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 Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Some people have asked about Arabic science fiction, so I’m starting a list of titles here. Please feel free to tell me of others…

  • 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.

    View all my reviews

  • Algerian Amar Boukhroufa, pen name Djamel Jiji, has a novel published in French. It’s translated from Arabic (which is unpublished thus far). The author gave me a copy of the Arabic, and I look forward to reading it some day!
  • Books by Ahmed Salah Al Mahdi, and see his website
  • Future Files series by Egyptian Nabil Farouk – I would recommend his book “Tamima” to young adult readers
  • إكسير الحياة / The Elixir of Life by Moroccan Mohammed Aziz El-Habbani
  • الطوفان الأزرق / The Blue Deluge and other books by Moroccan Ahmed Abd El-Salam El-Baqqali – He writes for young adults, and his writing has been compared to Jules Verne and Ralph Ellison.
  • مجرد حلم / Just a Dream by Moroccan Abd El-Rahim Buhayr – treats social and political issues
  • السيد من حقل السبانخ / The Guy from the Spinach Field – futuristic novel about state politics, freedom, and illusions of freedom
  • اجوان trilogy by Noura Noman – see this discussion and interview
  • For a combination of Arabic culture and Sci Fi fandom, see the work of Sophia Al-Maria, who coined the term ‘Gulf Futurism’. I have a brief review of her book, The Girl Who Fell to Earth.
  • Here are a couple “supernatural” story collections… The Square Moon: Supernatural Tales (Arabic Translation Award and The Seventh Heaven: Supernatural Tales
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon – not written in Arabic, but may be of interest to readers (it was to me!)

  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