Star Trekking through the Middle East

Star Trekker: Abdullah before he became king of Jordan

Mohamed Morsi, the ousted Egyptian president, admires Planet of the Apes. King Abdullah of Jordan is a Star Trek enthusiast who even made a brief appearance in one of its episodes. These were a couple of obscure facts that I learned last night at the Nour festival of arts which has just opened in London. 

The topic for discussion was Arab science fiction or, more precisely, the lack of it. While some Arabs are avid consumers of sci-fi, they produce almost none of their own. The first sci-fi novel by an Arab author did not appear until 2011, according to Wikipedia.

In a way, this is surprising. Given the restrictions and red lines that Arab writers often have to negotiate, it might seem that science fiction – with the scope it offers for metaphor and allegory – would be a useful means for expressing views on the region's current predicament without getting into trouble. So why not?

Delving into the past during last night's discussion, writer and broadcaster Ziauddin Sardar argued that Arabs did once have a form of proto-sci-fi under the Umayyad caliphs. That was a period of scientific discovery but also one of self-confidence and self-reflection when people looked towards the future.

"Science fiction is often about the future," he said, "but it deals with the present and becomes a mirror of society." Looking at the future is important for dealing with the problems of the present; without it, there is no mirror.

Possibly, though, Arab writers have too much baggage from the past to boldly venture into the future. As Amal el-Mohtar, another of the speakers, noted: "Arabs are still burdened by a lot of disturbing history."

Besides exploring the future, sci-fi often fantasises about utopias or dystopias – which may not be very appealing if you already inhabit a real-life dystopia. "The Gulf," one speaker said, "is complete sci-fi."

But perhaps there's also a cultural problem with sci-fi in the form we often see it, with its focus on aliens and the clash of civilisations on a cosmic scale. "Science fiction," Sardar remarked, "is full of orientalism." 

Looming in the background too is the question of religious sensitivities. Last night's didn't dwell on this but there are clearly some religious figures – especially in Saudi Arabia – who disapprove of science fiction.

Here's an example originally posted on the Islam QA website, where Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid is asked: "Is it OK to read books on science fiction where a mad scientist creates a human being or a hybrid between a human and an animal?"

Munajjid replies:

"If these stories include lies, such as Darwin’s theory (evolution), and other things that are contrary to the facts stated by Islam and the facts of natural science, then the Muslim should avoid them, and keep himself busy with something that will be of use to him, such as learning good things or doing righteous deeds or reading true stories and historical accounts and so on ... 

"Many of the movies and novels that are known as 'science fiction' include a lot of kufr [unbelief], such as putting life and death in the hands of some created being, giving creatures the ability to create from nothing, saying that scientists in laboratories can create from nothing, making inanimate things come alive, creating life from a fossil that has been dead for many millennia, or travelling to the future then coming back to the present. All of this is impossible, and no one knows the unseen except for Allaah ... 

"Some people claim that this is just entertainment and a way of passing time, but entertainment is not permitted if it is haraam [forbidden], and the Muslim’s time is too precious to be wasted on such trivial things."

On an equally trivial note, did you know that the title of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series translates into Arabic as "al-Qaeda"?
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 3 October 2013