The Feast From The East: Tales From The Cosmic Casbah

Something To Read With Relish

And Tempt The Taste Buds… 

SinbadThe dream I had, Rachid, this is all part of it somehow! We’ve been brought here by some mysterious force. Is it not written that a wise man will try to realise his dream, to follow it?” 

Rachid: “Some say it is through dreams that Allah speaks to mortal man… Captain! He who walks on fire will burn his feet…” 

The being “spontaneously generated” in a cave on a remote island, many parsecs off the Arabian coast. Seafarers discovered that stranger and brought him to Baghdad where he described in intricate detail th countless worlds to be found beyond our own, before the Caliph assured him that none of these realms could surpass the beauty of his own land and the glory of Allah.

This is the synopsis for Theologus Autodidactus, written by Ibn Al-Nafis, dating from as early as the 13th century is believed (in some quarters) to be the earliest precursor of science fiction, although its curious contents lean more towards science-fantasy. 

The notion of Middle Eastern Science Fiction seems so unlikely, compounded by the view that science and the proliferation of (new) ideas conflict with the principles of Islamic ideology. And yet there is so much more to this surprisingly burgeoning scene than it looks. The recent successful SF and Fantasy Book Festival held in Abu Dhabi highlighted what this unexpected region has to offer – most notably:

Iraq+100, a groundbreaking SF anthology that poses an intriguing challenge to contemporary Iraqi writers:

What might your home city look like in the year 2103 – exactly 100 years after the disastrous American and British-led invasion of Iraq?

And now there is the English translation of Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi. 

From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, Hadi the junk dealer collects human body parts and stitches them together in order to make the government grant them the proper burial they deserve. However, the corpse goes missing; soon, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, leading to reports of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. 

Hmm, not my cup of (cardamom) tea, this, but interesting to see how arguably the most famous classic SF/horror theme has inspired a uniquely – not to mention unlikely – Middle Eastern variation.

“Two tablets brought forth to the light, yet a third remains from sight.

“A final place must still be found, a place that lies deep below the ground…” – The Oracle Of All Knowledge. 

Once upon a time, shortly after we moved to my childhood home, my parents let out our upstairs rooms to students attending the local university. The vast majority of them hailed from the Middle East. So, fortunately, from a very young age, yours truly grasped the opportunity to savour the music, language, art, aromas, rugs and – Allah be praised! – delicacies of distant domains. 

Thus, fuelling my imagination by gawping at various awesome adventures such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and – ah! ‘im again – The Golden Voyage of Sinbad; and much later, stopping at nothing to acquire my own ornate antiquarian hardback edition of Tales From The Arabian Nights (translated and annotated by Richard F. Burton – the definitive rendering) (1888) – plus acquiring a degree in Near Eastern Archaeology – Brad was all set to trample all over such esteemed sites as Babylon, Nippur, Lagash and Umm Dabaghiyah (umm-what?!)… until…

Mum beseeched me not to go, fearing an escalation in tensions and violence in that region – ultimately, in sheer disbelief, yours truly witnessed/read about the vandalism and destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage (during 2003-04) from the relative quiet and safety of Bangkok instead…

To accentuate this scheherazade for the senses, there will be light sprinklings of the more exotic platters that nestle deep within the jukebox @ Brad Manor – all by the same combo who accompanied me on the streets of Manhattan, kept me occupied during those looong hours waiting at Middle Eastern airports, and inspired me to write both fiction and non-fiction during the Pre-Bradscribe Era @ a lovely seaside retreat on the Gulf of Thailand… 

“Flashing swords, leaping bandits, holy magic, bloodthirsty monsters, and sumptuous cuisine… what more do you want me to do, draw you a map? Read this thing” – Scott Lynch. 

Throne Of The Crescent Moon (first published in 2012) is a lush fantasy set in an alternate medieval Middle East. Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last real ghul hunter of Dhamsawatt, King of Cities, Jewel of Abassen is aching to retire – presumably to spend lazy days relaxing with copious cups of cardamom tea –  but a new threat of ghuls: zombie-like beings reanimated by evil sorcery, more fearsome than any he has ever encountered, brings him back into this rather unusual fray.

Before setting out wholeheartedly to acquire a copy, my heart sank upon recalling my persistent – almost legendary – inability to track down any potentially groovy novel that comes to my attention.

And yet!

Before you can say: “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel,” the very tome of which we speak managed to reach my grubby mitts, for a hardback copy indeed lay in wait at my nearest library!

The book itself has received rave reviews and its author, Saladin Ahmed happens to be the very same Saladin Ahmed who contributed to the recent Star Wars Canto Bight anthology compendium and – my minions inform me – is now writing Spider-Man! So far, it is proving to be an engrossing read; like one reviewer remarks, it plays in your mind rather like a Ray Harryhausen fantasy – high praise inseed! 

And why does the premise sound so intoxicating? 

Because it seems exactly like the sort of Arabesque swashbuckling fantasy adventure that Brad would write. Come to think of it, not so long ago, he DID attempt such a saga, whilst living near the beach a few years back – inspired by my study of ancient seafaring.

Accounts by Arab writers of exotic eastern lands can be dated as far back as the mid-9th century CE. The earliest existing text: the Akhbar al-Sin wa’l-Hind (unfortunately anonymous) compiles stories from merchants who told of uncharted islands rife with pirates, troglodytes, headhunters and “beasts” more fantastic than anything Magizoologist Newt Scamander encountered! 

More crucially, this is where we first obtained those fantastical tales of Sinbad, that adventurous sailor who had to brave evil sorcerers, giant crabs and whatnot WITHOUT the comfort of cardamom tea…! 

“He’s awake and listening to us. Sly little rascal. But royalty has need of slyness. And if he’s really the Kwisatz Haderach… well… Sleep well, you sly little rascal. Tomorrow you’ll need all your faculties to meet my gom jabbar” – Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam.

Well, bless my Chicken Arabiatta!

It is difficult to discuss this material without acknowledging the HUGE impact of Frank Herbert’s Dune. 

Exuding more pertinent geopolitical resonances in the 21st century than it ever could have managed on its initial publication in 1965, Herbert drew inspiration from the Bedou way of life, to create an elaborate desert culture: the Fremen, native inhabitants of the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. 

For possibly the first time, numerous examples of Middle Eastern terminology filterted into Western literature. In their jihad against House Harkonnen, the Fremen launch razzia raids, wear aba and bourka robes, fear a “devil” named “Shaitan” and so on.

Please click here for an expanded study of this landmark work, winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards, and praised by Arthur C. Clarke for its “depth of characterisation and the extraordinary detail of the world it creates. I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord Of The Rings.”

“Is that the end… of all the races and civilizations, and the dreams of the world, to be able to leave a few stones buried beneath the sands, to tell the Dark that we were here?” – Niun.

Another SF series profoundly influenced by Middle Eastern themes came in the eclectic form of the Faded Sun Trilogy by C.J. Cherryh.

Set in the Alliance-Union universeKesrith, Shon’Jir and Kutath each chronicle the Mri-Wars in this coming-of-age saga of Niun, the plucky protagonist.

The first volume begins with the Regul having just concluded a forty-year war with humanity. As part of the peace, they are ceding the desert world of Kesrith to humanity. However, they have neglected to inform its inhabitants, the Mri, who have served them as mercenaries for over two thousand years. These mercenaries have been nearly exterminated in these wars, and young Niun is one of the few remaining warriors. When the Regul seek to double-cross his people, he and his sister Melein, the last of the priestly Sen caste, form an uneasy alliance with the human Sten Duncan to rescue a holy relic that may hold the key to the Mri’s survival.

Despite being shortlisted for the Nebula Award in 1978 and the Hugo Award in 1979, this – and its two successors – are among the most elusive SF series to track down in print!

Time to set sail – for “every voyage has its own flavour”further east, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, across the azure Maha Thalassa towards the enchanted shores of what Persian seafarers called: “Al-Hind”…

“Mighty Kali. Mightier than thou am I. Make obeisance to me…! Dance. Dance for me!” – Khoura. 

 

“One of the five best SF novels ever written” – George R. R. Martin.

Why shouldn’t India have its own panoply of science fiction tales?

Delve into the wondrous textures of Hindu mythology and it will not take you long to discover bizarre accounts of gods striking out of glistening cities in the clouds, charging across the sky in “celestial chariots” firing bolts of lightning against inhuman enemies…

So it comes as no surprise that Roger Zelazny drew extensively upon such myths to produce one of the SF greats: Lord of Light. 

A distant world where gods walk as men, but wield vast and hidden powers. Are they truly immortal? Who are these gods? Their names include Brahma, Kali, Krishna and also he who was called Buddha, the Lord of Light, but who now prefers to be known simply as Sam. 

Although it has not ascended to Dune-like heights of literary adulation and popularity, Zelazny’s masterpiece is richly-conceived and plotted, and still widely-regarded by those who know as a richly-crafted work, its curious yet compelling non-linear narrative lauded by other top contemporary SF authors.

Your foreign correspondent here will endeavour to surge through this classic right now (for the unpteenth time) aided by a set of lamb biryani, with a bowl of naan chips, baked with cumin, coriander and kalonji seeds, (seasoned with Kashmiri spices and coconut – the way Brad likes ’em!) – and a cup of cardamom tea, of course

Love, light and peace.

 

“There is that about them which repels… The trident of Shiva cuts a path through everything. But no matter how much he destroys, we raise up more against him. So he stands like a statue, uncreating storms we will not let end” – Tree Of Green Fire. 

“You pace the deck like a caged beast; for one who enjoys the hashish you should be more at peace…” – Sinbad.

 

6 thoughts on “The Feast From The East: Tales From The Cosmic Casbah

  1. I read Throne of the Crescent Moon this past year with my book club – we all really enjoyed it! I would love to read more Middle Eastern influenced fantasy and particularly sci-fi. I think it would be awesome for someone to do a space opera series a la Star Wars except influenced by Middle Eastern mythology and culture.

    • Thanks, Ash! Great to see u again!
      Amazed to hear that you’ve read Throne of the Crescent Moon also – Dune is arguably the finest Middle Eastern influenced SF/Fantasy series.
      Cheers!

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