How Arab Artists Imagine the Future
BERLIN—In the early decades of the 20th century, Egyptian and Palestinian authors like Jurji Zaydan, Georges Henein and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra drew on the history of the Middle East and the energy of postcolonial Arab states to imagine cosmopolitan futures for their societies.
Zaydan, for example, known as one of the first thinkers of Arab nationalism, envisioned a postcolonial Egypt that would merge with Syria as a single nation. In vignettes found shortly after his death in 1914, he imagined a country where women would shed their veils and enjoy the same indulgences as men. Other writers played off of the greatness of the pharaohs and envisioned a future Egypt that would lead the world in science and technology in the 21st century.
Those grand, utopian visions didn’t materialize. But that hasn’t stopped modern Arab authors, filmmakers and cartoonists from offering new visions for the Arab world.
Some of those visions were explored at a recent forum in Berlin organized by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), an independent initiative based in Beirut that funds organizations and individual artists in cinema, the performing arts, literature, music and visual arts. The forum, called “Imagining the Future: The Arab World in the Aftermath of Revolution,” was held here on June 9 and 10 at the Archive Kabinett publishing house and exhibition space in the predominantly Arab and Turkish neighborhood of Wedding.
AFAC invited prominent Arab artists and scholars such as writer and translator Haytham El-Wardany to attend the forum to discuss the ways in which contemporary interpretations of future Arab societies are in dialogue with those of generations past. The presentations were open to the public and simultaneously translated between Arabic and English.
Whether grim, mundane or surreal, modern Arab artists’ interpretations of future societies depart from the nostalgic and utopian visions of their predecessors in order to stoke thoughtful dialogue about the present.
“Reality opens up, and humans become a part of the universal storm around them,” said El-Wardany, who was born in Cairo and currently lives in Berlin. “In the position of utopia, we give up the standpoint of controlling reality.”
Presentations ranged from close readings of prominent authors like Henein and Zaydan to screenings of modern films depicting haunting Arab futures.
One such film, In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain (2015), a work by Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour that is part science fiction and part political commentary, combines live-action and computer-generated imagery to tell the story of a future resistance group in an unknown land. The fictional group embeds porcelain shards laced with DNA in the earth in order to influence the course of history and support a fictional civilization’s future claims over their vanishing homeland.
An homage to the conflicting narratives of homeland playing out in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sansour plays with arguments of national identity and symbolic ownership of homeland on both sides of the debate. Science fiction is used to address how history and the archaeological record can be harnessed to support either side’s argument in the conflict.
Such controversial depictions of a future Palestine mired in identity politics and historical meddling are a far cry from the hopes of author and translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra for a cosmopolitan Palestinian society in the early decades of the 20th century, said Sonja Mejcher-Atassi, an associate professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the American University of Beirut.
Born in 1919 in Bethlehem—shortly after the pivotal Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave momentum to the push for a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine—Jabra wrote captivating autobiographical narratives of Palestinian life before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In doing so, he alluded to what a diverse Palestinian state could be, said Mejcher-Atassi during a presentation on Jabra on the first day of the conference here.
Even his correspondence with the intelligentsia of Jerusalem in the 1940s and thereafter—after being forced to leave his homeland and resettle in Baghdad, where he died in 1994—show that Jabra clung to hope for a cosmopolitan and peaceful future in Palestine.
That hope, however, became more fleeting the longer he lived in exile, as shown through his later works of fiction, said Mejcher-Atassi.
“He placed too much hope in intellectuals,” she said. “His novel In Search of Walid Masoud (1978) doesn’t breed hope any more, but rather is more realistic about the situation—the protagonist disappears, but what role does he play in society when he returns?”
Modern Arab authors, hardened by the persistence of authoritarian regimes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, haven’t been as green in their depictions of the future in the Arab world. Rather than depicting shining utopias or catastrophic dystopias, many instead envision future Arab societies caught up in the trappings of Western capitalism.
Reading from the last chapter of his novel Women of Karantina (2014) on the first day of the conference, Egyptian writer and journalist Nael Eltoukhy imagines an absurd near-future in Egypt in which capitalist ambitions have led to the construction of novelty tunnels cutting through the earth like Swiss cheese, which serve almost as amusement park rides for the highest bidder.
Instead of adhering to a common utopia-dystopia dichotomy, Eltoukhy presents political commentary by depicting “a future that doesn’t look like a future” in which people are increasingly oblivious of how they’re being influenced by others.
“All of the tacky scenes of government officials, the tacky press headlines, the smug governor and the media.… People will never change,” he said. “People will stay stupid.”
But imagining a world so caught up in mundanity and stupidity, said Eltoukhy, is comforting in a way, given the oppressive reality on the ground in many Arab states today.
“I didn’t want to look back to reflect on a past that represents a golden past, and I didn’t want a protagonist that everyone likes,” he said. “I have a small girl, and I like imagining her with her grandchildren around her, just living a normal life. Everyone likes to imagine the paranormal, these superhumans,” he added. “I like to imagine these normal things.”