Camilla Greene
locus award
middle east film and comic con
Middle East
sci fi
Rising from the Middle East - Arab sci-fi

This year's Middle East Film and Comic Con will be the biggest yet. Camilla Greene looks at how the genre of science fiction took off in the Middle East. 

When the Kibrani aliens invade the earth, Andrew Marcus, an international student in Morocco, witnesses what looks like the end of the world. Hope is dwindling by the hour, when suddenly a despised and forgotten race of Jinn (also known as ‘genies’) enters the fray. Could they be humanity’s last hope? The comic book series Jinnrise hinges around the cosmic battle between the Ancient, depicted through the Jinn’s mysterious powers, and the Modern, as seen in the Kibrani’s terrifying scientific advancement.

Jinnrise has proved to be an extraordinary success and somewhat of a watershed moment for the Middle East sci-fi scene. The 12-issue sci-fi series, conceived by Jabal Entertainment founder Sohaib Ahmed, was picked up by Idea and Design Works (IDW), the world’s fourth-largest comic book publisher, after debuting at the inaugural Middle East Film and Comic Con in 2012. So popular has the Middle East-themed series proved, Jabal Entertainment now have a slate of international projects planned for 2014, including a second series of Jinnrise and a martial arts graphic novel Blades of Hope, to be released in May.

Since last year, all eyes have witnessed a revival in Middle East science fiction. This movement has, over several years, gained increased institutional support from quarters as diverse as Tate Modern’s Future Imperfect conference in November 2013, the British Library’s Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It exhibition in 2011, and the Cannes Film Festival, which screened the first Middle East CGI sci-fi film, Levity - Xero Error Minus1, in 2010.

But does Middle East sci-fi have a distinctive flavor, or is it a copycat movement, grafting Western fictional conventions onto an Arab landscape? The Michigan-born writer of Lebanese-Egyptian descent, Saladin Ahmed, and author G. Willow Wilson say they draw on a plethora of indigenous Arab references, from A Thousand and One Nights onwards.

Their modern twists on heritage themes are whipping up enthusiasm among international audiences. Together, in 2013, they swept up around 50% of the year’s major sci-fi and fantasy nominations and prizes, showing that ancient texts can indeed inspire futuristic writing. Says Ahmed: “Islamic cultures – that plural is important – have produced some of the world’s great fantasy building blocks. Ghouls and jinn, magical lamps and carpets, archetypes like the venturesome sailor, the clever street thief, the wicked vizier – this is all choice material for writing a fantasy novel. And it’s material that has been left largely untapped by modern fantasy writers.” 

Nominated for a 2013 Hugo Award, Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon won, in the same year, both the Gemmel Morning Star and Locus Awards. Wilson’s 2012 sci-fi fantasy, Alif the Unseen, about an Arab-Indian hacker who fights a Middle East security state with the aid of the jinn underworld, also won best novel at the 2013 World Fantasy Awards, receiving nominations for Campbell and Locus prizes. “2013 was the year that Middle Eastern genre writers went mainstream,” she says.

Wilson explains that, though she has no Arab heritage, she identifies herself as an Arab author, having spent the majority of her adult life in the region. She argues that Middle East mythology offers opportunities for writers from all backgrounds. Indeed her decision to move to Egypt as a young woman was intrinsic to her literary development: “Before I went to Egypt, I was a writer with no stories. But Cairo just whaps you over the head with sensory overload. With its stories waiting to be mined. In one form or another, it has been the inspiration for all my work”.

Wilson, who is also author of the Muslim Miss Marvel comic, released this February, is just one of a growing number of Western authors telling Middle East stories from a position of cultural immersion. Somali-American Sofia Samatar, who won the 2014 Crawford Memorial Award for A Stranger in Olondria, a fantasy novel inspired by the ten years she spent living in Sudan and Egypt, concurs. She points out that the rise in Middle Eastern fantastical stories differs from the past, where references to Middle East culture came from complete outsiders: “It doesn’t mean the Middle East hasn’t featured in these genres in the past, because it definitely has, in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, or Star Wars, and so on. But it’s a question of perspective – of whether or not the writer has a stake in the region”.

Further fuelling the growth of the region’s fantasy and sci-fi market are Arab institutions such as Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC). Dubai-based Stefan Messam is just one of the many authors benefiting from exposure at MEFCC. His upcoming, limited edition graphic The Resurrection Lands was, he says, aided both by MEFCC and the Gulf region's hunger for new and original works: “We are right in the middle of a rise in art and design culture that didn’t even exist five years ago. Elsewhere, the markets for this kind of product are flooded, but here we are starting from scratch, and there are more opportunities”.

These opportunities are nonetheless hard-won, especially for writers of Middle East descent. Ahmed and Samatar both point out that the recent successes of a handful of Middle East authors highlights the prior absence of such voices. “People assume in the States, and somewhat in the UK, that the best work should just bubble to the surface, and it’s surely a coincidence that it’s always white men who rise up. That’s the culture of this field. You do feel like you’re walking against the wind trying to tell other stories,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed is adamant that writers inspired by the Middle East should not imitate sci-fi from other cultures. They should draw inspiration from within their own heritage and experience. “I had an editing client from Bahrain who sent me some fantasy work. He was a smart guy, but the story was generic – lots of elves and dwarves, imitating Tolkein. Which is fine. I don’t want to prescribe what people should be writing but Tolkein didn’t write ‘Lord of the Rings’ as an imitation of something else. He was trying to preserve a part of Anglo-Saxon culture he felt should not be lost. What he was doing was new at the time. It was not the default.”

Other authors, like Sharjah-born Noura Al Noman, are less worried about simulating Western sci-fi conventions. Racing ahead of droves of novelists - both Western and Middle Eastern - desperate to land a screen adaptation, Noman’s young adult sci-fi Awjan, will be developed this year into a multi-episode CGI television series by FUNN: Sharjah Media Arts for Youth and Children. The premiere is tipped for November 2014, to coincide with Sharjah Book Fair. Not satisfied with these achievements, alone, Al Noman continues to write prolifically, producing, on average, one book every nine months, and dreams of establishing a commissioning house for Arabic genre fiction.

The first wave of production, she explains, will involve translating numerous English titles into Arabic, since she feels there isn’t enough Arabic content. She has high hopes, however, for Arab sci-fi: “The Arab world has produced literally a handful of science fiction novels – novellas even - and most of them are stuck on earth. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I hope Arab writers of the future become a bit more adventurous and think outside of the boundaries of the discipline. Eventually, the next generation of writers will go beyond simulating English language sci-fi, creating subgenres of science fiction specific to the region.”

Yatakhayaloon, set up in 2012, by Saudi friends Ibraheem Abbas and Yasser Bahjatt, aims to do just this. It will produce, both in Arabic and in translation, genre fiction with a Middle East identity. The company ventured into publishing by accident, initially beginning as a sci-fi and genre fiction production house. The project fell at the first hurdle, however, after they failed to place Abbas’s Arabic sci-fi novel Hawjan with a Middle East publisher: “All the publishing houses we went to in the Arab world claimed that Arabs would not read Arabic science fiction,” Bahjatt says. “We also noticed a huge gap in the market when it came to English sci-fi translated into Arabic. It was astonishing to us that no publishers had bothered to do that yet.”

Yatakhayaloon’s first book, the Arabic Hawjan and its English translation HWJN, released in January and April of 2013 respectively, have done phenomenally well, confirming there is a hunger for speculative fiction from the Gulf. Praised by Nebula Award winning authors Eileen Gunn and Gregory Benford, the books sold 25,000 copies in their first year and remain, at the time of writing, at the top of several bestseller lists in Dubai’s bookshops. Hunaak! (Somewhere), the next title in the Hawjan series, is released this month in Arabic, with an English translation following soon.

The renaissance of sci-fi and fantasy, and the West’s growing interest in it, means there is little shortage of genre fiction available in English. Recent examples include Bloomsbury Foundation Publishing’s 2011 translation of Utopia, by Ahmed Towfik. Also, in July last year, a self-published Egyptian dystopia by pseudonymous writer H.Z. Ilmi appeared on Amazon. Both The Thirty-Third Marriage of Donia Nour, and Towfik’s Utopia use sci-fi to address contemporary concerns about class and religion. Science fiction’s function as a lens to view a region in dramatic flux and to ask big questions about identity is one answer to why it has become so popular in the region.

This is not the sci-fi and fantasy movement’s only purpose. Both genres lend themselves equally to Hollywood-style blockbuster entertainments. The development of this scene is a priority for MEFCC and others in the media industry. Last year, a new sci-fi competition, initiated by boutique Dubai production house Attitude Enterprises, Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) and MEFCC awarded its first prize. Serenity Now, penned by Dubai-based screenwriter Alastair Newton Brown, beat more than 40 competitors to become a fully-funded 15-minute film. Serenity Now is currently doing the rounds at international festivals, screening both at the Gulf Film Festival and Middle East Film and Comic Con this month.

Ali Okhovat, managing partner of Attitude Enterprises and director/producer of Serenity Now sees sci-fi as an area of regional growth, due to the genre’s commercial potential: “Sci-fi can be entertaining without going too deep. Sci-fi short films, though not profitable in themselves, should be supported as a testing ground for more ambitious ventures.

Even in the intergalactic fields where installation art and design fiction are the order of the day, figures like Palestinian conceptual artist Larissa Sansour and Qatar-based, Egyptian multimedia designer Al Hussein Wanas use sci-fi tropes to debate alternative futures of the Arab world. Sansour’s most well-known work, Nation Estate, explores a tongue-in-cheek solution to Palestinian statehood. Her nine-minute video returns the Palestinian state in full, though only as a single high-rise called the Nation Estate. Each floor houses a different city with Jerusalem on the 13th floor complete with a life-size replica of the Dome of the Rock. Travel to Palestinian cities is now made possible via the building’s central lift. 

Last year, Wanas also made Qatar’s first sci-fi film short, 1dot1exhibited at VCU-Qatar gallery last summer. Wanas says he has seen an increased interest in science fiction among residents of the Gulf, suggesting that its focus on the future allows people to cope with a rapidly changing region: “We are obsessed with the future in the Gulf: the 2030 Vision, 2022. We keep being presented with maps that don’t yet exist. Sci-fi is simply a way to speculate about the unknown.”


Middle East Film and Comic Con runs from April 3 to April 5 at Dubai World Trade Centre