arafaat Ali Khan is the managing partner at ExtraCake PR, which is organizing the event.
“We have been thinking about this since we were in diapers, so it’s been going on for a long time,” Khan told The Media Line.
“What we see now is that there is interest in the infrastructure as far as stores over here stocking anime, [Japanese] manga [cartoons] and comics,” he said. “It’s all coming together at the right time.”
“The genre is exploding in the Middle East. We have a growth in the sales and bookstores are dedicating entire shelves to comics,” Khan said.
“Then there is the latest trend in this part of the world – that is the talent of artists and writers that have no outlet for their passion and to become serious artists,” he said.
Khan said that the convention would be similar to the ones held in the U.S.
“The main difference will be the market but we will follow the tried and tested international ideas,” Khan said. “We are going to have expos, merchandise, games and show classical movies and hopefully some new trailers.”
Today the American comic and sci-fi events are used as major marketing platforms for feature films. Movie stars, both past and present from various genres attend to promote their latest works.
No special guests, however, have been announced for the Abu Dhabi event as of yet.
Local comic book fan Saeed Sabbagh said the event would be a good opportunity for networking. – continue reading!
Over at Eastwords, a working bibliography of Arab science fiction and fantasy! It’s quite short at the moment, but here’s hoping it grows. Also includes works by Apex Book of World SF contributor Jamil Nasir.
Mustafa Mahmud The Spider (1964) A Man Under Zero Egypt (1967)Mohammed Aziz al-Habbabi The Elixir Morocco (1974)Mohammed Abdelsalam al-Baqqali The Blue Flood Morocco (1979)Kassem al-Khattat The Green Stain Iraq(1984)Muwaffaq Uays Mahmud She Pulsates with Life Iraq(1987)Ali Karim Kathem The Green Planet Iraq (1987)Taleb Omaran, Syria Planet of Dreams (1978) In Transit Behind the Sun (1979), Secrets from the City of Wisdom (1985), There are no Poor People on the Moon (1995)Ahmad Suwailem Travels and Medals (1983), Splinters (1994)
Yousef Al Kewary From the Notebook of an Unborn Man Tripoli, Libya 1971
Abdulhakim Al Tawiel A Faith Problem Tripoli, Libya 2006
Jamal Abuzaid Journey of Illusion London 2009Omayma Khafaji The Crime of a World (1992)Tiba Ahmad al-Ibrahim The Multiple Man Kuwait (1992)Jamshed Akhtar Ultimate Revelations (1997)Ashraf Faqih Ghosthunters (1997) Yearning for the Stars (2000)
Writers with SF ThemesKassem KassemMustafa al-KailaniAbdallah KhalifaMussa Oald IbnoSulaiman Mohammed al-KhalilLina Kailani
[via io9, others] Ahmed Khaled Towfik‘s dystopian SF novel, Utopia, is set to appear in English for the first time, published by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation.
Dr. Ahmed Khaled Towfik Farraag (commonly known as Ahmed Khaled Towfik) is an Egyptian novelist/author who is one of the very first Egyptian writers to attempt writing Horror/Science Fiction novels with all Egyptian characters and events that happen in Egypt and all around the globe. He also writes periodical articles for journals and web-based magazines. He is known to have a unique approach to writing, which seems to appeal to both Egyptian and Arab youth, making him a favorite among contemporary authors in the Middle East.
The Tanjara blog has the report:
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing announced today that it has signed up the Arab world’s most prolific horror and science fiction writer, Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq, to publish his bestselling Arabic novel Utopia in English translation in autumn 2011. (The author has copious internet references with his surname transliterated as Tawfik; BQFP transliterates it more accurately as Taufiq).
BQFP describes Utopia as a grim futuristic account of Egyptian society in 2023 which takes readers on an adventurous journey that ventures out of the gated communities insulating the wealthy from the bleak realities of Egyptian life. “A young man and a young girl break away from the idyllic bubble of affluence they know, and delve into the harsh existence of the impoverished Egyptians that live right outside the fortified gates of their compounds. Utopia’s twists and turns will certainly leave readers in suspense until the very last page.”
Since its release in 2008, Tawfiq’s novel has enjoyed wide acclaim and was reprinted three times to fulfill the overwhelming demand of Arab readers. “With over 200 published titles, Tawfiq has perfected the art of horror and science fiction” BQFP says. It cites praise from the famed Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany who dubs Utopia “a wonderful novel, a real addition to Arab literature.”
Tawfiq was born in 1962 in the city of Tanta, Egypt. In 1985, he graduated from Tanta University’s medical school, and later received a PhD in 1997. In January 1993, he published the first installment in his Ma Waraa Al Tabiaa series of novels titled The Vampire and The Legend of the Werewolf.
The signing up of Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq is an interesting development in the publishing of Arabic literature in English translation. Arabic fiction in various genres has been translated, but this may be the first publication in English of an Arab horror/science fiction author. An Egyptian equivalent of Stephen King?
Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, the creator of The 99 comic book series, discusses his creation and its motivation in this article for Animation Express: