Speculative Fiction from the Middle East

Speculative Fiction from the Middle East

On Thursday 19 September, five speculative short videos from the Middle East will have their premiere in The Netherlands. What is speculative fiction, why are academics interested in it and what is happening in the Middle East in this respect?

Speculative fiction is a term that encompasses a number of genres in literature, comics, film, and TV, such as sci-fi and fantasy. What these genres have in common, is that they imagine other worlds, while at the same time criticizing or satirizing our existing societies. Such fiction is speculative in posing the question “what if.” “What if all earth-dwellers were confronted by an extra-terrestrial enemy?” or “what if computers were smarter than humans?” These speculations tell us something about our own world, because other variables, such as human behavior and social organization, remain familiar.

Genres such as sci-fi and fantasy were long relegated to niche popular entertainment. The last quarter-century, however, witnessed a global surge in speculative fiction that broke with rigid genre conventions. The weird, for example, refers to a dark mixture of fantasy and sci-fi that avoids classic tropes such as aliens and zombies and offers imaginative but unsettling alternatives.

Not coincidentally, there was also an increase in interest by both academic and literary critics. Under the looming threat of climate change, and with rapid developments in artificial intelligence and bioengineering, a growing field of academic critique argues for an understanding of the society in which humans are not always the center. Such posthumanist critique shares with speculative fiction the concern that nature and technology influence societies in ways that are often beyond human intention, control or even understanding.

The upcoming event Last Skies: Avian Imaginaries in Video Art from the Middle East responds to these developments in fiction and academic critique with a special focus on the Middle East. The screening is curated by Nat Muller, specialized in contemporary visual arts of the Middle East and currently conducting a Ph.D. project that explores how classic science-fictional tropes such as space travel, the alien Other, and the apocalyptic are articulated in contemporary visual art from the Middle East.

She explains that it is difficult to pin down what is specific to speculative fiction from the Middle East given its incredible diversity. “There is a specificity to how the speculative or the future is – or can be – articulated, depending on whether artists depart from a context that is informed by the ongoing occupation and dispossession of Palestine, post-2011 Egypt, Gulf Futurism, or for example, the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War.”

To get an impression, compare the term Gulf Futurism to dystopian literature from Egypt and Iraq. The first was coined as an attempt to grasp a sense of petro-capitalist techno-pessimism in countries like Kuwait and the Emirates, the second are works that seek to come to terms with authoritarian repression, glaring inequality, or the extreme violence of the 2003 US invasion in Iraq. They have, indeed, very little in common, except for the speculative mode on the one hand, and the response to locally specific pressing social, political and economic conditions on the other.

Tasnim Qutait, who investigates security discourses in Arabic literature at SOAS, points out that where Anglo-Saxon dystopian literature mostly imagines a future collapse of democracy, the function of Arab fiction is often to defamiliarize present political conditions, such as decades long emergency rule, occupation, and war. An alternative reality might, moreover, offer a way to circumvent censorship, open up space for imagining otherwise, or question what constitutes “serious literature”.

For Last Skies, Muller selected five pieces of video art from makers with Lebanese, Palestinian-Armenian, Qatari, Egyptian, Turkish and Iranian backgrounds. She explains that “the focus on birds offers a fantastic playing field in which big topics such as migration, heritage, geo-politics, and the Anthropocene [the idea that humans have impacted the condition of our planet irreversibly, j.n.] can be explored poetically and innovatively”. Some examples:

After a stork was arrested in Egypt on suspicion of spying, Heba Amin’s meditating As Birds Flying offers us an aerial view on regional geopolitics. The owls in Boyadgian and Khosravi Noor’s video, nesting in clock towers, invite us to reflect on ways to make ourselves at home in the remains of colonial modernity in the region. And what does Al-Maria’s tantalizing images of a newborn avian creature in a ruthless desert tell us about the future? These multifaceted works by some of the most exciting artists from the Middle East shift from the magical to the historical as well as from the aerial to the terrestrial view. They therefore not only challenge linear conceptions of time but also offer new perspectives.


This event is organized by LUCIS and the Research Center for Material Culture and will take place at museum Volkenkunde. For more information go to the LUCIS website. The event is free but spaces are limited. Reserve your tickets here.