Can Science Fiction Survive in Saudi Arabia?

On Monday, Saudi authors Yasser Bahjatt and Ibraheem Abbas learned that their science fiction book, which shot to the top of the best-seller list in Saudi Arabia, had been banned from sale in Kuwait and Qatar. The episode was familiar: in late November, Saudi Arabia's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice yanked the book from shelves for a thorough examination in response to concerns over inappropriate content. The book, called Hawjan, is a fantasy/sci-fi story with religious themes that spurred rumors, particularly from parents, that it was promoting sorcery and devil-worship among young people, especially girls. For Abbas and Bahjatt, also the founders of a group dedicated to promoting Arab sci-fi, the suspensions have been a lesson in navigating the difficult literary terrain of a region that grapples with the genre's intersection of science, religion, and modernity.

"There is almost no science fiction in the region -- it does not exist as a genre," Bahjatt told Foreign Policy. After seeing the immense popularity of Hawjan, he stressed that the dearth can't be attributed to a lack of demand and instead blamed it on the restrictions of conservative Islamic society. "In the past two decades in the region, imagination has been systematically shut down ... I think part of it might be religious. Rather than go ahead and try to [understand] religion on their own, people started relying on scholars to tell them."

It was this "shutdown" of imagination -- and its implications for progress and innovation -- that initially compelled Abbas and Bahjatt to start their Arab science fiction group and publishing company, called Yatakhayaloon (roughly translated as "They are imagining"). The landscape for science fiction literature, a genre famous for its ability to test social boundaries and explore scientific limits, can be awfully bleak in the Middle East. In a 2012 TED talk, Bahjatt laments the current state of the genre in the region where "there are almost no science fiction writers." In the talk, he points to regions with high concentrations of research and development and those regions' comparatively robust science fiction scenes, suggesting there may be a correlation.

"What we're hoping is that once we get people to expand their imaginations, we hope it will cross over into the scientific imagination," he said Friday.

In 2013, Abbas and Bahjatt co-authored Hawjan, the English translation of which is known by the letters HWJN. While the authors were aware of the difficulties of pushing the envelope in Saudi fiction, they nixed the idea of using outside publishers because they wanted to establish science fiction as a viable, competitive genre in the Arab world. (That's Yatakhayaloon's mission, after all.)

The book tells of a young girl, Sawsan, who moves into a new house with her family and befriends a jinni named Hawjan. According to Islamic tradition, jinn, or genies as they are known in English appropriations of Arab stories, were created by Allah and inhabit a parallel universe, able to see humans but invisible to them.

"Most people would say this book is fantasy, because it includes jinn," Bahjatt told FP, "but we believe Islam is a scientific religion, so we try to explain the claim of existence of such beings through speculative science ... that is why we consider it science fiction." He pointed to string theory and other theories that explain the existence of jinn and multidimensional beings. Ibraheem Abbas, the book's co-author, has been quick to remind followers on social media that the book's depiction of the mythic jinn is in line with Islam.

Hawjan generated tremendous buzz in Saudi Arabia and became the number one selling book in Saudi Arabia by its fourth month on the market, according to Bahjatt, remaining there until last week's tentative ban.

"We heard from Saudi publishers who told us we would be lucky to sell 2,000 copies over the course of two years," Bahjatt said. "That's why we're shocked we've sold 25,000 copies so far in between Amazon and the Saudi market." While 25,000 might not sound so impressive to American and European readers, it is striking by Saudi standards. The immediate popularity of the book among the youth, especially young girls, was also noteworthy in a country that has struggled with getting young people to read.

Indeed, it was that popularity that was at the root of the allegations that were filed with the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, according to Bahjatt. He said that parents and educators became concerned when they saw young people reading the book so much, an unusual sight in Saudi Arabia. There were also rumors that it was encouraging Ouija board use among the girls. When the complaints were filed, the Committee ordered bookstores to stop selling the book until a thorough examination of it was made. The response invites comparison to the religious debates over the Harry Potter series in the United States -- but in a country where a government agency is tasked with taking concerns over witchcraft seriously.

Although Bahjatt was happy to inform FP on Friday that the committee had allowed book sales to proceed in the Kingdom, he had little time to celebrate before hearing that Kuwaiti and Qatari bookstores had been told to stop selling the book. While he had not yet been informed about the details behind these latest suspensions, he said it was likely predicated on the same rumors behind the Saudi ban.

The continuing struggle over this seemingly innocent and surprisingly popular book raises important questions about the future of freedom of expression in the region. The most radical ideas -- scientific, political, and social -- have often come cloaked in a science fiction plot in the United States and Europe, and paving the way for this genre in one of the most conservative societies in the world will likely be difficult. Bahjatt seems to understand the size of the task. "Science fiction always challenges mainstream thought about subjects," he said. "In societies that are as conservative as Saudi, it will always be controversial." But at least he knows it won't always be unpopular.

See the trailer for the book below:

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