Luminary thinkers gather to explore future of Arab Science Fiction

Science fiction: Genre in Muslim world and beyond

LONDON - The Middle East’s past and future connection with science fiction will be discussed at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre as a programme highlight of the Nour Festival of Contemporary Arts.
A discussion forum to Re-imagine Arab Science Fiction will take place on Wednesday 2 October, 7-9pm at the Dana Centre. The talks will explore the transition of science fiction narratives between East and West, unravel its journey from the past to the present and look at what might lay ahead.
A stellar line up of speakers will consider whether a revival of Arab Sci-Fi could be of international importance today more than ever? Participants will include writers, authors, literary critics, cultural commentators, social scientists, artists, academics and Sci-Fi fans. The Sci-Fi event is set to attract a packed audience. Tickets have sold out due to popular demand. No other event has previously been staged in the UK on this theme or scale.
Panellists will participate in a live 'Thought Experiment' by responding to this pivotal question: “What effect would a revival of Arab science fiction have?
The Chair is Quentin Cooper, broadcaster, writer, and ‘Material World’ host for BBC Radio 4. Speakers are Samira Ahmed, journalist, broadcaster and news presenter; Ziauddin Sardar, writer, academic, and cultural critic; Amal El-Mohtar, author, fantasy fiction writer and award-winning poet, and Khyle Alexander Raja, artist, architect, and creative producer.
The evening will culminate in a live poll vote that will ask the audience to decide: Is it important to have a revival of Arab Sci-Fi?
Quentin Cooper said: “This offers a fascinating insight not only into the world of Arab science and the worlds that science fiction has depicted, but into why this genre needs reviving and what we all might gain from it”
Samira Ahmed said: “Who could have imagined President Morsi would be citing Planet of the Apes as an influence? But from the battling tribes of Dune to the police states controlling affluent societies in 1970s Sci-Fi thrillers like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Rollerball, science fiction has long been a vital prism through which to view contemporary fears and fascinations about repressive regimes and alien cultures. l'm looking forward to debating my thesis that Argo presented the Iranian Revolution as a zombie Apocalypse.”
Ziauddin Sardar said: “Science fiction existed in the Muslim world way back in the mid-thirteen century when Persian astronomer, al-Qazwini, wrote Awaj bin Anfaq - an Arabic tale in which an alien arrives on earth from a distant planet and is intrigued by human behavior. Unfortunately, it never took off as a genre in Muslim societies. But now Muslim science fiction is set to return in a big way. The Journey of Ibn Fattouma by Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s greatest novelist, and Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson in America are just two recent works that are re-establishing science fiction as a genre in the Muslim world and beyond.”
Yasmin Khan [event producer] said: “The Sci-Fi salon will be the first of it’s kind and a rare opportunity to bring to the fore fresh thinking on the topic. I am delighted that the Dana Centre, in partnership with the Nour Festival, is providing a platform for some extraordinary speakers to contribute their views. We anticipate the discussion will help to seek out emerging talent as well as inspire the next generation of aspiring SF writers and artists to tackle the ‘big questions’ such as ‘What’s out there?’, ‘Are we alone?’ and ‘Who are we?’”

Realm where new ideas can be explored
Is there a historical Arab link to Science Fiction?
Science Fiction (SF) as we now know it, has come to be regarded as a Western phenomena but earlier precursor works from other parts of the world are less well known. Epic writers from across the Middle East, such as Ibn al-Nafis, explored new ideas about the world in his 13th Century treatise Theologus Autodidactus, a work of proto-science fiction. Al-Farabi‘s 9th Century Opinions of the residents of a splendid city, was ahead of its time in envisioning a Utopian society. Al-Qazwini‘s 13th Century futuristic tale of Awaj bin Anfaq, about a man travelling to Earth from a distant planet, is thought to be early speculative work. Why should SF be important to the Middle East now?
Science fiction is a realm where new ideas can be explored, imagined, digested, rejected or embraced. Science in the Islamic world flourished and excelled in the past but for many complex reasons is past it’s zenith. Accelerating scientific and technological progress across the Middle East and North Africa is interdependent on a revival of the imagination. Science fiction has long been a bridge between the arts and sciences, which is continually evolving to reflect the impact of science, technology and socio-political change on ourselves and our globalised societies. Science fiction can be a catalyst for visioning the future beyond the uprisings of the Arab Spring. A mass revival of Arab Sci-Fi is more urgent than ever. Are new SF works emerging from the Middle East and Diaspora?
Up until now, the Middle East has largely consumed, or has been the object of intrigue in SF made in the West. New buds of internally produced forms of Sci-Fi are now beginning to emerge across the Arab world and Diaspora. Recent ground-breaking examples of publications and film include: THE 99 founded by Naif Al-Mutawa – superhero characters based on the 99 attributes of Allah to reflect Islamic concepts appealing to universal values; Ajwan written by Noura al Noman from Sharjah is currently the only Arabic Sci-Fi book to be written by a female; Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia; G. Willow Wilson's novel Alif the Unseen about the virtual & mystical adventures of a young Arab hacker; Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon was nominated for the 2012 Nebula and Cambell Awards; Hawjan co-authored by Yasser Bahjatt in Saudi Arabia, is an Arabic short novel that blends fantasy, Sci-Fi and romance; 1.1, an Arabic Sci-Fi film that uses speculative designs to critique pseudo-contemporary Middle Eastern society; The Sons of Two Suns is the first Sci-Fi film to be successfully produced in UAE and there are other works in progress: EKON, an environmental Sci-Fi film is being developed in UAE, and Dubai International Film Festival have launched a short film competition in partnership with Middle East Film and Comic Con. Which major SF works have been influenced by the Middle East?
George Lucas used spiritual elements of Islam, along with other world religions, to convey the universal understandings of good and evil. ‘Al-Jeddi’ is an Arabic term meaning master of the mystic-warrior way. Frank Herbert’s Dune also contains a plethora of Arabic terms of reference as well as being a profound analogy on the struggle for the monopoly of oil between East and West. Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 resonates the predicament of many in the Middle East between Islamist repression or repression of Islamism. Ray Bradbury had a strong bond to the Middle East, especially to Baghdad, the city his imagination inhabited. He saw himself in the same tradition as the fantasy storytellers of The Thousand and One Nights. In the Illustrated Man he re-invented Scheherazade’s frame narrative by weaving unrelated short stories together. What is Sindbad Sci-Fi?
Sindbad Sci-Fi is an organic creative movement to spur the re-imagination of Arab Science Fiction. Sindbad Sci-Fi will sustain a growing community of interest through brokering face-to-face dialogue, informed online discussion, new social networks, content mapping and research into the genre. Why is there a ‘d’ in Sindbad?
Sindbad the sailor is the fictional sailor from the Arabian Book of One Thousand and One Nights, considered to be a early composite work of proto-science fiction and fantasy. Sindbad’s extraordinary voyages led him to adventures in magical places whilst meeting monsters and encountering supernatural phenomena. ‘Sindbad’ is closer to the original Arabic pronunciation.