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Arabfuturism: Science-Fiction & Alternate Realities in the Arab World
Perwana Nazif , February 22nd, 2018 11:01

Arabfuturism is a new and necessary artistic movement for countering the xenophobia and racism of Europe and America, argues Perwana Nazif. Images from A Space Exodus by Larissa Sansour, courtesy of the artist

Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, a work famously used by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, seems a peculiar choice for the soundtrack to Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour's A Space Exodus (2009), a film that imagines a new reality for the Palestinian narrative. In fact, astronauts, spaceships, and intergalactic travel all seem light years away from anything one associates with the Arab world – at least in terms of its mainstream media portrayal. Challenging this mentality is the astro-suited figure in the film who plants a Palestinian flag and proclaims "That's a small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind."

It's hard to imagine the epic figure in the film as the soft-spoken Sansour in front of me who chose the chain Lebanese restaurant we are now sitting at because it was closest to her daughter's school. But heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and that also applies to artists at the forefront of important contemporary movements – such as Arabfuturism.

As yet, Arabfuturism is much more of a sentiment in flux than a movement. It borrows heavily from Afrofuturism, a mode popularly associated with creative visionary and jazz musician Sun Ra, where science fiction and magical realism are explored through a mix of pan-Africanism and jockeying with time and space. In the film, Space Is The Place, written by Sun Ra, the musician creates a utopian space colony for African Americans to settle in. Though not unlike Ra's Afrofuturism, Arabfuturism is "less lamenting … less victimizing as it is revising it in a way that makes you more empowered," as the scholar Lama Suleiman, known for her writing on the parallels between the two Futurisms, explains to me over video call from Haifa. "[It's] the idea of actually revising the past in a way that is more imaginative."

While Arabfuturism cannot be pinned down to a concrete definition – intentionally so – vague science-fiction aesthetic descriptions are associated with it as well as a vehement rejection of our quotidian, everyday understanding of temporality. Instead, alternative histories, such as Palestine claiming the moon in Sansour's film, are imagined to open up impossible futures where new meanings can be derived from history. New kinds of self-representation, the full grasping of one's agency in representing oneself, become possible. This self-representation, made possible through fantastical, new ideas of the past untainted with memories of occupation and colonization, is key in disassociating Arab subjects from such historically Orientalized representations and stereotypes – which can also be applied to other marginalized groups. The potential for limitless agency, a play on temporality and focus on territories across the Arab world, unoccupied or not, marks its distinction from the "Gulf Futurism" associated with the GCC Art Collective (Fatima Al-Qadira, Monira Al Qadiri, Sophia Al Maria, et al), with its focus on hyper-capitalistic themes, oil, and the Gulf.

Sansour, on the other hand, pauses mid-bite when I ask her to expound upon Arabfuturism, denying any conscious relation to the movement. The reluctance is natural, since Arabfuturism is still very much developing and occurring on an individual rather than consciously collective level. To explain what Arabfuturism is headed towards is best shown through Sansour's practice and a major shift in her work: "I started off doing small documentaries about Palestine and of course I [did] documentaries because … I've always lived in America or Europe, so my audience is the American audience or the European audience. So obviously I'm trying to show a different vision of what's happening in Palestine to that audience [because] the more I document about what's happening in Palestine the less believable it becomes."

"So for me, it became important to talk about it in more surreal terms. [When] reality becomes more surreal than fiction, it's better to resort to fiction….I just wanted to put all the Palestinian-ness and all that's associated with Palestine in a context that's about advancement and progress and so in a completely different universe. "I think working with a parallel universe [makes it] easier for me to talk about what's really happening politically in present day Palestine – by using an almost positive equation instead of just using the same lingo and same rhetoric and same negative language that has reached an impasse. Finding a new equation might be a better way of trying to deal with the situation that has been going on for 60 years."

Lost in her own universe, meticulously created and birthed from her artistic works, Sansour momentarily snaps out of it to explain science fiction's role in this "situation", meaning the Israeli occupation and its repercussions. Sansour particularly refers to the Nakba, a mass exodus of Palestinians from their homes in 1948: "When I started working with sci-fi, I realized how it resonated well with the Palestinian public because Palestinians were stuck in this past of remembering the Catastrophe of 1948 and always projecting a future state. So, thinking about the past as always [in] limbo [resonates with] the fact that science fiction works in those terms."

Sansour's Western audience and this trauma of the Nakba indicates two trajectories for Arabfuturism. One consists of presenting alternative histories to Western audiences through radically experimental means whereas the other presents new explorations of Palestinian selfhood, outside of a mental life defined by constant trauma, and forever hemmed in by walls – both physical and mental. Far more interesting here is the latter, what does it mean for a Palestinian to have territory on the moon? Is it a promising reconfiguration of history or have the Palestinians been forced out of Earth, as artist and poet Etel Adnan imagines in L'Apocalypse Arabe (‘The Arab Apocalypse')?

Adnan's 1989 epic, sonically and visually-aggressive poem, a potential precursor to Arabfuturism, intertwines and relates Arab histories of dislocation and violence to similar historical narratives such as that of the Armenians. Adnan's alternative future, however, is more dystopian with Palestinian corpses shipped off to the moon and lost along the way, rejected from inhabiting any space on Earth and beyond, dead or alive: "…in the big holes of SPACE Mortuary chambers are being prepared/ the Palestinians are dumped in a space-craft heading for the moon/ They sing their own requiem in the launched rocket/…" This emphatic "SPACE" indicates both a certain irony – the total lack of space for Palestinians unsuccessfully headed for more (outer) space – as well as Palestine's particularly unique aspect to the burgeoning movement. What can it mean to be a Palestinian in this context of space? A non-Palestinian Arab? The possibilities for identity and the concept of nationhood are vastly opened up.

Sansour's inclusion in a show at the Harlem Museum in New York in 2013 on Afrofuturist works is where we hit the "aha" moment of Arabfuturism. This key idea is what opens it up to others, specifically those with marginalized backgrounds and ‘secondary' narratives, but also firmly cements Sansour's primary audience as Western.

"It's just very much about the people that are oppressed, they almost need to find a different way of telling their story – that has been heard so many times – in a way that would be more enticing to an audience that does not have these problems."

Forming new narratives. Science Fiction. Openness. Indefinability. These are some of the themes we might associate with Arabfuturism, as confirmed by another artist, Sulaïman Majali. Majali is everything one expects the writer behind the manifesto to be: a mass of curly hair piled up on top of his head, a wild, spirited look in his eye, and the onlooker's constant fear that his rolled cigarette will fly out of his hand as it waves up and down in sync with his theatrical, vernacular way of speech. He may as well be the mad scientist in a film on Arabfuturism. It seems equally fitting to meet the creator behind the manifesto virtually – we are, after all, discussing globalization's major role in spawning this movement-in-progress. So, why now? In addition to globalization and the contemporary political climate, Majali also stresses the bigger historical picture: "The Arab mind is being policed and the Brown mind is being policed and the Black mind is being policed and this policing forces us to make sense of what we're talking about. The right to ambiguity seems to be reserved for White minds."

That's the thing. Sansour's refusal to define or even associate with Arabfuturism is exactly her right, as is the indefinability of Arabfuturism itself. This is something Majali clarifies over and over again: "Because defining is conquering and this is a way of pushing against that. Creating ambiguous versions of oneself. Right now, that's the most subversive political act we can do."

If the cementing of definitions functions as a sort of colonization, this ambiguity works to both deconstruct and counteract this. The paranoia around defining borders and identities is met with a dissenting flight from transparency. Theresa May's notorious warning "If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere" is, in fact, met with applause from Arabfuturists – if we can call them that – such as Majali, who believes this is precisely the direction we are headed in.

Majali's ‘Towards a possible manifesto; proposing Arabfuturism(s) (Conversation A)' has widely circulated in and through the various subcultural philosophical crevices of the internet. Even a snippet of the work reads like a post-dystopian, apocalyptic thriller:

‘ "But there is something happening in Europe,-"
"Arabfuturism conceives instead, an origin in imagined space, towards the abyss of an imagined future"
"– Dancing on the ruins of the post-orientalist stage; in the desert of the unreal; high on the opulence of emptiness."
"– Violent births of countries; the expansions and contractions, the demise and deaths, –"
"– the demise and deaths of nations."
"The nation is dead-"
"– Something is happening in Europe –" '

The (possible) manifesto reads like a script with a cacophony of voices, heightening the sense of paranoia. The decolonization and eradication of nationhood stressed by Arabfuturism is echoed in the manifesto with a particular emphasis on the erasure of the ramifications – or "expansions and contractions" – with which certain countries were born. It imagines the possibility of "the ruins of the post-orientalist stage" or a post-post-orientalist existence where such bloody histories and damaging representations did not occur. Rather than erase these unacknowledged histories, the manifesto brings them to the surface through a rationale of the utter impossibility of this happening in our dimension.

Over and over again it states that "something is happening in Europe." Replace "Europe" with any Western country and it all starts to make sense, as Majali admits. Arabfuturism is needed and happening now because of the blatant xenophobia and racism occurring in Europe and America, especially at a political and institutional level.

Both Majali and scholar Suleiman agree on certain problems within the rising movement, especially given its Western focus and emphasis on the traditional definition of diaspora. "I think [Arabfuturism is] an interesting meeting between what is outside diaspora and what is inside diaspora. I don't think that's very elaborated upon and the idea of Arabfuturism really taps into the core of the subject but doesn't quite yet understand where both these things meet." says Suleiman.

Regarding why Arabfuturism is associated more with diasporic Arab artists such as Sansour and Majali, Suleiman refers to the lack of funding and resources, which is "[one] decisive factor in why this is not happening here [in Palestine] in a more pronounced way – or maybe it is happening, but it's still hindered as opposed to what's happening in the diaspora outside."

Regarding diasporic Arabfuturism's accessibility and its implications to those within the Arab region, Suleiman believes that, "in its current form", meaning a "Westernised aesthetic or discourse", it is irrelevant. Only once it "addresses and deals with the place's geopolitics and culture or subcultures in a direct and informed manner" will the movement gain traction within the Arab world and its particular regions.

Given these problems within the movement, Suleiman still acknowledges the importance of Arabfuturistic thought and work: "Let's not define this in the very classical sense, [but instead] acknowledge that it is there and it has meaning and it is important for us to understand the implications."

Rather than attempt to enclose it with meaning, Suleiman highlights the importance of what it could mean, the opening of possibilities that can arise from it. Majali, likewise, posits the movement as a subtle catalyst. "I don't think Arabfuturism really belongs to now or the future. Somehow it's a feeling, it's a necessary thing and I think once I start speaking of that and once we're all part of the wider aftershocks of colonialism, these things are important to feel and to articulate."