Crossing the Threshold of Egyptian Science Fiction: The Half-Humans, where Star Wars meets Sindbad’s Seven Journeys
By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
The Egyptian science fiction novel The Great Space Saga: The Half-Humans, penned and published originally in 2001, is being dusted off for a contemporary and international audience with an English translation. The author, Dr. Hosam Abd Al-Hamid El-Zembely, is an avowed fan of Star Wars. He fell in love with science fiction after watching the series, during his school days in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. This novel is his testament to his commitment to exploring the universe and carrying the torch of humanity to all those races that might be out there; a message with a distinctive Islamic flavor.
This affords us a tremendous opportunity to introduce Egyptian science fiction. Dr. Hosam El-Zembely, you see, belongs to the third generation of Arab SF writers, the generation that set the scene for the final fruition of the genre in Egypt, prefacing the current explosion in the literature. His generation, moreover, has helped shepherd, introduce and sponsor the contemporary generation of writers through the founding of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction in 2011, hot on the heels of the Arab Spring revolutions, first with pan-Arab and now with global literary ambitions.
This article begins with a summary of the origins and dilemmas facing SF in Egypt, followed by a review and analysis of The Half-Humans – situating it in the history of the genre – then concluding with an account of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction and future prospects (and pitfalls) for the genre.
Journeys of the Unknown
Ask any Egyptian or Arab science fiction writer and he will automatically tell you that SF in the Arab world faces a completely different challenge to the genre in its European and Western birthplace. Whereas in the West SF was a normal literary response to the industrial revolution, in the Arab-Muslim world SF faces an uphill battle to become recognized because no such revolution occurred. What is more, many an Egyptian and Arab SF author hopes that an industrial and scientific revolution will take place if and when SF becomes recognized in the Arab-Muslim world (Abu Al-Hasab, 2012: 82).
A cursory glance at the history of Egyptian SF confirms this. The retinue of Egyptian authors who have written SF at first looks impressive at first, including such literary giants as playwright and author Tawfik Al-Hakim (1898-1987), the romantic novelist Yousef Al-Sibai (1917-1978), author, travel-writer and literary critic Anis Mansour (1925-2011), and Islamic thinker Dr. Mustafa Mahmoud (1921-2009). This list, however, conceals more than it reveals, since most of these authors only dabbled in the field, penning the odd SF story or novel or radio play in their past time. This represents the first phase of the sci-fi genre in Egyptian history, stretching from 1940s to the 1960s.
The first Egyptian author to specialize himself in the SF genre was the dearly departed Nihad Sharif (1932-2011), ushering in the second phase of Egyptian SF which stretches from his first novel The Lord of Time (1972) to the late 1990s. (The hero of the novel has himself frozen to wake up in the future, when they have found a cure for his illness). No sooner had Sharif published this that he wrote his Martian epic Number 4 Commands You (1974) and his classic Utopian novel The People of the Second World (1977). These two works bear special mention because they both focused on the perennial issue of the day – the threat of nuclear annihilation. In Number 4 the residents of the fourth planet, Mars, warn mankind that nuclear weapons destroyed the fifth planet in the solar system, creating the asteroid belt. When their calls fall on deaf ears, they wipe mankind’s memories clean of all knowledge of atomic science and make the nuclear stockpiles disappear.
The Second World is more complicated, with an underwater community set up by rebel scientists who also want to rid the world of nuclear weapons. They coerce the world powers into disarming, using their scientific discoveries to control these weapons, whilst building a near perfect community on the bottom of the ocean floor.
If you track back to Tawfik Al-Hakim you will see how sensitive Egyptian SF was to the prevailing atmosphere of the times. Al-Hakim authored short stories and radio plays as far back as the 1950s, in response to the Space Race between the superpowers (Sharouni, 2002: 102). SF died down after that, sadly, till Nihad Sharif. He represented a further deepening of the genre, ushering in authors who were willing to write predominantly in the field such as Hassan Qadri, Rauf Wasfi, Salah Maati, Sabri Musa and Dr. Mohammad Naguib Mattar. (As a boy, Dr. El-Zembely was actually introduced to Nihad Sharif, and Dr. Mustafa Mahmoud). Woman authors also entered the fray, with Dr. Umayma Al-Khafagi.
With Dr. El-Zembely’s novel The Half-Humans, you get a third phase of Egyptian sci-fi kicking in. (The Half-Humans was published in tandem with two other novels, The Planet of the Viruses and America 2030). The Cold War had come to an end, the Soviet Union itself coming to an end, with the threat of nuclear war receding somewhat into the past. The tableau for Egyptian SF expanded as a consequence. Instead of riding on the coattails of either the West or the Soviet Bloc, Muslims and Arabs began to chart their own course into the future.
Heroes of the Republic
First things first, it is imperative to point out that The Half-Humans came out in 2001 since the erstwhile hero of the novel, Captain Seif Al-Din, is an astronaut with the space program of the Union of Islamic States. (It’s the year 2100AD and he’s leading the first manned mission to Titan). This has absolutely nothing to do with the Islamic State ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria. But it is also, at the same time, a counter-point to that monstrosity.
The Islamic Union (formed in 2040) is modelled on the European Union – it says so in the novel – and it is a benign entity whose primary concern is the betterment of mankind. The Union’s space program has already worked marvels on Mars and Venus, helping terraform those worlds for all mankind in cooperation with other world powers, and even explored the very stormy eye of Jupiter. Titan, a key moon of Saturn, is the next step. The only catch is while there, Seif’s best friend and fellow astronaut, Hazem, gets captured by an alien intelligence that desperately needs mankind’s help. A race of half-humans – the mixed descendants of a superior race that mated with mankind at one point in the distant past – is now on the verge of extinction. The conflict in their genes is killing them and they need Seif to retrieve a formula for them that will end the gene conflict.
He goes along, to save Hazem at first; but once Hazem himself is released by the half-humans, he sees it as his duty to help them out. Muslims are commanded to fight for those who cannot fend for themselves, even quoting the verses in the Quran that say so. Also along for the ride is a third and unusual passenger, a woman ‘beamed’ to Seif on his new journey by his scientific superiors back home. Her name is Shaymaa and she’s battery-powered, made of reconstituted human tissues attached to a metallic frame. (I suspect this is all inspired by the invention of mobile phones). Nonetheless, Seif falls in love with her and she saves him (and the hapless Hazem) on more than one occasion.
Much like the heroes of legends and fairytale epics, Seif Al-Din has to solve riddles along the way to get the tools he needs to carry out his mission. (The introduction to the novel, by Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Ibrahim, draws clear parallels between the storyline and Sindibad’s adventures). The half-humans lead him to Pluto to take a vessel that can get him through a black hole (human technology still isn’t that advanced) and that demands solving a puzzle. Then they have to challenge the tyrannical king of the race of shape-shifters, and that demands outsmarting him, taking another vessel through several black holes to the World of the Seven Hills. There the heroes meet the King of this ancient, bloated world (the progenitors of the half-humans) and they learn that this far-off world is governed by the same democratic principles as the Islamic Union – the principles of ‘shura’ (usually translated as consultation in Arabic).
A majority vote of the Council of Elders is what holds sway in all matters. Sadly, most of the Elders are corrupt and hostile to all ‘inferior’ lifeforms. Not that this tarnishes the principles of shura. Seif Al-Din always calls for a vote with his colleagues, as do his superiors back on Earth. The author has made his mind up that shura is democracy, majority votes, and not mere ‘consultation’ and refuses to castigate the democratic process. In most popular literature in the Arab world, the negatives of Western democracy and society – crime, amorality, vest interests, corruption, foreign policy double standards – are always pointed out to discredit democracy. Not so here.
As a Muslim the reviewer can add something too since the word consultation has a double meaning in English itself. Your lawyer is a ‘councilor’, someone who gives you legal advice, but a committee or ‘council’ of ministers actually votes on matters, after its members consult with each other and make their cases and trade viewpoints.
So I’m all for this reading of shura. Anyone dare disagree?!
The Inward Gaze of Civilization
Note that in The Lord of Time, the frozen individuals who wake up in the future reside in a castle hidden in the mountains. They begin to fight amongst themselves and the castle is destroyed, robbing the world of the discoveries they’ve made. In the Second World, the scientific colony fails to share its advances with the world – betrayed by the superpowers – and have to go into hiding again. Even Number 4 is only half optimistic because an extra-terrestrial intelligence had to interfere to save man from his own technological arrogance, and the solution came in the form of (again) being robbed of much of your hard-won knowledge.
The Half-Humans, by contrast, is brimming with confidence. Muslims have nothing to be ashamed of and they are strong enough as a nation to share their knowledge with the rest of the world. All this, moreover, stems from an internal house cleaning. There is no talk of foreign conspiracy or Western powers getting in the way of Muslim unity or advance.
The scientific state of the Muslim world is also a chief concern in the novel, reflective of Dr. Hosam’s deep understanding of what ails scientific research, especially in a country as gifted as Egypt. Witness this scene: “Seif… recollected the ambitious project that the Islamic Union had enacted following the Unity Wars, to bolster the livelihoods of scientists – insuring education and healthcare for their children, good housing and attire for the scientists themselves, removing all those social handicaps that could hinder their creativity. The project even allowed for any scientist to meet with the president of the Islamic Union on a monthly basis, to present any problems facing him. Whenever any discovery or invention was made, the scientist in question was automatically rewarded and rewarded handsomely… And so the Muslim States were able to overturn centuries of backwardness and become once again a leader of civilization through the achievements of their scientists.”
Every nation brings its own special set of concerns to the realm of science fiction, no matter how far out in the cosmos the heroes of a tale go. (If you read The Far Rainbow by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, written in the 1960s, you find yourself on a bureaucratic nightmare of a planet, a clear allusion to the Soviet Union). And they go pretty far out in this novel, to the edge of the universe, and back.
The novel is not a pale imitation of Western literary norms. Far from it. Characters are prone to crying much of the time, something that is almost a taboo in the ‘cold’ world of Western science fiction. Hazem and Seif are also closer than the average superhero, sidekick due in Western literature. They were both only children so felt a deep need from early in their lives for a brother; such a familial pairing would not concern Western writers with their sense of individualism. (They also share a telepathic bond that doesn’t always come in handy because Hazem is too busy deliberating on matters instead of reacting; he’s the intellectual type).
Note also that Shaymaa, a popular name in Egypt, is very eager to prove herself. She clearly speaks to the ambitions of Arabic women. (You really come to like her. She’s such a cheery person and always says the right thing at the right time. It’s in her programing!)
Something that The Half-Humans does have in common with the corpus of Egyptian sci-fi from before, however, is the ‘internal’ focus. This isn’t just the moral or spiritual, but the biological focus. Most SF, Western SF, is ‘outward’. Its physics and astronomy, set invariably in outer space or dealing with new mechanical technologies that promise to break the light barrier or turn matter into energy or colonize a new solar system or whatever. With Muslim authors the inner workings of the human body and medical sciences are more of a hefty concern.
Nihad Sharif often had medical operations taking place in his novels, in the middle of all the action and adventure, while themes of immortality emerged early on in Egyptian SF. Tawfik Al-Hakims play “If Only the Young Knew” involves the moral and emotional consequences of a discovery made by a medical doctor, regenerating organic matter in living tissues (Sharouni, 2002: 102). Anis Mansour and Mustafa Mahmoud also dealt with the elixir of life and reincarnation in their works.
Likewise, in Dr. El-Zembely’s novel you have the Individual Cell Analyser, another proud invention of the Islamic Union, a “device that could study each and every cell in the human body, and repair any damage in it while the cell functioned in the live body.” (The Analyzer is a forerunner, it seems, of the four-dimensional microscope devised by Egypt’s dearly departed scientist Dr. Ahmed Zewail). With its help the average lifespan of mankind is extended, diseases and even aches and pains become a thing of the past. And yet, the device fails to conquer death, the: “… complete systems failure of all the cells in the human body… That was the one thing they could not explain, as if the body had received an order from the Almighty Himself to end its mission in the world and succumb to that one illness that was incurable… death.”
The bodily focus is further fused with the moral, since sports are a kind of moral education in Islamic thinking. Witness this scene in the novel: “Seif Al-Din grew up a 21st century knight, from his earliest days. He was an expert with modern weaponry, from laser pistols to spacefighters. He was a pro at every sport, from swimming to archery and horse-riding. He was an expert runner, becoming a decathlon champion, not to mention his expertise with computers of all kinds, with all their advanced programming languages.”
The Arab reader can recognize this emphasis on the positive moral and spiritual role played by riyada (sports or exercises in Arabic). Naguib Mahfouz once wrote a satirical short story about a man who joins an underground political movement. The head of the revolutionary cell who recruits him is built like a wrestler and calls the cell a family, and behaves like a nosey and self-righteous father-figure. He tells the recruit off for having an affair with a morally improper woman, and frequently punishes him as if he were a tempestuous child.
Mathematics in Arabic is riyadiyat, derived from the original Greek work ‘exercises’, mental exercises done to perfect the mind like a muscle that needs moral honing. In Muslim history, the Mamluks and Ottoman Janissaries were brought up on mathematics as much as on fighting skills. And so with the heroes here. Well, except for Hazem – the sidekick can never be as tough or handsome as the superhero, after all.
Thank heavens Shaymaa is there to balance things out. Shame what happens to her in the end though. But you have to have a little tragedy to spice things up.
Preparing the Path for Future Transitions
That in itself is another indicator of how Egyptian science fiction evolved in its third phase. Dr. El-Zembely belongs to the same generation as Dr. Nabil Farouk and Dr. Ahmed Khaled Tawfik. Dr. Farouk in particular is the author of the two pocketbook series, the Future File (science fiction) and The Impossible Man (spy novels) adventure stories, targeted at the young adult audience. Tawfik, author of the internationally acclaimed Utopia (Byrnes, 2011), has also authored a wide range of pocketbook adventure stories.
Much the same holds true of The Half-Humans. Dr. El-Zembely makes sure to never allow the story to become too cerebral. You can see this in the first chapter. You are introduced to the successes of the Islamic Union space program and the characters of Seif Al-Din and Hazem, only to have the alarm go off as their spaceship enters the asteroid belt. And even while they’re conversing about the space program they talk about unsolved mysteries that whet your appetite for what comes next. Philosophical reminiscences are always interspersed with action sequences.
This third generation understood that without a proper fan base, particularly with young readers, SF would be unsustainable and have no impact on literature at large. The current generation of SF authors all grew up reading Dr. Nabil Farouk as children and then branched off into hardcore SF, whether Egyptian or translated. This new generation, the fourth phase in Egyptian SF (see below), are even more commercially attuned to the marketplace than their forebears.
Then the political and social milieu Egyptian sci-fi operates changed, yet again, with the coming of the January revolution. Not soon after Dr. Hosam El-Zembely, with the help of fellow enthusiast, set up the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction in 2011, with the society’s first anthology coming out in 2012. (In a tragic twist of fate, Nihad Sharif died on 5th January 2011, just 20 days away from the revolution). To quote an essay in the anthology itself, by Yassir Abu Al-Hasab, SF writers in Egypt and the Arab world increasingly became aware that what was lacking throughout all the past years of Egyptian SF was an infrastructure to sustain the genre. There were no specialized SF magazines, no SF societies on the model of the SFWA or British Science Fiction Association, and no prizes like the Nebula and Hugo awards dished out by these associations (Abu Al-Hasab, 2012: 80-81).
Fortunately, there is now a science fiction section for the Egyptian Writer’s Union, a new Egyptian internet magazine called Science and Fiction popularizing the genre, and the Nihad Sharif Cultural Salon for Science Fiction. The set mission of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, as outlined manifesto-style in their first anthology, is to engage in dialogue with fantasy and SF associations around the world and to plan for integrating the SF efforts of Arab authors to (eventually) set up an Arab Society for Science Fiction. Presenting the works of Egyptian members and setting up a publishing house are lower down the list, along with projects to translate Arabic SF, organize conferences and get the movie and TV producers interested in the genre.
Speaking to publishers and owners of bookshops, you find that novels are selling like hotcakes and that printing books is one of the most successful business avenues in these trying economic times. A whole new generation of young authors is taking over the world of SF and fantasy: Wael and Mahmoud Abdel Raheem, Ammar Al-Masry, Ahmed Al-Mahdi, Moataz Hassanien, Ahmed Sameer Saad, Ahmed Badran, Mustafa Seif Al-Din, Yassin Ahmed Said, Yasser Abu-Elhassab (editor in chief of Science and Fiction), Omar Ahmed Hussien, Mustafa Ammar, Dalia Mustafa, Mustafa Seif, Amal Ziada, Muhammad Farouk, Waleed Al Ashwah, Muhammad Al-Nagi, Muhammad Ahmed Farid, Fatima Madi, etc. (Many are in their twenties, and some are still at university). Quite a few of these names are also illustrators and have authored graphic novels, some work in publishing themselves, and several don’t operate exclusively in Egypt, targeting the thriving Gulf Arab market as well.
Not that can write off the old-timers. Dr. El-Zembely still writes short fiction, and Dr. Mohammad Naguib Mattar is still going strong, as are Nabil Farouk and Ahmed Khalid Tawfik. Sayed Al-Qamahi is writing children’s SF, and Mohammad Ali Abd Al-Hadi has even written sci-fi poetry. We’re still not completely out of the woods, however. Horror is at the top of reading lists, pushing science fiction out of the way for the moment, while Egyptian critics and movie and TV producers still go great lengths to continue to ignore the genre. The political and economic situation in Egypt isn’t helping much either.
Reprints of classics and third generation Egyptian SF is what’s called for here, if you ask me. Let alone a whole swathe of translations that will introduce what is going on in Egypt to the rest of the world. And The Half-Humans is as good a place to start as any. Its combination of adventure movie antics and hard core ‘Islamic’ science fiction is what makes it so palatable and a necessary literary contribution to the evolution of the Muslim world towards a more democratic and scientifically bright future.
So please read the English-version, if you want to help the world become a better place!
A Chinese version of this article was published with the Future Affairs Administration: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/XsZh4PiH9zrnhehZxw4cXg
Dr. Hosam El-Zembley is the Director and the original founder of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction: https://www.facebook.com/elzembely/
Emad El-Din Aysha is an active member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction.
Al-Mahdi, Ahmed. 2017. ‘Islam and Sci-Fi interview of Ahmed Al Mahdi’. Islam and Science Fiction: On Science Fiction, Islam and Muslims. http://www.islamscifi.com/islam-and-sci-fi-interview-of-ahmed-al-mahdi/
Al-Sharouni, Yousef. 2002. Science Fiction in Contemporary Arabic Literature: Till the End of the 20th Century. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization.
Abu Al-Hasab, Yassir. 2012. ‘Science Fiction… History, Organization and the Scoffing Arab’, essay in The Arrivals: Shams Al-Ghad Volume One. Cairo: Dar Al-Hilm for Publishing and Distribution.
Byrnes, Sholto. 2011. ‘Utopia, By Ahmed Khaled Towfik’. 17 September. The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/utopia-by-ahmed-khaled-towfik-6132395.html.
Tidhar, Lavie. 2015. ‘Science Fiction, Globalization, and the People’s Republic of China’. The Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation. http://www.concatenation.org/articles/sf~china.html.
 The same could be said across the board in the non-Western world. Please see Tidhar (2015).
 For a list of these problems please see an interview of Ahmed Al-Mahdi, www.islamscifi.com/islam-and-sci-fi-interview-of-ahmed-al-mahdi/.
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