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Speculative Data Futures: Reflections on Arab Sci-Fi with Iman Hamam

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2021-05-05 18:38:47 1685 0

Speculative Data Futures is a series of short stories, of the fiction sci-fi genre, that explores the intersection of gender and technology in the MENA region. Dr. Iman Hamam is an academic in the fields of film and cultural studies, a particular area of interest to her is science fiction in the Arab World. We reached out to her to discuss the imagined futures, forgotten heritages, and current problematics of science fiction. What got you interested in this intersection between sci-fi and its whitewashing? Sci-fi narratives are like the narratives of most other genres – white protagonists, male and more recently of course female, who are tasked with saving the earth, but who do so because they have the agency granted to them by virtue of their race. Even in texts where audiences are aligned with characters who are rebelling against an oppressive ruling power or regime, the rebels are white. So the formation of a world united against alien invaders, for example, where we are all “human beings” is a fantasy that comes at the expense of non-white subjects. There have of course been attempts to diversify, but up until now, those deviations still act to reinforce the established norm. This is all with respect to cinema, of course. Whitewashing in the sense that white characters are cast in roles that were written for coloured characters was predominantly the issue with the film adaptation of Ghost in A Shell, and there is certainly an over-representation of white authors, filmmakers and characters. That applies to much of Hollywood anyway, which is not to excuse it, but just to note that it is not something that is unique to this particular genre. Having said that, what science fiction does do is that it recasts race as species. Black, Asian, Arab characters for example, are grouped (as secondary characters of course) with dominant White characters, against or as distinct from a range of alien races who then come to stand in for the Other. Beyond that, whitewashing occurs in the genre in the sense that there is an erasure of the political climate and context in which the films are produced. What kind of criticisms do you have for the sci-fi genre? There is a close connection between science fiction and colonialism, with mainstream commercial productions – in film especially – popularizing adventure narratives about exploration and discovery. In detaching the narratives from specific and identifiable places – nations, people, and histories- the texts recast narratives of colonialism beyond earth. The reference to outer space as “the final frontier” (from the Star Trek series) is one which is reproduced in films where the protagonists are discovering unknown territories or there is a fear of the alien outsider “invading” earth. My criticism is also related to the previous question, specifically in terms of how the genre is so closely related to images of empire that reinforce an ‘us vs. them’ mentality and where the negotiation of power is exercised in terms of who has control of space (land) and who has the most sophisticated and advanced technology. However, I should point out that I do love science fiction as a genre – when I was younger, I read the work of Philip K. Dick avidly, and even now, if I want to spend some time watching TV, I’ll look for a sci-fi film or series to watch. I have also watched DC shows like the Flash, Doom Patrol, and Supergirl with my son, and with respect to gender and race, they are quite (okay, relatively or a tad/somewhat!) progressive. Which is refreshing – it means that as a mum I don’t have to do all of the work explaining, critiquing, mediating the texts. There is a great deal of diversity within the genre, meaning that there are different types of sci-fi narratives, so we’ve got a good range from god awful – Independence Day, for example, to awesome – Mars Attacks just within one category of Alien Invasion narratives. And then there are superhero narratives, stories of time travel, robots, the list goes on and on. Why and how do you think diversity/intersectionality in background matters for sci-fi? It matters for sci-fi precisely because the genre itself is so fraught – at the same time that it is also rendered – by questions of identity and difference, but also because its spatio-temporal constitution carries so much potential. To what extent is the marginalization of non-Anglo-American sci-fi being addressed, or is this an issue that is disregarded in your view? It is being addressed to the extent that artists and filmmakers are employing science fiction as a genre – in film, literature and comics, and academics are paying attention to this trend. There are debates about whether it is a new trend and there is a surge in writers producing work in this respect, or if it is something that authors have been producing for a long time now. A recent publication by Ian Campbell called Arabic Science Fiction looks at some of these texts including some from the late 1960’s and early 1970s up until the 2000s, including a three part series by a Kuwaiti writer called Tiba Ahmed Ibrahim. And contemporary Arab artists have coined the term Arab-futurism or Gulf-futurism as an equivalent of sorts to Afrofuturism. There is a manifesto online in English, by Sulaiman Majali, published in a collection that I think would be relevant to your project, and an excellent article that looks at Arab-futurism in art by Jussi Parrika. Some would say that the world of fiction has little impact or is inconsequential, how do you view the relationship between fiction (namely sci-fi) and everyday realities/ how could a diverse and multifaceted sci-fi genre be important to the political projects in our everyday? This is something that can be generalized – I heard someone refer to humans as the “art making animal” recently. If the world of fiction has little or no impact, then it offers a necessary escape. And if it has no tangible impact, then one wonders why artists and writers and musicians have been shamed, imprisoned, and even assassinated. Sci-Fi is hyper imaginary, often because the worlds that it conjures are so fantastical and beyond possibility, but as you know this is typically a device that is used by writers to comment on how messed up things are right now or in recent history. We might also acknowledge the different ways that fiction has informed invention and enterprise in the world of science and elsewhere. There are some amusing sites that identify the technologies that were imagined first, and then invented and entered into commercial production years if not decades later. At risk of stating the obvious, it is in the imagined future settings that we are able to free ourselves from the two most significant constraints – space and time. In doing so, we can give ourselves a unique vantage point from which we can explore pertinent issues related to gender, the body, technology and society. Politically, science fiction enhances a consciousness of, and even an alignment with, those who are socially and politically oppressed- who are cast as resistance fighters, for example, but more critically perhaps, in time travel narratives. What do you think of the Speculative Data Futures series? It is a wonderful initiative. I think that it is interesting to call on authors to write around quite narrowed and specific themes. For example, for everyone to write a short story about a robot, or a story where a robot features as a central or marginal figure. What do you think that these pieces tell us about wider perceptions of gender and technology in the region? From what I read, the works are linked by a desire to reclaim the streets, and the employment of open source mapping technologies and an understanding of the gendered body which is consumed and altered by technology. The stories are quite heteronormative, and it would be interesting to see how writers employ the genre to look at more diverse representations of gender, and where technology has the potential to physically transform the body in ways that critically alter our perceptions of gender and sex. That also applies to the human/machine divide, to include cyborgs, for example. As someone who is living in a bubble in Egypt, I have seen how diversity and difference are brutalised – and it’s not just coming from authority figures and random people on the street who might be outside that bubble. It’s also from among our peers, our colleagues and classmates, our hairdressers, our doctors! We’re also surrounded by armies of construction vehicles gnawing away at quarries, pouring steel and cement into the ground to create highways and highrises…malls or compounds – to me, this is something that is violent and dystopian. As is the experience of anyone who’s been through a border or checkpoint – and so I valued the inclusion of the topic of refugees as test subjects. By bringing together texts that explore the complexities of open source data, imagine the future cityscape and which create strong and inspirational female characters which emphasize Arab culture and heritage (it isn’t a coincidence to me that the texts are from Egypt, Palestine and Syria specifically), the project highlights not only the limitations, risks and challenges, but also the remarkable opportunities that technology and urban transformation have to offer. Who’s your favorite Sci-Fi writer from the region? If I were recommending, then Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue in the novel category, and Ganzeer’s graphic novel The Solar Grid, which has not been completed yet. Another serialized graphic novel, which was never completed, is Sherif Adel’s Pass By Tomorrow. But to be honest, it’s hard for me to answer this, especially because I didn’t grow up reading Arabic books like Nabil Farouk, Nehad Sherif or Mustafa Mahmoud, for example. I wish I could pick out of all of the authors from Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Jordon, Kuwait, but I can’t. I did read Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed, The Ill-Fated Pessoptimist in translation. And because I am partial to comics and graphic novels, I would also say Dina Mohamed’s Shubbeik Lubbeik, if I were to stretch my definition of sci-fi to include fantasy. It’s a beautiful text. There is also no equivalent in terms of the film industry in the Arab world – Egyptian and Arab filmmakers have been more comedy, drama and musicals oriented historically, and more recently there has been some horror and action, but no science fiction. So, we have to turn to what are considered more niche or maybe even elitist and exclusive texts – experimental art, or independent film which is not as easy to access. My favorite is Fadi Baki’s mockumentary The Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow, about a robot that is gifted to the Lebanese by the French. In some respects, “from the region” is sometimes misunderstood or construed as texts that are necessarily socially and politically sound, perhaps in a hyperconscious extension of what Jameson has identified as postcolonial texts being necessarily allegorical. But a novel like Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik was awesome for how it addressed social and economic inequality, but was disastrous when it came to gender, for example. What are frequently ignored texts which you would regard as seminal to the genre? Ignored by whom? Do you mean texts that are not mainstream or canonical but should be? Mainstream science-fiction comes with a parallel world of alternative texts that have their own cult followings. Again, in film, I guess Terri Gillaim’s Brazil is quite important. I feel the need to at the very least acknowledge that western texts are a huge part of my cultural make-up, rather than try to imagine that there is a separate and exclusive Arab “world” and creative tradition that is completely independent and hermetically sealed off from texts that have through the entertainment industry, become significant reference points. Perhaps controversially, I think that if we are watching MBC2, Netflix, or whatever, then films like Star Wars become from the region because they act as reference points for audiences in that region. In other words, we have to tread carefully, first by acknowledging that science-fiction frees us from the constraints of lived place (as in, physical territory) and the present time, but we have to level our criticism against those texts that erase specific places that are undergoing very real experiences that exactly match what is being fictionalised. The most obvious example being the depiction of planets and places made up of expansive desert, as a stand-in for the Arab world in films like Star Wars or Dune. I guess, ignored also implies that we know of their existence, but choose to sideline them, which might relate to the whitewashing you asked about earlier. In studies of Arab Science Fiction, among the most cited texts are Qahir Al Zaman [The Conquerer of Time] and Hayy Ibn Yaqzan and Larissa Sansour’s film trilogy. But I think Sansour’s graphic novel The Novel of Nonel and Vovel written in collaboration with Oreet Ashery is excellent. A classic might be A Trip to the Moon starring Ismail Yassin and Rushdi Abaza, and which I saw being aired on satellite TV recently, but which I have not seen any critical examinations of in academic circles. In literature, I believe that The Queue, is as significant and important as Orwell’s 1984, if not more so. And a gem that just came out this year is a piece by a brilliant comics writer and artist called Mohamed Salah, published in the most recent issue of TokTok. Though I consider myself an avid reader, and fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, I must admit I was under the assumption, like many, that there was no Arab Sci-Fi. Talking to Dr. Hamam both informed and nuanced this opinion. It caused me to reflect on the way I had categorized a sub-genre by region, not necessarily something I would do for more mainstream Sci-Fi, but it also shed light on a multitude of texts that I otherwise may have not encountered for years to come. Speculative Data Futures is a series of short stories, of the fiction sci-fi genre, that explores the intersection of gender and technology in the MENA region. Dr. Iman Hamam is an academic in the fields of film and cultural studies, a particular area of interest to her is science fiction in the Arab World. We reached out to her to discuss the imagined futures, forgotten heritages, and current problematics of science fiction. What got you interested in this intersection between sci-fi and its whitewashing? Sci-fi narratives are like the narratives of most other genres – white protagonists, male and more recently of course female, who are tasked with saving the earth, but who do so because they have the agency granted to them by virtue of their race. Even in texts where audiences are aligned with characters who are rebelling against an oppressive ruling power or regime, the rebels are white. So the formation of a world united against alien invaders, for example, where we are all “human beings” is a fantasy that comes at the expense of non-white subjects. There have of course been attempts to diversify, but up until now, those deviations still act to reinforce the established norm. This is all with respect to cinema, of course. Whitewashing in the sense that white characters are cast in roles that were written for coloured characters was predominantly the issue with the film adaptation of Ghost in A Shell, and there is certainly an over-representation of white authors, filmmakers and characters. That applies to much of Hollywood anyway, which is not to excuse it, but just to note that it is not something that is unique to this particular genre. Having said that, what science fiction does do is that it recasts race as species. Black, Asian, Arab characters for example, are grouped (as secondary characters of course) with dominant White characters, against or as distinct from a range of alien races who then come to stand in for the Other. Beyond that, whitewashing occurs in the genre in the sense that there is an erasure of the political climate and context in which the films are produced. What kind of criticisms do you have for the sci-fi genre? There is a close connection between science fiction and colonialism, with mainstream commercial productions – in film especially – popularizing adventure narratives about exploration and discovery. In detaching the narratives from specific and identifiable places – nations, people, and histories- the texts recast narratives of colonialism beyond earth. The reference to outer space as “the final frontier” (from the Star Trek series) is one which is reproduced in films where the protagonists are discovering unknown territories or there is a fear of the alien outsider “invading” earth. My criticism is also related to the previous question, specifically in terms of how the genre is so closely related to images of empire that reinforce an ‘us vs. them’ mentality and where the negotiation of power is exercised in terms of who has control of space (land) and who has the most sophisticated and advanced technology. However, I should point out that I do love science fiction as a genre – when I was younger, I read the work of Philip K. Dick avidly, and even now, if I want to spend some time watching TV, I’ll look for a sci-fi film or series to watch. I have also watched DC shows like the Flash, Doom Patrol, and Supergirl with my son, and with respect to gender and race, they are quite (okay, relatively or a tad/somewhat!) progressive. Which is refreshing – it means that as a mum I don’t have to do all of the work explaining, critiquing, mediating the texts. There is a great deal of diversity within the genre, meaning that there are different types of sci-fi narratives, so we’ve got a good range from god awful – Independence Day, for example, to awesome – Mars Attacks just within one category of Alien Invasion narratives. And then there are superhero narratives, stories of time travel, robots, the list goes on and on. Why and how do you think diversity/intersectionality in background matters for sci-fi? It matters for sci-fi precisely because the genre itself is so fraught – at the same time that it is also rendered – by questions of identity and difference, but also because its spatio-temporal constitution carries so much potential. To what extent is the marginalization of non-Anglo-American sci-fi being addressed, or is this an issue that is disregarded in your view? It is being addressed to the extent that artists and filmmakers are employing science fiction as a genre – in film, literature and comics, and academics are paying attention to this trend. There are debates about whether it is a new trend and there is a surge in writers producing work in this respect, or if it is something that authors have been producing for a long time now. A recent publication by Ian Campbell called Arabic Science Fiction looks at some of these texts including some from the late 1960’s and early 1970s up until the 2000s, including a three part series by a Kuwaiti writer called Tiba Ahmed Ibrahim. And contemporary Arab artists have coined the term Arab-futurism or Gulf-futurism as an equivalent of sorts to Afrofuturism. There is a manifesto online in English, by Sulaiman Majali, published in a collection that I think would be relevant to your project, and an excellent article that looks at Arab-futurism in art by Jussi Parrika. Some would say that the world of fiction has little impact or is inconsequential, how do you view the relationship between fiction (namely sci-fi) and everyday realities/ how could a diverse and multifaceted sci-fi genre be important to the political projects in our everyday? This is something that can be generalized – I heard someone refer to humans as the “art making animal” recently. If the world of fiction has little or no impact, then it offers a necessary escape. And if it has no tangible impact, then one wonders why artists and writers and musicians have been shamed, imprisoned, and even assassinated. Sci-Fi is hyper imaginary, often because the worlds that it conjures are so fantastical and beyond possibility, but as you know this is typically a device that is used by writers to comment on how messed up things are right now or in recent history. We might also acknowledge the different ways that fiction has informed invention and enterprise in the world of science and elsewhere. There are some amusing sites that identify the technologies that were imagined first, and then invented and entered into commercial production years if not decades later. At risk of stating the obvious, it is in the imagined future settings that we are able to free ourselves from the two most significant constraints – space and time. In doing so, we can give ourselves a unique vantage point from which we can explore pertinent issues related to gender, the body, technology and society. Politically, science fiction enhances a consciousness of, and even an alignment with, those who are socially and politically oppressed- who are cast as resistance fighters, for example, but more critically perhaps, in time travel narratives. What do you think of the Speculative Data Futures series? It is a wonderful initiative. I think that it is interesting to call on authors to write around quite narrowed and specific themes. For example, for everyone to write a short story about a robot, or a story where a robot features as a central or marginal figure. What do you think that these pieces tell us about wider perceptions of gender and technology in the region? From what I read, the works are linked by a desire to reclaim the streets, and the employment of open source mapping technologies and an understanding of the gendered body which is consumed and altered by technology. The stories are quite heteronormative, and it would be interesting to see how writers employ the genre to look at more diverse representations of gender, and where technology has the potential to physically transform the body in ways that critically alter our perceptions of gender and sex. That also applies to the human/machine divide, to include cyborgs, for example. As someone who is living in a bubble in Egypt, I have seen how diversity and difference are brutalised – and it’s not just coming from authority figures and random people on the street who might be outside that bubble. It’s also from among our peers, our colleagues and classmates, our hairdressers, our doctors! We’re also surrounded by armies of construction vehicles gnawing away at quarries, pouring steel and cement into the ground to create highways and highrises…malls or compounds – to me, this is something that is violent and dystopian. As is the experience of anyone who’s been through a border or checkpoint – and so I valued the inclusion of the topic of refugees as test subjects. By bringing together texts that explore the complexities of open source data, imagine the future cityscape and which create strong and inspirational female characters which emphasize Arab culture and heritage (it isn’t a coincidence to me that the texts are from Egypt, Palestine and Syria specifically), the project highlights not only the limitations, risks and challenges, but also the remarkable opportunities that technology and urban transformation have to offer. Who’s your favorite Sci-Fi writer from the region? If I were recommending, then Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue in the novel category, and Ganzeer’s graphic novel The Solar Grid, which has not been completed yet. Another serialized graphic novel, which was never completed, is Sherif Adel’s Pass By Tomorrow. But to be honest, it’s hard for me to answer this, especially because I didn’t grow up reading Arabic books like Nabil Farouk, Nehad Sherif or Mustafa Mahmoud, for example. I wish I could pick out of all of the authors from Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Jordon, Kuwait, but I can’t. I did read Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed, The Ill-Fated Pessoptimist in translation. And because I am partial to comics and graphic novels, I would also say Dina Mohamed’s Shubbeik Lubbeik, if I were to stretch my definition of sci-fi to include fantasy. It’s a beautiful text. There is also no equivalent in terms of the film industry in the Arab world – Egyptian and Arab filmmakers have been more comedy, drama and musicals oriented historically, and more recently there has been some horror and action, but no science fiction. So, we have to turn to what are considered more niche or maybe even elitist and exclusive texts – experimental art, or independent film which is not as easy to access. My favorite is Fadi Baki’s mockumentary The Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow, about a robot that is gifted to the Lebanese by the French. In some respects, “from the region” is sometimes misunderstood or construed as texts that are necessarily socially and politically sound, perhaps in a hyperconscious extension of what Jameson has identified as postcolonial texts being necessarily allegorical. But a novel like Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik was awesome for how it addressed social and economic inequality, but was disastrous when it came to gender, for example. What are frequently ignored texts which you would regard as seminal to the genre? Ignored by whom? Do you mean texts that are not mainstream or canonical but should be? Mainstream science-fiction comes with a parallel world of alternative texts that have their own cult followings. Again, in film, I guess Terri Gillaim’s Brazil is quite important. I feel the need to at the very least acknowledge that western texts are a huge part of my cultural make-up, rather than try to imagine that there is a separate and exclusive Arab “world” and creative tradition that is completely independent and hermetically sealed off from texts that have through the entertainment industry, become significant reference points. Perhaps controversially, I think that if we are watching MBC2, Netflix, or whatever, then films like Star Wars become from the region because they act as reference points for audiences in that region. In other words, we have to tread carefully, first by acknowledging that science-fiction frees us from the constraints of lived place (as in, physical territory) and the present time, but we have to level our criticism against those texts that erase specific places that are undergoing very real experiences that exactly match what is being fictionalised. The most obvious example being the depiction of planets and places made up of expansive desert, as a stand-in for the Arab world in films like Star Wars or Dune. I guess, ignored also implies that we know of their existence, but choose to sideline them, which might relate to the whitewashing you asked about earlier. In studies of Arab Science Fiction, among the most cited texts are Qahir Al Zaman [The Conquerer of Time] and Hayy Ibn Yaqzan and Larissa Sansour’s film trilogy. But I think Sansour’s graphic novel The Novel of Nonel and Vovel written in collaboration with Oreet Ashery is excellent. A classic might be A Trip to the Moon starring Ismail Yassin and Rushdi Abaza, and which I saw being aired on satellite TV recently, but which I have not seen any critical examinations of in academic circles. In literature, I believe that The Queue, is as significant and important as Orwell’s 1984, if not more so. And a gem that just came out this year is a piece by a brilliant comics writer and artist called Mohamed Salah, published in the most recent issue of TokTok. Though I consider myself an avid reader, and fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, I must admit I was under the assumption, like many, that there was no Arab Sci-Fi. Talking to Dr. Hamam both informed and nuanced this opinion. It caused me to reflect on the way I had categorized a sub-genre by region, not necessarily something I would do for more mainstream Sci-Fi, but it also shed light on a multitude of texts that I otherwise may have not encountered for years to come.