In Conversation: Passing the Baton of Egyptian Science Fiction, Post-Arab Spring 

Organized and translated by Emad El-Din Aysha. Emad comments:

This is a roundtable discussion among several members of لجمعية المصرية لأدب الخيال العلمي‎, the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF). The ESSF was founded in 2012 shortly after the Egyptian January 2011 revolution. In that moment, a group of people who had largely lost hope of all change in Egyptian life—scientists, academics, artists, writers, poets—felt that everything had changed, and that they could now make a constructive contribution towards building the future. This conversation took place in late 2018, and was conducted predominantly in Arabic. Discussants were Manal Abd Al-Hamid, Ahmed Al-Mahdi, Emad El-Din Aysha, Hosam El-Zembely, Muhammad Naguib Matter, and Kadria Said.

Thank you all for participating. First off, how did you learn of the ESSF and the Shams Al-Ghad [‘Sun of Tomorrow’] series of anthologies?

Muhammad Naguib Matter: Via the internet! I saw an advert for an ESSF salon and I attended it, and since then I haven’t missed an event. For me, something like the ESSF, such a group, used to be pure fantasy. The literary scene here in Egypt is completely void of SF workshops. Yes, there are some cultural salons, like the one in Giza, dedicated to the memory of Nihad Sharif, the dearly departed pioneer of Egyptian science fiction. There’s also a salon for science fiction in Aswan, in southern Egypt. But these events are lacking: they essentially do one thing, which is to host big names in the world of literature to talk about their works. They leave no room at all to learn something. There are no workshops. So that’s what drew me straight away to the ESSF. It’s filling that gap.

Hosam El-Zembely: A small note here for our foreign readers. Nihad Sharif (1932-2011), a family friend, was perhaps the first Egyptian writer to really specialise in writing science fiction. but he wasn’t the very first to write science fiction. In particular, Tawfiq Al-Hakim (1898-1987) and Mustafa Mahmoud (1921-2009) wrote before him in the 1950s and 60s. Tawfiq Al-Hakim was a great and gifted writer of SF but he only wrote a little. His real claim to fame was theatre and literary criticism, although he never forgot to promote the imagination in his long and illustrious career. Mustafa Mahmoud, another family friend, was an Islamic thinker primarily and stopped writing science fiction almost as soon as he began writing it. That’s a real tragedy, because he proved to us all that you could write full-length science fiction novels in Arabic with superb literary style. We all know his novels A Man Under Zero and The Spider. But Nihad Sharif’s The Lord of Time — about cryogenic freezing — is what really got the ball rolling. That, and Number 4 Warns You, a reference to Mars warning Earth about impending nuclear annihilation.

Manal Abd Al-Hamid: I became acquainted with the ESSF through my esteemed friend Professor Muhammad Naguib Matter. I’ve been working with the group for some years, and I participated in the fourth volume of Shams Al-Ghad, Al-Muntasirun [‘The Victors’]. I’d like to put it on record that if it were not for him, I would have never have learned of ESSF! He was the one who encouraged me to write science fiction, and dispelled the fear of undertaking this completely new experiment.

Kadria Said: Through my dear friend Muhammad Naguib Matter. We met at special cultural events held monthly at the Ministry of Culture, dedicated to promoting and studying children’s literature. He frequented these gatherings and so we got to know each other there.

Something else to commend about the ESSF is that we cover technological and scientific research, by showing video clips or providing short introductions to innovations and discoveries. So far, it’s been the members of the ESSF who have made these presentations. What would really be good is to invite scientists and engineers to talk about the latest innovations, and to keep track of the latest recipients of the Nobel Prize. We need to promote scientific awareness in our country and actually having scientific researchers involved could make a tremendous contribution.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi: Me, I learned about the society from my friend Emad. He introduced me to Dr. El-Zembely, and I found him to be warm and welcoming and really keen to promote young authors. So I joined. This was only in 2017, and I have already been asked by the ESSF to participate at the cultural salons by introducing authors, genres, and also by making small scientific presentations, like on the occasion of Stephen Hawking’s passing away. It’s a really good atmosphere if you are young and want to meet people and contribute.

I met Emad himself at an event at the American University in Cairo, where he used to work. We bumped into each other after a translation lecture on Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea.1 We’re both Le Guin fans. Me, her fantasy writings. Him, the science fiction.

Emad El-Din Aysha: I bought the very first edition of Shams Al-Ghad on the street, second-hand, and found that it was a publication of the ESSF. That got me interested. I didn’t know such societies existed in Egypt. And I was out of work at the time in 2016, no university and no journalism, so I thought of going into literary translation, and science fiction was my thing.

So I went to the bookstore of the publisher to make inquiries, and went to the designated address in Abdeen, in a street a stone’s throw away from the Abdeen Palace, where King Farouk used to reside. And couldn’t find the bookshop. Eventually some kindly souls, seeing me walking back and forth, took pity on me … and explained that the shop had closed down. Even though it had only just opened, several months before, with a great fanfare. The publisher disappeared without a word of explanation.

I kept asking around, and finally a friend at a bookshop – he’s got his own bookstore now – explained what happened. The publisher had rented an apartment to open his shop in but then got into a dispute with one of the owners; the apartment was part of a family inheritance. And the said individual was not a person to mess around with, being a high-ranking police officer. So the publisher got booted out, and now has to sell things directly from the printing press, in an industrial city out in the middle of nowhere! Anyway, that’s how I found out about the ESSF. You hear a lot of colourful stories like that in this country.

What drew you to science fiction itself, and when?

Muhammad Naguib Matter: Science fiction has been on my mind since I was an engineering student, when we studied relativity theory and quantum mechanisms. We were studying things that were far stranger than fiction, and yet these things were scientifically valid, grounded in mathematics and experimentation. From that point, I was hooked. But I got tied up with my work life and the struggle to make a living. It was only when I had finally put many of my responsibilities behind me, that I began to devote myself to science fiction. After passing sixty!

A bit late, I know, to start writing. But those questions which had haunted me when I was doing my Bachelors in Engineering continued to haunt me. Besides, the studying of science fiction itself is compulsory to me, almost a kind of worship – what I call the act of worship through thinking, thinking about God’s creation. Science fiction gives us a huge scope to explore and to invent in the world of God’s creation. It’s a mental kind of worship, using your mind to study the workings of God’s creations, the signs of His wisdom in the world around us. I consider this thinking to be one of the supreme kinds of worship.

Kadria Said: For me, my journey with science fiction also relates to higher education, beginning in 2001 to 2002. I did my Masters on science fiction, and my PhD on children’s literature. And that’s when I began reading in earnest. My favourite authors are Jules Verne, Nihad Sharif, and Roaf Wasfy. I would have liked to read more, but work got in the way. Work with the Ministry of Culture can actually get in the way of doing cultural activities for yourself and for others! 

I’ve always believed in the educational role of science fiction, especially in our country. We need to interest our children in science and inform them of great discoveries and the men and women responsible for them. Stories are the perfect vehicle for this, especially compared to the dry textbooks we use at school, with the emphasis often on learning by heart instead of truly understanding. We should focus more on teaching methods of thinking, not just facts. That’s how we can expand children’s horizons. We want to unleash their imagination. And I always describe the science fiction I like as the ‘manufacture of hope.’ In Egypt, and the Arab world generally, I think we are nowadays too committed to realism and so to pessimism.

My only qualm with the novels of the younger generation, at least those that I have read, is the need for scientific accuracy and scientific explanation. This is a bit lacking at times. Ahmed Al-Mahdi should have done more of this in The Black Winter, talking about radiation sickness as well as the radioactive ash creating a nuclear winter. His previous novel Malaaz: The City of Resurrection had far more scientific details in it, as well as new technologies such as robots and energy modules. It was very impressive. I like Black Winter a great deal, but it was written more in an action-adventure format, the kind that has taken hold since the January 2011 revolution. Most of the young SF writers I have read don’t inaccurate facts as such, but rather avoid scientific details altogether. It’s a shame. And many young SF authors are not specialising in science fiction but fantasy, including dark fantasy, which seems to be more popular.

Still, I’m very optimistic. Look at Ammar Al-Masry and his two Atlantis novels (Shadows and Throne of Atlantis), and Muhammad Al-Naghi with his novel Irtidad [‘Backwards’], and Wael and Mahmoud Abel-Raheem. Their writing is very good and getting better, and they are facing up to the odds. And there are many factors working against them.

Manal Abd Al-Hamid: I began writing at a young age. First just notes for myself. But later as a school teacher I began doing short stories for class and also for radio. Then I began writing novels. My first came out in 2013. I’m proud to say I have seven novels and several anthologies to my name, mostly horror, and also some non-fiction history writing. That’s my original field of study.

Science fiction is new to me but, in my opinion, it is more than just a popular kind of literature with a wide fan base. It plays an additional role because it offers alternative visions and different interpretations of the future. So science fiction can soothe people’s fears about the shape of the future. At the same time, it can serve as an early warning call, giving an awareness of the magnitude of the coming changes, and alerting us to the potential dangers of the world to come.

The ESSF’s Shams Al-Ghad series introduces a collection of the best emerging science fiction writers in Egypt. It’s an excellent opportunity, especially for new writers who might not have reached such an audience. I think it promises a bright future for science fiction in Egypt. 

Emad El-Din Aysha: Watched a lot of sci-fi television when I was a kid, from Blake Seven to Max Headroom, and even more of science documentaries—Carl Sagan and David Attenborough. But I came a bit late to reading SF in the 1980s. Was adjusting from English to Arabic while growing up—I was born originally in England. The Rats of Nimh and Asimov and Clarke, and then PKD, set me straight. Came even later to Arabic SF, thanks to Ahmed, starting 2016.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi: Don’t mention it! As for me, in my childhood I used to read the Future File pocketbook series by Dr. Nabil Farouk, and I enjoyed it very much. Then Dr. Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s translations introduced me to Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and others, and thus I got hooked onto science fiction.

Would you care to elaborate for the benefit of our Vector readers about Nabil Farouk and Ahmed Khaled Towfik and the pocketbook series? Towfik is mostly know internationally for his novel Utopia.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi: Sure. I began reading Mahmoud Salim, from the Modern Arab Association publishing house, who also published Nabil Farouk, Ahmed Khaled Towfik, and Raof Wasfy. Mahmoud Salim wasn’t science fiction — he wrote espionage and mystery thrillers, books like The Thirteen Devils and The Five Adventurers, the best novels for kids and young adults at this time. You could get them in my school library. A few years later, I was buying something from the supermarket, and I found a young man reading a novel. It was one of Nabil Farouk’s Impossible Man spy series, and it reminded me of those other novels I used to love. So I asked him about it, and he pointed me to a nearby bookstore. The book only cost one Egyptian pound. It was the first time I’d ever bought a proper book. Soon I would sav e all my allowance to buy Farouk’s novels. And then when my brother and I found out t hat Farouk also had another series, the Future File pocketbooks, we were thrilled. We bought every novel in that series too. And eventually we learned about Ahmed Khalid Towfiq, and I read all his novels too.

Nabil Farouk is better at writing thrillers, with all the chases and the fights, and even the Future File series is really more about the thriller and mystery elements than the SF elements. The early ones are basically whodunnit novels in a futuristic setting. Towfik is better at philosophical and psychological themes. One of his best series is Safari, which is about an Egyptian medical doctor in tropical Africa, about diseases and tribes and so on. Its exploration of psychology is great: how people think and what they believe. Towfik has really only written a few SF  works. He leans toward dystopia, and he focuses more on the rotten regimes than the SF elements. Some of his adult SF novels are developments of his YA stories. In the Tunnel with the Rats he took from a story in the Salim and Salma paranormal series. Shaabib was taken from his novella Jonathan’s Promise, where the Arab diaspora is given a country of its own by the US. His novel Utopia is an original narrative though.

Manal Abd Al-Hamid: I think both of these wonderful authors had a tremendous impact, as each had his own school as well as a sizeable library of works. Many younger authors follow their lead, their style and subject in writing, despite the variety of authors and their differing politics and means of expressing themselves.

Emad El-Din Aysha: Practically everyone I’ve spoken to in the Arab world, SF writers from Morocco to Yemen, say they started out life reading the Egyptian pocketbook series of Nabil Farouk and Ahmed Khaled Towfik. There’s Nihad Sharif too, but what drew them to the field was, you could say, ‘the pulps.’ What kept SF alive in the West, after Verne and Wells, was pulp sci-fi. There’s a lesson there for all of us. Don’t quite know what that lesson is, but it’s there!

Ahmed Al-Mahdi: And here is something most people don’t know. Raof Wasfy, even though he did the Nova pocketbook series, got an award from the Dickens Society for International Novels!

What interrupted the activities of the ESSF, in 2013 specifically, which is a year when the society was at its peak, publishing three anthologies in one year?

Hosam El-Zembely: Well, as director of the ESSF, I viewed what took place on 3 July 2013 as a military coup. And consequently, as a sort of civil protest, I halted all of the activities of the society. With the passing of time, the need to reactivate the society grew strong, as sci-fi writers all around Egypt and the Arab world were asking for its return. So we came back.

Muhammad Naguib Matter: We were tremendously successful, so early on. We attracted new authors to the fold who have now, since that fateful year, become successful writers … if not necessarily all in science fiction. Still, I am optimistic that there is lots of talent out there. I saw this with my own eyes in our group. The problem is that the young face terrible problems, in science fiction like anything else. There is the culture of cliques, groups of friends and connections in the world of literature, that block anyone new coming in, or make sure that they don’t get recognized, portioning out literary prizes among themselves. 

This generation is the only hope for this country, compared to my generation certainly. Of course, perhaps we didn’t have the advantages they have either. In my day and age it was a struggle even to photocopy something from a book. We had to go to the public library and leave our national ID cards with the library staff to be able to photocopy something. Now, all you have to do is to press down on the keyboard and you instantly have all the information you want about something, from every conceivable angle. But it’s more than just that. For the young today, the universe is a panorama where they see everything. It’s impossible to trick them about anything. They can find out what is really happening. The young are far more conscious of things than my generation is. That is why I’m gambling on them. They will create a new Egypt that is nothing like the old Egypt, completing new projects for the country we couldn’t dream of.

Kadria Said: I can’t confirm the nepotism in literary awards, but that is the rumour you hear. I’ve been too preoccupied with academic work to join associations for too long.

Did you encounter any problems with the publishers over the Shams Al-Ghad series?

Hosam El-Zembely: Let me give a list of problems! One, there is no linguistic review board at the publishers for proofing and editing. Two, the quality of the printed material is not as expected. Three, the marketing plan was defective and insufficient. Four, there was no commitment to publishers even for a signing ceremony! Five, SF publications come very last on their list of priorities.

Kadria Said: It’s not just the publishers. It’s the Ministry of Culture. Science fiction is just not a priority for the Ministry.

Muhammad Naguib Matter: Definitely. Of course we encountered problems. Dealing with publishers is almost the biggest problem facing us. Of course, all they are interested in is profits. We’re not like that. We took money out of our pockets to get our work published. Well, Dr. Hosam El-Zembely did, I should say. He financed the first editions of Shams Al-Ghad and the contests and the cultural salons. 

Fortunately, with time, we have gotten over this hurdle. Publishers we have dealt with in the past now trust us and are confident that our books, science fiction, can make them profits. So the publisher is now willing to invest his own money to publish our books.

We were initially planning to collect membership fees, something like a 100 Egyptian pounds to join one of our contests, but the young contributors said flatly … no. We’re not paying a single penny! So Dr. El-Zembely had to pay for everything. And bear in mind that competitions do cost money to run. Again, Dr. El-Zembely had to pay for this, and still does. Everybody else works for free, such as the judges who read the stories. Everybody tries to pitch in some way or another, but the actual competition costs are incurred by Dr. El-Zembely.

Emad El-Din Aysha: I can chip in here. Getting our fifth volume out was agony. It was supposed to come out at the Cairo International Book Fair for 2018, and everyone who is anyone tries to get their books out at the book fair. I checked the publisher’s stall, the one for our book, and every single time I went they said our volume was coming … either at the end of the day, or early the next day. It only arrived, I think, in the last three days of the fair. And, during the fair, I actually heard Dr. El-Zembely calling the publisher to ask him to click on the ‘share’ icon on the Facebook post for the book, and the man on the other end said he was too busy. Too busy to push a button that will get him money!

Muhammad Naguib Matter: Plus the publisher was too cheap to put a ‘contents’ page into the printed book. And I did it for him in the Word document.

What are the mechanisms you use for the Shams Al-Ghad anthologies? How do you contact the writers, pick stories, and decide on prizes?

Muhammad Naguib Matter: We worked with Dr. Hosam El-Zembely, the director and founder of the ESSF, on a philosophy. That philosophy is to throw a stone into still waters and stir things up, drawing to ourselves the young who are eager for change. 

We mainly advertise our contests online, on the ESSF’s Facebook page, and on any other literary page that allows for advertising other people’s contests. We sometimes contact people directly by email to inform them of our contests and also announce the contests at our cultural salons. But posting on our Facebook page has some advantages, as this by itself draws younger contributors.  It also draws older, more established writers, to a field that is entirely new to them, and this is a tremendous benefit to the ESSF and science fiction itself. Science fiction is a very rich and fruitful enterprise, and plays a key function is the popularisation of science and the creation of a culture of science, something our country is in dire need of. That is the first step towards the future. The culture of science has to predominate against the culture of superstition and ignorance, and the culture of tolerance against the culture of extremism and rejection.

As for adjudication, we have taken different approaches to this. Initially we selected judges based on their credentials: not just as noted critics, professors of literature or authors themselves, but also on how close they are to the genre. This is a difficult process in a country like Egypt and we have to look far and wide across the country, in Cairo and Alexandria and the provinces, because we have a profound shortage of SF critics. Out of a thousand critics you will at most find fifty that write about science fiction, so we contact people – by email or phone – who have written in or about SF, fantasy, have science related pursuits, etc. They agree to be judges, on a purely voluntary basis, and we send them the stories in a soft-copy document, minus the names of the authors. Anonymity is essential if you are to avid cronyism, the scourge of literary criticism. A second approach we take is to contact a single individual, an author or academic, and this person selects judges based on personal knowledge of their writing and research. The stories are sent out, again in anonymous format, and the judges return their scores. We have an outline with all the components of what makes a story good both as science fiction and as a literary work. Then we take an average of all the scores and rank the stories and distribute certificates of praise.

Kadria Said: I’m a bit new as a judge and my work duties got in the way for the fifth volume. But I can say that the stories are looked at by authors and critics, and the works are delivered to them minus the names of the contributors for objectivity and fairness. We still need to do more work, however. We need to be more organised as far as judging and ranking stories goes. Which criteria we should be using? We need a meeting where we review existing methods, and brainstorm and discuss our future approach. Some of us are more concerned with style and writing, some with the subject, some with the genre and subgenre. All valid points. I am glad to say that are our sixth edition, The Futurists, which is dedicated to children’s SF, actually had a checklist of points, and scoring by several judges. Sadly, I was not one. But I participated by sending a story instead.

Can you talk a bit about the writing workshops?

Hosam El-Zembely: In 2013 we did a story called “Gravitational Flux” for our third Shams al-Ghad anthology, posting it as a contest online, via Facebook. This was a virtual writing workshop, you could say. The collaborators on the story were myself, Muhammad Naguib Matter, Lamyaa al-Said, Ahmed Badran and Zeinab  Abu Al-Naga. Five authors for a single story, quite an accomplishment. The different contributions were pulled together by Muhammad Naguib Matter.

We tried to repeat this feat in 2017 in a salon but it was not nearly as successful. On Facebook you can take your time. In person, you have to improvise. We may try again, on Google docs perhaps this time. 

Kadria Said: I’m new to the ESSF so I can’t speak about their workshops but I’m a strong supporter of the practice, the idea of collective authorship of a work. I’ve just done a novel with a friend in this fashion. It was a lot of fun too. Some very good TV series have been written that way. 

Also, two of our young members in the ESSF, the brothers Wael and Mahmoud Abdel Al-Raheem, they did their first SF novel Akwan (‘Universes’) that way. One would write, create a dilemma for a key character, and then leave it to the other to solve the problem for the character. Then the second author would in turn create a new challenge for the other writer. But, note that Wael and Mahmoud are brothers. In Egyptian culture, such collaborative practice tends to be difficult, and people often can’t even agree on when to meet and the order in which participants will speak, and how to divide roles.

Emad El-Din Aysha: It’s tough going, that’s for sure. As Dr. El-Zembely was explaining in our first cultural salon, after the ESSF was reopened in 2017, we had a writing workshop in the second half of the event. Dr. El-Zembely read out a passage, about a spaceship getting caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole and being sucked in and the crew bracing themselves for their doom. We all had to chip in from that point onwards. I added that the crew could see the whole of cosmological history, the very birth of the universe, on the journey towards the core of the singularity, but that they weren’t able to make sense of it all – the lessons of history squandered in the heat of the moment. Ahmed Al-Mahdi added that when they reached the core, they found it was a portal into other realities, but that these were gates guarded by beings that held the universe together. Others added technical details on how the crew could learn of the existence of these ethereal beings, scientific-energy readings, and tried to communicate with them and find a common language. 

Everything was going great, as you can see, everyone making their distinct contribution. I’m very historically inclined, Ahmed writes more in fantasy than SF, the other contributors were engineers with degrees in physics. Then one of the guests objected to this whole way of doing things and thought it didn’t add anything of value to the literary process, and she just derailed the whole thing. The story was eventually aborted! She wasn’t a SF person, to be fair, but she was a professor and literary critic. I tried to get a word in edgewise and explain that this is how Mary Shelley did Frankenstein – someone set out an opening scene and she came up with the rest of the tale, verbally – but my protestations went nowhere. Not sure even if anyone could hear me with the argument that ensued. So I’ll have to second what Dr. El-Zembely says. Maybe the virtual approach is better.

Muhammad Naguib Matter: To me, all our cultural salon are workshops. We have critics and authors and enthusiasts in the audience or on the panel discussion of a particular novel and they make criticisms that deal with content, that deal with scientific facts, that deal with literary style and even spelling mistakes. It is an interactive approach. 

I should add that literary workshops are done here in Egypt, but they are usually just for show. You have the same names over and over again, established authors advertising their achievements. One very successful example of a writing workshop was pioneered by Dr. Farouk Abdallah, first at the Story Club and then at the Writer’s Union. Here an author reads out a short story in a draft form, a very short story, preferably no longer than one page, in front of ten to fifteen people, fellow authors, and they proceed to critique and improve the story. The only problem with this is language. When somebody is reading out loud, their voice and oratory can become an issue. The performance of the story can obscure the story itself and how innovative it is at the level of narrative. The tone of voice can distract the critics. Arabic is a very oratorical language and pronunciation in classical Arabic can be hard. Writing the story online avoids this problem. Again, that is another reason I am very proud of the literary experiment of the ESSF, even if we did run into some troubles the second time we tried!

Ahmed Al-Mahdi: Well, I’m not keen on the idea to begin with. A writer should figure it out themselves along the way. That’s how they learn and how they make their own stamp. And proper writing workshops are about learning how to write, whether stories or journalism, not coming up with a story with several authors. I have author friends who have signed up to such courses. It’s the ‘trending’ thing, but I don’t believe in them.

Emad El-Din Aysha: Here’s an idea. If you remember we once went to a translation event, and the Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa was the guest of honour. He explained how the Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture, a Libyan NGO, was giving poetry workshops to school students. And they’d had really good results, and all this after the revolution they had there, in those tumultuous circumstances. 

I suggested this to Ahmed as a possible model for how to encourage SF at school level, and got a vigorous nod from him. On a separate occasion I bumped into Khaled Mattawa himself, at the American University in Cairo — he’s a professor there — and pitched the idea to him. He seemed partial to it, without making any outward commitments.

Of all the volumes of Shams Al-Ghad, which do you feel is closest to your heart?

Hosam El-Zembely: The third volume, Al-Thairun [The Rebels]. It reminds me the most of the January 25 revolution.

Muhammad Naguib Matter: I love all of the volumes equally, they are my children. I think more in terms of contributors than volumes. We’ve got a new author, you’ve probably heard of him, Muhammad Al-Naghi. He’s from Port Said and writes wonderful SF. Another name I have tremendous respect for, for the breadth of his imagination, is Ahmed Al-Mahdi. He writes things that would not occur to us, the older generation and the established writers.

Something else you notice from looking at the successive volumes is that they get better with time. Or the individual authors get better. Their style improves, and so does the scientific content of their stories. Writing science fiction is not easy. You have to simplify fact, scientific terms, to the reader, the layman. And often to the critic who is also a scientific novice.

Emad El-Din Aysha: The first volume and the fourth are my favourites. The first was the most courageous, and with good essays on the plight and mission of SF here in Egypt. The fourth, the most diverse and well written, story-wise.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi: Unfortunately I haven’t read any of them.

Emad El-Din Aysha: That’s convenient. Then again, you don’t work at the ESSF like me.

You don’t think that if Ahmed Al-Mahdi gets married this might cramp his productivity?

Muhammad Naguib Matter: Not at all! Family life adds wisdom and stability and ambition.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi: [Laughter].

One of the stories that received great praise in Volume 5 of Shams Al-Ghad was “3D” by Manal Abd Al-Hamid. Dear Mrs Manal, would you care to give us a brief summary of the story and how you wrote it, your source of inspiration?

Manal Abd Al-Hamid: The story is set in a future world where everything is automatic and unreal. Our protagonist frequents an institution to carry out a routine task, where he comes to like a girl. So he endeavours, of course, to discover her true nature. In the end he is shocked to find that she is not a real person, merely a three dimensional image.

The inspiration for the story came to me as I read an article on the evolution of cyber-intelligence. I’m not one of those who prefers to set moral goals for their stories, but I found this to be a nice idea and worth writing about. Oh, and by the way, I am not one of those pessimists about the future, not somebody who prophesies doom and gloom.

You say you are not a pessimist about progress and the advance of science. Would you say that Arabic science fiction, overall, is optimistic or pessimistic?

Manal Abd Al-Hamid: Arabic science fiction is following Western SF, to a word, in style and subject. Therefore, Arabic SF is mainly pessimistic, in blind imitation of Western SF. But I do not take such a negative view of scientific advance at all. I see that the problems that civilisations suffer from are essentially the same. Science is not at fault. If anything, problems are more pronounced when there is less science. When you have poverty and ignorance, cultural stasis and a refusal to take up science and its technological applications.

Have you faced any challenges as a female author?

Manal Abd Al-Hamid: Yes, I have faced problems and continue to face these problems. But not from the publishers, from my family.

And the same question to you, Dr. Kadria?

Kadria Said: None whatsoever. The only problems I have faced as a SF author are the problems that all authors face, namely, keeping up to speed with the latest developments in science. The culture of science and keeping your readings wide and varied. I have never experienced any discrimination at all.

In that case, what do you think could be done to encourage more women to enter into science fiction writing?

Kadria Said: The ESSF can create more coverage, through Facebook and through the media, of female authors in the field. And not just in Egypt, but the Arab world. Distinguished authors need to be popularised and so serve as role-models to other women interested in the field. Such coverage would include, in my opinion, the publication of accessible studies about female SF authors. And more generally, about woman writing in the field of SF, even if non-fiction. I’m working on such a book as we speak with my friend Muhammad Naguib Matter, about the relationship between science and science fiction.

Any thoughts on strengthening Shams Al-Ghad in the future, and any advice for the writing of science fiction in Egypt in general?

Emad El-Din Aysha: Plenty. I think we need a sharper distinction between SF and horror and fantasy. The three terms are used interchangeably here in Egypt. In our latest book, The Futurists, you had lots of stories that were horror ‘dressed up’ as SF. This has happened before. I remember reading a story in one of our anthologies where you have a deranged person imagining he’s living in the world of I Am Legend. This has got to stop. It’s hurting the genre. Borderline SF is fine, deliberate genre-bending is fine, but fear is no substitute for science. We’ve got to have more hard SF. More alternative history stories would help as well. That’s a whole other avenue that could help us, especially here in Egypt, where so many fantasy stories are set in the past. One of our new members, Dr. Ola Elaboudy, even once suggested ancient Egyptian science fiction to me as a distinct brand for writers here. Wael Abd Al-Rahman tells me there are some novels like this by younger authors. The one he cited by name was Amon’s Planet by Sally Magdy. But these writers aren’t known internationally. Actually, they’re not even well-known to us here in the ESSF.

Another thing we need is an online author and publisher database, like the ones that are out there for African SFS and Malaysian SF. Their lists are incredible, with names and dates and awards and different downloadable file formats, which helps you target publishers and anthologies yourself. I didn’t glimpse any Arabic names on the African list but that’s our own fault, as North Africans. You talk to people in Algeria and you find they don’t know anything about SF in their neighbouring Morocco, let alone what we in Egypt know about them. That’s inexcusable in the information age. I say this because there are people in Asia interested in what’s going on in the African sci-fi scene, including North Africa. Hence, Chuah Guat Eng’s Asian & African Sci-Fi Facebook group, of which I’m a proud member.

One more piece of advice, and I got this from Al-Sayyid Negm, an SF and mainstream and children’s writer, is to do articles and interviews on our forthcoming contests and issues with established magazines and blogs. Facebook alone is too narrow, he said.

Manal Abd Al-Hamid: I hope to see, in addition to the efforts of the ESSF and the organisers of the Shams Al-Ghad series, a printed or electronic guide providing tips and topics of interest to those who love writing science fiction. It could provide writers with relevant examples of SF literature, both from Egypt and the Arab world and globally. This guide could also have simplified scientific information to help them prepare their stories free of scientific errors and false information. It might be in the form of a specialized blog on science fiction literature that is constantly updated.

Kadria Said: We need to be stricter about the works of our anthology contributors, and not rush into publishing them. It’s not just the subjects they write about, but the quality of the prose, and what we can do as editors to improve it. We’re also due to have an evaluation of the activities of the ESSF as a whole, what has been accomplished so far. Finally, I think we need to publish a magazine or journal dedicated to Egyptian and Arabic science fiction, even if it is only a quarterly journal. A good model is to get this publication endorsed, by the Ministry of Culture or by a university, as they do in Syria with Taleb Omran’s SF magazine. Publishing online is an avenue to pursue as well, but only after getting a proper print magazine.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi: I can add something when it comes to alternative history. A project I’m working on is steampunk, where an engine-industrial revolution happens in Egypt, and the whole world is changed. Nothing like we know of today, with all of our lands suffering because of the power of the industrialised north. A story full of action, mercenaries, spies and resistance. I was going to have it during the Ottoman Empire, but Emad convinced me to have it in Egypt, with the Hawara revolution in southern Egypt. The Hawara were an Arabic tribe who were in control of Southern Egypt in the 18th century and one of their famous leaders, Sheikh Al-Arab Hamam, was a great man who made his own army and introduced reforms, making the south in Egypt prosperous. I am from Assiut in southern Egypt originally. 

I was attracted to the idea of steampunk because of the style. It’s very unique, the idea of having technology not just advanced but very different than our own, like Mortal Engines where cities are moving on tractors and have a lot of weird gears. It’s crazy because in real life steam technology is dead thanks to electricity, but I love it. I also like retro future genre for the same reason: steampunk drawing on the Victorian era, clockpunk drawing on the Renaissance era, gasolinepunk from WWI.

Steampunk is not popular in Egypt. Very few know about it. I wish to be perhaps the first Egyptian to write steampunk, and to introduce it to the Arabic reader. And Emad has now introduced me to Farzad Khalilian, author of graphic novel Tehran Noir, which has some steampunk in it, but it is set in Second World War. We should compare notes. Emad tells me steampunk is much more popular in Iran than here.

And to improve science fiction in Egypt? We need to publish more stories in a monthly magazine, together with reviews and essays by the critics of the ESSF. We need to run writing workshops to give beginner writers opportunities to hone their craft. To write science fiction one needs to read a lot in science fiction – big names like Asimov and Bradbury, and others – but also to read a lot in the fields of science, because SF needs to be a step ahead of science.

Many thanks to all of you for your participation!

This roundtable is based on a conversation in late 2018, with some additional written comments added later. The discussants:

Hosam El-Zembely, founder and director of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction,  a practicing medical doctor, Professor of Ophthalmology, an author with three novels to his name and several medical texts, and a member of the Egyptian Writer’s Union – head of the  Scientific Committee of the Writer’s Union.

Muhammad Naguib Matter, an engineer, SF author, and member of the Egyptian Writer’s Union. He has a short story anthology and several novels and non-fiction works to his name and is also the director of the SF section of the Abd Al-Qadir Al-Husseini Institute.

Manal Abd Al-Hamid, an award-winning professional author (horror and science fiction), poet and school teacher; she won first place in the ESSF short story contests for 2017 and 2018, received an appreciation award for travel literature, won first place for the Story Club contest in 2016 and first place for the 2017 Mahir Abd Al-Wahid contest.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi, a graphic designer, literary translator, and author (SF, fantasy, horror and Young Adult). Some of his most notable English to Arabic translations include The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen, The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood, The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang, Username: Evie by Joe Sugg and The Alchemist by H.P. Lovecraft.

Emad El-Din Aysha, an academic with an MA and PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield, a journalist, translator and SF author (in English). To date he has published stories in two international anthologies (Canada, Australia), won two awards for ESSF short story contests and has a number of academic articles on SF published or pending.

Kadria Said, a literary critic with a PhD in children’s literature and an MA in science fiction, and children’s and SF author. She has two anthologies to her name and has published stories in children’s magazines and sits on several committees dedicated to promoting education and child welfare.


1. This was on Wednesday 12 October 2016, at Mona Elnamoury’s lecture “Translating the Fantastic: A Wizard of Earthsea as an Example,” organised by the Centre for Translation Studies and held at the American University in Cairo, Tahrir Campus.

2 thoughts on “In Conversation: Passing the Baton of Egyptian Science Fiction, Post-Arab Spring 

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