The Arabic world has seen an upsurge in speculative fiction in recent years. Some attribute it to the disappointments of the Arab Spring and the disaster of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Others point to ready access to the Internet, allowing Arab writers to communicate more easily with genre fans in other parts of the world.
Of course this ignores the fact that Arabic literature has a long tradition of the fantastic. Arab writers are working from very deep roots. So it’s interesting that one of the most successful Arab speculative novels of the past decade takes its inspiration from a Western source.
Frankenstein in Baghdad retells Mary Shelley’s classic tale in American-occupied Baghdad in the early years of this decade. The book originally came out in Arabic in 2013. Baghdad is a nightmare of opposing factions shooting it out while a corrupt Iraqi government propped up by the clueless Americans tries to keep it all together.
***Spoilers follow. If you don’t like spoilers, just go out and buy the novel. You’ll be glad you did.***
Hadi is a junk dealer who drinks too much and works too little, living in an abandoned house and telling wild tales at the local cafe to anyone who listens. On his rounds he comes across the wreckage of countless car bombings. While the emergency crews try to clean up as much as possible, they often miss small body parts. Hadi decides to take these home and sew them together, making a complete body that would be suitable for burial.
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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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With all the grim news coming out of Iraq, it’s easy to think the country has no future. That’s wrong, of course, because being one of the oldest countries in the world, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
But what will that future look like? To answer that question, UK publisher Comma Press has released Iraq +100, an anthology of Iraqi writers imagining the future of their nation. As the blurb says:
Iraq + 100 poses a question to ten Iraqi writers: what might your country look like in the year 2103 – a century after the disastrous American- and British-led invasion, and 87 years down the line from its current, nightmarish battle for survival? How might the effects of that one intervention reach across a century of repercussions, and shape the lives of ordinary Iraqi citizens, or influence its economy, culture, or politics? Might Iraq have finally escaped the cycle of invasion and violence triggered by 2003 and, if so, what would a new, free Iraq look like?
Covering a range of approaches – from science fiction, to allegory, to magic realism – these stories use the blank canvas of the future to explore the nation’s hopes and fears in equal measure. Along the way a new aesthetic for the ‘Iraqi fantastical’ begins to emerge: thus we meet time-travelling angels, technophobic dictators, talking statues, macabre museum-worlds, even hovering tiger-droids, and all the time buoyed by a dark, inventive humour that, in itself, offers hope.
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