Islam and Science Fiction at the Tottenham Palestine Literature Festival!

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Islam and Science Fiction was in London recently, our very own Rebecca Hankins (Ruqayyah Kareem) was a panelist at the Middle Eastern Sci-Fi and Fantasy panel at the Tottenham Palestine Literature Festival. The panel was moderated at Yasmeen Khan who is a curator at the Science Museum. The other panelist was Naomi Foyle who has written Science Fiction stories critiquing some aspects of religion. The panel was quite successful and we would like to thank everyone who showed up and made it a success.

Ethopian Amharic Sci-Fi from 1945

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History of Science Fiction in Sub-Saharan Africa is an even more neglected subject than say Science Fiction in the Arabic or Turkish languages. Thus it was a breath of fresh air to know about Amharic Science Fiction by a Muslim author from the mid-1940s. The Ethiopian Amharic writer Mäkonnen Endalkaččäw published a collection ArremuňňOne of the stories Yayne Abäba is about an Amhara pre-teen who is sold into slavery but  she escapes and is later reunited with her mother. I09 notes “In one sequence she dreams of a microscope which allows her to see the “Reality behind mere Appearance.” “Yayne Abäba” is notable as an early example of Muslim science fiction, with the “Reality” seen being both terrifying (cosmic horror) and awe inspiring (the workings of Allah).”

 

 

 

Ramadan Drummers and Eid Mubarak

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In many Muslim countries there is a historical tradition that the people are woken up for suhoor/sehri (time to eat late night for the fast) by a drummer. With the advent of technology like time keeping devices, artificial lights etc since the 19th century the number of such people have been decreasing gradually. In some places these people are still around for nostalgic reasons. I was thus delighted to find this image of a Ramadan Drummer in a Sci-Fiesque setting on DeviantArt. The main idea here is that some traditions are retained even in the face of technological tradition.

And of course, Eid Mubarak!

Ramadan in Space

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As of today’s date, nine Muslims have gone into space, no surprisingly space offers unique challenges and opportunities to Muslims in terms of performing their religious duties like daily prayers (which are connected to the rotation of the planet where they live as well as directionality of prayers on Earth) and fasting in the month of Ramadan  (which is connected to not only rotation but also the orbit of the principal satellite of Earth). While this is not Science Fiction, it does offer us interesting opportunities to exlore these themes in Science Fiction. Here is a relevant excerpt from an article on OnIslam:

While for the qiblah (direction Muslims take during prayers), JAKIM drafted it should be determined “according to the capability” of the astronaut. Meaning that if he/she were facing Mecca from the outer space during their flight in an orbit around Earth in a spacecraft like the ISS for example and the prescribed time period of salah coincided with that facing, then they can direct themselves toward Mecca directly.

But in case this coincidence ceased to exist; they can direct themselves toward the angle they believe it directs toward Mecca at best without any mistakes with their salah. That’s based on the Qur’anic verse: {And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face of Allah. Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing.} (Surat Al-Baqarah: 2:115).

When aliens convert to Islam

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It is quite rare that existing religions are explicitly in Science Fiction. Thus it was interesting to see a series on Deviant Art aliens embracing Earth religions including Islam. The description is given below, it does include some stereotype of Islam e.g., the impression of a rule based religion, Muslims not being comfortable with hermaphrodites which is not correct since they were recognized from the early history of Islam and the first country in the world to recognize the third gender was Pakistan which is a predominantly Muslim country. Anyway here is the description:

The Coshum are some of the first indigenous species to experience a clash between human categorical norms and the norms of the indigenous. Coshum indigenous spiritual practices and ideologies are quite fluid and are enforced, stricken and rebuilt by appointed spiritual leaders or “prophets ‘ every generation, a fluidity analogues to their own being. When Islam was brought to the planet, a prophet based faith held similarities to their own; it was believed by the Coshum to be a sect of their own faith. Yet they later came to know the restrictions enforced by this new faith. Coshum by nature are hermaphrodites, a fact originally unknown to the Islamic leaders and Imans. Yet once a method of gender identification and classification was established, all be it inaccurate, “males” were sent to learn from Imans. When missionaries began enforcing strict gender rules, roles, codes and conducts there was a great deal of confusion. Categorized male Coshum would next day be exhibiting what was believed to be female roles and mannerisms. Once completely understood, Islamic law was eager to rectify the believed to be impure behavior. This free wielding sexuality was deemed an abomination and was strictly prohibited by force. While many did comply to identifying with a singular gender a “third gender” did appear. This 3rd gender continued to practice the indigenous ideologies and hermaphroditeism. Most 3rd genders still play a vital role in society as they are the only ones equip with indigenous knowledge, such as medicine. Worshipping towards Mecca was established quite early and the problem of accurately facing Mecca was rectified through the celestial astrolabe. This piece of machinery is capable of locating Mecca across the galaxy, pin pointing the exact location of devotion. Many devotees also use shrapnel from the original ship, the ship that brought Islam, as a religious artifact used during worship.

Muhammadu Bello Kagara’s Gandoki

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While not considered true Science Fiction Muhammadu Bello Kagara’s works may be considered to have elements of proto-Science Fiction. His works from the early 20th century are some of the earliest works of Spelative Fiction in not just Africa but in the rest of the world as well. Anti-colonial themes are an important part of his work which may be one of the reasons why his work did not become well known outside of Nigeria during his lifetime. Here is a synopsis of his novel Gondoki from Io9.

In 1934 the Nigerian Hausa writer Muhammadu Bello Kagara (1890-1971) wrote Ganďoki (1934). In the 19th century, Ganďoki is a brave young Hausa from Kontagora, in northern Nigeria, who opposes the arrival of the British military and the imposition of British rule. He fights against the British, and when the ruler of the city of Kano orders the Hausa to surrender, Ganďoki refuses, and with his brave son Garba Gagare fights a last battle, at Bima Hill, against the British. They both fall asleep, and when they awaken they are in an Africa with jinn and other mythical creatures. Ganďoki and his son fight various battles, successfully, while also converting many people to Islam. They eventually return home.

Better Representing Muslims: A Few Ideas

Robert Rath has an excellent article on how Muslims can be better represented in the media in general and video games in particular over at the Escapist. Here we reproduce that article with the permission of the author.
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Better Representing Muslims: A Few Ideas

ROBERT RATH | 13 JUNE 2013 11:00 AM183

I think it’s pretty fair to say games haven’t represented Muslims very well. Not only have the last ten years been a cavalcade of games about shooting Middle Eastern “terrorists,” but even outside the FPS market, fantasy games trade on stereotypes for the faux-Muslims they portray. Untrustworthy merchants. Fat, opulent despots. Diabolical sorcerers. Assassins in head scarves. Noble but savage Bedouins. Muslim writers and those who’ve studied the Middle East have pointed out these problematic depictions for years – so let’s focus on something else. Let’s look at a few steps we can make to fix the problem.

STOP LUMPING EVERYONE TOGETHER

A couple of Iraqi students stayed at my dorm as part of an exchange program during college. When I first met them I wanted to make an impression, so I mentioned that my sister was a Middle East journalist who’d lived in Beirut for three years.

I thought they’d be impressed by her bravery, or that maybe we’d find kinship in it – instead they snickered. “Beirut,” snorted one. “Beirut is Disneyland Middle East.”

Since the 19th century Westerners have attempted to lump the Arab world together without understanding its complexities. Colonial administrators often drew national borders with rulers and T-squares, heedless of the different (often competing) ethnicities and cultural groups they blocked in together. One of the legacies of this insane policy is our inability to define the region ethnically or even geographically. “Arab” fails because many countries like Iran neither speak Arabic nor have Arabic genealogy. “Middle East” leaves out countries like Libya and Afghanistan, which share religious or cultural roots with the region. “The Muslim world” leaves out Christian minorities, not to mention Israel and its Palestinian population. The current favorite, the slightly weasel-word term “the Arab world” misfires just as badly as all the rest – it’s about as helpful as making generalizations about the English, Scots, Irish, Americans, and Canadians because they all speak English. Westerners desperately want to group the multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual people of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia under one banner but the whole region resists labels.

Each country contains a multitude of identities. Just like a New Yorker isn’t the same as a Californian, an Iraqi from Tikrit isn’t the same as an Iraqi Kurd from Sulaymaniyah. Even though both might identify as Sunni Muslims their politics might skew in opposite directions due to Saddam favoring most Iraqi Sunnis but practicing genocide against the Kurds. Just like in the U.S., political feelings vary province by province, city by city, block by block, family by family and person to person. You can talk about the “Arab world” all you want, but it won’t stop the Jordanians and Lebanese from sneering at “Saudi opulence” using the disparaging term “Gulfies.”

When creating foreign characters, it’s better to be specific. A little research can go a long way. Instead of throwing a stereotype at the player, think things through – is a character or group Muslim or Christian? What ethnic group are they? What language do they speak? How does that inform who they are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing? Understanding that “the Arab world” contains a vast array of cultures, languages, traditions and political beliefs – some at odds with the United States’ regional goals, some not – gets you a long way to breaking down the stereotyped Western view of Muslims.

FANTASY AND SCI-FI SETTINGS ARE NO EXCUSE

You might think fantasy and sci-fi settings would be a respite from stereotypical portrayals, but they’re not. “I think our culture in general has a lot of fantasy-fueled misconceptions about the supposedly dystopic Middle East and the people who live there,” says Saladin Ahmed, author of the Arabian Nights-themed fantasy novelThrone of the Crescent Moon. “So those misconceptions tend to pop up in our stories, whatever the genre might be.”

It’s hard to miss when you look for it: Skyrim‘s “Redguard” loading screen features a Moorish-looking character in a head wrap, peering into a soul gem with one hand on his scimitar – pretty much the default pose for an covetous bandit prince. The Covenant are religious radicals prosecuting a holy war under the order of a prophet, and Grunts frequently suicide bomb the player with plasma grenades. Game of Thrones populates its eastern lands with barbarians, sorcerers, deceitful merchants and slave kingdoms. “If, broadly speaking, science fiction looks to an imaginary future and fantasy to an imaginary past, all of the -isms that taint our collective cultural imagination are going to seep into those imagined eras and worlds,” says Ahmed. “If one is writing underwater, one is going to get wet. And right now our culture is swimming in ignorance about and hatred toward Muslims.”

Throne of the Crescent Moon (which has earned “Best Novel” nominations in both the Hugo and Nebula Awards) is a great example of writing about a fantasy “Arabian” culture without resorting to stereotypes. Though the novel has its fair share of bandit princes, cruel Khalifs, holy warriors and Bedouins, every portrayal is three-dimensional. Characters feel like people rather than props. Demon hunter Adoulla might at first glance look like just another old sorcerer, but he’s also a kind, if cynical, pleasure-seeker. Think a potion-wielding Falstaff after ten miles’ walk in the rain. He’s more familiar than foreign. “Part of this is just the simple-yet-uphill work of reminding readers that there are heroes, idiots, cowards, geniuses, libertines, revolutionaries, despots, fanatics, pranksters, murderers and loud farters in every culture,” says Ahmed. “The challenge is doing so without defaulting to a facile ‘We’re all the same!’ equivalency.”

That subtle alchemy – creating characters who’re culturally different but still relatable and human – is a skill that can change people’s preconceptions. “The older I get, the more skeptical I am of [novelists'] ability to seriously transform things on any kind of macro level,” says Ahmed. “For me it’s all about the micro. I get emails every week from readers who say they’ve had their world opened up a bit by my stories of (mostly) Muslim cowboys, cyber-soldiers and monster hunters.”

As Throne of the Crescent Moon attests, you don’t have to throw away all of the old imagery for fear of causing offence. Developers just need to make sure their scheming viziers or tubby spice traders amount to more than what appears on the surface. Stereotypes cease to be stereotypes when you flesh them out into real characters.

DIVERSIFY YOUR WRITING TEAM

Modern Warfare would probably be a little different were it actually written by a Muslim – or even if the team brought on a cultural expert. The fact is, we really love to talk about consulting military veterans when putting together military shooters, but those guys are rarely cultural experts and they always look at a country from the perspective of an outsider. It could really help to bring someone in who really knows a country, rather than has seen it primarily through a gun sight or a camera lens. Someone who can give the environments and people a greater sense of authenticity or suggest a plotline other than ERMAHGERD NUCLEAR MISSILES GO AMERICA SHOOT EVERYTHING THAT MOVES. Perhaps taking down an underground militant network that’s been targeting Afghan leaders or hunting a particularly talented bomb-maker. Or maybe Nathan Drake’s next adventure will put him on the side of the Jordanian police, tracking down a stolen artifact.

That is, of course, if we’re truly as interested in “realism” as we say we are. I suspect when studio PR reps use that word, what they really mean are “realistic guns.” These days, we spend more energy making a gun true to life than we spend on the person in its crosshairs.

TRANSLATORS AND ALLIES

What’s so frustrating about the negative portrayal of Muslims in most military shooters is that it would be so easy to fix. While the War on Terror is primarily focused on combating Islamic extremists, neither the U.S. military nor its intelligence services would be able to operate without Muslims – both local security partners and translators.

Games tend to ignore any aspect of war that doesn’t involve shooting, but in reality counterinsurgency operations hinge on the ability to work with and understand local needs and grievances. Likewise, intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement require assets that not only speak Arabic and Pashto, but can pass unnoticed in undercover operations. After all, when you hear about the FBI selling fake bomb parts to an aspiring terrorist, who do you think is impersonating the Al Qaeda operative? Sven Olafson from Lake Wobegon?

Translators in particular helped the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. They interacted with civilians, made sure local forces understood orders and served as cultural advisors to the military. As well as serving on patrol, some undertook dangerous operations with special forces – a Pakistani-American translator served during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

“Translators serving along with U.S. Military branches put their life in danger as much as the soldiers do with one exception: the majority are unarmed,” says Zuber Hewrami, whose company Hewraman Consultation, LLC recruits translators for the U.S. military. According to Hewrami, many translators join seeking an expedited path to U.S. citizenship or for educational incentives. Others are just patriotic or hope to work in government. “Some join because they think they can help the host country with building a bridge between locals and our soldiers.” Without them, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan – and most of the war reporting from the region – would’ve been dead on arrival. It’s led to a tight relationship between combat interpreters and their soldiers, each protecting the other in turn.

Being an interpreter is a dangerous profession. They take the same small arms fire as the soldiers they work with, the same IEDs. Most fight with nothing other than a flak jacket and their voice. Militias have been known to assassinate interpreters and their families, a threat that became so prevalent that many took to wearing masks. Those that die in the line of duty rarely make the headlines – a dozen local interpreters can get killed in an attack, and the media will report “no military casualties.” As the U.S. continues to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, local translators increasingly find that the visas the State Department promised them aren’t forthcoming.

Making a combat interpreter part of your squad, or working with local security forces, could mitigate some of the problems with military shooters. Crucially, it could put a human face on the local population and show that the country contains a diversity of opinion – reinforcing that we’re supposed to be fighting against a radical ideology, not a people. And playing as an interpreter, say in place of a vehicle section, could create some interesting gameplay opportunities as you try to dodge bullets while transmitting orders to a local commander. Medal of Honor (2010) made some laudable steps in this direction. During an early mission the players work alongside the Afghan National Army, and in another the player rescues a tribal informant who gives his opinion of the Taliban – saying they’re little more than violent thugs.

If we’re going to make games about the War on Terror, let’s stop pretending that we’re the only ones fighting.

JUST REGULAR PEOPLE

Developers could use any of the suggestions I’ve given in this article, but here’s a revolutionary idea: how about just depicting Muslims as normal people? Is it so difficult to imagine that the people you’d run into while investigating a murder or fending off the apocalypse would be one of the 2.6 million ordinary Muslim-Americans in this country? Omid from The Walking Dead is a great example. He’s Persian-American, but beyond that he’s also a history buff, comic relief, and puts out such good vibes that Clementine doesn’t mind him swearing. For all intents and purposes he’s just a nice dude, his ethnic background completely secondary to his likable personality. While characters like Omid aren’t cultural bridges in the educational sense – that is, he doesn’t advance the player’s understanding of Persian culture – his unforced inclusion sends the message that he’s a person shaped, rather than defined, by his background.

Games really could use more Omids.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits atRobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

In San Francisco!

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(Image Source: SF in SF)

Taking a break from regular posts I just wanted to announce that I will be in San Francisco for the the next 10 days for a Network Science conference. If anyone is interested in meeting up, hanging out or want me to speak somewhere then drop me a line. I will be in San Francisco and Silicon Valley area until the 10th of June.

Translating Science Fiction into Arabic

The ArabLit website has a nice article on translating Science Fiction into arabic.

The Whys and Wherefores of Translating Science Fiction into Arabic

by mlynxqualey

At this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, YA author and would-be/will-be publisher Noura al-Noman drove in from Sharjah to talk about translating literature for young people. She spoke alongside Dar al-Muna publisher Mona Henning, author and translator Sampurna Chatterji, and Literature Across Frontiers’ director Alexandra Büchler.

booksAl-Noman spoke about the particular importance of translating science fiction into Arabic.

This is an interest of hers “because of the fact that I’m focused on this rare genre.” Although al-Noman is producing spec-fic novels—two now, with a third in progress—there is a need for the genre to be enriched by translations if it is to flower, she said.

“How many books can I come up with per year? There has to be more of that content available for young adults for them to keep interested in the genre. The only way to do that is by translating.”

This isn’t just true of science fiction, al-Noman said. Other languages could contribute a lot to the Arabic-language flowering of genres that are less common in Arabic, including fantasy, paranormal, and graphic novels.

For this reason, al-Noman has “already started my own publishing house.” But she has hit a sticking point: “Besides the fact that you have so many costs, who’s going to pay the translator? Translation isn’t cheap.”

Büchler echoed this: “When you translate, this is one of the major obstacles. There is very little support available, and when publishers apply for grants, when they want to publish books translated from European languages, they [the grant organizations] usually would go for adult novels. It’s still quite rare” for grant money to go to children’s books.

So, if it’s not going to make al-Noman a wealthy woman, why bother translating other science fictions into Arabic?

“My kids started reading exclusively in English,” al-Noman said. So at some point, when she realized what was happening, she decided to go out, “and I looked for books [in Arabic] that could compete with Harry Potter and Twilight, which I hate, and all the other books that they’re reading—nothing.”

She found “nothing that would compete.”

That’s why al-Noman wrote her first science fiction novel, Ajwan, and her second as well:Mandan. But two science fiction novels are hardly enough to build interest in the genre.

There are other scattered efforts in different Arab countries, and at the Abu Dhabi fair, for instance, al-Noman ran across a science fiction novel for middle-grade readers by debut Emirati author Shaima al-Marzouki. But science fiction has yet to fully take off in Arabic.

Al-Noman also spoke about the challenges of science fiction in Arabic, particulary how difficult it was to express certain ideas and conventions. As Palestinian poet Mazen Maarouf said in a recent interview, parts of the Arabic language have become “frozen.” He said: “We have 30,000 terms in physics that have no translation into Arabic.”

Al-Noman said that, as she writes, she often wonders: “How do you do this in Arabic?”

But as Büchler noted, “this is how writing develops, and takes on interesting directions.”