Emad El-Din Aysha speaks about his work on Science Fiction and the Pan-Arab Quest
This interview was conducted by Darius Luca Hupov, the Editor-in-chief of Romania’s top sci-fi online publication, Galaxy 42, covering the activities of sci-fi enthusiasts from Europe to China and the Middle East. Darius Hupov has been writing science fiction since 1987 and has published in the Banat Renaissance, Paradox SF, the collection of fantastic scientific stories, SF Gazette, Helion, Nova Library, had an SF film section on Radio Timisoara and on Analog TV Timisoara.
DH: Please present yourself to our readers.
My name is Emad El-Din Aysha, born in the United Kingdom, a native speaker of English and Arabic, but English more so. I’m originally an academic and journalist-translator, have a PhD in International Studies from England, and taught at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Have been hooked on SF since I was a kid; grew up watching Blake’s Seven and Max Headroom, reading Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. Originally wanted to be a scientist.
I joined the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF) in 2017, where I translate and review SF, help with interviews and write articles on the topic, academic and journalistic, in English to reach an international audience. This was all after I began writing in 2016, albeit in English. My themes are Arabic and Islamic, though, and I want to put Arab SF on the global map, and link up with Turkish and Iranian SF to introduce them to the Arab audience. Have taught a course at the AUC related to science fiction and have one published online course on SF – MULOSIGE Syllabus: Science, Literature and Development in the MENA Region. Am also a founding member of the Asian & African Sci-Fi facebook group.]
My first published story came out in 2017, “A Detour in Space”, and my first book – The Digital Hydra and Other Stories (in Arabic) – was published this year and came out at the Cairo International Book Fair with Al-Maktaba Al-Arabiya for Publishing and Distribution. My first story to be published in an anthology was “The Cymbals of Progress” in Dark Helix Press’s Trump: Utopia or Dystopia. I’m also especially proud of my story in Palestine + 100 with Comma Press, publishers of Iraq + 100. Am hoping to establish a series around some of the characters in my story “Lambs of the Desert” in The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror volume IV and also “The Cymbals of Progress”.
DH: Please try to make a brief introduction on the Egyptian SF history.
Begins, essentially in the 1950s with author-playwright Tawfik Al-Hakim, although there was some Utopian literature at the turn of the 20th century. Then came Mustafa Mahmoud, an Islamic thinker in the 1960s and a talented writer, then Nihad Sharif in the 1970s, the first author who specialised in SF not just in Egypt but the Arab world. Then you get Nabil Farouk and Ahmed Khaled Tawfik in the 1990s with their pocketbook series, which raised a whole generation on SF and not just in Egypt but as far afield as Morocco and Yemen. Nabil Farouk and Ahmed Khaled Tawfik continued at the turn of the new century, along with Dr. Hosam Elzembely and Muhammad Naguib Matter. Then the ESSF was formed in 2012 and then you begin to get new authors – old and young – entering the fray, like Muhammad Ahmed Al-Nagui, Kadria Said, Moataz Hassanien, Manal Abd Al-Hamid, Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi, Ammar Mahmoud Al-Masry, Wael Abdel Rahman, Mahmoud Abdel Rahman, Dalia Mustafa, Mustafa Seif, Amal Ziada, Al-Sayyid Negm, Ahmed Al-Sayyid Abu Miki, myself of course, etc. etc. etc. Non-Egyptian SF writers have also joined in, like Mouad Byd from Morocco and Abdel Al-Hakim Amer Al-Taweel from Libya.
DH: Which are the most popular SF magazines and fanzins (printed and online) in Egypt?
Escatopia, on facebook, and Khayal wa Ilm (Imagination or Fiction and Science) also online. Nothing printed, sadly. To my knowledge the only specialised SF magazine in the Arab world is published in Syria, under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Culture there, thanks to the Syrian author and scientist Dr. Taleb Omran.
DH: Which are the SF&F Clubs that have regular meetings?
The Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, to my knowledge. We have a monthly cultural salon and we do more than just review novels. We also have little lectures on matters pertaining to science, the latest discoveries in astronomy or energy studies, along with literature.
DH: Which are the most important local and national SF&F associations?
The ESSF, chiefly, as a proper ‘association’. There are other groups, such as the Nihad Sharif Cultural Salon (done in honour of Nihad Sharif).
There is also the Abd Al-Qadir Al-Husseini Institute, which has an SF section chaired by Muhammad Naguib Matter, and there is a science fiction section in the Egyptian Writer’s Union.
DH: Which are the printing houses that publish mainly SF and Fantasy?
Good question. No one specialises in it as such but the Modern Arab Association published the pocketbook novella series of Nabil Farouk and Ahmed Khaled Tawfik. There is Al-Fantasiun for Publishing and Distribution (Fantasiun means the Fantasists or Fantasy Lovers) which has a formidable collection of SF, fantasy and horror and supernatural thrillers. There is also Dar Al-Kinzy, Al-Maktaba Al-Arabiya for Publishing and Distribution, Shahrazad for Publishing and Distribution, Yavi for Publishing and Distribution, The International Group for Publishing and Distribution, and Dar Kitab for Publishing and Distribution. They don’t deal mainly with SFF but they are good places to go to by all means for genre literature, and willing to take a risk on new authors.
Something very interesting happened at the Cairo International Book Fair this year. There was a small explosion of SF, novels and anthologies. Normally you struggle to find any SF, or find it listed under something else, like horror, but this time there was a surprising number of publishers that had at least one SF novel – some post-apocalyptic, some involving prophecies, some dystopian, some dealing with the topic of revolution and what follows. Also a number of authors, some I met myself, who are moving into SF for the first time.
DH: Which are the most popular SF&F conventions in Egypt? What are their main attractions?
My friend Ahmed Al-Mahdi can help you in that department more than me. There is EGYcon, however, for comics and graphic novels. They held the latest one at the Greek campus in Tahrir.
DH: Who are the main author names in today’s Egyptian SF&F?
Ahmed Khaled Tawfik (God rest his soul), Nabil Farouk, the famous pocketbook authors although Ahmed Khaled Tawfik did heavy duty novels as well, Utopia most famously. Ahmed Al-Mahdi and Ammar Al-Masry, hard SF writers, although Ahmed Al-Mahdi does a lot of fantasy and Young Adult as well. Eslam Samir Abdel Rahman (more a horror and fantasy author), Wael and Mahmoud Abdel Rahman (brothers, also more horror and thriller writers). Muhammad Rabei, author of the dystopian Otared (Mercury) and also Basma Abdel Al-Aziz who did the dystopian The Queue (although she doesn’t see herself as an SF author). There is a new author Osama Al-Tarabulsi, author of 2027, originally a very successful historical novelist.
DH: Give us some names of SF&F Egyptian graphic artists.
The person I know is Ammar Gammal, who does illustrations and front covers for SF, fantasy and horror novels. He’s really talented and very considerate. He doesn’t always give you what you had in mind but he understands what you’re trying to get at and always surprises you in the end. And he’s very quick too and equally good in colour and black and white.
Ahmed Al-Mahdi also does illustrations and started out his career as a graphic artist.
DH: What makes Egyptian SF original?
Lots of things. There is the overlap between fantasy (legends, myths, fairy tales) and SF, producing a really original mix. It works better in Arabic than English, you will be surprised to know, and Arab authors borrow confidently from fairy tale traditions from other cultures.
Spirituality and religion. Most Egyptian SF is very anti-materialist, at variance with most Western SF. They see progress as there to serve a greater cause, a Godly wisdom; the need to temper science and technology with ethics and spiritual values is overwhelming. There is also sensitivity, a deep sympathy and gentleness much Egyptian SF authors have. Always trying to look at things from the other person’s perspective. Always trying to give others the benefit of the doubt. Surprising the reader when you find that the so-called bad guy has his own reasons for what he’s doing and discover that he/she have their own code of honour.
Egyptian SF authors don’t think in a Darwinian way, even though a great deal of early Egyptian SF was written by medical doctors. Bear in mind that topics like religious fanaticism and religious charlatanism are themes in modern Egyptian SF. Some Egyptian SF is also quite radical, claiming primitive man had contact with other aliens or that man was transplanted onto Earth by alien species, but the spiritual view of the world is still there.
Closely related to this is the need to learn from history, not just avoiding mistakes of the past; that’s normal in Western SF, almost clichéd. But there is the idea of history as both a friend and an enemy, the passage of time corrupting you if you are not careful and unravelling civilizations, no matter how technological. I’d add that our knowledge of history is firsthand, not taken from history textbooks. Compare The Postman (novel and movie) to Ahmed Al-Mahdi’s post-apocalyptic Malaaz: The City of Resurrection, which has a Steampunk feel to it and is grounded in models from Mamluk history and ancient Egypt.
Political satire and dystopia is another common characteristic, from Sabri Musa (author of The Lord from the Spinach Field) to Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, Muhammad Rabei and Basma Abdel Aziz, and also some less well known authors like Moataz Hassanien with his dystopian novella 2063. We also understand Utopia and dystopia in a very different way to conventional Western SF, and given that dystopia is so popular now among Egyptian writers and readers we’re making an original contribution to dystopian literature. A new novel in this regard by a non-SF wrier is 2035: The Capital of Mental Health by Hussam Hassan.