In Palestine +100, twelve writers imagine what Palestine might be like in 2048, 100 years after the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), which in 1948 witnessed more than 700,000 Palestinians fleeing their homes. This astounding collection of Palestinian sci-fi–the first of its kind–follows the success of Comma Press’s Iraq + 100, which comprises stories by Iraqi writers who imagine what their country will look like in 2103, 100 years after the 2003 American and British-led invasion of Iraq.
Edited by Basma Ghalayini, Palestine +100 brims with innovative works of science fiction by some of today’s finest Palestinian writers. The collection is out now on Comma Press in the UK and will appear soon in the US on Tor.
I spoke with Ghalayini about what inspired the collection, why more Palestinians than ever before are trying their hands at science fiction, and why the word “political” means something different to Palestinian writers than to writers in the West.
Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired this collection?
I read about the earlier book that Comma Press produced, Iraq +100, where Iraqi writers were asked to imagine a future for their country a century after the American/British invasion of 2003, and I thought Palestine’s troubled relationship with a similar invasion-like event, the Nakba, would be ripe for a similar exploration. Palestinian writers and artists have a unique burden or obligation to preserve the country’s cultural heritage, after more than 78% of that country was stolen from them; this cultural duty, which everyone feels, means that much 20th century Palestinian writing has been looking backwards, looking at the past – by necessity. Very rarely are Palestinians afforded the luxury of looking forward. I thought applying the ‘+100’ format to Palestine would allow them, for once, to do both; to pay homage to the importance of what was lost in 1948, whilst also stepping into a more open, freer space: the future. I also liked the way the first book, Iraq + 100, didn’t shy away from the elephant in the room (what the West did in 2003). It even included the word invasion in the subtitle. It meant you couldn’t cover the book without acknowledging 2003.
Beyond their Palestinian heritage, do the writers in this collection share other similarities? Perhaps in their aesthetic choices or in how they approach their craft?
The stories are all tremendously different; in many respects, no one story is like the other. The first thing these writers did share, however, was the simple fact that most of them had never thought of writing science fiction before. Like most people, they had all grown up reading science-fiction classics, and watching sci-fi films and TV shows, but it hadn’t occurred to them that it could be used as a vehicle to tell their own story.
The second thing they all had in common was how, despite their initial hesitation (and doubt that they would be able to respond to this brief), they all quickly became consumed by ideas, and in the end we were inundated by stories; we didn’t have space to include them all. There are many common themes in the stories: one is the equation, in many stories, of peace with forgetfulness, or consensual delusion. Two stories talk about a treaty in the future which will ban the very study of history (covering the conflict from 1948 onwards), and another story posits the idea of a ‘fake peace’ predicated on a fake reality altogether, a mass hallucination. Similarly others explore the ideas of utopias (certainly from an Israeli point of view), which may not be existentially fake, but are at least slightly hollow. Anwar Hamed’s “The Key” imagines ghosts of Palestinians trying to return to their houses, in lost lands, in an otherwise picture-perfect future Israel. Emad el-Din Aysha’s “Digital Nation” imagines a similar, almost perfect Israel, suddenly beset by a virtual, hacker-led uprising. In this sense, the stories follow the old Philip K Dick hunch, that the point of world-building (in a science fiction context at least) is actually to watch those worlds fall apart, to watch them become unglued (and maybe see how characters cope with it).
This taps into a second theme in the book, which is the invincibility of the Palestinian identity; you can’t kill it. No matter what happens to in these various, fantastical futures, it won’t die, and everyone else needs it to stay alive too. Mazen Maarouf’s story imagines the last living Palestinian, in a world where all other Palestinians have been wiped out. In Maahrouf’s crazy imagination, despite having apparently ‘won’ this battle with Palestine, Israel suddenly becomes dependent (for its very existence) on keeping this last, surviving Palestinian alive.
A third common thread is the sense that what the authors are really writing about is today. Saleem Haddad’s story “The Song of the Birds” is technically set in 2048, but the reality that exists just beyond thin veneer of the mass hallucination is actually no different essentially from the chaos and suffering of Gaza today–or, more specifically, the chaos and suffering of April/May last year, during the Great March of Return protests, when the story was written. The blue-pill/red-pill type choice facing the protagonist is also a metaphor for questions that torture diaspora Palestinians right now: do you return and fight for your people, or do you just pretend nothing is happening? It’s also arguably a metaphor for the suicide problem in Palestine right now, especially among young men. In this way, the stories are all really about now. Not the future, and not the past of 1948, but right now. I guess that is their most binding, common thread.
Why has sci-fi become more popular among Palestinian writers? Is there something that sci-fi allows Palestinian writers to do that other genres don’t?
Science fiction has definitely become a more popular device in other art forms–the visual artist Larissa Sansour uses it in multiple ways in her work, for example. But this commission has proved incredibly popular, and since we raised the idea, many authors have gone on to write more work in the genre. There’s an audience for it out in the West, for sure. The questions is sustaining the audience for it in Arabic, and in Palestine specifically. The thing that sci-fi allows Palestinian writers to do first and foremost is escape the burden of the present; it allows them to step out of a present in which everything is divided on partisan lines, petty differences, and inescapable feuds. Everything connected to the present is capable of being weaponized, or read in a way it wasn’t meant to be read. Science fiction allows authors to pull back, zoom out, and take in the wider, Palestinian, Arab and human picture. Maybe that sounds a little idealistic, and naive, but that’s the potential at least.
Clearly this collection has great artistic merit. But would you also consider it political?
Being ‘political’ in the West is different to being political in Palestine. Whereas in the West, it’s a choice, you can choose to be politically involved or not, you can chose to write a political short story, or a merely ‘human’ short story. For Palestinians there’s no choice. Everything is political, you’re very existence is political; your status as a citizen or a refugee has been defined by politics (more specifically Israeli politics: for instance, all Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank have to have an Israeli ID – issued, controlled and monitored by the Israelis). In Gaza, a fie year-old is able to distinguish between different types of IDF explosions just as a five year-old in the UK might be able to distinguish between different types of flowers or bird songs. You don’t get to choose to be a political person; it’s forced upon you.
When your four-year-old child asks you why we have to read by candle-light most evenings (Gaza is subject to daily power-cuts, between four and eight hours long), you can’t avoid explaining it to them. When I was eight years old, impatient to get home after school to catch the latest episode of The Bold of the Beautiful, I crossed a road in which there was a battle taking place between IDF soldiers and resistance fighters. I couldn’t wait for a lull in the fighting and took my chances. I was hit in the leg by a rubber bullet and spent the night in hospital. My point is: this is normal. I lost nine members of my extended family in the 2014 bombing, all of whom were asleep in the beds at 5:00 am when a single missile struck their apartment block in Rafah. This is normal.
When we were putting the finishing touches to this book, we asked the authors and the Palestinian translators to add a line in their bios at the back of the book about how the Nakba in particular affected them and their families, and for everyone, it had a drastic, seismic impact. Pretty much everyone lost their home, was displaced, turned into a refugee–or worse.
You write in the introduction that in the wider world of Arab writers, Egyptians—especially Egyptian women—are writing more sci-fi and fantasy. Why is this?
If you’re an Arab, there is a pervasive censorship being exerted on what you can and can’t say at all times – both inside and outside the Arab world. Inside the Arab world, there is cultural censorship, of course, dictated by religion and religiously inspired ‘tradition’ (though to what extent that tradition is a modern construct is open to question); there is also political censorship as dictated by your particular government (Egypt’s President Sisi has bowed to pressures and allowed writers to be sent to jail for things like sexual content, for example; in Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, of course, it is even worse); and then there is the particular kind of censorship that applies to women. Whereas men can say and do certain things, women aren’t always allowed to express themselves in the same way.
But it’s not just ‘Arab on Arab’ censorship, of course. The West, and the rest of the world also effectively censors Arab (and particularly Palestinian) voices. If you’re a Palestinian in the West and try to talk about the conditions of life in Gaza, for instance, you’re effectively silenced by either the actual accusation of anti-Semitism, or more often the feared potential accusation of it, and how that might reflect badly on the platform you’re using to talk about it. Palestinians and people sympathetic to the Palestinian cause are being excluded from festivals. The American rapper Talib Kweli was recently uninvited from the Germany’s Open Source Festival because of his expressed sympathies for the BDS movement (in fact, BDS has been made effectively illegal in Germany because of a ruling classing it as anti-Semitic). A book like Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me is read widely and respected in the States, for instance, but no one dared review it there. One Canadian magazine ran a very light interview with Saif and was hit by a very well-coordinated barrage of anti-Semitism claims. No one else would touch it.
That’s one of the reasons that this series appealed to me in the first place; my hope is that, in the largely fantastical arena of SF, there won’t be such a need to shut us down, as we’re not actually talking about the real world here. But we’ll see.
What’s next for you?
Basma Ghalayini[Comma Press is] looking to commission a series of horror short stories connected to historical, Arabic events. The inspiration for that is partly the early work of Guillermo Del Toro–The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. He showed horror’s remarkable and unlikely capacity for bringing to life historical ‘skeletons’ (in his case the Spanish Civil War). We’d love to try to emulate this in some small way, with Middle Eastern history. We’re also in conversation with the author Maya Abu al-Hayat who will be editing The Book of Ramallah as part of Comma’s on-going city anthology series.
Edited by Basma Ghalayini
Published July 25, 2019
Basma Ghalayini is an Arabic translator and interpreter who has previously translated short fiction from the Arabic for the KFW Stifflung series, Beirut Short Stories, published on addastories.org, and Comma projects, such as Banthology and The Book of Cairo (edited by Raph Cormack). She was born in Khan Younis, and spent her early childhood in the UK until the age of five, before returning to the Gaza Strip.
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.