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Arabic SF

Entry updated 6 May 2024. Tagged: International.

There are, of course, many fantastic motifs in medieval Arabic literature, as in the collection of stories of various genres Alf layla wa layla ["One Thousand and One Nights"] (standard text 15th century; trans by Sir Richard Burton as The Arabian Nights, 16vols 1885-1888). In this, the stories of the City of Brass and The Ebony Horse could be regarded as Proto SF. A few Utopias were written, too, including al-Farabi's Risala fi mabadi' ara' ahl al-madina al-fadila (first half of tenth century; trans by Richard Walzer as Al-Farabi on the Perfect State 1985).

The first real sf stories were published in the late 1940s by the famous mainstream Egyptian writer Tawfiq Al-Hakim, but are not considered genre sf by Arabic critics, who nominate Mustafa Mahmud (often transcribed Mahmoud) as the "Father of Arabic sf". Both of these authors have been translated into English.

Although there have been a lot of sf stories published in Arabic since the 1960s, few authors could be described as sf specialists. Among them, the most important is probably Imran Talib, a Syrian, author of seven sf novels and short-story collections to date. The most interesting of these are the three collections, Kawkab al-ahlam ["Planet of Dreams"] (coll 1978), Laysa fi al-qamar fuqara' ["There are No Poor on the Moon"] (coll 1983) and Asrar min madina al-hukma ["Secrets of the Town of Wisdom"] (coll 1988), and the novel Khalfa hajiz az-zaman ["Beyond the Barrier of Time"] (1985). Talib is also the author of the sole theoretical study of sf in Arabic: Fi al-khayal al-ilmi ["About Science Fiction"] (1980).

Sf is written in practically all Arab countries. In Libya, for example, Yusuf al-Kuwayri has published the novel Min mudhakkirat rajul lam yulad ["From the Diary of a Man Not Yet Born"] (1971), which gives an optimistic view of life in Libya in the thirty-second century. Mysterious Aliens affect the life and work of the hero, a Palestinian living in the occupied territories, in Palestinian Amil Habibi's popular mainstream sf novel Al-waqa' al-ghariba fi ikhtifa' Said Abu an-Nahs al-Mutasha'il (1974; trans as The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel 1982). Various other mainstream writers have written occasional sf stories, as in Qisas ["Short Stories"] (coll) by the Syrian Walid Ikhlasi and Khurafat ["Legends"] (coll 1968) by the Tunisian Izzaddin al-Madani. The Algerian Hacène Farouk Zehar, who writes in French, has published Peloton de tête ["Top Platoon"] (coll 1966).

The role of drama in the Arab world is more important than in the West, and plays are very often published; some are of sf interest. The famous Egyptian dramatist Yusuf Idris wrote Al-jins ath-thalith ["The Third Sex"] (1971), in which the protagonist, a scientist called Adam, attempts to discover the enzymes of life and death and travels to the Fantastic World. Another Egyptian, Ali Salim, a satirist who writes in colloquial Arabic, has written several sf plays. In En-nas elli fi es-sama' et-tamna ["People from the Eighth Heaven"] (1965) a protagonist called Dr Mideo struggles against the bureaucratic Academy of Sciences of the Universe. Fantastic discoveries and excavations are the main topic of Ali Salim's other sf plays, Barrima aw bi'r el-qamh ["Brace, or the Well of Wheat"] (1968), Er-ragel elli dihik el-mala'ika ["A Man Who Laughed at Angels"] (1968) and Afarit Masr el-gadida ["Satan from Heliopolis"] (1972). [JO]

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