The final frontier: Science fiction in Arab literature

Published August 9th, 2016 - 14:42 GMT

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Arabic literature stretches over a thousand years and has left very few stones unturned. From the classic tales of A Thousand and One Nights to the modern stories that occupy the shelves of bookstores throughout the Arab World, Arab writers have carved out a name for themselves as being bold and intrepid - sometimes at great personal cost considering the oft-maligned lack of press freedom in the region.

However, there is one final frontier that tends to go unexplored by Arab writers: science fiction. The West had its science fiction renaissance in the mid-20th Century, but the films, books, comics, and tv shows of the Middle East rarely take us “where no man has gone before”. Nevertheless, science fiction isn’t a totally alien concept in Arab literature - in fact, elements of the genre can be traced back to pre-Islamic times! Continue reading below »

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The famous collection of stories that gave us Aladdin, One Thousand and One Nights’ 13th Century collection of stories also features robot people, a trip to space, and even an underwater colony of communists. You heard that right: In “Abdullah the Fisherman” the hero learns to breathe underwater and discovers a utopian society of fish people.
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Image 1 of 11:  1 / 11The famous collection of stories that gave us Aladdin, One Thousand and One Nights’ 13th Century collection of stories also features robot people, a trip to space, and even an underwater colony of communists. You heard that right: In “Abdullah the Fisherman” the hero learns to breathe underwater and discovers a utopian society of fish people.

Enlarge
A 1973 book that sought to expand creative boundaries, The Secret life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi features a Palestinian boy visited by aliens that tell him of Israeli life. When he is eventually captured by Israelis, an alien being rescues him. What’s the idea? Reality is often as far-fetched and complicated as fiction.
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Image 2 of 11:  2 / 11A 1973 book that sought to expand creative boundaries, The Secret life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi features a Palestinian boy visited by aliens that tell him of Israeli life. When he is eventually captured by Israelis, an alien being rescues him. What’s the idea? Reality is often as far-fetched and complicated as fiction.

Enlarge
A tale about a girl who becomes a refugee after her planet is destroyed, Ajwan by Noura al Nouman centers around a 19 year old alien trying to find her infant son after his kidnapping by an evil organization. According to Nouman, she wrote the book for her daughter after she couldn’t find any young adult science fiction in Arabic to give her.
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Image 3 of 11:  3 / 11A tale about a girl who becomes a refugee after her planet is destroyed, Ajwan by Noura al Nouman centers around a 19 year old alien trying to find her infant son after his kidnapping by an evil organization. According to Nouman, she wrote the book for her daughter after she couldn’t find any young adult science fiction in Arabic to give her.

Enlarge
A modern take on Frankenstein’s monster, Ahmed Saadawi’s 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad follows a doctor who assembles a creature from the body parts of war victims. The half-built creature decides to finish itself using body parts from the living - those who deserve to be killed for their actions during the war.
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Image 4 of 11:  4 / 11A modern take on Frankenstein’s monster, Ahmed Saadawi’s 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad follows a doctor who assembles a creature from the body parts of war victims. The half-built creature decides to finish itself using body parts from the living - those who deserve to be killed for their actions during the war.

Enlarge
Famous Egyptian radio presenter Youssef Eissa pioneered the radio drama and the scifi short story. In his famous World of Donkeys (1941), Eissa portrays man as a fallen species with decayed morals surpassed by more intelligent donkeys. The story ends with donkeys riding humans and taking their place as dominant sentient species on planet earth.
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Image 5 of 11:  5 / 11Famous Egyptian radio presenter Youssef Eissa pioneered the radio drama and the scifi short story. In his famous World of Donkeys (1941), Eissa portrays man as a fallen species with decayed morals surpassed by more intelligent donkeys. The story ends with donkeys riding humans and taking their place as dominant sentient species on planet earth.

Enlarge
Ahmed Towfik’s Utopia is set in a dystopian 2023 Egypt, where society has collapsed and the wealthy live in US Marine-guarded compounds cut off from the impoverished masses. Translated into English in 2010, Towfik is quite popular among Egyptian youth and is helping to popularize the genre in the Arab World.
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Image 6 of 11:  6 / 11Ahmed Towfik’s Utopia is set in a dystopian 2023 Egypt, where society has collapsed and the wealthy live in US Marine-guarded compounds cut off from the impoverished masses. Translated into English in 2010, Towfik is quite popular among Egyptian youth and is helping to popularize the genre in the Arab World.

Enlarge
The Spider by Egyptian author Muhammad Mustafa is a mid 20th Century novel about souls and reincarnation. When the protagonist, a Cairene doctor, finds a patient with a brain tumor who speaks in a language no one can understand it sets into motion a plot about unraveling the mysteries of the soul.
Reduce

Image 7 of 11:  7 / 11The Spider by Egyptian author Muhammad Mustafa is a mid 20th Century novel about souls and reincarnation. When the protagonist, a Cairene doctor, finds a patient with a brain tumor who speaks in a language no one can understand it sets into motion a plot about unraveling the mysteries of the soul.

Enlarge
Theologus Autodidactus is a 13th Century novel by Arab writer Ibn al-Nafas following a boy who spontaneously is created on an island. He is rescued by explorers who introduce him to civilization right around the time of the apocalypse - bad timing for the protagonist - and his explorations shape his personal interpretation of God.
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Image 8 of 11:  8 / 11Theologus Autodidactus is a 13th Century novel by Arab writer Ibn al-Nafas following a boy who spontaneously is created on an island. He is rescued by explorers who introduce him to civilization right around the time of the apocalypse - bad timing for the protagonist - and his explorations shape his personal interpretation of God.

Enlarge
In Moroccan author Muhammad Aziz’s 1947 novel the Elixir of Life, the reader follows the story of an impoverished youth whose life is thrown into chaos when an immortality potion is created. The novel examines how social classes might be shuffled if everyone lived forever, and the humanitarian crisis that might ensue.
Reduce

Image 9 of 11:  9 / 11In Moroccan author Muhammad Aziz’s 1947 novel the Elixir of Life, the reader follows the story of an impoverished youth whose life is thrown into chaos when an immortality potion is created. The novel examines how social classes might be shuffled if everyone lived forever, and the humanitarian crisis that might ensue.

Enlarge
Taleb Omaran is one of the most well-known Syrian scifi authors. Though he often wrote scientific non-fiction, he also mixed astronomy with imagination to create tales about space exploration. One of his stories, “There Are No Poor People on the Moon” (1997), is about a father’s journey to the moon to reunite his broken family.
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Image 10 of 11:  10 / 11Taleb Omaran is one of the most well-known Syrian scifi authors. Though he often wrote scientific non-fiction, he also mixed astronomy with imagination to create tales about space exploration. One of his stories, “There Are No Poor People on the Moon” (1997), is about a father’s journey to the moon to reunite his broken family.

Enlarge
A paranormal love story, HWJN was the #1 novel in Saudi Arabia when it was published in 2013. In HWJN a human woman and male jinn fall in love and their relationship is filled with intrigue, possessions, and otherworldly magic. It’s a surprising tale to come from Saudi Arabia, but remarkably popular among the country’s youth.
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Image 11 of 11:  11 / 11A paranormal love story, HWJN was the #1 novel in Saudi Arabia when it was published in 2013. In HWJN a human woman and male jinn fall in love and their relationship is filled with intrigue, possessions, and otherworldly magic. It’s a surprising tale to come from Saudi Arabia, but remarkably popular among the country’s youth.

Enlarge

1

The famous collection of stories that gave us Aladdin, One Thousand and One Nights’ 13th Century collection of stories also features robot people, a trip to space, and even an underwater colony of communists. You heard that right: In “Abdullah the Fisherman” the hero learns to breathe underwater and discovers a utopian society of fish people.

Image 1 of 11The famous collection of stories that gave us Aladdin, One Thousand and One Nights’ 13th Century collection of stories also features robot people, a trip to space, and even an underwater colony of communists. You heard that right: In “Abdullah the Fisherman” the hero learns to breathe underwater and discovers a utopian society of fish people.

2

A 1973 book that sought to expand creative boundaries, The Secret life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi features a Palestinian boy visited by aliens that tell him of Israeli life. When he is eventually captured by Israelis, an alien being rescues him. What’s the idea? Reality is often as far-fetched and complicated as fiction.

Image 2 of 11A 1973 book that sought to expand creative boundaries, The Secret life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi features a Palestinian boy visited by aliens that tell him of Israeli life. When he is eventually captured by Israelis, an alien being rescues him. What’s the idea? Reality is often as far-fetched and complicated as fiction.

3

A tale about a girl who becomes a refugee after her planet is destroyed, Ajwan by Noura al Nouman centers around a 19 year old alien trying to find her infant son after his kidnapping by an evil organization. According to Nouman, she wrote the book for her daughter after she couldn’t find any young adult science fiction in Arabic to give her.

Image 3 of 11A tale about a girl who becomes a refugee after her planet is destroyed, Ajwan by Noura al Nouman centers around a 19 year old alien trying to find her infant son after his kidnapping by an evil organization. According to Nouman, she wrote the book for her daughter after she couldn’t find any young adult science fiction in Arabic to give her.

4

A modern take on Frankenstein’s monster, Ahmed Saadawi’s 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad follows a doctor who assembles a creature from the body parts of war victims. The half-built creature decides to finish itself using body parts from the living - those who deserve to be killed for their actions during the war.

Image 4 of 11A modern take on Frankenstein’s monster, Ahmed Saadawi’s 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad follows a doctor who assembles a creature from the body parts of war victims. The half-built creature decides to finish itself using body parts from the living - those who deserve to be killed for their actions during the war.

5

Famous Egyptian radio presenter Youssef Eissa pioneered the radio drama and the scifi short story. In his famous World of Donkeys (1941), Eissa portrays man as a fallen species with decayed morals surpassed by more intelligent donkeys. The story ends with donkeys riding humans and taking their place as dominant sentient species on planet earth.

Image 5 of 11Famous Egyptian radio presenter Youssef Eissa pioneered the radio drama and the scifi short story. In his famous World of Donkeys (1941), Eissa portrays man as a fallen species with decayed morals surpassed by more intelligent donkeys. The story ends with donkeys riding humans and taking their place as dominant sentient species on planet earth.

6

Ahmed Towfik’s Utopia is set in a dystopian 2023 Egypt, where society has collapsed and the wealthy live in US Marine-guarded compounds cut off from the impoverished masses. Translated into English in 2010, Towfik is quite popular among Egyptian youth and is helping to popularize the genre in the Arab World.

Image 6 of 11Ahmed Towfik’s Utopia is set in a dystopian 2023 Egypt, where society has collapsed and the wealthy live in US Marine-guarded compounds cut off from the impoverished masses. Translated into English in 2010, Towfik is quite popular among Egyptian youth and is helping to popularize the genre in the Arab World.

7

The Spider by Egyptian author Muhammad Mustafa is a mid 20th Century novel about souls and reincarnation. When the protagonist, a Cairene doctor, finds a patient with a brain tumor who speaks in a language no one can understand it sets into motion a plot about unraveling the mysteries of the soul.

Image 7 of 11The Spider by Egyptian author Muhammad Mustafa is a mid 20th Century novel about souls and reincarnation. When the protagonist, a Cairene doctor, finds a patient with a brain tumor who speaks in a language no one can understand it sets into motion a plot about unraveling the mysteries of the soul.

8

Theologus Autodidactus is a 13th Century novel by Arab writer Ibn al-Nafas following a boy who spontaneously is created on an island. He is rescued by explorers who introduce him to civilization right around the time of the apocalypse - bad timing for the protagonist - and his explorations shape his personal interpretation of God.

Image 8 of 11Theologus Autodidactus is a 13th Century novel by Arab writer Ibn al-Nafas following a boy who spontaneously is created on an island. He is rescued by explorers who introduce him to civilization right around the time of the apocalypse - bad timing for the protagonist - and his explorations shape his personal interpretation of God.

9

In Moroccan author Muhammad Aziz’s 1947 novel the Elixir of Life, the reader follows the story of an impoverished youth whose life is thrown into chaos when an immortality potion is created. The novel examines how social classes might be shuffled if everyone lived forever, and the humanitarian crisis that might ensue.

Image 9 of 11In Moroccan author Muhammad Aziz’s 1947 novel the Elixir of Life, the reader follows the story of an impoverished youth whose life is thrown into chaos when an immortality potion is created. The novel examines how social classes might be shuffled if everyone lived forever, and the humanitarian crisis that might ensue.

10

Taleb Omaran is one of the most well-known Syrian scifi authors. Though he often wrote scientific non-fiction, he also mixed astronomy with imagination to create tales about space exploration. One of his stories, “There Are No Poor People on the Moon” (1997), is about a father’s journey to the moon to reunite his broken family.

Image 10 of 11Taleb Omaran is one of the most well-known Syrian scifi authors. Though he often wrote scientific non-fiction, he also mixed astronomy with imagination to create tales about space exploration. One of his stories, “There Are No Poor People on the Moon” (1997), is about a father’s journey to the moon to reunite his broken family.

11

A paranormal love story, HWJN was the #1 novel in Saudi Arabia when it was published in 2013. In HWJN a human woman and male jinn fall in love and their relationship is filled with intrigue, possessions, and otherworldly magic. It’s a surprising tale to come from Saudi Arabia, but remarkably popular among the country’s youth.

Image 11 of 11A paranormal love story, HWJN was the #1 novel in Saudi Arabia when it was published in 2013. In HWJN a human woman and male jinn fall in love and their relationship is filled with intrigue, possessions, and otherworldly magic. It’s a surprising tale to come from Saudi Arabia, but remarkably popular among the country’s youth.

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We've gathered some of the most notable science fiction writings from the Arab world both past and present. Though we might be a ways away from seeing an Arabic “Star Trek”, momentum is building for the science fiction fan in the Middle East.  

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