Exclusive review by Andy Sawyer
HWJN by Ibraheem Abbas (translated /co-authored by Yasser Bahjatt)
Published by Yatakhayaloon, 2013
SOMEWHERE by Ibraheem Abbas (translated/co-authored by Yasser Bahjatt)
Published by Yatakhayaloon, 2014
HWJN gained some attention last year as what was billed as the first science fiction novel to come out of Saudi Arabia, and a bestseller in the country; a little more when there were reports that Saudi Arabia’s religious police were concerned about whether the book’s use of Jinn as central characters, communicating with the human characters via a Ouija board, promoted “sorcery”. According to Abbas, whose appearance at a panel on Arabic science fiction at Loncon3 was one of the highlights of the programme, they did indeed take away copies of the book – and reported back that they had enjoyed it!
Whatever is behind that story, HWJN is a fascinating book which deserves its success. Our narrator-protagonist is a young Jinni (for Western readers unfamiliar with the concept, think some of the interpretations of Christian “angels” as beings higher than humans in the Divine Blueprint). Through him we learn that the Jinn are, in many ways, beings like us, part of the Universe (or Divine Creation: this seems to me to be a religiously orthodox book and HWJN (Hawjan) himself is clear that he is a devout Muslim), but on what some mystics would call a “higher plane” and more secular people would call “another dimension”.
Jinn live parallel to we humans – some live in our houses, others prefer to live separately from us – and can, with some difficulty, communicate with humans. They have their own “civilization”, politics etc., and like us, can make moral choices which can be wise or unwise. Hawjan falls in love with a young human woman, Sawsan, who comes to live in the house where he lives, and the romance between the two is complicated by a political plot on the Jinn level involving an evil Jinn leader, Hawjan’s own family connections with the “dark side”, and Sawsan’s father’s fall into temptation. Sawsan’s hidden secret is that she is suffering from cancer, which leads to a sentimental love story which is never actually consummated. The course of true love doesn’t actually run smooth: Sawsan has a human suitor and Hawjan’s mother is trying to marry him off. The “science fiction” element is the way Hawjan looks at us, and judges our moral failings, in the way a science-fictional alien would, and indeed in the way that the Jinn “plane/dimension” is explained in terms of contemporary cosmology such as membrane theory, etc. There are numerous nods to modern technology – “Ouija-board” communication, for instance, can also take place through ipads – which add to the clever games with sf that are a feature of HWJN.
This latter aspect also leads – obviously deliberately – to a picture of life among wealthy Saudi teenagers which is a gentle but marked satire on affluence and pleasure-seeking. How close a picture it is, I couldn’t possibly tell, and I am sure I missed much that a local reader would have picked up on. At Loncon3, Abbas said that he had tried to echo regional dialect in the book. Wisely, the translation doesn’t play games with dialect by trying to find regional or class equivalents in English: HWJN is written in a kind of light standard American-English (which means, of course, that it sounds slightly “foreign” to me), but that is all. There are what seem to be insertions by Yasser Bahjat – who is billed as co-author – in which things which are so obvious to a local reader that they wouldn’t need explaining (such as grammatical features of Arabic or Arabic naming conventions) are in fact explained. These don’t seem intrusive. There are occasional references to Western culture which also may be insertions – probably the most jarring such instance is a reference to the “Three Stooges”: it would be interesting to know if this is an actual reference to them or a “translation” of a local reference, in which case an instance better known to a modern readership might have been better. However, a few instances aside, the reading is smooth and this is a very readable and enjoyable book. It may be the “first Saudi-Arabian science fiction novel” but “first” doesn’t imply “clumsy” – it’s assured, well-written, confident and inventive.
It certainly deserves to be read by western readers, perhaps for different reasons for its popularity in Saudi Arabia. I can only respond to it as an English Westerner, but it seems to me that it’s a very accessible YA paranormal-romance (much more original than most I’ve read in that vein) and I’m tempted to let it go at that. One of the reasons I liked the novel is because of the “Let’s imagine Jinn are real and go from that . . . “ scenario, which is not necessarily how many Islamic readers might read it (I’m thinking of the way I might read a story which imagined that angels within the Judeo-Christian framework are “real” which would be very different from the way a Christian from the USA who believes in the literal truth of angels might read it). In other words, for me it’s more clearly a fantasy, but going by some of the stories of how the book was received in SA, it’s closer to the mainstream on home territory. While I’m praising the book, this of course leaves me open to taking an outside “exotic” view of the story, which I can’t really deny . . . but a very real part of its attraction to me (and this is possibly partly because of the translation) is the way the characters remind me – at times – of American teenagers with their romantic crushes and shopping-mall culture. And then at other times they clearly are not. Suddenly we come across aspects of their lives which are very different indeed – for instance there’s a marriage some way into the story that seems jarring until you think about the culture within which that might happen.
In that respect I think it’s a great YA novel in its own respect, one which would go down very well with a Western YA readership, and certainly one which would work very well in establishing a kind of dialogue between Arabic and Western sf.
An otherwise extremely astute and insightful review in the Jan 2014 New York Review of Science Fiction says , in the context of possible political undercurrents in the novel, that “Abbas and Bahjatt have at the same time presented us with a deeply patronizing view of women, one retrograde even by the standards of works such as Twilight”. While I wouldn’t actually disagree with that – as Ian Campbell points out, the ending is deeply problematic from a liberal-Western viewpoint –I’m not altogether sure that dwelling upon this aspect is entirely helpful, because it sneaks into another kind of patronizing expectation that a book can only be good if it reflects our prejudices. This is a book that we sf readers in the West can learn from.
SOMEWHERE , which explores some of the same dynamic between theology and science fiction, I found even better. It touches on the verge of being a really excellent novel, let down by what could be one too few passes on the syntax and vocabulary of the translation, resulting in some clumsy exposition and misspellings. Our narrator wakes up in a strange world where he is greeted by a beautiful girl, and though we may guess where he is this is never made clear, and the mystery remains strong throughout. Part of the enjoyment of the book is in fact this: that we are one step ahead of the character through much of it, and the vein of comedy throughout is stronger than in HWJN. In fact, the narrator is a chubby, slightly dim-witted youth who, through the course of the book, gains some valuable moral lessons.
Husam awakens in what seems to be a futuristic science-fiction city with no memory of his past life although the extremely attractive girl who greets him, greets him by name. (Shortly afterwards, memories start coming back, though not fully.)The clothes the young woman gives him, and the Rolex Yacht-Master watch she pulls out of a drawer, are possessions he had always dreamed of. She takes him to a restaurant where he enjoys a delicious burger to accompanying music. Is he dreaming? he asks : the girl – who we will later discover to be named Malak – tells him that he isn’t. She laughs when he asks he she is a Jinni, and makes it clear that he has not travelled through time, or to another planet. “Am I dead?” he asks. Her reply is “God forbid!”
Whatever the reason for his presence in what appears to be the “paradise of shopping and entertainment” (it’s probably significant that many of the cultural references are from Hollywood movies) Husam’s teenage dreams have lusted for, he is genuinely puzzled by what is happening and his science-fictional attempts to come up with an explanation invokes amusement in Malak and the reader. Things get more puzzling. Time appears not to flow. Husam is told that he has to meet several important figures – “Mr Ludwig” and “Mr Leonardo” for instance – for which meetings he has to learn German and Italian by some form of knowledge-transfer programme (sf again!) and who teach him the true nature of his “lazy washout life” . . . “you have only mastered cards and computer games!” Eventually he is told that he can return to his world if he dies in this one – that in fact he has been away from his world three minutes and if he makes it to seven he will never go back.
The complications in the plot are more apparent than real (and in fact most readers will have understood where Husam is long before he does, though one of the ingenuities of the novel is that this “explanation” is never fully spelled out). But this is essentially a novel about gaining self-knowledge, and presented as such in an unusual and attractive way: a fusion of science fiction and moral philosophy which slips down well through its use of comedy. It’s probably best not to go further into plot elements, but Husam is an enjoyably dorkish character who learns a few lessons, and the whole is a highly recommended book, an advance on HWJN and one which shows that there really should be more to come from this team.
As with the previous book, translator Yasser Bahjatt is billed as co-author and various passages in italics – such as the passage telling is that “these two letters at the end of a word in Arabic usually indicate the feminine” – seem almost certainly down to him, presenting the novel for a Western audience. It’s a shame that there are some clumsinesses – “I feel like a deaf in a carnival!”, “My wit’s tax this time” – which break the flow of what really is a fine and intelligent novel that deserves a very wide readership.
Abbas and Bahjatt are to be congratulated and admired for their attempts to bring Saudi science fiction to the wider world, and if these novels are in any way representative of what people are reading and writing we can only look for more with great pleasure.
Andy Sawyer is a renowned Science Fiction Librarian and Course Leader for MA studies at the University of Liverpool Library where he oversees The Science Fiction Hub. He is the Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction and is a key member of the Science Fiction Foundation. Andy was the guest curator for the landmark exhibition at the British Library in 2011: Out of this world: Science Fiction but not as you know it.