Literary Hub

The Surreal, Virtual Worlds of Palestinian Science Fiction

As a guest of the annual Palestine Festival of Literature in 2016, my first impressions of the West Bank were marked by the surreal: sand-colored, stubby hills; an excess of barbed wire; rooftops overcrowded with black water cylinders; metallic revolving doors at checkpoints; soldiers dwarfed by their own weapons; a plush, ghostly hotel room with four twin beds in a row just for me; and a truly massive wall slicing a city in half. But there was also the beauty of lush pomegranate trees; the non-stop WiFi on a deluxe bus; preening in tweets and selfies; majestic courtyards; graffiti that popped like it was 3D; and spiky-haired DJs spinning techno at a nightclub.

These strange scenes were comprehensible to me not because of the works of realism produced about Palestine, but rather from the elements of fantastical and dystopic speculative fiction that have always been woven into Palestinian literature and film. Arab-Israeli novelist Emile Habiby’s genre-bending 1974 novel The Secret Life of Said the Pessoptimist is an absurdist satire populated by extra-terrestrials from outer space all in the service of destabilizing and breaking with existing historical narratives of the region.

Filmmaker Elia Suleiman, too, has repeatedly used the speculative to frame his depiction of Palestine. In his darkly comedic Divine Intervention, a glamorous Palestinian woman makes checkpoint towers crumble simply by walking past them, and a keffiyeh-wearing female ninja flies through the air making bullets stop in midair in scenes reminiscent of the X-Men. And only last year, Palestinian Ibrahim Nasrallah’s dystopic novel The Second War of the Dog won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Iraqi Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad are also part of this zeitgeist and have made it more commonplace to imagine events in South Asia or the Middle East through plots that take the reader through destroyed cities, an apocalyptic race for resources, techno-imperial warscapes and monstrous bodies.

It is no surprise then that Palestine + 100, a short story anthology edited by Basma Ghalayini, a translator and scholar from Gaza, takes this existing instinct to new and exciting levels, fully realizing genres that have perhaps had a less prominent presence in the last seven decades of Palestinian literary and artistic production.

Ghalayini’s anthology, published by Comma Press in the UK, consists of 12 stories translated from the Arabic and features established Palestinian writers imagining Palestine in the year 2048, which is 100 years after the Nakba. The Nakba, literally “catastrophe,” refers to the horrifying events of 1948 when Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their land, this “bloodied night” marking their descent into the “map of absence,” as poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote. Can this map of absence be redrawn in ways that offer not only solace and peace, but a livable, viable, breathable future for Palestinians? Each of the 12 writers has attempted this feat through thematically and stylistically wide-ranging stories.

A catchall term for exuberant and imaginative forays into worlds that deviate from the real, speculative fiction can include sci-fi, utopias and dystopias, post-apocalypse, horror and fantasy, as well as superhero stories. Stories from Palestine + 100 are not pure sci-fi and, in fact, lean heavily on the dystopia genre. The science part is still abundant though, with parallel virtual worlds, biometric superiority, gravity walls, dog robots, pollution-repellant face masks, machines that extract children’s imaginations and, at some point, even a spaceship appears over Palestine.

Dreams won’t simply be dreams; the dead may not be dead; the sun, sea and stars may just be projections upon a sky dome.

Setting us off to a running start, the first story, “Song of the Birds,” is written by Saleem Haddad, who made a brilliant debut a few years ago with Guapa, a novel whose queer protagonist moves through an unnamed Arab city engulfed in the tumultuous aftermath of revolution. “Song of the Birds” is set in a liberated Palestine in which fragmentation bullets have imprisoned people in a rose-colored nostalgic narrative and overly optimistic simulations. Teenager Aya comes of age through dream communications with her dead brother, who claims that the real struggle for Palestine never actually ended. He implores her to exit the simulation and join him over there by killing herself, leaving Aya in a crushing bind.

The year 2048 is, thus, immediately not what it seems, and we’re soon mired in phantasms, mirages and twilight zones. The tone is set for the unexpected, where what passes as reality, history, and memory is refracted through the prisms of encoded bodies, artificially produced history and geography, cloned materialities, and digitally generated public and political spheres. Dreams won’t simply be dreams; the dead may not be dead; the sun, sea and stars may just be projections upon a sky dome; and each individual may likely be living in her own perfectly curated virtual world.

Mutating, unreliable virtual histories and digital world-making are themes of many of the stories. Majd Kayal’s melancholic tale, “N,” has characters struggling to connect with one another as a post-war Palestine comprises people sprawled on couches, each one tuning in their own independent wireless reality: “From the moment I collapsed onto my sofa in my library and turned on the reality, an overwhelming warmth passed through the wires and headset. An incomprehensible warmth wrapped itself around the heart and body, sending it into a state of calm.” Kayal’s protagonist is freed from real-life emotional and political tangles by submitting to this “vast library of realities.”

Elsewhere, in Emad El-Din Aysha’s story, a nation has been born virtually. People now live in parallel universes entirely through their headsets. Aysha leans on the side of subversive and hilarious satire when listing the popular games in 2048 as seen through the eyes of a jaded Israeli cyber security director. In “Catering Guy,” players run a chain of restaurants devising marketing strategies to flood the world with Palestinian foods in order to usurp the Israeli service sector. In “The Horticulturalist,” Israelis are experiencing a migration crisis because “Palestinian kibbutzim have turned the deserts green and stolen all the water and topsoil for themselves.” The plot thickens when a pernicious virus infiltrates all the games, potentially layering everything with a Palestinian reality, effectively birthing an uber-powerful, mind-controlling digital nation.

Without doubt, this anthology fleshes out Palestine’s fraught and paradoxical relationship to technology. At once the victims of extraordinary bodily harm through surveillance machinery and violent hi-tech implements, Palestinian resistance movements’ triumphant use of digital mass mobilization is also illustrated by the recent successes of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. A recent Pew Research Center survey also found that support for Palestine has tripled among American youth in the last five years. Surely, social media along with a multiplication of platforms and online writing on the subject are big factors in these cultural shifts. Thus, Palestinian discourse on technology tends to be Manichean, and most characters in this collection exist on this precipice. Israel’s massive investments in science, tech and innovation is suffocating for Palestinians, but again and again, Palestine + 100 revels in the idea that almost any and all incendiary disruption to these science regimes comes in the form of a tantalizing and inventive tech-centric playfulness.

For example, in “Application 39,” by Ahmed Masoud, two friends jokingly hack through online forms to make Palestine the next host for the Olympic Games, inadvertently unifying dozens of physically disconnected and bickering city-states of Masoud’s imagined future. Masoud is no stranger to screens, computers, and communication technologies being put to dysfunctional use: He was part of my cohort that went to a literary festival in Palestine but was turned away at the border after being harassed for several hours. Photos of family members in Gaza that he had not seen for years were projected onto a screen by border officers for gratuitous cruelty and psychological abuse. “Application 39” beautifully explores technology as a double-edged sword.

While reading Palestine + 100, I was reminded of a quality of Palestinian literature that I have always admired—the genuine commitment to offer full and humane depictions of “the other,” or rather “the enemy,” embodied by the figure of the Israeli. Quite a few stories are written from the perspective of Israeli characters. Anwar Hamed evokes that symbolically loaded and historically rich object associated with the Palestinian right of return to land and home: the key. In an Israel entirely secured by a “gravity wall,” with electronic chips as keys made available only to citizens, characters grapple with the pros and cons of living in such a sheltered world. Liberal and conservative Israeli characters debate the system and the plight of Palestinians in what evolves into a spooky tale.

Talal Abu Shawish’s story, “Final Warning,” about an alien invasion of Ramallah also takes the reader through the daily travails of a Jewish settlement. Eventually, different religious groups are forced to consider uniting under the command of a spaceship from another planet in order to recuperate the sun, which these superior beings have covered up. Sure, plenty of bad Israelis populate these pages, but there are also sincere attempts to work through the idea that this conflict and whatever its outcome do not solely impact Palestinians, but have deep psychic and political reverberations for Israelis, too.

In the end, a depressing aspect of this anthology is that all the writers seem certain that 2048 will not have brought actual freedom. All the stories, despite their diversity of themes and stylistic experimentation, seem united in their pessimistic vision. In her introduction, editor Ghalayini writes that Palestinians displaced from their homelands are “like nomads traveling across a landscape of memory.” The memories being recorded in the 12 stories come to us from the future, but this future is essentially a rigorous extrapolation of recent pasts.

The world-building of speculative fiction may mean that we experience intergalactic trajectories, children riding on backs of dragons, humans falling in love with alternate species, and endless entries and exits into apocalyptic wars. But the moral, emotional, and affective structures of these worlds rarely depart from what we are accustomed to as universal truths: good is always better than evil, love is a heady elixir, heroes are duty-bound, saviorism is virtue, and everything from objects to clothing to interpersonal dynamics live on a gender binary. So even if speculative fiction’s inherent frameworks are often thin soup, these narratives can successfully allow us to experience thrill, novelty, excitement and exhilaration.

This Palestinian sci-fi collection certainly has its thrilling highs, and the humor, wherever its present, can be biting but gratifying. But the future is bleak. Technocratic rule, an adamant and violent Israeli stronghold and a truly splintered Palestinian polity are the main visions in future memories. While these futures may seem exaggerated to most, it appears that the writers found liberation in these fictions by reaching foregone conclusions; devising and imagining the future was an opportunity to assert what the present actually feels like.

Just as we do when Handmaid’s Tale or Black Mirror plots unfold on the screen, you are most likely to read Palestine + 100 and say, this is now.

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