As the world increasingly resembles a dystopian film from the 1970s and television news blurs ominously with scenes from Soylent Green, a recent collection of Palestinian science fiction proves both prescient and eerily contemporary.
Palestine +100 is a collection of 12 short stories by Palestinian authors (some written in English and others translated from Arabic) that reimagine their homeland in the year 2048, 100 years after the nakba, offering an emotional truth often lacking in the endless onslaught of daily news cycles. As Basma Ghalayini, the editor of the anthology, notes in her thoughtful introduction, the nakba — whereby “80 percent of Palestinians (over 700,000 people in total) were expelled, and their land taken over and occupied in what can only be described as an act of ethnic cleansing” — did not end in 1948, it continued.
A follow up to the critically acclaimed Iraq +100, a compilation of Iraqi short stories about the year 2103, a century after the 2003 American invasion, Manchester non-profit Comma Press bills the book (which won the PEN Translates Award) as “the first ever compilation of Palestinian science fiction.”
“Not that the disguise of science fiction would be that drastic a costume change for Palestinian writers, especially those based in Palestine,” Ghalayini continues in the introduction. “Everyday life, for them, is a kind of a dystopia. A West Bank Palestinian need only record their journey to work, or talk back to an IDF soldier at a checkpoint, or forget to carry their ID card, or simply look out their car window at the walls, weaponry, and barbed wire plastering the landscape, to know what a modern, totalitarian occupation is — something people in the West can only begin to understand.”
In fact, science fiction as a genre — believed to date back as far as the second century with Roman satirist Lucian’s A True Story, a text that includes references to extraterrestrials, artificial life, and interplanetary warfare — also took form in Middle Eastern literature, with some sci-fi elements in stories from the Arabian Nights to Ibn al-Nafis’ 13th-century work Theologus Autodidactus.
New-wave science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s by the likes of Philip K. Dick and others often referenced authoritarian regimes in an era dominated by moral ambiguity and the Vietnam War. At the same time, Afrofuturism, the intersection of African diasporic culture and technology not coined as a critical term until the 1990s, came of age in the Black Power-inspired music and cinema of artists like Sun Ra, whose mid-1970s film Space is the Place shows his band performing in Oakland in full-on sci-fi-inspired space costumes.
So why did Palestinian literature come so late to the table, one wonders? Ghalayini writes: “The cruel present (and the traumatic past) have too firm a grip on Palestinian writers’ imaginations for fanciful ventures into possible futures.” She also notes that “In classic SF, the battle lines are drawn quickly and simply: the moral opposition between a typical SF protagonist and the dystopia or enemy he finds himself confronting is a diametric one. But in Palestinian fiction, the idea of an ‘enemy’ is largely absent. Israelis hardly ever feature, as individuals, and when they do, they are rarely portrayed as out-and-out villains.”
Ghalayini’s introduction provides food for thought, as the reader journeys through a brave new literary landscape where writers, she notes, are “like nomads travelling across a landscape of memory. They carry their village in their heart like an internal compass where north is always Palestine.”
The anthology begins with Saleem Haddad’s moving Song of the Birds, written in memory of Mohanned Younis, the 22-year-old Gazan writer who, in 2017, in despair at the situation and like an increasing number of young Palestinians experiencing a growing mental health crisis, took his own life.
The story unfolds in a 2048 Gaza that has become an Israeli laboratory for thought control and sinister experimentation where a hologram-induced world masks a more brutal reality. Here a young girl drowns herself after visitations from her dead brother, who also died by suicide, and who guides her on a tour through the “real” as opposed to the “virtual” Gaza.
As he leads her through the bombed-out reality of a once quaint Gaza City, he notes that Israelis, who have harnessed the collective memory of Palestinians to create a false digital reality, are not the only jailers. “We’re just another generation imprisoned by our parents’ nostalgia,” he says. By killing himself, his sister notes, “Ziad broke free of the prison.”
Selma Dabbagh’s Sleep it Off, Dr. Schott presents a Gaza that has become a secular scientific enclave, where research in sealed-off underground bunkers is closely monitored. Narrated by a young spy who observes a Palestinian woman scientist and her secretly enamoured male Israeli colleague, the author captures the contemporaneous paranoia of the self-perpetuating police state that breeds in the occupation, and seems to suggest that the one-state solution is the love that dare not speak its name.
N, by Majd Kayyal, offers a future where, after Gaza is obliterated by a bomb and the fish stocks have disappeared, a new “agreement” results in a “high tech scientific apartheid,” where virtual reality creates a parallel Palestine. This new world of “corrupt real estate companies that specialised in refugee property claims” is digitally manipulated with certain troublesome histories deleted from a giant database. The abandonment of memory is the new norm and “isolation is the secret to eliminating the present,” notes the middle-aged narrator, who, like all those born before the agreement, is banned from travel, between the “two worlds.” He awaits the visit of his son, before he returns again in “a flash of light that swallows our children to another here.”
Remembering an activist friend’s talk of Palestinians’ “responsibility — even if we were the victims — towards the humanity of our enemies,” he says, “What were we supposed to do? Put a sofa out under the shelling and open a psychotherapy clinic to cure Holocaust trauma?”
Anwar Hamed’s The Key features an Israeli narrator, who in spite of a “gravity wall” that separates Israelis from the outside world via a microchip implanted in newborns, is haunted by the ghosts of refugees from 1948 returning with their keys and trying to enter his home. Here Hamed presents a compelling portrait of Israeli paranoia and isolationism.
Emad el-Din Aysha’s Digital Nation imagines a promised land created and manipulated by virtual reality, where Africans that lost their land to the Chinese are busy buying up the Holy Land, Mossad agents sell their services to Colombian drug lords, and the IDF will soon be privatized. Gaza has become “that stubborn little detention camp that refused to sink into the sea,” and a virtual Palestinian government becomes more effective than the actual one. Against this backdrop a high-tech virus converts Hebrew into Arabic, replacing Hebrew names with pre-1948 ones, as Palestinian ghosts haunt the occupiers of their former homes.
Personal Hero, by Abdalmuti Maqboul, presents a Palestine where the heroes of 1948 are resurrected after the invention of a virtual reality program that simulates world history in reverse; corpses rise again and go backwards to the time of their birth, revealing nuggets of Palestinian history along the way. Meanwhile, Vengeance by Tasnim Abutabikh uses a future world where the air is poisoned, filtered biospheres are a “Western luxury,” and Israel punishes resistance by “life mask termination” as a cautionary tale against divide-and-conquer politics. After the man who designs special masks and artificial limbs for Palestinian cyborgs turns purple and dies when the Israelis remove his mask, after the protagonist Ahmed inadvertently betrayed him to authorities in an act of misguided revenge, Ahmed vows, “We shall reclaim the air we breathe, if not the land we stand on, one mask at a time.’”
Ahmed Masoud’s Application 39 offers some comic relief in a tale of two Palestinian youths who apply to have Gaza City host the Olympics. In the year 2048, every city in Palestine has declared its statehood and, to evade Israeli control of roads and airspace, high-tech tunnels connect each city state. In spite of ingenious inventions aimed at circumventing space restrictions for the would-be Olympics — like building underground sports facilities and making an island out of rubble — farce soon turns to tragedy. The story shifts tone from a kind of Gazan version of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure to something more akin to Blade Runner, when Israeli robots massacre a group of Palestinians and the Olympian torch is symbolically snuffed out.
Samir el-Youseff’s The Association begins with the murder of a historian in a Palestine where the study of the past is forbidden, historians are considered “extremists,” and forgetting is considered the best way to keep the peace. (One wonders if Jared Kushner might have read this.) In a country of amnesia, where people are forced to forget anything that contradicts the last peace agreement, a young journalist fights for the right to remember.
The protagonist of Rawan Yaghi’s Commonplace, Adam, is a young Palestinian who sells sedatives to a population ravaged by Israeli bombing and drone killings in a Gaza-like surveillance state no man’s land, walled off from a green and fertile land visible on the other side. Haunted by his sister’s death at the hands of a drone, he decides to kill himself by climbing the wall — and automatically summoning other Israeli drones. As he walks toward it he recalls a recurring nightmare that could well describe the death of the Palestinian dream: “one of those dreams where you try to walk through each step of your plan, but each step frustratingly takes you no nearer to where you want to be, until you wake up in a panic.”
Thankfully some levity arrives with Talal Abu Shawish’s Final Warning, which recounts the incredible tale of an alien invasion in Ramallah and a nearby settlement. When the sun refuses to rise and technology stops working, religious Jews, Muslims, and Christians think it’s the apocalypse, when in fact it’s the work of extraterrestrials. As the local priest, imam, and rabbi join hands and chant prayers “in a single tongue,” the aliens deliver their message:
“Your struggles in this tiny sector of the planet’s surface have, for more than a hundred of your planet’s orbits, caused more tension and conflict, directly and indirectly, beyond its borders than any other area of its size in the known universe. Your conflict acts as a symbol, a case study, a metaphor, a lightning rod, a red rag for conflicts across the entire planet’s surface. By continuing to threaten the planet’s stability as a whole, you also threaten the wider galaxy’s stability. … Your petty squabbles can no longer go unchecked. … So, with this visit we have deactivated all your electron-based technologies, as well as paused your planet’s rotation.”
Once the message is delivered, “normality” ensues:
“A cacophony of ringtones, music, and engine sounds erupted in the square and spread out across the city at great speed. Everybody had somebody to call and reassure. Indoors, an orchestra of electronic devices announced their return in every house, apartment, and office. Music resumed, news readers’ faces appeared, pornographic films started up again where they had left off, Quranic verses alongside Christian hymns and Jewish zemirot all started again mid-sentence. Modern life returned, as instantaneously as it had ceased.”
The anthology’s final offering, The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid, by Man Booker International Prize long-listee Mazen Maarouf, is a surrealist tour de force. In a Palestine where children’s “stolen imaginations” are beamed up into a Death Star-like satellite, and chemical warfare wipes out the population, the last Palestinian is a young boy imprisoned in a glass cube. The erstwhile superhero is kept in the cube because he contains the combined spiritual force of his dead people — one that the Israelis know could explode at any moment and destroy them.
Travelling with a motorcycling Israeli named Zeev bearing his great grandfather’s gun stolen from a Nazi, he is displayed at schools and public events, and even forced to be part of a commercial for a toothpaste called “Hope.” Zeev’s face becomes distorted every time he shoots the boy in the face, a repeated action that also allows Palestinian ghosts to seep out, but he takes it in stride as “the price of becoming a hero.”
Part magic realism — with references to the soul of the boy’s grandmother fusing with her guava tree, stolen by a Sephardic neighbour entwined in a secret love pact — yet full of references to violence and pornography, at times it feels like a Chagall painting crossed with a Schwarzenegger film. It ends with Zeev’s haunting question to Israeli schoolchildren at a public display of the boy in the cube. “Can anyone prove that they are ghosts, not us?”
While reading these 12 extraordinary stories can be a depressing if enlightening exercise, and in spite of so many that speak of “mind stealing” technologies, they are a testament to the liveliness of the Palestinian imagination — one that simply refuses to vanish.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of "Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq," a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East on culture, society, and politics for two decades. The views expressed in this article are her own.
Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images