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:


Watch For Yourself: The 5 Biggest Moments From the Mandela Memorial

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of people gathered for the national memorial service for Nelson Mandela, a man President Obama called "a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice." The service for Mandela, which is part of a week of commemorations of the South African leader's life, took place in Soweto's FNB Stadium and attracted 91 heads of state.

All that hobnobbing between the world's most distinguished leaders produced some great spectacle. From Obama's handshake with Cuban President Raúl Castro to the jeering South African President Jacob Zuma received from the crowd, here five great moments from Tuesday's memorial.

Obama's handshake with Castro

While the world waited with bated breath to witness a handshake between Obama and Iranian President Rouhani, interest has all but waned in an older rivalry: the tense relationship between the United States and Cuba. On Tuesday, that animosity was forgotten, if only for a moment, as Obama shook Raul Castro's hand on his way down a line of dignitaries. More touching than the handshake, though, was the joke or small talk that was evidently exchanged between the two men. You can watch the moment at about twelve seconds into this clip:

Zuma gets booed

Crowds of onlookers erupted in jeers when South African President Jacob Zuma's image flashed across the stadium's big screen -- made even worse by the cheers that Obama's image drew just moments before. The South African attendees were likely expressing frustration with current South African politics, plagued by rampant corruption and stark inequalities. Many black South Africans still live without basic services and adequate housing, despite reassurances from the ruling African National Congress party that their situation has improved in recent years.

When it was Zuma's turn to speak, the heckling became so bad that his image on the big screen was replaced with one of Mandela.

Here's the video of Zuma drawing boos shortly after the crowd erupts for Obama.

Obama's selfie

Obama's speech may have called for a time of mourning and self-reflection, but he was spotted at the service looking a bit less than somber at times -- like when he was taking a selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Perhaps it was only a belated nod to the Oxford English Dictionaries Word of the Year award.

Obama's speech

Obama eulogized Mandela as a man of eloquence and self-control. One of the speech's highlights came in the conclusion, when Obama referenced the poem "Invictus," a favorite of Mandela's:

"And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: ‘It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.'

What a magnificent soul it was."

See the full speech below:

'The awesome power of forgiveness'

It's not every world leader that gets eulogized by the United Nations secretary-general, who spoke of Mandela's forgiveness and his effort to bring South Africa after the turbulent apartheid years. "He showed the awesome power of forgiveness -- and of connecting people with each other and with the true meaning of peace," he said. "That was his unique gift, and that was the lesson he shared with all humankind. He has done it again. Look around this stadium and this stage. We see those representing many points of view and people from all walks of life. All are here. All are united today." Watch the video here: