In the introduction to “Palestine +100,” a collection of contemporary Palestinian science fiction, editor Basma Ghalayini suggests two reasons why the genre, until recently, was unpopular among Palestinian writers. “It is a luxury,” she writes, “to which Palestinians haven’t felt they can afford to escape.” With the “cruel present” of occupation and apartheid always looming, utopias and aliens feel puerile, like no kind of escape at all. And second, says Ghalayini, the archetypes of traditional science fiction hardly align with the Palestinian situation. In mainstream sci-fi, she writes, “the battle lines are drawn quickly and simply.” In Palestine, there are no such clear lines.
At a December 3 panel on Palestinian sci-fi, hosted virtually at the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, Saleem Haddad offered another reason. Haddad is a Palestinian-Lebanese, Iraqi-German author, born in Kuwait City; his short story, “Song of the Birds” appears in “Palestine +100.”
Speaking at the panel, alongside Palestinian writers Ibtisam Azem and Rawan Yaghi, Haddad explained why he hesitates to classify his own work as “science fiction” at all. “For the longest time, what we often consider to be mainstream science fiction,” he said, “seemed, to me, to be rooted in a kind of western modernism that could not be detached from violent, colonial ideology.” The sci-fi that reached Haddad as he was growing up in the Middle East was full of cosmic imperialists seeking to conquer planets; of alien invasions; of obsessive technological determinism.
“For the longest time, what we often consider to be mainstream science fiction, seemed . . .rooted in a kind of western modernism that could not be detached from violent, colonial ideology.”
Haddad paused. “It does raise the question,” he said, “what does this traditionally imperial genre mean for us? Can we transform it to be a literature of resistance?”
For some years, Palestinian writers and artists have been asking, and answering, this question. The genre of revolutionary Palestinian resistance literature once clearly defined by the likes of Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani, has splintered in recent decades. The speculative and the absurd have begun to take its place. An older example is the 1974 classic “The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist,” by Emile Habibi, wherein Saeed, the novel’s foolish protagonist, narrates his escape from Israel to outer space.
More recently, Palestinian short films like “Nation Estate” and “Space Exodus” offer fantastical metaphors of a Palestinian nation-state. In the former, Palestine exists in a single, futuristic skyscraper; in the latter, a Palestinian astronaut plants a flag on the moon.
Ibtisam Azem’s 2014 “The Book of Disappearance” (its English translation was released in 2019) imagines the unexplained, supernatural disappearance of all Palestinians, everywhere, and the empty world that they leave behind.
“Palestine +100,” published last year, is a rich collection of Palestinian speculative fiction, which at many points transcends genre and easy definition. The central question driving the stories — the question that Ghalayani presented to the 12 writers featured in the book — looks towards the future: What will the Palestine of 2048 be, 100 years after the nakba, the tragedy of 1948? What future are its people hurtling towards?
Their visions for Palestine are varied, their subjects disparate. But there is a haunted, dystopic quality to them all, which reflects a mirror image of the Palestine of today.
The ruse of futurism, as a genre — good futurism, at least — is that at its heart, it is about the present. It upturns our present moment, and by doing so, offers us another point of entry. Such is the case in the stories of “Palestine +100.” Their visions for Palestine are varied, their subjects disparate. But there is a haunted, dystopic quality to them all, which reflects a mirror image of the Palestine of today: in one, a girl exists in a Matrix-like simulation of Palestine, fashioned from memories of the land, while the occupation continues outside; in another, ghosts haunt the gates of the Israeli state that is caged by digital walls, locking out all without citizenship.
Beyond imagining dystopic futures for Palestine, the stories shed light on the dystopia of the present. In reality, the occupation blurs into science fiction: the Israeli state surveils Palestinians with sophisticated spyware that it then exports across the globe. It wages cyberwarfare against hacker groups. Yaghi, a journalist from Gaza City, calls her story in “Palestine +100,” “Commonplace,” a realist dystopia. “It looks at the way Gaza is now,” she said during the panel, “and how that is just aggravated in time. I saw the breaking relationships around me. I saw them spreading across society.”
Perhaps, as Haddad suggested, this is a resistance literature, of a kind. Or perhaps it is something else. Yaghi, who’s in her 20s, says her use of speculative fiction is informed by the weariness of her generation. “There’s a huge feeling of skepticism, distrust in leadership, betrayal,” she said. “That is a point of view that nobody has explored in literature, and people are scared of exploring. Because it goes against the image of the Palestinian, the image of sumud [steadfastness], and the fact that we continue to struggle.”
“But that’s not the case,” she said. “Especially in a place like Gaza, there are a lot of people who are tired. Simply tired.”
Yaghi’s dystopia is born from the resistance of old, but it is exploring the terrain of the present, the feeling that she describes as a “need to look inside first, before we fight as one people.” This resonates through the pages of “Palestine +100.” The stories are fantastical, but they are also brooding. When there is hope, it comes only in glimmers.
At one point, in a story called “Digital Nation,” by scholar and author Emad El-Din Aysha, an old man is asked why utopia is, by and large, absent from Arab literature. He replies: “They know the pitfalls that come with Utopia. They learned to fear themselves, the lack of humility that comes with it. They had a Utopia, of sorts, at the time of their Prophet, then it all fell apart afterwards.” The future that awaits, the future that the new wave of Palestinian speculative literature is inventing and reinventing, is of a different kind.