From Palestinian Ogres to Avian Quests: Naomi Foyle’s Top Ten Islamic (ish) SFF Titles
Thank you Olivia for inviting me to mark the release of the Rook Song mass market paperback by rustling up a listicle to the JFB blog. There were many flight paths I could have taken – I modestly think of Rook Song as a polyphonic hymn to human diversity – but fresh back from a trip to Lebanon and Palestine, I’ve decided to focus on how the book opened doors for me into Islamic literature.
The novel, set outside Astra’s insular Gaian world, introduced characters from a variety of post-Abrahamic religions and it was a challenge for me, still a pagan at heart, to convey the roots of their world in our own. While I have a foothold in the Judeo-Christian tradition I was brought up in, I confess I knew very little about Islam – except that nearly everything I read about it in the mainstream media bore no relation whatsoever to the general outlook and behaviour of my Muslim friends and colleagues. Exploring the religion through the magic keyhole of Islamic science fantasy has become a fascinating part of my journey into the Chronicles.
The great Palestinian novelist and Israeli Communist Party co-founder, Habiby was a Christian, but this was the first book of contemporary Arab SFF I ever read, and its delicate weave of myth, folklore and history was a magic carpet that brought me to the threshold of Islamicate SF. Ever so lightly making good on the introduction’s promise of blending science fiction with fairy tale, Habiby’s final work ultimately asks if a people can ever truly be free if they themselves imprison Saraya – the creative imagination – in the ogre’s castle of constant political struggle. First published in Arabic in 1991, the novel-cum-autobiography asks vital questions of any dogmatic world view, and presaged the cultural resistance movement now blossoming in Palestine.
The glowing lamp in which the genre still burns bright, and the souk in which fantastical tales are still traded, old for new and new for old. Returning to Shahrazad’s marathon – probably recalling Aladdin more from Disney than bedtime stories – to discover that, like the Grimms’ fairy tales, the Arabian Nights bristle with sex, violence and social conflict, has been an absorbing task. Tales featuring humanoid and horse robots are credited as proto-SF, but most illuminating for my own journey have been Sindbad’s adventures, the Sailor’s thirst for foreign travel emboldening me to continue my own cross-cultural explorations.
Set in an unidentified repressive Gulf state, this metaphysical thriller by the American graphic novelist and journalist has helped put Islamic SFF firmly on the map: computer hack Alif, struggling as the son of an Indian mother deserted by his Arab father, develops uncanny programming abilities that rattle the state and propel him on a interdimensional adventure with two niqabi heroines, fearsome djinn and ruthless secret police, a cat and, in perhaps a metafictional nod to the author, a female American convert. Reflections on the role of the supernatural in the Quran, and women and converts in Arab cultures, make this a page turner with theological depth and cutting-edge political relevance. Also including three romances, altogether this is a magical read.
The book that set Saudi Arabia buzzing, this boy’s own adventure into alternate reality is a flawed but refreshing read, captivating in its open zest for knowledge, and stereotype-busting portrayals of the insecure hero Husam and his sexually assertive, butt-kicking romantic interest Malak. Let down by an awkward translation, this is nevertheless a fun, touching and important book that depicts a Muslim man’s sense of responsibility to and respect for his female relatives, reveals a Saudi author’s keen interest in global culture, and ends with a narrative twist that grounds Husam’s spiritual insight in contemporary brain science.
An alternative history classic, in which Muslim Africans have colonised North America and with the help of Vikings and Zulus, raid Celtic nations for plantation slaves, and fodder for wars with the powerful Aztecs. Penned by a white writer this might have been a reactionary scenario: a way of glibly implying that ‘blacks can be racist too’; from African-American Barnes it’s a confident thought experiment that offers haunting reflections on a present in which African-American and Indigenous people’s lives are still at risk on their own soil. Islam is foregrounded in the novel, presented as an intellectually complex system which attempts to channel and refine human violence: morally through a renunciation of the self; physically, through a form of Sufic martial arts. Yet though his religion holds itself intellectually superior to the ‘primitive’ tree worship of the Celts, the wealthy Kai is deeply affected by his childhood friendship with the Irish slave Aidan, and the drama of their lifelong relationship makes this an emotionally engrossing work of literature.
Here’s some Islamic SF by, like me, a white non-Muslim author. Mcdonald’s multiple award-winning novel immerses the reader in Istanbul’s social landscape: his ambitious neo-liberal entrepreneurs, with their ruthless drive for success and twinges of shame at anti-Kurdish racism, are unlikeable but utterly real; the hidden, honey-soaked corpse of the ‘Mellified Man’ gorgeously evoked the world of medieval legend; and two jaded older Greek lovers, parted by political repression, add a subtle pinch of le Carré-esque internationalism into the mix. Different perspectives on Islam emerge, from that of a Turkish professional who feels (perhaps a tad predictably from a Western author) alienated as a woman by the religion, to an old man seeking to blind himself after viewing the secret name of God, and a young delinquent stalked by djinn – a visionary experience never fully explained away by the nanotech that zooms through every page of this scintillating imaginative edifice.
I’m including this social realist novel about the torture of Palestinian militants in an Israeli jail, because its account of the protagonist’s mental deterioration, to the point of a permanent hallucinatory identification with the insects in his cell, is as harrowing as the most riveting horror novel. The suffering of Palestinian political prisoners, still subject to arbitrary detention for indefinite periods, is of course Kafka-esque; and so as a hidden extra I’ll mention here Kafka’s ‘Jackals and Arabs’, an unsettling proto-flash fiction (a form which arguably has roots in the fable) in which desert jackals goad a European traveller to murder the Arab overlords they detest – a disturbing portrait of racism and inequality that might just be an satire on Zionism.
Another tangent, perhaps, as this novel might be more accurately described as Afrofuturism. But the genres overlap, and Okorafor’s novels, which feature young West African heroines negotiating between Islamic and magico-shamanic traditions, offer powerful challenges to the stereotype of the submissive Muslim female. In the YA novel The Shadow Speaker, the burka becomes an ‘invisibility cloak’, useful at times of adolescent body-consciousness. In Who Fears Death, female genital circumcision (an African custom absorbed into Islam in some regions), is realistically portrayed as a painful rite the young Onyesonwu actively desires to undergo, in order to be accepted in her community. As activists have learned, without cultural awareness and sensitivity, this torturous practice cannot be ended, and by humanising the headline, the novel puts Africans’ lived realities at the centre of any such campaigning.
A total cheat, now! This collection of Mesopotamian myths is pre-Islamic by a magnitude of millennia, but in my defense Inanna’s authority, battle prowess and passionate nature find echoes in the lives of the scholar and warrior wives of the Prophet. I’ve written about the Sumerian goddess of love and war extensively elsewhere, and it’s nice to report an update: that Inanna is becoming a figure in the growing movement to reclaim and celebrate the Divine Feminine within Islam.
To get back on track, I’ll end with the book that’s most inspired Book 3 of the Gaia Chronicles, The Blood of the Hoopoe. The Conference of the Birds, a twelfth century Sufi verse allegory for the self’s search for the soul traces the voyage of a group of birds to find their King, the Simorgh. There’s humour in the birds’ excuses to stay at home and their leader the hoopoe’s stern retorts, a wealth of tales told along the way, and a poignant wisdom in the book’s repeated message: that the self is an illusion, and a costly one at that. Yet just when you think you’ve got the picture, as the birds finally approach their elusive goal, Attar enters a new chamber of the mystery. Well worth the voyage.