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Arab Fantasy

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

This, alas, is not going to be one of those highly informative posts by a knowledgeable person possessing vast information on the subject. Instead, it’s a partial response to several different topics that have crossed my consciousness lately. One is an ongoing issue–the role of the Other (exotic, evil, dangerous, wild, etc.) in our culture and our storytelling, and what it is like living in a country of one of our current primary Others (Arabs) for the last year. Another is an article I read recently on the current state of Arab cinema (burdened by censorship, unwieldy bureaucracy, and funding problems–see also here and here). Finally there was a conversation last night on the future of the Arab world in which the subject turned to education. As in the US, discussions about the role of education tend to focus on job readiness and the economy, but it’s art and storytelling that are crucial for cultural health, and growth.

“Arab Fantasy” could mean fantasy by outsiders using elements of Arab tradition, or fantasy by Arabs using traditional or other source materials. The best-known source in the west is, of course, One Thousand and One Nights in its numerous versions, although (quoting from wikipedia, that utterly reliable source), “Some of the best-known stories of The Nights, particularly “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”, while most likely genuine Arabic folk tales, were not part of the The Nights in its Arabic versions, but were interpolated into the collection by its early European translators.” Actually the article is a pretty interesting overview, and I learned a bunch of stuff. Genre works influenced by Nights are many; titles I’ve read recently enough that they float to the surface include Tim Powers’ World War II espionage-with-djinns novel Declare, Diana Wynne-Jones’ Aladdin sendup, Castle in the Air, and P.B. Kerr’s Children of the Lamp series, aimed primarily at middle-grade readers, but entertaining enough for undemanding adults, and, it seems, forthcoming as a movie from Dreamworks.

The Arabs in these books mostly don’t seem all that Arab, though Kerr’s books actually make you feel as if he has been to Egypt, e.g. There are also Jon Courtney Grimwood’s Arabesk books, which I haven’t read, and which perhaps best classified as alternate-world sf. They do, however, have Arab characters who are really intended to be Arab, and (I gather) incorporate fantastic material from Arab folk tradition. Grimwood, unlike the abovementioned authors, has spent a fair amount of his life outside the West.

The way a progressive American’s (my own) views of the Arab world have changed since living in it is a topic for a long post in and of itself, and not for this venue. One relevant point, though, is how phenomenal ignorance and a steady stream of unexamined stereotypes have lent the Arabs a spectacularly opaque Otherness in the American mind’s-eye, one that would be mitigated if we only had more storytelling by Arabs available to us. And, I think–though it may sound contradictory–Arab countries would also be less mentally isolated from the rest of the world if more storytelling by Arabs were available.

The issues encountered by Arab cinema are similar to those Arab comics have had to cope with, which include government censorship and the hostility of cultural and religious conservatives. The superhero series The 99 (available in English), the product of a team of Marvel and DC veterans, now has its first theme park. But at present, to my admittedly limited knowledge, it’s the only such comic publishing.

As for Arab sf/f/h fiction, I hope someone will let me know if there is any. I would guess the job to create it would be a steeper and longer uphill climb, and this despite the rich vein of traditional fantastic literature. In the Western POV, Islam and religious conservatism are usually cast as the obstacles to Arab cultural development, but this is a misunderstanding of the role of Islam in and of itself. A far bigger block is the level of literacy (for example, one in three Saudi women can’t read) and, for those who can read, of the low rate of reading outside of school and business, and finally, the lack of reading materials. Only a handful of Arabic-language children’s books are produced each year, despite the growing wealth–and youth population–of Saudi and Gulf Arabs. The reasons for this are many, but one of them is, the schools are bad. The emphasis is on rote learning, and the consequence is not much is learned, compared to outcomes in Western schools (believe it or not).

I’m with Philip Pullman on the value of reading, and books, to society at large, and the way the private imaginative relationship of a reader to print (especially) storytelling is a creative act that threatens the authoritarian political impulse, in whatever form that arises. So for more than one reason, I’d like to see true Arab fantasy.

5 Comments »

  1. On westerners writing in Islamic contexts: there’s Howard Jones’ Dabir and Asim series (set in the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid). One of his stories is included in the Kindle anthology A Mosque Among the Stars, which I’d like to read, but I don’t have a Kindle (or an iPhone) so…

    Night Shade Books published a sort of alternate-medieval-Persia fantasy by Nathalie Mallet, The Princes of the Golden Cage. I thought it was interesting but I wasn’t so crazy about the execution of the idea.

    Comment by James Enge - May 19, 2009 12:05 pm

  2. I’d like to note Tanith Lee’s classic (and amazing) TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH series has a very Arabian field. She said in an interview that the whole series was inspired by her love of ARABIAN NIGHTS, which she read voraciously as a child.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - May 19, 2009 10:32 pm

  3. Dang! That should have read “Arabian FEEL.” (Not “Arabian field.”)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - May 19, 2009 10:32 pm

  4. Gah, Dabir and Asim, yes. Sorry Howard!

    I think one reason much of the use of the material by Westerners feels as if there are no Arabs in it IS the lack of Islam. I haven’t read the mosque story, so maybe it would address that issue.

    Comment by Judith Berman - May 20, 2009 1:50 am

  5. I just found this because I am searching for Arabic-language Fantasy literature (aside from A Thousand and One Nights, though I’d also like to read that). I have to admit, in a single afternoon of intense internet searching, the only slightly fantasy novel I’ve come across is a book called “Anubis: A Desert Novel” by Ibrahim al-Koni.

    Also, part of the impetus of this is my interest in writing a fantasy story in Arabic. The result of my researches is that it seems like there definitely needs to be an expansion of Arabic fantasy/science-fiction/etc Literature!

    Comment by Bookewyrme - December 14, 2009 1:40 pm


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