Panorama of Tunisian SF
Dr Kawthar Ayed (University of Tunis)
Dr Kawthar Ayed (University of Tunis)
(Abridged and translated by Djibril al-Ayad)
In the Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction (1986), an anthology that claims to present samples of work from all over the planet, editors Brian Aldiss and Sam Lundwall stated that they found not a single work of science fiction written in Arabic.
More than 40 SF titles were published in Arab countries between 1950 and 1990. From 1950–60 we find no explicit mention of the term science fiction, they speak rather of a new literary genre. From 1960–78 the notion of “scientific novel” (al-riwayya al-ilmiyya, الرواية العلمية) appears, and after 1978 the term SF (khayal ‘ilmi, خيال علمي) was finally adopted by authors and editors.
I believe that with the arrival of science fiction, Arabic fantastic literature moved from the irrational which drops us into the universe of The Thousand and One Nights, where extraordinary events are explained as miracles or magic, to the rational which explores the marvels (and the mischiefs) of science and technology.
Between the 5th–10th centuries, the Arab cultural space saw the birth of a category of text that mixed the marvellous and the strange (al-‘adjib wal-gharib, العجيب والغريب) in multiple extraordinary imaginary universes. Al-Mass‘udi’s Prairies of Gold and Mines of Jewels (9th century), includes a story about Alexander the Great featuring a submarine (centuries before Jules Verne!) and terrifying hybrid sea creatures. In his 2006 dissertation, ‘Abd Allah Tādj considers The Thousand and One Nights as a foundational text of Arabic fantasy literature, full of magic and sorcery, and including in particular the story containing an ivory and wood horse built as a flying machine, with buttons on its shoulders to control altitude and acceleration.
Modern Arabic science fiction was born in Egypt, effectively starting with Mussa Salama’s 1924 novel, Introduction to an Egyptian Utopia, which may predict the Internet and eugenics. A key phenomenon of Arabic futuristic fiction was the military utopia, visible in particular in a 1986 anthology of SF edited by Nabil Faruq, an anti-expansionist genre in which stories take a defensive character, telling of perpetual struggle for freedom (of Egypt, of Earth, or even extraterrestrial peoples)—in stark contrast to, and perhaps even deliberate conflict with, the conquering hero of 1950s American science fiction.
But on to Tunisian science fiction itself. I will try to summarise the few literary productions of Tunisian SF in three categories: precursors, founders, and dabblers.
I have found traces of two precursors to the genre. Sadek Rezgui’s 1933 novel The Lost Continent, is an unfinished but important futurist utopian novel, set on a non-existent continent and featuring advanced technologies including wireless telecommunication, transport, complete police surveillance, and laser surgery. Tayeb Triki in 1977 published a collection of short stories titled Sindbad in Space, whose cover situated it in science-fictional space by featuring a cosmonaut in a cockpit preparing for take-off. These seven adventures of “Sindbad the Terran” actively recall, but remodel, Sindbad’s adventures in The Thousand and One Nights, and thus situate the fiction in an Arabo-Persian rather than Western context. The stories are full of scientific jargon, justified by the presence of academics and scientists, and so I consider this a precursor of the science fiction genre in Tunisia.
The principal founder of the genre is Hedi Thebet, who published Ghar El Jin (1999) and Djebel Alliyine (2001), two futuristic novels, followed by If Hannibal Returned in 2005, and The Temple of Tanit in 2012. The covers of three of these novels included explicit reference to science fiction (رواية قي الخيال العلمي), for the first time to my knowledge in Tunisia. Through Hannibal in particular, Thebet makes Tunisia’s glorious past into a promise of a better future, resurrecting a utopia by reconciling with our history. His texts are a vehicle for an acerbic criticism of the reality of twenty-first century Tunisia, and propose an alternative. He attempts to send a subdued, impoverished and assimilated people the message that change is possible.
I have also detected traces of texts that belong to the genre of science fiction but that did not have the label attached to them, and will present a few examples here.
Dhafer Naji’s 2006 collection of short stories, The Things, is especially interesting to consider and analyse; it bears the significant subtitle, “four imaginative stories that could come true in a century.” The first story, “The Forbidden Language” is an Orwellian dystopia in which the Arabic people are ruled by the Free State of “Zone 01” (previously known as Texas), forbidden to speak their own language, and dictated to daily with regard to the colour of clothing to wear, food to eat, and so forth—rules which they follow with mindless docility. A parable of American cultural imperialism that evokes the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the erasure of linguistic, cultural and even intellectual diversity that follows from forced “civilization” and democratization.
In a similar context, Mustapha Kilani’s 2004 Mirrors of Dead Hours, recounts a sombre dream—the narrator warns the reader in the prologue that the novel tells of a premonitory dream that he is compelled to write. He tells the story of a world seven hundred years in the future, in which the people of the global south are imprisoned within electric fences by the totalitarian northern state, their land polluted by nuclear waste and clean air rationed daily. Recounted as a nightmare, this novel captures the fears and obsessions of a people crushed by despotic regimes and haunted by ravaged, crisis-filled future.
Finally, Abdelaziz Belkhodja’s 2005 novel, 2103, The Return of the Elephant, opens with a description of the Republic of Carthage in the year 2103. Advanced technology allows the city a utopian status, and maintains stability and peace. This African utopia recalls the promise of a future that brings humans wisdom and knowledge rather than violence and hegemony. The novel alternates two messages: one that criticises the situation in countries of the third world, and another that questions the logic of the domination, thanks to their progress, of developed countries.
In conclusion, the themes addressed by Arabic science fiction echo modern reflections on humanity and the world, and often display a deep unease. Fiction reflects reality, but as it might be transformed by time. These future societies “are built on the allegory of the fears and hopes of the period of their production” (as Gianni Haver puts it in De beaux lendemains, 2002). They depict therein hypothetical societies placed in a future time-frame, by deforming or exaggerating features from reality.
In the Arab world, the twenty-first century has seen the birth of a disenchanted form of expression that accompanies the arrival in power of tyrannical systems in tandem with American military hegemony and Western cultural influence. This expression takes the form of futuristic nightmares, such as Taleb ‘Umran’s The Dark Times (Syria, 2003) and Mustapha Kilani’s Mirrors of Dead Hours (Tunisia, 2004). The restrictions on liberty, exploitation of wealth, inequality of opportunity, levels and conditions of life between people in the West and those of the third world push these authors to ask questions and to disturb the reader.
Science fiction literature is transforming into a spacecraft that transports us to worlds distant in both time and space, a time machine that casts a curious and ravenous eye on the future. Built by an imagination full of innovative ideas, this machine transcends reality to delve in the deepest depths of history and of space to question homo sapiens, to reveal our dreams and unveil our fears. It is a world literature that deserves revaluation and study—far from the ignorance and disdain with which it is often addressed.