Back to the Future: Ahmed Al-Mahdi Charts a Course through the Arabic Winter of Discontent!
Islam News – If you remember, Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi wrote a stunning post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel called Malaaz: City of Resurrection. Now he’s written the long anticipated prequel, The Black Winter (2018), launched at the Cairo international book festival – and with the help of Amna, a Jordanian publishing house no less.
To add to the festivities the book was also recently presented at the seventh Cultural Salon of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction. (This was on Friday 9th February 2018, under the patronage of the director of the society, Dr. Hosam El-Zembely, who also wrote an introduction to the new novel. I’ll be quoting some of the distinguished critics at that event below). If the appropriate word for Malaaz was ‘post’ apocalypse, what comes ‘after’ the end of the world as we know it, the appropriate word for Black Winter is ‘apocalypse’ proper, since it tells the tale of the end of the world, with precursors of what is to take place next with Malaaz.
My main qualm about The Black Winter, in point of fact, is that it wasn’t ‘entirely’ consistent with Malaaz. Here a nuclear war happens because of the ever brewing conflict between North Korea and the United States, whereas we are told in Malaaz that the conflict was a resource war for energy. I preferred the energy scenario, personally. The North Korea scenario is a bit too geared towards the headlines of today and not as anticipatory as the minor sci-fi classic that Malaaz is.
Still there’s time to fix this, since Ahmed could always write another prequel. There’s even plenty of time between the events of the Black Winter and Malaaz, and I’m pretty sure there will be more depressing, foreboding bad headlines out there to get inspired from in the meantime!
The Future is Black
The first thing to say about The Black Winter, for the benefit of the reader, is that it only took me 2 days to read. This is amazing given how slowly I read, and in Arabic especially. It’s that’s much of a page-turner and the two big name critics at the cultural salon said the exact same thing – Dr. Kadria Al-Said and Mr. Khalid Gouda.
The story centres on a brother and sister duo, Ziyad and Farida, living a carefree life in Assuit (in southern Egypt) sometime in the future. Their father Dr. Seif Al-Din is a medical doctor at the local hospital, their mother Dr. Somaya Alam Al-Din is a distinguished geneticist working with the government. To my considerable shame I thought this choice of location was just a reflection of the fact that Ahmed Al-Mahdi is a southern Egyptian from Assiut, but Dr. Kadria set me straight on that one. Assiut is one of the most neglected provinces in the whole of Egypt. It has some of the highest rates of unemployment, slums, poverty and lack of services. There were the famous floods that took place there with the ‘lack’ of response on the part of the government. Disaster relief and crisis management are not the strong-points of the Egyptian government and specifically in that province. And so the harrowing tale that follows.
The Western seaboard in the US is hit by a massive nuclear strike from North Korea, with an appropriate response following, we presume. Ziyad and Farida are promptly told to head off home; school and university are cancelled for today and the foreseeable future. Then Ziyad receives a mobile phone call from his mother to stock up on food and other essential items because she’s been recalled to Cairo. The local supermarket is swamped with people and the proprietor makes the best of the opportunity and pushes up prices. Then the mobile networks crash and the TV transmission blanks out, leaving them in the dark in more than one way. They’re already in the middle of the winter, only to have the sun blotted out by the radioactive ash rising into the stratosphere, taking the place of the already depleted ozone layer. Ziyad has to rely on his wits and go back to basics to survive, chopping down trees in their front garden and then breaking up items of furniture for them to keep warm. (The electricity gets cut too and their father is stuck at the hospital, desperately trying to take care of the sick from radiation, not knowing that his wife is no longer there to take care of their kids). The army steps in to alleviate things, for a time, but the supplies they provide are not nearly enough and they aren’t in the mood to cooperate with the locals.
Then, as if things aren’t bad enough, the army pulls out entirely, and the street urchins and the desperately hungry crawl out of the woodwork and began to terrorise the population. Ziyad makes his mind up that they have to leave and find their father, so he makes one last stop at the supermarket to find where the not so friendly proprietor stashed away his stocks from the prying eyes of the army. Ziyad has to steal the man’s gun in the process and head back home to find that vagrants have broken into his suburban house, on the verge of taking advantage of his helpless 17-year old sister. (Ahmed Al-Mahdi uses a narrative technique he’s very good at here, showing you the aftermath of what happens at his home from Ziyad’s perspective, peeking your interest as to what happened, then giving you Farida’s firsthand view. Please see my review of Al-Mahdi’s novel Reem).
They finally make it to their father’s hospital in one piece and mistakenly think that’s the end of their troubles, only for an armed gang to break into the place and slaughter the patients, looking for food and fuel. The gang also insists on kidnapping Farida. (She must be really pretty for that kind of bad luck). Ziyad’s father tries to face down the head of the gang, using the pistol he got from his son, but he mistakenly thinks he can ‘reason’ with these sorts. It gets him killed in the end.
Ziyad then has to take his father’s place and track down the gang and exact revenge of the most horrendous kind – he burns the head of the gang alive!
Now Ziyad makes his mind up to head off to Cairo to find their mother. (He also gets a penknife from Rami, a young doctor at the hospital). Then an even more horrendous ‘thing’ awaits them. Cannibals. They get kidnapped but the (concealed) penknife comes in handy here and Ziyad bashes the brains in of one of the cannibals, and keeps on bashing even after the guy is clearly dead. Remember that Ziyad’s father wasn’t ruthless enough to survive, and his name was ‘Seif Al-Din’ – sword of Islam. (The name ‘Rami’ is a military term, an archer in Arabic). Ziyad doesn’t make the same mistake.
A fellow kidnappee helps them escape and gets killed during a firefight – they’re running away in a jeep armed with a machinegun, and the man places himself in the line of fire to save Ziyad and Farida. Note also that this is a very paramilitary style of vehicle, the kind you expect to see in Sierra Leone and war-torn Somalia. That’s the apocalypse for you!
North by North West
Ziyad and Farida make it to Cairo only to discover that it isn’t much better off than the South. The army is in charge of the streets and people have to have special cards to get provisions, and not everybody has access to them. They have to get in through the sewers, paying someone who calls himself the Rat to smuggle them in exchange for the tinned food cans they have with them. (It’s cat food, actually). They hide out underground at the Sadat Metro station which has been taken over by the poor. (That station leads to Tahrir square, by the way). The lady in charge – yes, a woman – is called Bakheta, the de facto leader of the metro kingdom. She’s a kindly old lady that takes them in and feeds them mushroom soup; the only thing they can grow in the dark are mushrooms. (Ziyad also befriends a young man name Galal there who tells him a rumour of a refuge in the Nile Delta called Malaaz run by fisherman, Sayyadin).
Sadly, the residents of the Metro station have to forage for rats too and pretend to be card holders to get some provisions. (The army is too lazy to check who has cards half the time, but they gun down anyone who cheats them if they catch him). This is an important point, as Mr. Gouda points out, since the people in the subways are willing to sacrifice for each other. The themes being highlighted here and in the novel in general are equality and the distribution of wealth. It exists to an extent underground, but not above ground where the government is in charge. If I can be so humble you felt that the society in the Metro station was a replication of the community we all saw in midan Al-Tahrir during the January revolution. Girls were completely safe from sexual harassment there and people all ate the same food, divided equally amongst them. Have things really sunk that far since them, I wonder? Farida was in a permanent state of shock after the she got kidnapped the first time and only recovers with the help of Bakheta.
Alas, the army kill one of the volunteers who gets provisions for the underground residents and they come after them at the Metro station. Ziyad almost gets killed and Farida is forced to grow up herself and shoots a soldier to death – she keeps firing the gun till its empty, and it keeps on clicking.
It’s Farida that finds a friendly retired doctor who takes them in and operates on Ziyad. The man has connections and pays offs some soldiers to find their mother, Dr. Somaya Alam Al-Din. They finally get reunited and feel safe, at first, but Ziyad misses the underground community they lived in. They were warm and among people who cared about them, people dedicated to helping each other out. Here in the government research centre, they are living the good life, at the expense of the population at large. Ziyad tells his mother point blank that he hates his new life here and will leave at the first chance he gets. And, wouldn’t you know it, the research centre gets attacked by protestors desperate for provisions, and Ziyad gets kidnapped – don’t know about you but I could see it coming a mile away – and his mother gets killed when they try and rescue him.
The closing scene has Ziyad and Farida making it to the safe haven, Malaaz, finding Galal there too and finally resting after their long and tortuous journey from Assiut. This is a symbolic gesture that this is where they belong, where people can determine their own fate and provide for themselves.
A Fork in the Road
It’s thrilling stuff, and it’s always refreshing to see that Egyptian and Arab authors can take on Western genres so effectively, pushing their own brand of such tried and test themes as the end of the world and what lies after the apocalypse. The breakdown of civilisation is almost a luxury in the Western world and so their works in the genre aren’t nearly as deep or convincing as what is being produced here, and we’re on the brink of collapsing into barbarism 24-hours a day as it is!
It was a very sobering novel in that regard. You kept wondering if something terrible like this would happen, a war that apparently doesn’t concern us – the Korean peninsula – affecting us over here. Could our admittedly comfortable life, with all its ups and downs, suddenly fall apart? How would we cope? Could we stand to go back to a primitive existence, like our forefathers, and have to chop up wood to stay warm and arm ourselves? Could we survive it all, psychologically, recover from the state of shock like Farida? Would we lose it and become as nasty as Ziyad in key scenes? These questions clearly haunt Ahmed Al-Mahdi and they came to bug me too with their plausibility.
Art is meant to disturb you out of your current stupor and make you speculate about what could happen, in a productive manner, adds Khalid Gouda. And Dr. Kadria was particularly adamant that crisis management and futurology need to become an explicit concern of government planning and that this novel was the first step in this regard.
Something else pointed out in the cultural salon, by Mr. Gouda, is that Ahmed Al-Mahdi insists on using classical Arabic in his writings. There’s no colloquial Egyptian Arabic here and swear words are kept to a minimum. The aesthetics of the text are a concern for the author and he doesn’t do what a lot of other Egyptian writers are doing, producing horrendously rude and vulgar texts under the banner of realism, cataloguing what taxi drivers have to say or how microbus drivers look at the world. (Hardly models to emulate, if you ask me). In the process Ahmed Al-Mahdi is proving that Arabic, classical Arabic, is a language that can handle action and gore and excitement and thoroughly modern concepts like sci-fi apocalypses, let alone the more tame concepts like space exploration and time-travel.
Imagine what would happen if The Black Winter was turned into a movie or TV series, and went viral on their internet? We could turn the world upside down and finally put Arab sci-fi on the global entertainment and literary map.
I ‘still’ think that we need a more Arab-scenario for the end of the world, as hinted at in Malaaz, and there’s the issue of transitioning from the world in Black Winter to this more in-the-future world. (Why not have a Middle East war that turns nuclear as Israel takes advantage of Egypt’s moment of internal strife. That is quite a plausible scenario, if you ask me). We need to see people going back to raising horses and taking up swords and bows and arrows and forming bands of warriors, while the old world slowly gets buried in the dust, with all the futuristic technologies of the near past. (The kind of devices we see in Malaaz in the big battle sequence). One thing I particularly like about Black Winter, from a scientific perspective, was that Dr. Somaya was working on remapping the genomes of animals and plants to make them capable of surviving the nuclear winter and the radioactive fallout of the war. This could be what saves the whole world, a worthy SF contribution by Arabs to humanity and the globe.
I’m so glad the publisher, Amna, is Jordanian. The first step to global stardom is reaching the pan-Arab reader. From there, the sky is the quite literally the limit. Especially if you can’t break through the radioactive black cloud cover!!