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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Every now and then, fandom needs to take a good, hard look at itself. Considering the recent Hugo kerfuffle, I thought it a fine time to read Norman Spinrad’s famous skewering of fan culture, The Iron Dream.
First published in 1972, this is a masterpiece of metafiction. It is a book within a book, containing the 1955 Hugo Award winner Lord of the Swastika, written by none other than that famous science fiction writer, Adolph Hitler. We are informed that after dabbling in radical politics in Germany, Hitler moved to New York in 1919. In the 1930s he became a sought-after illustrator for pulp magazines and started writing fiction. He was popular in fannish circles for his fanzine work and for his witty banter at conventions.
His best-known work is Lord of the Swastika, a post-apocalyptic tale where the world has been ravaged by nuclear war and most people have become foul mutants. Luckily there is one nation, Heldon, where the Truemen struggle to preserve humanity’s genetic purity.
Enter Feric Jaggar, a Trueman whose family was exiled due to political machinations and forced to live among the mongrel horde. Lord of the Swastika is the tale of Jagger’s triumphant return to Heldon, where he unmasks a plot by the mutants to take over the country and sully the genetic purity of the last real humans. Jagger’s political star rises, the masses rallying around him as he first faces off against a corrupt government, then unites the nation around him in order to start a massive war to wipe the Earth clean of genetic inferiors once and for all.
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The recent attack by a white supremacist on a black church in Charleston reminded everyone that radical Muslims aren’t the only terrorists out there. In fact, an FBI report studying terrorism in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005 shows there were more attacks by far-right groups than Muslim groups, even in the most recent years of that period. A study of terror attacks in the European Union reveals that less than two percent were religiously motivated. Most were either by separatist or far-right organizations.
So what motivates radical right-wing terror groups? What’s their equivalent of ISIS beheading videos? While there is a large body of white supremacist videos and literature, the undisputed classic is The Turner Diaries.
This novel, written in 1978 by white supremacist activist William Luther Pierce under the pen name Andrew MacDonald, tells of a race war in the 1990s in which a group of whites called The Order overthrow the Zionist-controlled U.S. government and kill all Jews and racial minorities. The book became famous because a scene depicting the blowing up of an FBI building was eerily similar to the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh. Later investigation showed he had been inspired by the book, as had a short-lived racist group called The Order that committed a string of robberies and killed a Jewish radio personality. Several other white supremacist criminals have also been inspired by the novel.
While it’s not proven that the Charleston shooter, Dylann Roof, had read the book, it’s so well-known in the circles in which he circulated he surely must have heard of it. Curious, I decided to track it down.
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