Alternate Arabias: New Arab-American and Egyptian SF and Fantasy

By Scott SeliskerAugust 31, 2012

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik

THIS SPRING, the fantasy author Saladin Ahmed wrote a short piece at pointing to the long tradition of racial stereotyping in fantasy literature, which lately culminated in HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. The show’s “Mongol-inspired” Dothraki were introduced in an orgiastic battle royal of a wedding feast, setting up the swarthiest people on the first season of the hit series as a bunch of crude, instinct-driven beasts. While the show certainly exposes the beastliness of its lighter-skinned characters as well, Game of Thrones — like the George R.R. Martin novels that provide its source material — reflects retrograde ideas about race with the inclusion of non-European savages as background props. Like many dark-skinned tribes in fantasy, the racially coded Dothraki exist only as flat shapes, an exotic Eastern Other against which the white characters define themselves as civilized. That pattern is familiar to anyone who has watched the culminating battle of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and wondered why the heroes are suddenly fighting against a group of vaguely Indian-looking, elephant-riding, tattooed men, who all seemed to appear out of nowhere.

In his article on Game of Thrones, Ahmed calls on audiences and authors to rethink the casual orientalism that limits the roles of non-white characters in fantasy novels and films. Valuable as Ahmed’s critique of Game of Thrones is, it also explains part of what makes his own novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon such a welcome addition to the genre. In Throne, the first book of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms trilogy, Ahmed takes on the challenge of writing a sword-and-sorcery novel set in a fictional medieval Arabian world. While he’s not the first to swap out the European neo-medieval for medieval pseudo-Arabia, he may be the first to do so with an eye trained steadily on the post-9/11 American scene.

Ahmed hails from the Arab-American cultural hub of Dearborn, Michigan, and he has published poems in the academic journal Callaloo and elsewhere, in addition to his critically acclaimed fantasy short stories. In taking contemporary Arab-American writing out of the realm of realism and nonfiction, Ahmed faces a complex challenge. Isn’t writing in the vein of the Thousand and One Nights — still the major work of fantasy in world literature — necessarily creating a kind of fantasy Arab, the shadowy pre-modern figure against whom George W. Bush seemed to want to “crusade”? Richard F. Burton, the great nineteenth-century English translator of the Arabian Nights, saw Arabia as the very stuff of dreams, “a region so familiar to my mind that even at first sight, it seemed a reminiscence of some bygone metempsychic life in the distant Past.” Fantasy — the magic that makes what we see into what we want to see — seems hard to reconcile with a desire to change outmoded perceptions.

Throne, though, far from seeming like a calculated exercise in political correctness, matches the familiar and pleasurable elements of the fantasy genre with a cast of unique, multidimensional Arab characters. The premise, in which a ragtag band saves the world using near-forgotten magic, gives the book an overall structure reminiscent of the Star Wars or Harry Potter franchises, and much of their charm as well. Fronting this ragtag band is Adoulla Makhslood, a retirement-aged “ghul” hunter, a weary and wise sufi-like figure who enjoys poetry and cardamom tea and wants to give everything up to settle down with his old flame, the mistress of a brothel. The band also includes his old friends and two teenagers, a girl from a nomadic tribe who has just discovered her extraordinary powers, and a young assistant, an idealistic dervish of a religious order. Overall, Ahmed successfully switches out national archives: for the knights, elves, and little people of Anglo-American neo-medievalism, he trades a sage who reads religious poetry, a corrupt Khalifate, and a charming Robin Hood-esque revolutionary called the Falcon Prince.

The young characters seem a tad too serious at times, but the easy joviality and friendly insults between the older characters may be the main thing that separates Throne from much other fantasy writing. The villains, featuring the memorable and spooky Mouw Awa, “a thing made of shadows and jackal skins,” and the zombie-like “ghuls” that are summoned to cause trouble, are of the sort that inspires fan art and later, special-effects magic. With the “ghuls,” Ahmed departs substantially from the Thousand and One Nights themselves, but the overall spirit of the tales, of magic and trickery, remains intact. Ahmed’s use of Arabic transliteration is quite clever, playing on the tendency in fantasy novels to use archaic misspellings; here, we find “Badawi” for a nomadic tribe, “bakgam” for the board game, and Burton’s spelling of “ghul.” That setting of Arabia-but-not-quite — or, better, Arabia-but-there’s-magic — has a richly imagined, lived-in feel, as when the young Badawi girl first sees the city of Dhamsawaat, all bustling, stinky, and magnificent.

Moreover, Ahmed’s fantasy depicts ordinary Muslim belief with a three-dimensionality that is often lacking in contemporary fiction more generally. Here, variations on “God willing” and the presence of religious scriptures add to the poetry of speech, as when Adoulla quotes that there are “Only so many fates for each man, but always a choice.” Though Adoulla is religious, a central tension between pragmatic cynicism and zealous idealism animates his relationship with his young assistant, Raseed, whose two-pronged dervish’s sword supposedly “cleaves right from wrong.” That conflict between religious zeal and world-weary cynicism is refreshingly far-removed from stereotypical associations with fundamentalism.

Ahmed has stated in several interviews that the next installments of the trilogy, beginning next year, will feature an analogue to the crusades — where, I wonder, will the crusaders come from?

Another novel that re-imagines the Middle East in the light of contemporary politics, Utopia is the first work by Ahmed Khaled Towfik to be translated into English. The Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing group has promoted the popular author as the “Egyptian Stephen King”: he has written over fifty short novels in the horror, fantasy, and cyberpunk genres, which have a devoted young readership in Egypt. While Egyptian literary writers, including the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, the groundbreaking playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim, and the novelist and activist Alaa Al-Aswany, all have growing international and English-language audiences, Utopia, published in Arabic in 2009, provides a unique view into the country’s genre fiction and into the moment just before the Arab Spring.

Towfik has said in an interview that he thinks of Utopia as a kind of fictional analogue to another book “essential” to understanding what led to the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? by Galal A. Amin, a popular history of the country’s culture and politics since the 1950s. “What happened” in Utopia’s world was a process of class and cultural polarization that parallels Egyptian society, a growing gap between an increasingly Westernized and corrupt upper class and a lower class excluded from the upper class’s walled garden, Utopia. Incidentally, oil has been surpassed by a synthetic compound, cocaine and heroin have lost pride of place to a colorfully described psychedelic called phlogistine, and the young royalty are so bored that hunting outside the walls of Utopia has become a sport.

Utopia opens with a description of the poster for the Vietnam-War movie Platoon: Willem Dafoe in silhouette, on his knees, arms up, falling in battle. It’s easy to get confused by Hollywood’s violence-made-beautiful, and the narrator describes how a falling body reminded him of the poster, “real and terrible and cruel and, and … seductive.” What follows is a politically charged fable about human cruelty, where a prince and a pauper exchange roles as predator and prey.

The opening descriptions of these opposed worlds of luxury and deprivation yield the prince, nameless, and the pauper, Gaber. The two share a certain sensibility, borne of a desire to read, which each in turn calls a “cheap kind of drug” that lets him “withdraw from [his] conscious self.” Given the characters’ penchant for reading, the prose on both sides is sprinkled with artful lists and peppered with allusions, most centrally to the poet Abdel Rahm el-Abnoudi’s “Poem of Ordinary Sorrows” from 1981, but also to Hobbes, Poe, Orwell, and classic films from Cairo and Hollywood. The “Poem of Ordinary Sorrows,” which discusses the rifts between “two peoples,” frames the novel’s basic question of what separates the two worlds. Does scrounging among rats and thugs necessarily deprive a young man of his humanity? Or does living as hedonistic royalty, as a Nero for the Americanized consumer age, make for a more thorough dehumanization?

These questions animate the alternating sections narrated by each protagonist, and the cat-and-mouse between them reads a bit like Patricia Highsmith’s mysteries. As with Highsmith or even Philip K. Dick, an irresistible sense of unease propels the reader forward. The reader’s sympathies are more consistently channeled toward Gaber, the pauper, who protects the prince — out of sympathy or to sell him out? — when the latter comes looking for a human trophy among the proles. Despite the alternating section titles — “Predator” and “Prey” — a sense of uncertainty remains as to who is hunting whom.

The “story” of the Arab Spring as it’s been told in the U.S. has largely been one of technology: Twitter and other social media enabling heretofore-impossible collaborations and coalitions. Utopia, where technology fades into the background and the hunting is done with a knife, highlights the revolution’s human dimensions.

Both Utopia and Throne of the Crescent Moon offer intelligent explorations of contemporary politics by drawing on a global palate of genres and material. Unlike realist fiction, the conventions of science fiction and fantasy allow these authors to step outside of contemporary history, in narratives that remain no less historically and politically engaged for that separation. With these novels, we can return to more immediate thoughts of the post-9/11 U.S. or post-Arab-Spring Egypt with a refreshed perspective. Hopefully, Utopia represents the first of many translations of Towfik’s novels; the sequel to Ahmed’s Throne will appear next year.

LARB Contributor

Scott Selisker is associate professor of English at the University of Arizona and the author of Human Programming: Brainwashing, Automatons, and American Freedom (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). He writes and teaches courses on science and technology in US literature and culture.


LARB Staff Recommendations

  • Hacking the Arab Spring

    BECAUSE I WILL probably forget to mention it later on: Alif the Unseen is a rattling good yarn, full of action and adventure, revolution and romance. It is smoothly written, compassionate and generous, and has important things to say. It is ...

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.