Monthly Archives: November 2012

Public Culture

Today I attended the dissertation defense of my friend Ben Koerber. His book-in-progress is titled:

The Aesthetics and Politics of Rumor in Egyptian Public Culture

Although he identifies many kinds of rumors, they are all kinds of tales that are unauthorized by authorities–they are disturbances in symbolic systems (such as a political order). Rumor is the collapse of fiction and reality. It operates as a site of culture and discourse, much like other literary genres, but it remains anonymous, its authors generally unseen. This got me thinking of a novel I just read:

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Both this novel and Ben’s study affirm the power of the unseen, not so much the fantastic unseen, but people who interrupt and disrupt the status quo from behind the scenes. Rumors abound in cyberspace in both works, in situations of scarce information and overwielding authorities. Rumors are thus linked to revolution and social upheaval. Ben shows how rumors have worked as a mode of understanding and producing public culture in Egypt, from the beginning of military rule in 1952 through the revolution in 2012. I hope that others will one day compare his work to different contexts to show how conspiracy theories work–in soviet Russia, the contemporary United States and China, other places…How does the untrustworthy oral tradition of rumors and gossip contribute to real social change? Read Ben’s book when it comes out!

Arabic Fantasy & Science Fiction

An ongoing list of Arabic fantasy and science fiction, including some of my reviews…
    • I recommend anything by Ahmed Salah Al Mahdi, a bright new talent in the Arab World. His books provide great suspense, enchanting world building, satisfying storylines, and compelling characters.See here for his website, and here for an interview with him.

ملاذ : مدينة البعثملاذ : مدينة البعث by Ahmed Salah Al Mahdi

My review of Malaz, a futuristic fantasy novel. The prequel is coming out soon!

In this book, the plot was unpredictable in the beginning. It surprised me more than once! Eventually it was clear where the story was going, but the beginning set up space for multiple possible directions. In a sequel, it would be fun to see another possible direction explored (for example, the protagonist’s personal relationships, or the politics of various groups of people within Malaz or outside of it, or a journey through different parts of this world). The protagonist character learns, grows, and succeeds. In a sequel, it would be fun to see this character develop even more, as well as the character Jihad. I enjoyed the imaginary, futuristic Egypt. In a sequel, I would like to read even more about the landscape.

At the end of this book, I want more! I hope to see a sequel some day! However, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an imaginative, fun story. It includes adventure, revenge, coming-of-age, and a hint of romance!

    • Rabee Jaber of Lebanon has a book available only in Arabic, كنتُ أميرً / I Used to Be a Prince, inspired largely by the tale The Frog Prince.

كنت أميراًكنت أميراً by Rabie Jaber

My Review: I liked the first and last chapters. The rest was bizarre and/or rambling. Jaber is a talented writer, but I prefer a more focused plot and more developed characters. That said, this book is remarkable for its use of a fairytale / folktale for part of its inspiration. Based on the tale The Frog Prince, the first and last chapters form a sort of frame story. It has nice parallels to two other famous pieces literature: 1) The Thousand and One Nights / ألف ليلة وليلة in that the prince is like the king, Shahrayar (they have almost the same fear), and 2) Beauty and the Beast in that the prince receives the same curse / عقابة. Finally, the ending has a surprise twist for readers familiar with The Frog Prince. Altogether, the first and last chapter provide a pleasantly refreshing Arabic contribution to folklore-inspired fantasy.

  art: ‘Warrior’ by Matt Leines








Historical/Classical Selections:

  • A True Story: Parallel English and Greek by Lucien de Samosate, the Syrian, who was born in the 2nd century when eastern Turkey was part of Syria, and whose tale A True Story concerned a voyage to the Moon: he was therefore one of the early proto-SF authors.
  • The story “Jullanar” in 1001 Nights (which tells a mermaid tale – one of my personal favorites).
  • The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets ( رحلات الطرشجي الحلوجي) by Egyptian Khairy Shalaby, translated to English by Michael Cooperson

Websites and Discussions:

Folkarts in Contemporary Pop Culture

  • Paintings by English book illustrator Arthur Rackham
  • Films by Japanese artist Hayao Miyazaki
  • Fantasy novels and short stories around the world
  • Illustrations by American book designer Thomas Canty
  • Arabic folk hero Antar. Film on YouTube here (in Arabic). Margari Aziza wrote about her discovery of Antar.
  • Egyptian feminist working group, Women & Memory Forum, published a collection of re-tellings and re-imaginings of folktales and old Arabic stories
  • Statues depicting Shahrazad and other characters of  الف ليلة ولية / One Thousand and One Nights by ‘Sculptor of Baghdad’ Mohammed Ghani Hikmat

※ Suggested additions are welcome for the above list. Strong examples of folkarts in contemporary pop culture are easily identified as having clear folk elements and appealing to many audiences through mass media. What does it mean to use old art in new art? How old does old art have to be to work as folk heritage? The answer seems to be pre-modern, though modernity isn’t always easy to define, and even that answer isn’t always satisfactory…

Art by Shahzia Sikander