Ian Campbell on Muhammad Aziz Lahbabi’s The Elixir of Life


Ian Campbell has an excellent review of Muhammad Aziz Lahbabi’s The Elixir of Life in last year’s Science Fiction review. Lahbabi was a Professor of Literature from Morocco. Here is a relevant excerpt from the review:


Near the end of the main narrative of ‘Iksîr al-HE ayât [The Elixir of Life, 1974], the science-fiction novel by Moroccan professor Muhammad `Azîz LahEbâbî, the invention of an immortality elixir has thrown Moroccan society into total chaos.1 Its impoverished protagonist HE amîd hopes that his classmate and would-be love interest will help him obtain food—but she mocks his request for help:

He was no longer able to look at her face: it had grown huge and her red, burning eyes stuck out, as if HE am§d was in front of a funhouse mirror, where we see our faces elongated in the form of a knife, or squared and thick like a jar. “How loathsome this damned woman has become!”

She mocks him because she belongs to the upper classes and he to the lower; and the elixir, rather than leveling class distinctions, has exacerbated them. LahEbâbî’s novel uses the sf strategy of cognitive estrangement to hold a distorted mirror up to the Morocco of the early 1970s. The effect of this reflection is to show how the postcolonial Moroccan state, which retained its claim to be the heir of the liberal, democratic, nationalist revolution that freed Morocco from colonial authority in 1956, has become two decades later a place where class mobility is so limited that even prison is preferable to life in poverty. This pointed political criticism is wrapped in two layers of estrangement, enabling LahEbâbî to criticize his society while remaining insulated from the potentially brutal consequences of a direct challenge.

1. Importance and structure of the text. Readers trying to remain current with the vast and diverse array of modern Anglo-American sf may well wonder why an obscure novel by an obscure novelist from a country entirely peripheral to the development of sf may be worth examining. The Elixir of Life has much to offer critics of the genre: it is a foundational text in Arabic-language sf, one of the first to present itself explicitly as al-`ilm al-khayâlî, then a neologism meaning “imaginative science” and now the standard term for the genre (Cowan 310, 744). Its publication coincides with a more rigorous approach to sf criticism that integrates science fiction into developments in the general discourse of literary criticism. The novel provides examples of many of the tropes identified by the first wave of sf critics; furthermore, as scholars begin to integrate the fast-growing and diverse body of work that is twenty-first century Arabic sf into English-language criticism, a careful analysis of this foundational text will prove useful.

Lahabi (1922-93) was a professor of philosophy, educated at the Sorbonne and in residence at Muhammad V University in Rabat. He is best known as a philosopher whose work took an anthropological approach to Islamic thought, but he also wrote literary fiction. He was one of the founders of the Union of Arab Writers of the Maghreb and the director of the influential review ‘Âfâq [Horizons]; he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 (Craig 20).2 LahEbâbî published his first novel in 1967: Jîl al-ZEama’ [Generation of Thirst] sets all but one of its chapters inside the office of the sort of liberal, secular intellectual who dominates the Arabic-language Moroccan novels of the 1960s. It is in no way science fiction; rather, it is firmly grounded in the social-realist tradition and the desire to promote positive social change that the critic Ahmed al-Madini argues characterizes Moroccan literary and critical discourse of the time (al-Madini 198). Its plot traces the intellectual’s dawning awareness that the future belongs to less academic and more active people; this can be read as a caustic critique of the pretensions and weakness of the Moroccan intellectual class (Campbell 111-13).

The Elixir of Life was published seven years later. Its first section centers on ‘Idrîs, a poor, elderly, pious, and conservative carpenter who lives in an impoverished district in Rabat. His friend alerts him to the news that scientists have developed the titular elixir, which bestows immortality upon its recipients. The elixir is never present in the text, which never explains where the elixir was discovered and omits any meaningful details about it. ‘Idrîs angrily rejects the idea, believing that it undermines the moral and economic underpinnings of society; it is not “natural” for Muslims not to die. His skepticism seems justified: the immediate consequences of the news of the elixir are rioting, looting, hoarding, price-gouging, and mass hunger. All of this is driven by class resentment, as the poor are unanimously convinced that the elixir will be reserved for the elites, despite the government’s protestations to the contrary.

The center of the action shifts to ‘Idrîs’s son HE amîd, an enlightened medical student and thus something of a stock character in Arabic-language Moroccan novels of the epoch.3 Social unrest has reduced him to near starvation. HE amîd persuades his father to end his standoff with local militia who want to take him off to be injected with the elixir by convincing the militia to let ‘Idrîs join other family members in the country. He then makes his way to the wealthy quarter, where he intends to persuade his female classmate to purchase his medical textbooks so he can buy food. This woman mockingly rejects both his offer and his romantic pursuit of her: now that she is immortal, she has no need to study in pursuit of a trade and she has become engaged to a man of her own class. On his way back, police detain HE amîd because he does not belong in that neighborhood and, though he explains himself, they decide to take him in and have him injected with the elixir. But a more pressing crisis intervenes and HE amîd is allowed to return home, where he perishes from hunger.

The novel’s brief final section is set off from the rest of the text and entitled “Mudhakkirât mâ ba`da al-Mawt” or “Post-Death Reports.”4 HE amid is still in his house, and for the most part does not find death all that unpleasant. He conceives the idea of somehow communicating to his brother, a literature professor, about the post-death world, but comes to the conclusion that the elixir will not solve the problems of the poor. He persuades angels to help him in this task, but while the perhaps hallucinatory angels are willing to communicate with the living world, they are unable to do so. The novel ends with a hurî coming to take him to paradise.

Thanks to Hal H. for the pointer to the story.

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