I remember learning about the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, that moment when Britain and France drew lines on a map of what is now known as the Middle East. I was in high school in the U.S., and the so-called Arab Spring had just erupted on the other side of the world. The headlines about the uprisings felt as surreal and alive as Europe’s border-sketching pen seemed bizarre and artificial. They were as strange as the transformation of Ronald Reagan’s freedom-fighting, Commie-crushing Mujahidin into Osama Bin Laden’s nefarious Al-Qaeda. My immediate, geek-addled thought to the region’s unfolding events? This is something out of science fiction.
In fact, it was. The similarities between what’s been happening in the wider Middle East and Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune (1965) are striking. In the novel, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, aristocratic houses and a futuristic emperor vied for control over the titular planet, the only source of “the spice.” The spice, an invaluable substance both drug and interstellar fuel, was Herbert’s reference to oil. The planet was inhabited by Fremen, a Bedouin-like people who used their familiarity with the land and its giant sandworms to resist their oppressors. The Fremen could be the Pashtuns or the Mujahidin, or this uprising or that one. The giant, desert-dwelling sandworms evoked the unconquerable landscape of Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria, where chaos still follows after western powers incessantly fail to install new order. The Fremen language was akin to Arabic and their mythology to Islamic mysticism, theology, and eschatology.
Perhaps Herbert was writing about Britain’s conquest of Arabia. Or perhaps he was predicting the Hollywood comedy-drama Charlie Wilson’s War, or the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Or, more crudely, the end of days. Like the emperor and barons perched above Dune, Europe and America loomed over its othered territories, unleashing armies, diplomats, and engineers in the surreal project of colonisation.
But Dune is more than a direct allegory for the tragic unfolding of history. It recasts the Middle East and North Africa and its peoples into a new, and perhaps truer, image of themselves; an image that can only be appreciated through the experience of reading. Yes, events have not unfolded as triumphantly as they do for the Fremen. But the literature of science fiction and fantasy expresses the irrationality with which the real world violently comes into being. It draws out the metaphors with which reality is made.
Take Iraqi novelist Hassan Blasim, author of a recently published collection of short stories, The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq (2014). He meshes the absurd with the real, the dark with the satiric, Borges with Poe, on the canvas of contemporary Iraq. In his short story The Reality and the Record (2011), Blasim narrates the life of a fictional ambulance driver in Baghdad who is kidnapped by a militia group. The man is dressed in a uniform and forced to read a script before a camera. Reading the script, he announces he is an Iraqi army officer who, following U.S. orders, has committed war crimes. The driver plays the part so well that the members of the militia sell him to another group, which then sells him to another, and so on. In each act the driver takes on a new role, pretending to be Sunni or Shi’a Muslim, Kurdish, Christian, Saudi, Baathist, Iranian, Al-Qaeda leadership, and even Spanish. He crosses sides until his newfound career as enslaved actor rises to bleak, satiric fame within the strange subculture of the Iraqi militia propaganda machine. Reputable news outlets, including Al Jazeera, are tricked by the driver’s multiple characters, never realising the same man is in every recording. After eighteen months, the driver is let go. He learns only a single night has passed since his capture. No one believes his story, including his own family. He suspects the world has conspired against him. “The world is just a bloody and hypothetical story,” one of Blasim’s characters scorns, “and we are all killers and heroes.” After immigrating to Sweden, the driver is eventually declared insane.
Most of Blasim’s stories are like this. Like the stories of the Iraqi post-war author Ahmed Saadawi, whose Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014) won The International Prize for Arabic Fiction last year, Blasim’s fiction embody figments of his characters’ paranoia and trauma. But the tangibility of their most absurd moments are hard to shake. “You can turn the woman who sells fish in the market into a spaceship lost in the cosmos, or turn aubergines into a philosophy lesson,” one of his protagonists, a writer, remarks. “The important thing is to observe at length, like someone contemplating suicide from a balcony.” Blasim eschews the presumptions of the western gaze and intensifies his characters’ suffering in ways that do not exoticise, escape, or divert from their tragedies but display them, oddly, as they truly are. His stories read like perfect slices of modern Iraq, more real than what you might encounter in the pages of The New York Times. For a post-war Iraqi, Blasim suggests, reality is absurd.
I encountered this phenomenon while writing my forthcoming novella, Technologies of the Self (Brain Mill Press). The book is based in part on my uncle’s immigration to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic around the time of the second U.S. occupation in 1965. The story recounts a series of trials he faced upon arrival in New York, mixing actual events from his life with time travel and demons. I leave the reader – and myself, at times – unsure of what is or isn’t real. Perusing early drafts, my peers remarked that my demonic time-travelling conquistador “space knight” felt real. A gang in a Washington Heights alleyway stabbing my uncle in the chest with a pickaxe for pocket change did not. To them, the parts I knew to be true were too nonsensical or absurd to be believable. Technologies of the Self is ultimately a work of fiction. But I hope that doesn’t make it any less true.
The history and politics of the MENA, other postcolonial regions, and the diasporas which I am a part of feel closer to science fiction than science fiction itself. The development of modernity and the state are ambiguous and elusory as much as they are bizarre and artificial, like Sykes-Picot or Herbert’s ominous emperor. They forgo an empirical analysis. Likewise, resistance to colonialism’s lasting and discursive forms of power lives equally beyond the boundaries of academic definition.
People are much the same. To tell things as they are, their stories must often tell them as they are not. Stories, then, are our means of digging beneath both polemics and ‘the facts on the ground’. They are a vessel toward the deepest kind of understanding. This is what the Muslim theologian, jurist, and philosopher Al-Ghazali called dhawq, or fruitional experience. That concept is embedded in the heart of science fiction and fantasy literature.
This is why science fiction and fantasy is such a powerful tool for the postcolonial life. In its simplest form, the genre can provide escapism, a haven from the ongoing daily strife. Meanwhile, dystopias usefully warn us how to navigate or avoid oppressive regimes. And in its most potent form, science fiction and fantasy literature sheds light on the complex architecture of the real world. It helps writers and their readers break out of binaries of oppression and marginalisation, transcend stereotypes, and imagine new ways of living.
Many have written about the significance of science fiction and fantasy literature, its presence in and outside of the Western canon, its history, its political clout. Usman Malik has discussed the importance of the genre for the future of Pakistan in a critical piece equally informative to other nations in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and beyond. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about the power of science fiction, of literature, to express what cannot be said in words. Le Guin’s essay is one of my favorite statements about literature, one which I have written about elsewhere. I have also written about the myths many Muslims hold about the genre, and why these are detrimental to Muslims and others related to the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
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Haris A. Durrani is an M.Phil. candidate in History and Philosophy of Science at University of Cambridge. He holds a B.S. in Applied Physics from Columbia University, where he co-founded The Muslim Protagonist Symposium. He writes fiction, memoir, and academic essays. His debut, Technologies of the Self, received the Driftless Novella Prize and is forthcoming from Brain Mill Press. Haris can be found on Twitter here: @hdernity
This feature was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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