Boualem Sansal’s novel “2084,” a re-imagining of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” takes place in the theocracy of Abistan. Adherents of Abistan’s religion, Gkabul, worship a god called Yölah. The story and its setting are sprinkled with Arabic-inflected words. The name of the capital, Qodsabad, is derived from the Arabic word for “holy.” The women of Abistan wear a garment called the burniqab, obviously a combination of niqab and burqa.
With Abistan so clearly an Islamic caliphate, why change the name of its religion?
“I had to avoid being blasphemous,” the author explained in a 2016 interview with Exberliner, referring to the danger of having his writing deemed sacrilegious by a religious leader given that blasphemy is punishable by death in five Muslim countries.
All eight of Sansal’s novels have been banned in Algeria, and Algerian media has falsely reported that Sansal is behind bars awaiting a life sentence or the death penalty.
Avoiding the words “Allah” and “Mohammed” has so far enabled him, Sansal said, to dodge a fatwa, which cannot be issued without rigorous proof of blasphemy. “That said,” he continued, avoiding blasphemy “doesn’t prevent a furious imam from calling for your assassination.” All eight of Sansal’s novels have been banned in Algeria, and Algerian media has falsely reported that Sansal is behind bars awaiting a life sentence or the death penalty. He rarely leaves his high-security home in Boumerdès, a small city on the Algerian coast.
The novel’s reception in France was quite different from its reception in Algeria. “2084” was a co-winner of the 2015 Académie Française prize and appeared on the long list for the Prix Goncourt in the same year. The novel did not make the short list of Prix Goncourt contenders, though, a decision that Sansal attributed to fears on the jury’s part of appearing “Islamophobic.” Bernard Pivot and Tahar Benjelloun, respectively the head of the 2015 Prix Goncourt jury and one of its members,, denied that fears of being perceived as politically incorrect factored into the judges’ decision, asserting that they were concerned solely with literary merit.
In Sansal’s opinion, “2084”’s controversial subject matter prevented the novel from receiving the critical acclaim it deserves. Academic and literature blogger Nadia Ghanem suggests, in a blog post on arablit.org, that the public should be suspicious of the amount of overwhelmingly positive critical attention “2084” did receive—not of its failure to garner even more praise. She points out that a key goal of both the Goncourt and Académie Française prizes is “the promotion and safeguard of the French language.” Nominating writers from former French colonies for literary prizes serves the prize committees’ goals in highlighting the enduring relevance of the French language outside of Europe. “Behind every cultural embrace,” Ghanem writes, “lays a claim for ownership.”
Drawing attention to the geographical expanse of the Francophone world without representing the diversity of perspectives within it is, in Ghanem’s account, a form of “intellectual co-opting.” The dystopian fantasy of “2084,” as Ghanem describes it, resonates with existing anxieties in France about the country’s growing Muslim demographic. By praising “2084,” the Goncourt and Académie Française prize committees emphasized the cultural breadth of Francophone literature without diverging from a familiar cultural narrative.
“2084” invites comparison to “Submission,” a novel by French author Michel Houellebecq that was also published in 2015. Like “2084,” which names Paris as the capital of Abistan, “Submission” envisions a future in which Islamists come to power in France. The tenor of “Submission,” however, is not dystopian but satirical: an Islamist party comes to power when neither it nor the leftist party is able to defeat Marine Le Pen single-handedly. This impasse leads the leftist and Islamist parties to forge a power-sharing agreement and join forces against Le Pen. The main character, a middle-aged literature professor whose main pleasures in life are watching porn and eating microwave dinners, finds that the Islamist government improves his life both spiritually and materially.
“Submission” is more a critique of France—which has, in Houellebecq’s opinion, failed to provide its citizens with a meaningful value system—than it is a commentary on Islam. Islam is a foil to the excess of freedom and absence of spiritual meaning that “Submission” portrays as endemic to European society. Houellebecq has remarked that this role could equally have been played by Catholicism, but that in his opinion Islam is a more modern religion.
To what extent do “Submission” and “2084” engage in a dialogue with Islam? Do the authors explore the influence Islamic theology could have on the West in these future scenarios in which it becomes dominant, or are they merely capitalizing on French anxiety about Islam’s growing role as a cultural force in France?
The beginning of “2084” conveys the disorienting malaise of living in a theocracy that limits access to knowledge. Sansal skillfully and vividly evokes this state of ignorance, but his depiction of it is very similar to that in “1984”: in both novels, the population’s knowledge of history and current events consists entirely of the self-serving narrative the government has provided. The inclusion of Islam as the state’s ideology does not enhance our understanding of Islamic authoritarian governments, nor does it provide a new dystopian perspective.
The most notable difference between the governments of Abistan and Oceania, the dystopian society of “1984,” is Oceania’s use of technology and mind-reading techniques. The absence of these mechanisms of control leaves the citizens of Abistan with more liberty than the residents of Orwell’s Oceania. This might be a commentary on the way in which failing to adapt to modernity could hinder Islamic totalitarianism’s apparatus of control.
In Orwell’s “1984,” one of the government’s mechanisms of control is a radical stripping-down of English with the goal of making language itself conducive only to expressing thoughts aligned with the ruling ideology, Ingsoc. The goal of this new language, Newspeak, is to “narrow the range of thought . . . [to] make thoughtcrime literally impossible.” “2084” takes place within the universe created by Orwell; members of the Just Brotherhood, Abistan’s ruling class, describe Ingsoc as a precursor to their totalitarian government and Newspeak as the inspiration for their official language, Abilang.
Newspeak is the official language of Oceania but is forced only on the upper classes, who are responsible for maintaining social control, while the majority of the population continues to speak English. In the same way, Ati, the low-level bureaucrat who is the protagonist of “2084,” and his peers are indoctrinated in Abilang, while most of the population continues to communicate in dialects of French and Arabic. Abilang is an intriguing tool of social control, but Sansal does not add any new complexity to Orwell’s formulation of a language intended to mentally enfeeble the population.
“2084” is centered around Ati’s journey to Qodsabad, the capital of Abistan, where he hopes to learn more about Abistan’s history and what lies beyond its borders. He sets out on this quest in search of a friend he meets at the beginning of the novel, in the sanatorium where they have both been recovering from tuberculosis. This friend, an archaeologist, has uncovered artifacts that throw the government’s narrative about Abi, the prophet and supreme leader, into question. Aware of the danger he faces for knowing information that the government goes to great lengths to obscure, the archaeologist refuses to share his knowledge with Ati out of fear that he will put Ati in danger too.
The novel’s dénouement, in which Ati reaches Qodsabad, is the first time we gain any insight into the motivations of Abistan’s ruling class. Like the ruling party in “1984,” the Just Brotherhood turns out to be preoccupied with power per se: ideology is merely a tool for justifying their domination of the lower classes.
One of the most compelling aspects of “2084” is the interplay between Ati’s skepticism of the government and his ultimate susceptibility to being manipulated by it. As in “1984,” material benefits are critical to maintaining the ruling class’s adherence to and enforcement of government ideology.
The pervasive drabness of life in these societies renders small improvements in citizens’ quality of life enormously powerful when it comes to winning their loyalty.
Orwell writes in “1984” that “the truly characteristic thing about modern life was not its cruelty and insecurity, but simply its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness.” This statement applies equally to Orwell’s Oceania and Sansal’s Abistan. The pervasive drabness of life in these societies renders small improvements in citizens’ quality of life enormously powerful when it comes to winning their loyalty. In “1984,” access to coffee and wine and the ability to turn off the system surveilling them for ten minutes at a time are privileges that distinguish Inner Party members from the rest of the population. These material comforts are sufficient motivation for the ruling class to surveil and torture the other 90 percent of the population and to spend their remaining energy adapting Newspeak and the media to suit the party’s goals.
Sansal vividly conveys the bleakness of life in Abistan; as a result, the few aesthetic pleasures that Ati experiences stand out. Access to nature is one of these aesthetic pleasures. Nature first appears as the backdrop for Ati’s initial misgivings about the government at the mountain sanatorium. The second appearance of nature is in Qodsabad, the capital; Ati becomes a pawn in a power grab by one faction of the Just Brotherhood, and the leader of this faction sends Ati on a tour of the capital. Ati spends an hour of this tour at the beach, where, for the first and only time in the book, he experiences a profound sense of well-being. Pacified by this sense of well-being, Ati is indifferent to his role in the power grab. This manipulation of Ati is possible because the Just Brotherhood has a monopoly on beach access.
The other reprieve from the dreariness of Abistan is Ati’s introduction to artifacts from the 20th century. The black market antiques dealer who introduces Ati to such archaic objects as tables, chairs, and paintings wins his trust through nostalgia for the past, which Ati takes to signify an authentic spirit of rebellion against the government. This character, Toz, turns out to be in cahoots with the Just Brotherhood, but Ati never realizes this: he is too enraptured by Toz’s antiques museum to notice. After Ati’s tour of the museum, Toz rhapsodizes about the 20th century, which he describes as the peak of civilization.
This affinity for the past may be genuine; Toz is involved with the Just Brotherhood for material rather than ideological reasons. Whether or not Toz’s nostalgia for the diversity of thought permitted in the 20th century is authentic, his antiques museum convinces Ati of Toz’s sincerity. Toz himself acknowledges that the endeavor of reconstructing history makes it possible to reframe it in service of the curator’s ideology. Property is a critical tool in Ati’s co-optation by Toz and the Just Brotherhood.
Ati is ultimately free from totalitarianism on an individual level, but complicit with it on a societal level; he cooperates with a faction of the Just Brotherhood’s scheme to seize power by manipulating the media, knowing that this faction will not make any substantive changes in government policy and that it is seeking power for purely selfish reasons. Ati’s fate is ambiguous, but it seems that this cooperation may buy him an opportunity to see what is beyond Abistan’s borders.
Sansal skillfully portrays the critical role that material benefits for a subset of the population can play in maintaining oppressive systems. His point that religion can serve as an ideological tool even for power-seekers with no interest in theology is an important one. To say that “2084” tells us much about Islam beyond the fact that it can be co-opted by demagogues, though, would be reading too much into it.
In a cross-reading of “Submission” and “2084,” David Isaac Haziza writes: “Ati, the hero of “2084,” decides that he will die, if necessary, for life, life down here, the border. ‘He discovered, without knowing how to express it except through a paradox, that life was worth dying for.’. . . But if we can conquer by rage to live, if we can exterminate Daesh, how does one conquer the Islamist epicure, the capitalist in a turban, the engineer bankrolled by the Islamic Republic of Iran?”
As Haziza points out, perhaps capitalism is the most sinister element in “Submission” and “2084.” Houellebecq grapples with the spiritual void that he perceives in French society, and in this sense his engagement with theology is sincere. Sansal, on the other hand, is merely placing a turban on the power-hungry epicures of “1984.”