Arabs to Mars may sound like the start of a bad Levantine joke, a slapstick punchline about an Arab and a Martian walking into a bar. And why wouldn’t it? The arrival last month of the Emirati probe into Martian orbit – the first such endeavor paid for by an Arab country – has no bearing on the lives of people who live in the Arab or Muslim worlds, despite the United Arab Emirates’ claim that it is now leading both “the Arab and Muslim ummah” into space, and the #ArabsToMars hashtag being tweeted by the country’s PR army.
Perhaps a more meaningful statement was the one tweeted by NASA – days before its own Perseverance landed on the surface of Mars – to congratulate the UAE on the arrival of the space probe Hope, or Amal, as the Emiratis have dubbed their project.
“If you ventured in pursuit of glory, don’t be satisfied with less than the stars,” NASA tweeted, quoting the prolific Abbasid poet Al-Mutanabbi from his poem, aptly titled, “If You Ventured in Pursuit of Glory.” Written in the 10th century at the dawn of Islam’s Golden Age, this lofty stanza has more on offer than a congratulatory nod to a tiny emirate on achieving an ambitious goal that – let us admit – any billionaire could accomplish by opening his coffers.
Unlike countries that foster some of the world’s more robust space programs after that of the United States – like Russia, China, and India – the UAE has neither the industrial base nor an established scientific community to compete with the space pioneers. But it does have the capital to purchase its way into space exploration. The Hope probe cost the UAE $200 million, which went toward paying NASA-trained engineers and scientists at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado; the transportation of the car-sized probe to (and its launch from) Japan; and a skeletal managerial staff in the UAE who graciously shared the credit with the international team that helped them put it together.
The Hope probe has also been eclipsed by the terrible and ongoing saga of Dubai princess Sheikha Latifa, who was kidnapped from a private boat in the Indian Ocean in 2018 by Emirati commandos and returned home against her will on orders of her father, the ruler of Dubai who also serves as vice president and prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid Al-Maktum. The princess has been held in solitary confinement and, like her sister Shamsa before her, is presumably being forcibly medicated and sedated with no access to the outside world except to release the occasional SOS message through a contraband cell phone, as she did last month according to a video acquired by the BBC. Amid the Hope probe celebrations in Dubai, where one of the world’s tallest buildings, the Burj Khalifa, was lit up like a rocket, it is indeed ironic to contemplate whether the emirate’s imprisoned and isolated princess was even aware of the spectacle and the occasion behind it.
Human rights violations aside, the allusion to Al-Mutanabbi’s poem may indeed offer hope to the region, but not in the way the UAE and its cheerleaders may assume.
Islam’s Golden Age boasted poetry and scientific inquiry and, perhaps as relevant to the occasion, the seeds of science fiction, a literary genre that has the potential to engage the youth of the Arab and Muslim worlds and empower them to imagine the future they want for themselves and their countries.
“Sci-fi comes as societies start to develop and can be used for sociocultural critique that is looking forward through the present,” Wessam Elmeligi, Assistant Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan-Dearborn told Newlines during an interview on Zoom. “Sci-fi in particular can actually create a new space for writers and readers in the Arab world.”
Amid the turmoil that defines the region, it is perhaps the literary genres that are perceived as being the least confrontational that can most effectively subvert the status quo. Indeed, one trend emerging in the Arab world is to reimagine the past or imagine the future, which explains why there is a surge of historical fiction and sci-fi, even if much of it is the unsophisticated variety written for TV. “It’s interesting that writing about both the past and the future are becoming more and more successful, while writing about the present is being avoided,” said Elmeligi.
Unlike political and literary critique of the status quo, science fiction, especially, has the potential to challenge long-held beliefs while remaining beyond the reach of government censors and the harsh judgement of a conservative patriarchy. It can make a lasting impact on Arab society in the same way that Anglo-American sci-fi has influenced the Western psyche.
Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel “Brave New World,” for example, is about a genetically engineered future that continues to be referenced in today’s conversation about ethics in the field of genetics. George Orwell’s novel “1984,” published at the dawn of the Cold War, coined the terms “Big Brother” and “Newspeak,” also cautionary concepts that remain seared in our minds today. And Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” published in 1953, featuring a “fireman” who becomes disillusioned with his task of burning books, is a favorite go-to reference in conversations about censorship, including the ironic one that continues to resurface with, for example, conservative parents in Florida who want to ban the book from public schools.
Contemporary Arabic sci-fi conceptualizes the dystopia that marks daily life in much of the Arab world, then manufactures it into noir surrealism. A case in point is Basma Abdel Aziz’s acclaimed novel, “The Queue.” Published in the Arab world in 2013 and translated into English in 2016, “The Queue” captures perhaps one of the most defining aspects of daily life in the Arab world today: standing in an endless queue and waiting your turn to receive authorization for one thing or another.
In the novel, one citizen needs a signature to authorize surgery to remove a bullet lodged in his hip during a night of protests – known as the Night of Disgraceful Events – during which no bullets were fired, according to the powers that be. Another needs a permit to buy bread, but to do so, he must qualify for a Certificate of True Citizenship, which also requires standing in the endless queue and waiting.
“He first needs to hand in his papers and state the purpose of his request. The official there would check that papers are in order and file the papers and give him a receipt for confirmation,” one passage reads.
The novel unfolds in an unnamed city where the top authority, called The Gate, is detached from the people and totally unapproachable, yet it can hinder or greenlight every aspect of people’s lives, as the reader discovers through each character’s ordeal.
“She had to fill out a new application praising the care her dearly departed daughter had received before her time was up. Then she must go to The Gate of the Northern Building and change the cause of death to something appropriate. Finally she had to withdraw the complaint she submitted about her daughter’s death and the documents she had attached to prove that her living daughter’s condition had deteriorated,” a passage reads.
In another sci-fi novel, this one by Youssef Ezeddin Eassa, titled “The Facade,” the author introduces his protagonist in the book’s opening sentence as follows: “He does not recall where he came from nor why he came.” The protagonist, known only as M N, finds himself in a strange city with secrets he cannot understand, and no one is willing to reveal them to him. In a state of perpetual perplexity, he seeks and finds work to “turn the grindstone,” which actually grinds nothing at all. “It just turns, on and on,” he is told. “You turn it, to earn money!”
In another passage, the protagonist witnesses a man’s arbitrary arrest and execution then inquires about the reason for such abuse.
“We do not think about that. We’re all happy and we don’t look beyond the moment,” he is told by the arresting officer.
Sci-fi has always played a role in the collective psyche of the Muslim world, though of course it was not always known as such. Fantastical stories like “The Thousand and One Nights” and its pulp fiction little sister, “Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange,” which was translated into English a few years ago, have long shaped the imagination of the people in the region.
Another equally important but less known contribution to Arabic surrealism is “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan,” written by Ibn Tufayl in Al-Andalus in the early 12th century at the height of scientific and philosophical inquiry in the Muslim world. Ibn Tufayl was one of the era’s cornerstone philosophers along with the likes of al Ghazali, Avicenna, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). In the tale of “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan,” which literally translates as “Alive Son of Awake,” we meet the protagonist Hayy when he is a baby stranded on a deserted island with no other humans. A mama deer adopts and raises him as her own. Who Hayy is and where he comes from is anyone’s guess, including his own. As he grows up, he begins to ask these questions and seeks his answers through a methodical and scientific exploration of the island and the creatures who live on it. It is a slow “awakening” through which Hayy struggles to understand why he seems so different from the beasts among whom he finds himself; why, for example, are their bodies covered with fur while his feels so naked that he wants to cover himself?
The tale is a treatise on science and spirituality. Ibn Tufayl proposes two alternatives to how this lone character has come to be on the island. One explanation is Biblical/Quranic: Hayy was born into a family that had put him in a box and set it to sea – just like in the story of Moses. The other explanation is that Hayy was not the progeny of parents, but by the climate on the island through a process akin to natural selection. Presenting the origin of Hayy as only optionally biblical/Quranic was mind-boggling for that time, and it remains a daring idea today, including in the UAE where evolution is not taught in the country’s public schools.
Ibn Tufayl’s narrative of an island castaway has also deeply influenced the Western imagination, with writings like Daniel Defoe’s novel “Robinson Crusoe,” published in 1719, and Lemuel Gulliver’s satirical prose in “Gulliver’s Travels,” published in 1726. Also not to be forgotten is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes,” published in 1912.
Sci-fi in the West – or say, American sci-fi – grew up in the 1950s “atomic age,” and later evolved in the 1960s and 1970s, energized by the era’s counterculture, civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. Then came NASA’s moon landing, followed less than a decade later by George Lucas’ epic space opera “Star Wars.” Though the Arab world boasted few, if any, scientific achievements during that time – which might explain its anemic interest in sci-fi – the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring may very well provide fodder for enriching Arabic sci-fi. It may be too soon to identify such a trend, but one novel, published in 2016 and translated into English, offers a glimpse of what has already seeped into the psyche of the region’s youth.
“Otared” – Arabic for the planet Mercury – is a novel by Mohammad Rabie about a former cop named Ahmed Otared who, along with his ilk, aims to liberate Cairo from invaders in a grim future set in the year 2025.
“A book of perverse and stomach-curdling violence that would have been unthinkable before the 2011 revolution, which inspired it,” Maria Golia writes in The Times Literary Supplement.
Elmeligi believes we will see more sci-fi as generations of youth in the Arab world feel compelled to imagine a future other than what their current circumstances offer.
“I would say that Arab sci-fi is at its best when it has its roots in what’s happening now, and it becomes a reflection of how this will impact the future. As opposed to non-Arab sci-fi, which uses technology and scientific imagination of what science can do for us, Arab sci-fi focuses on political, metaphysical, and spiritual realities, which makes it very unique in that sense,” he says.
So, Arabs to Mars? Why not? Especially if the journey unfolds on the pages of an Arabic sci-fi novel, conceptualized and written by the region’s overlooked youth.