It feels like we’re in a Golden Age for translations of speculative fiction. We’re seeing everything from the rise of Egyptian dystopian novels to Chinese authors making it big in the American market. Of course, some nations and cultures are better known than others. One that is little known to English-language readers is Sudanese fiction. It can be hard to get in the West, and even on my regular visits to the American University in Cairo bookshop I have to hunt to find authors from south of the border.
It’s worth the search. Sudanese literature is rich in history and folklore, and a large measure of what I’ve come across contains speculative elements. One could call it magical realism, although I have not seen any Sudanese author use that term.
My most recent acquisition was Hammour Ziada’s novel The Longing of the Dervish. Set in the nineteenth century during the time of the Mahdi’s brief empire, it follows the adventures of the slave Bakhit and his obsession with the Alexandrine Greek nun Theodora. Poor Theodora spends most of the novel as a ghost while Bakhit sets out to avenge her killing. The historical setting is richly drawn, as are the characters, and one gets the feeling that the phantom Theodora is not the product of Bakhit’s madness. There’s also some interesting scenes of folk magic.
The journal Banipal, which publishes Arabic literature in translation, dedicated their issue 55 to Sudanese writing. A couple of the stories have speculative elements. “Amulet and Feathers” by Leila Aboulela is another tale of revenge that involves a female character who dresses as a man to avenge her father’s killing only to go through a even more radical transformation. “The Jealous Star” is a children’s tale with a star as the main character who convinces all the other stars to move to the daylight. Other stories are set more firmly in reality, including an excellent one by Hammour Ziada about what happens to an isolated village when a Bedouin tribe decides to move in.
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Since the Arab Spring, there has been an upsurge in dystopian fiction coming out of the Middle East. The dashed hopes of that widespread popular uprising have found their expression in pessimistic novels such as Otared, (reviewed in an earlier post) and several other notable works of fiction.
One of the most lauded in the West is The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian writer and social activist.
In The Queue, we are transported to a strange near future where the civilian government has been taken over by a faceless entity called the Gate. The Gate issues a series of edicts that become ever more baffling and hard to obey. Companies are forced to changed what they produce, individuals need to get signed forms for even the most mundane matters, and little by little the Gate forces its way into every aspect of the city’s life.
The people rebel, in what the Gate refers to as the Disgraceful Events, which are suppressed with predictable police brutality. One of the casualties is a young man named Yehya, who is shot by a police officer. Yehya needs a form signed in order to have the bullet removed, but the Gate closes right after the Disgraceful Events.
As Yehya languishes, the Gate issues a continuous torrent of edicts, prompting more and more citizens to line up in front of the Gate hoping to get their forms filled out. The line soon stretches for miles, developing its own economy and culture. Street preachers rail against the citizens for their lack of faith in the Gate, shopkeepers try to make a living selling tea and snacks to the other people in line, and salesmen give away free mobile phones that are bugged.
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One pleasant stop on my recent trip to Cairo was the American University’s bookshop near Tahrir Square. It’s a treasure trove of books on Egyptology and Egyptian fiction in translation. Among the titles I picked up was the dystopian novel Otared by Mohammad Rabie.
This novel, originally published in Arabic in 2014 and published in English in 2016 by Hoopoe, the fiction imprint of the American University of Cairo, is a grim dystopian tale of Cairo in 2025.
After several botched revolutions in which the people repeatedly fail to effect real social and political change, Egypt is invaded by a foreign power. The army crumples, most of the police collude with the occupiers, and the general public doesn’t seem to care. A small rebel group decides to take back their nation, and one of its agents is former police officer turned sniper, Otared. The rebels basically become terrorists, deciding the only way to get the people to rise up is to make life under the occupation intolerable, which means killing as many innocent civilians as possible.
The world Rabie paints reminds me very much of the insane landscape in Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things, with its violence, its cruelty, and its bizarre customs (in Otared almost everyone wears a mask) that begin to make sense once you learn more about the world. Throw in a nightmarish disease that affects only children, plus a national death wish, and you have a grim but compelling read. No science fiction novel has gut punched me this hard for a long, long time.
Mohammad Rabie is an emerging force in Egyptian letters. Born in 1978, he graduated from the Faculty of Engineering in 2002. His first novel, Amber Planet, was released in 2010 and won first prize in the Emerging Writers category of the Sawiris Cultural Award Competition in 2011. His second novel, Year of the Dragon, came out in 2012. Otared was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2016 (popularly referred to as the Arabic Booker). Curious to learn more, I sat down with Rabie (OK, I shot him an email) to speak with him about his writing.
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