As you know, we are big fans of our friends at Arabic Literature (in English). We found this interview by Chiara Comito with Ada Barbaro on the background of Science Fiction in Arabic Literature particularly interesting. It was first published on ArabLit’s sister-site in Italian, editoriaraba. Enjoy!

Editoriaraba: Has science fiction in Arabic always existed or has it developed only recently?

Ada Barbaro: Like all the other literary genres, science fiction’s birth is due to a mixture of different elements. Arabic sci fi comes in a relationship to the production in English. But we have to open a post-colonial discourse here: the Sci-Fi in English comes with industrial development, which comes late in the Arab countries. Not to mention that the “novel” arrives late in these countries, being an imported literary form. We can say that the  sci fi in Arabic was born in the ’50s, more or less.

However, these new elements integrate themselves into a substrate that already belongs to the Arab world, just as happened with sci fi in English or in French: It was not born all of a sudden.

In the book, I dedicated a section to the so-called “proto science fiction”: namely, I researched those elements that the modern writers might have considered and later re-elaborated, which made sci fi a not entirely imported genre.

ArabLit: What do you see the biggest influence on Arabic science fiction? Classical Arabic texts, the maqama form, the time-travel/fantasy of 1,001 Nights? Or mostly Western science fiction?

AB: As for the sources in Arabic, first of all there are the “mirabilia,” the travel journeys, the tales on the animal world, or the cosmos stories from the classical period. During the  Jahiliyya, people already used to question what they thought was weird or things that could not been explained rationally: tales and stories were told about natural phenomenon, such as the sudden rain, the storms, the changes of the seasons. People used to imagine “other” realities that ruled these events.

Besides the mirabilia, there are the Sindbad travels. In one of them, something really curious happens, which will appear also in the 1,001 Nights: Sindbad the “terrestrial” meets up with Sindbad the sailor and the two of them confront their societies. In the 1,001 Nights there are tales like the one featuring the ebony horse, or the bronze archer who attracts the leading iron-made structures of the boats.

There are also philosophical works: For example, in my book I mentioned the philosopher Ibn Tufayl and his book  Hayy ibn Yaqzan, where the author imagines a deserted island on which a child is growing up alone, learning from the nature how to be a better human being. Some wanted to see in this book a sort of forefather of Tarzan or Robison Crusoe – both of these are not sci fi at all! As you can see, there is a utopian vision behind this tale.

This leads us to what I think is the most important element related to science fiction: the utopian novel. We are here in the nineteenth century with al-Manfaluti and al-Kawakibi, who writes about an imaginary conference held in Mecca by the representatives of the major world religions where the future of the nations is at stake. What we see here is a utopian form aimed at smoothing those situations that in the real world are different and difficult to manage.

We also have Farah Antun and his The Three Cities, and Ahmad Ra’if, the Egyptian author of The Fifth Dimension, a play in which he examines some very interesting themes: a fight Cold War-style where he imagines the end of the USA-USSR conflict.

The science-fiction novel arrives on all these elements, even though sometimes it is hard to distinguish between the fantasy, the fairytale, the mirabilia.

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I am not saying here that this is all sci fi but still, it is true that in whatever culture science fiction has developed, it has drawn from its own literary heritage. There is someone who has argued that there are signs of sci fi in the Quran, but I keep away from that. For example, in the “Sura of the Bees” there is an always-creating-God: It is said that if He has created this world, how many other worlds will He be creating? Or, let’s think at the concept of “ghayb”, the absent, which recurs many times in the Quran: some have considered it as something hidden, invisible, arcane.

As far as the Western influences are concerned, first of all we must remember that many writers could read perfectly in English. It was first English sci fi that had influence over these authors: Wells, Huxley and Orwell, by whom the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim was inspired. His play Voyage to Tomorrow was born out of this inspiration. In my book, I compare some of the Orwell topics that happen to be found in the Egyptian author’s works, as in the play I’ve just mentioned, where many parts resembles Orwell’s masterpiece 1984.

Continue reading here.