At the mention of ‘sci-fi’, there’s a very clear mental image in most people’s heads. Inter-galactic squabbles, plucky space rangers, time travel adventures, blue/red pills and/or dystopian futures. It's a genre that ranges from cookie-cutter epics with predictable heroic endings, to existential dramas that mess with the fabrics of our own reality—the latter particularly poignant for their ability to tell a fictitious tale that is still eerily similar to our world. Try watching a dystopian film about a virus outbreak now without it hitting way too close to home.
Science fiction films are fascinating, replete with inspiring and riveting themes of hope, choice, and sacrifice; they tap into this massive creative well of world-building that authors and screenwriters use to reimagine the human condition. The rule book is out! And within this exceptional genre that dares to dream—and not always about utopias—Arab indie filmmakers have thrown their hat into the mix, taking collective trauma, romance, and personal journeys and vied to tell stories that do exactly that: dare to dream.
It was the 1200s, and Zakariya al-Qazwini was out there imagining extra-terrestrials prancing across the cosmos.
Arab sci-fi film may not (yet) be a mainstream breakout hit of a genre, but the body of work the genre’s had so far is incredibly unique. It has released all sorts of films in the past decade: surreal, experimental, dramedy, and satirical. Despite the films being small in number, the diversity is unmatched.
Arab filmmakers have found their voice in a genre so rich in its ability to be allegorical, trippy, and outright weird, while also as poignant as a punch in the face. That’s not to say that Arab filmmakers have a patent on sneaking social subtext into sci-fi, but in a region fraught with traumatic histories that have often gone unspoken and undocumented, where better than the land of absurd and trippy to tell that story?
Having the landscape as a backdrop isn’t enough. We want to see Arabs exploring their own experiences through science fiction.
Aliens Roamed the Middle East Long Before Doctor Who
In the 13th century, a book entitled Awaj bin Anfaq was written, the story of an alien that lands on earth and is intrigued by human behaviour and culture, which the alien finds both confusing and fascinating. The author of said book? Zakariya al-Qazwini, a Baghdad-based Persian physician, astronomer, and writer. More than a mere piece of trivia, this 700 year old story of extraterrestrial anthropology is a testament to how far, and how deep, the roots of science fiction extend into Middle Eastern culture.
Al-Qazwini is also renowned for another book he penned, titled Marvels of Creatures and Strange Things Existing. The book is a compilation of the weird and enchanting mysteries of the world, in a format that plays jump rope with the line between fiction and non-fiction.
At the time, the approach was beguilingly new; al-Qazwini had merged the set-in-stone truths of science with fables and poetry. Sound familiar? His work is regarded as proto-science fiction, and it’s easy to see why. It was the 1200s, and my man al-Qazwini was out there imagining extra-terrestrials prancing across the cosmos.
But you don't even need to go very far off to find sparks of sci-fi in Arab history. Undoubtedly one of the most famous works of fiction across history — the inspiration behind legendary authors such as Leo Tolstoy, Naguib Mahfouz, H. P. Lovecraft and H. G. Wells, the very man who would be regarded as ‘the father of sci-fi’ — is the popular folktale collection One Thousand and One Nights, the big bang of fiction stories spanning centuries from North Africa and West, Central, and South Asia.
The film’s heroine is seen burying ghutrah-patterned porcelain plates for future archaeologists to find...as we see nukes being rolled off a rig to bomb a land.
Nights had what are now signature sci-fi elements: galactic travel, utopian alternative dimensions, and even steampunk—the highly popular sub-genre of sci-fi that blends Victorian-era aesthetics with futuristic technology, a sort of brass make-over of tech. You see it in Nights in the form of humanoid robots, brass horsemen and large flying machines operated by tech using all sorts of dials and pre-historic bleep bloops. Think of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes adaptation or George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
Dispelling the Curse of Genre Film
So where does contemporary Arab sci-fi stand now?
On pages and shelves? Very well. Arab sci-fi authors have had more than moderate success breaking the mold, with their stories reaching all across the region and the world.
On screen, however, it’s a work in progress. But those who need to do more of the heavy-lifting are by no means the filmmakers; it’s the producers, studios, distributors, and film festivals that continue to overlook ‘genre film’. The term—that I honestly despise—refers to horror, sci-fi or fantasy films, a category of films often shunned to the realm of 'special interest' but have seen major success as of late in Hollywood award seasons and film festivals. Some of these remarkable films include The Shape of Water (2017), Get Out (2017) and Black Panther (2018).
The social commentary in each of these films, while wrapped in fiction and metaphor, is very overt and very real. The filmmakers had every intention of standing loud and proud to emphasise that audiences shouldn’t get it twisted, this is exactly what they mean.
The Middle East and North Africa is no stranger to the curse of ‘genre film.’ But that hasn’t kept Arab indie filmmakers from finding their voices, both regionally and internationally. And while it was reasonable to come out and say that there just isn’t that much Arab sci-fi ten or so years ago, the statement doesn’t hold so true now.
Arab filmmakers have found their voice in a genre so rich in its ability to be allegorical, while also as poignant as a punch in the face.
In 2014, following the major news that the revival of the Star Wars saga The Force Awakens (2015) was going to film in Abu Dhabi, there was a media frenzy for the trailblazing aspect of the mega franchise shooting in the UAE. But was that thrill directed at the spectacle or the opportunity?
Yasmine Khan, a writer and organiser of the Sindbad Sci-Fi group, a platform dedicated to Arab science fiction, commented on the news saying: “What needs to happen next is that we encourage the idea of Arab science fiction. Having the landscape as a backdrop isn’t enough. We want to see Arabs exploring their own experiences through science fiction. But yes, Star Wars can be a good starting point.”
Khan then also elaborated on the amount of Arab sci-fi films by saying “A year ago, the question was really: ‘Does contemporary Arab science fiction even exist?’ Now it’s a case of following the trail. I find new things every day.” And that was almost six years ago.
As the ‘golden age’ of the Islam drew to a close, so did the optimism and enthusiasm felt by many for the mysteries of the future.
Arab filmmakers trying to break into sci-fi film can be met with some serious hoops to jump through: political restrictions, small budgets, and the region’s audience being so heavily used to televised entertainment and comedies — mainly Egyptian — being by far the most bankable genre.
But yes, it is different now. Firsts are happening, have happened since, and continue to happen to this day.
How Can it be Sci-fi Without Social Justice?
Palestinian visual artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour has been one of the most notable harbingers of modern Arab sci-fi stories. Her body of work is dedicated to telling the story of Palestine through a sci-fi lens, in short films that have imagined the Palestinian population housed in one singular, bleak, sprawling skyscraper in Nation Estate (2012), or a story of how archeology and history can be weaponised with a backdrop of a desolate nation in In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain (2015).
The latter is one of the most layered and exquisite works by Sansour. The short film’s entire 28-minute run consists of non-diegetic dialogue between two women, as the protagonist (a self-ascribed ‘narrative terrorist’) speaks to what sounds like a therapist or psychiatrist.
The film, which blends CGI, live action footage, and historical photographs, follows the protagonist as she roams her memories and trauma in a post-apocalyptic Palestine, full of the tongue-in-cheek allegories that Sansour has become renowned for—and has often been under scrutiny for by naysayers who deem it ‘anti-Semitic.’
One of the central messages the film addresses is how archaeology can be used to shape a narrative, and how it can go up against, or solidify, historical entitlement—a sentiment that is too true of the Palestinian cause. The film’s heroine is seen burying ghutrah-patterned porcelain plates for future archaeologists to find.
“Our rulers built a nation on archaeology. It’s no longer about history. It’s an epistemology, a tool for shaping a national imagination. Projecting a state into the past supports the idea of historical entitlement,” she says, as we see nukes being rolled off a rig to bomb a land.
At the core of sci-fi is this inherently beautiful suspension of the austere laws of reality to show choice, to put into question, to stir dialogue.
Sansour’s works don’t often envision utopian futures for the occupied state, but rather an amalgam of what was and what could be. The director does use sci-fi imagery, such as monolithic hovercrafts and desolate dystopian lands to reflect on conflict and trauma. Her films aren't concerned with intricate plots or adopting complex scientific theories that would bring the rise of AI or time travel, as that of many a Hollywood blockbuster.
Writer and critic Rahel Aima, in a critique of aesthetics and formats adopted by budding sci-fi writers and artists, elaborates on the concept of 'Gulf futurism', first articulated by Qatari writer and artist Sophia al-Maria. “Gulf futurism offers no new imagery to displace the hegemonic ones in power—instead setting up the scaffolding to reproduce the injustices, structural degradation, and racial erasures of the present. As ethnofuturisms go, it feels like there’s something missing, too. Where’s the longing, the displacement, the impossibility of return?”
Aima hit the nail right on the head when she wrote: “How can it be sci-fi without social justice?”
Sansour’s style has grown to be unique: not a full narrative, boasting a very poignant, real story, in a setting that’s just basically a software upgrade of the current reality. Except not every software upgrade is for the better. Starting out in the early 2000s as an artist and filmmaker, she made it a goal to be part of a larger movement to help preserve the story of Palestine’s cities.
“Back then, a lot of Palestinians felt the need to work with a documentary-based approach. It was necessary at the time because it felt that we needed to document and preserve what was about to be lost,” she says. “It kind of categorises you as people belonging to a third-world country that cannot use a language that is apparently preserved for the Western world. Defying all these expectations became very important…I’m not running away from social-political issues, but I am framing them in what you could call a science fiction, or dystopian type of framework.”
A Voice for the Marginalised
Another filmmaker that rose to the scene recently is Saudi filmmaker Meshal AlJaser, who brought aliens to Saudi Arabia. The young director was already big on YouTube with his independent channel ‘Folaim Ya Gholaim’, where he created short films that have amassed 83 million views since launching in 2012. AlJaser’s short films ranged from hilarious skits about specific experiences in the Arab world, to the racism of Saudi families towards migrant domestic workers, to children living under siege in Syria.
His latest film that has caught a wide net of attention is Arabian Alien. The short film was selected to compete in 2019’s Sundance Film Festival for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film. The film tells the story of Saad, a married Muslim man trying to deal with depression, when an alien from outer space stumbles into his life and upends it.
The film’s ‘experimental’ nature draws from poignant Saudi experiences of censorship and restrictions, in a deliciously hilarious and heartbreaking social allegory, hailing the pursuit of love under oppression as a powerful act of rebellion.
The film is an ambitious feat. It was shot in Los Angeles and made to look like the Arab kingdom in the span of five days. The film is full of stunning cinematography that shows you these intricate and intimate angles, at once isolating the characters and enthralling you between them.
While it’s not always the case, short films are usually a sort of leeway to show studios you’ve got the grounds to tell this story on a bigger stage, as a full feature-length film. In the case of Meshal, it indeed is. So far, the budding Saudi director has received funding from Western film organisations to make his short films, but has struggled to even attain licensing for his films, which address social issues teeming in the region, from within Saudi Arabia.
AlJaser with Saudi comedian and star of Arabian Alien, Abu Hamdan.
“What I’m worried about is the feature. Having to get funds for a feature will be difficult,” AlJaser tells Scene Arabia back in December. “You shouldn’t have to have approval from a Western person to support your artists. I don’t want people to sell their identity to the West.”
The Genre's Good, Bad, and Ugly
With political restrictions, budget constraints, and ambivalent audiences, it comes as no surprise that most of the great Arab sci-fi films are mostly shorts.
While there isn’t yet a portfolio of feature length Arab sci-fi films, some have broken the mould. 2016 saw the release of the UAE’s first science fiction feature film Aerials, produced entirely in the Emirates. The film tells the story of a string of spaceships that have descended on Earth, as as a gargantuan spaceship hovers over Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, and all are left wondering what do the alien visitors want?
One of the most notable takeaways from the film is its impressive visual effects and production. The film has also recently come to Netflix, and is perhaps all too apt now, as one of the arcs of the film is a relationship drama. The Emirati protagonist and his Western wife are both stuck at home as the fear of an alien invasion looms in. Now that definitely sounds familiar.
Another first is this year’s Egyptian Ramadan series El Nehaya (The End), one of the first, if not the first, Arabic sci-fi show. The series is set in the year 2120, a future where Arab countries join forces to form a mighty global power that has defeated the Zionist state of Israel, due to the fall of the United States, and has liberated Jerusalem.
But it’s far from a happy-go-lucky future where all is well. A nefarious corporation has monopolised a fleeting energy source, and is adamant on shutting down anyone that tries to educate students outside of its jurisdiction, or find a sustainable alternative source of energy.
The show does indeed rely on science fiction tropes, and adopts this new world order that has futuristic tech (done through impressive visual effects in this grand production) of hyper-advanced Alexas installed in mirrors that read your health vitals every morning (who would want to wake up to being read like that is a bit beyond me but I guess…) and automated infrastructure reminiscent of American sci-fi films and shows such as Blade Runner or Westworld. The show is full of cyberpunk aesthetics juxtaposed with barren wastelands and Middle Eastern deserts.
I think there are two things you need before you can have science fiction in a society; one is an appreciation of what science is all about, and the second is some awareness of the future.
It’s a solid effort when it comes to the technical side of things. But it does falter everywhere else. A lot. Despite being set so far-off into the future, and also fully set in Jerusalem (while also not featuring a single Palestinian character for some reason), it doesn’t feel like Arab science fiction, so much as American science fiction that’s in Arabic, with Arab people in the future.
This point is all the clearer when El Nehaya, which adopts very Western aesthetics, is contrasted with the most recent example of Afrofuturism Black Panther, the Marvel film that saw a massive collaborative effort of make-up, hair, costume, and set designers producing a truly new, independent vision of an African nation that has nothing to do with the traditional Anglocentrist visuals of traditional sci-fi and cyberpunk.
The film’s costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who won an Oscar for her work on Black Panther, studied the garments of African tribes, including Kenya's Maasai, and envisioned how these traditional patterns and styles would look from an Afrofuturist lens. And the result was nothing short of stunning.
The costumes that El Nehaya’s elite and wicked high-and-ups wear are just a replica of what you would usually see in Western sci-fi films and shows—not a surprise when you consider how heavily the show borrows plot-lines from works like Oblivion (2013) or Altered Carbon (2018). And yet, they still found room to insert antiquated gender roles, even a particularly frustrating arc where one of the characters is unable to divorce her unfaithful husband, due to the persistent rule of Sharia Law that only allows the husband the right to divorce.
Sci-fi stories aren’t strictly science rationalised into a story, but the intrigue and promise of science used as a vehicle to tell resonant stories of culture and identity.
But the larger win is perhaps that studios are willing to venture into sci-fi. The major spectacle here that might’ve flung open a long-shut gate is that during what is, by far, the most popular television season in the Arab world, a sci-fi show aired to a fair success and got great viewership.
So Where to From Here?
I’d like to think we’ve surpassed the point of having to assert potential by looking back to One Thousand and One Nights or al-Qazwini’s tales to prove anything. The basis of suspending reality to tell a narrative has never lacked in Arab stories.
At the core of sci-fi is this inherently beautiful suspension of the austere laws of reality to show choice, to put into question, to stir dialogue, to show the human condition warped inside fantastical tales.
Sci-fi stories aren’t strictly science rationalised into a story, but the intrigue and promise of science used as a vehicle to tell resonant stories of culture and identity in an alternate reality that — at its core — dangles not so far from our own.
Pakistani writer and academic Ziauddin Sardar writes, “it has to do with a change of outlook across the region. As the ‘golden age’ of the Islam drew to a close, so did the optimism and enthusiasm felt by many for the mysteries of the future. I think there are two things you need before you can have science fiction in a society; one is an appreciation of what science is all about, and the second is some awareness of the future.”