Monday, September 18, 2017

Ahmad (ed.), Islamicates (2016)

Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad (ed.), Islamicates. Volume 1. Anthology of Science Fiction Short Stories inspired from Muslim Cultures. Mirza Book Agency, 2016. Pp. 236. ISBN 978-1-5373-7210-5. Free online.

Reviewed by Małgorzata Mika

What motivates us? Us as people? A French writer, Bernard Werber poses this question on the pages of his novel, L’ultime secret, enumerating religion as the tenth out of twelve basic factors defining human existence. His answer may be puzzling, especially for Islamic cultures where religion constitutes the very fabric of life. For Muslims all other elements, such as freedom from pain and fear, sustaining basic needs, wrath, sexual drive, etc., seem to be regulated by culture which is a “frequency through which religion travels” [p. i]. At least, this is the idea which Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad’s anthology Islamicates strongly postulates. Being a resultant of an ongoing project, the book constitutes a collection of stories and novellas with a detectable Muslim undertones, spreading its roots into the world of the fantastic. This includes science fiction regardless of the definition assumed. The presence of religion in the fantastic has usually been encrusted with elements of Christianity and, more vaguely, religions of the East. This anthology, however, is a peculiar experiment, revolving around Islam as a major indicative of the stories’ plot. How does the world of the future appear sieved through the eyes of a Muslim?

“Calligraphy” by Alex Kreis may surprise us. The prayer comes before anything else. Master Naqash, a tilemaker of Isfahân, is a pious man whose artistic work is deeply rooted in religion. Being the best craftsman in the city, he is confronted by his colleague, Musa ibn Muhammad al-Khwarizmi whose craft supersedes his own. Starting as a tale of human envy the story transforms into that of wonder and enlightenment. Qur’an as presented on the tiles of the temple becomes the work of constant evolution, adding an element of depth into the story. Order in chaos, novelty in the old, simplicity in complexity likens the work of al-Khwarizmi to that of a chaos theory. In the representation of two craftsmen (one sticking closely to the art he had learned and the other—clearly a visionary), highlights the ideas of God and religion as everlasting and incomprehensible to the human mind. In this, the story finds a common ground with Christian theology, where the divine never yields to earthly concepts. The story is rather typical in its rhetoric, and I wish the writer concentrated more on utilizing the idea of chaos theory to discriminate between fate and an accident.

“Insha’Allah” by R.F. Dunham proves nothing in human existence is accidental. Being a clash of the powers of reason and the divine, the story pictures an interaction between a religious man, Khafid, and his scientifically-oriented daughter, Aliyya. Young, persistent and ambitious, Aliyya personifies an unshaken belief in progress, being certain that a device allowing to predict the future will eliminate the agent of unpredictability from human life. Khafid, although gentle and understanding toward his daughter, does not waiver in his believes. A friction between faith and its lack is somewhat reminiscent of the Romantic struggle between science and the supernatural, with a strong emphasis on the divine. The story’s plot, being simple and mostly uneventful (apart from the last scene), offers a reflection on the erroneousness of rational structures of predictability, which is an issue that was poignantly exercises in Philip K. Dick’s famous story, “Minority Report”. Durham’s insight, although somewhat secondary, does not undermine the narrative’s value per se. Yet, since his story concentrates more on a dialog rather than the progression of events, I found the lack of a multidimensional representation of the characters more lacking than in Dick’s story.

God and fate may, at certain point, become synonymous for the pious, but the representation of that idea—not necessarily. “Operation Miraj” penned by Sami Ahmad Khan, is a venture into the past and the future world. Set in New Delhi, India in 1948 and Pakistan in the year 2035, the narrative jumps in time to change the fate of the world. Engaged in destructive Sino-Pak-Indian war, Pakistan acquired a temporal displacement weapon. This, in fact, turns out a (deadly) utilization of a famous time machine. Summaya, a woman in the Pakistani Special Forces is sent back to 1948 to execute the eponymous Operation Miraj. The mingling of the known with the unknown reaches the highest levels of suspense as Summaya identifies the person whom she is to protect from a certain death. Although no recognizable name is uttered in the story, the time and the occasion speak to the general knowledge of the readers. The moment of epiphany brings understanding of the narrator’s secrecy while, at the same time, evokes feelings of distress as the history that occurred may not be altered outside the fantastic.

Joyful or deeply tragic, history shapes lives on a personal and social level. As Mariam Edward’s “Connected” proves, history does not always require salvation of a single man to change its course. Sometimes it is a matter of memory that may doom or save thousands. Among Reflection, the show capturing events, and Anodyne™, the substance that aids to suppress them, emerges an image of a young Muslim woman who has lost connection with her family. It is interesting to see semantics come into play as the title resonates with personal and social drama of a religious minority. Edward pictures the need to heal the wounds of a nation with an almost sickening frenzy. This (pseudo)therapeutic process is recorded by drones monitoring the gatherings of people struck by tragedies of wars, terrorist attacks and deportation. However, instead of delivering the truth, all the recordings and data taken directly from people’s heads give a somewhat twisted image of the reality which, in fact, no everyone wishes to remember. A daily dose of Anodyne™ helps people to forget the past, nullifying the pain of loss and dissipating a desire for retribution. In her story of open wounds, Edward uncovers the workings of a double talk—the one officially accepted by the majority, and the other, thwarted, which omits the tragedies of an Islamic world. There is a visible thread of victimization present in the non-Westernized vision that provokes the readers to reflect whether they take into consideration all parts of the story. As in some stories presented in the Islamicates collection, a ray of hope brings light to an otherwise grim ending as Allah is considered the one compensation for the loss.

For some it may seem naïve to put faith in God when confronted with a tragedy; for others, this is the indicator of identity. In Gwen Bellinger’s “Day that No One Died,” faith is of outmost importance. In the colonized New Earth, a humanoid race of three-eyed Neostarlites attempts to erase the legacy of religion bequeathed after the Old World (Earth). Asiya, an educated Muslim girl who struggles to survive in the non-religious planet of rationality, is forced to hide her denomination. An echo of religious intolerance, so frequently repeated regardless of an epoch, is now ignited by all-pervading atheism. The arrival of alien invaders had aided the process of extirpation, as annihilation was viewed as progress. Writing the story Bellinger created a tale against atheism and racism—two ideas which, in the present world, may be viewed as opposites. So strong have we got accustomed to the idea that religion is bearer of distress. Yet, Asiya’s “inadequacy” lies in her silent crime to follow the religion which, if not forbidden, is definitely shunned. A tale of hidden racism and prejudice, Bellinger’s story makes the reader vigilant to the injustice done in the name of ideology and fleeting trends of politics or culture.

The clash of politics and religion can unearth what lurks in a man’s heart. “Searching for Azrail” by Nick “Nasr” Pierce presents a tale of assassination on the sultanate in the futuristic environment. A fast-paced plot seen through the eyes of Hani, a deceased sultan’s son, allows for viewing the role of religion in confrontation with the boy’s tragedy. Owing to the presence of traditional elements ascribed to Arabic cultures (sultanate, the presence of the Angel of Death), it is easy to immerse oneself in its peculiar world enriched by science-fictional elements. Perhaps, it is because of the vibe of a foreign culture or the need to find an explanation for an otherwise inexplicable violence that makes the reader to identify with the characters. Regardless of our understanding, “Searching for Azrail” may be considered the most climatic and emotional story in the whole collection.

An interesting take on violence is adopted by Peter Henderson’s story, “Watching the Heavens.” The narrative unveils the future in which an alien race invaded and occupied the Earth. Humanity has been doomed to serve them ever since. While the status quo has been disrupted, the people of all nations have been migrating to obtain a job through legal or illegal means. The nameless protagonist, most probably of Islamic denomination, is unofficially employed at the dock under Jan Sobeiski’s [sic!] supervision. During their shift, the two characters are to witness the death of an alien which will being them both before the court of law. It is uncommon to see one of the character’s bear the name of the Polish king, although with a spelling mistake. The very act of utilizing it, however, serves as an indicative of the writer’s knowledge of the world history. This allows him to draw a comparison between the king who fought off the Ottoman Empire and the role of the two characters in the fight against the aliens. In a way, the historical fact conditions the actions of both characters, proving that when faced with a danger, one is capable of the most and creative and treacherous acts. A study of human nature, the story seems to pose questions that may lead the readers to a dangerous interpretation: who is a true alien in this story? What will we do if the story repeats itself?

Niloufar Behrooz’s “The Answer” may serve as a metaphorical response to all evil. The lyrical narrative tells a story of a girl kidnapped by an alien race as the last specimen of the human species. Turned into concrete, the aliens have denied the spiritual part of their existence. Despite being immersed in lies, they have started posing questions about their provenience, thus seeking those who are unaltered by ossification. A narrative with philosophical and moral undertones, “The Answer” relies heavily on propagating the goodness of Islam, even when it offers religious rhetoric for the most gullible. Its message, although positive, is flattened by the lack of depth in the characters’ representation and the complexity in illustrating the main issue. Also, delivering the morale of the story in the likeness of a fable has a rather detrimental effect as it deprives the reader of discovering the essence of the narrative and accepting it as their own.

More subtlety in the field of storytelling is offered by Sazida Desai’s “The Last Map Reader.” It pictures the vicissitudes of Zeb, a young boy stricken by the death of his grandmother. With his childhood world slowly falling apart, he is intercepted by Inspector Detective Williamson to help him catch some individuals deemed dangerous to the state. In the world of the future, with its magnificent cities and technology, it is inconceivable to think that skill the detective lacks is… .the ability to read maps. Presented as old-fashioned and potentially perilous, the activity of reading maps allows the boy to move freely and learn the truth he has not dared to uncover. Visibly dystopian, the narrative offers another insight into the power of faith and its ability to protect culture against regimes of the future.

Preservation of culture constitutes a challenge in the postapocalyptic world of Nora Salem’s “The End of the World.” In Spain struck by a deadly drought, Nouari fights to stay alive. Old and alone in a deserted city, he is kidnapped and robbed by a bandit who eventually leads him to the rest of his group. During the journey of survival, Nouari learns his kidnappers’ identities and the positions they held before the bout of heat destroyed everything with civilization and religion included. It is worthwhile to notice how the story almost falls into the trap of (post)apocalyptic paradigm, sending the characters on a journey that will reveal their true nature and purpose. Contrary to other postapocalyptic narratives, “The End of the World” does not exhaust its potential for its blood-curling scenes of violence and stunning displays of tyrannical power; although this may appear as a slightly clichéd move, in the moment when change is not expected, new possibilities arise, giving the characters hope that tomorrow is worth living for.

Handling reality, however, can be challenging once you are closed in a time loop like Quratulain, a 19-year-old character in Jehanzeb Dar’s “Congruence.” The girl keeps coming back to Azal, a therapist dedicated to solving a plethora of psychological problems her patients deal with. To what is usually regarded as ‘psychological’, the story adds the issues of minorities, emphasizing their relations with the (Westernized and racist) White people. This remains in connection with Quratulain’s situation, as the girl experienced the trauma of a future war that would kill a vast number of Muslims. A merge of the past and future, the story introduces aspects of politics, national trauma and wounded religion, turning it into a mission with a truly messianic ending.

Messianism or, at least, the belief in the missionary order is vividly present in “Pilgrims Descent” by J. P. Heeley. Ibrahim and his pregnant wife, Sarah, are on the way to Canaveral in the hope of fulfilling what they believe is their life destiny. With air in short supply and other resources dwindling, their path leads either to death or salvation. The story, abundant with hardships, is at the same time a display of faith and its power to conquer adversities. As in many narratives listed in this collection, the characters seem to draw their strength from the unwavering belief in Allah, and his will pervading the human thought.

To couple religion with speculative fiction has proven to be an intriguing idea, but not devoid of flaws. In some of the stories, the need to reveal the beauty of Islam is so palpable that it ends up being a weak platitude or a religious oratory. In other cases, the narratives try to justify less benign effects of being a member of Islam. Somewhere in between there are stories that offer a balanced perception of the presence of religion and its role in the world.

When it comes to the project of the book cover, the repetitiveness of the pattern, although understandable, is quite disappointing, and requires more creative approach than the one given. Since Mr Ahmad’s endeavor is intended to be a long-term one, I believe this is a rather small flaw that can be easily erased. Far more scrutiny, however, should be given to editing, as minor typos and misspellings occur, being a source of disturbance for those who cherish impeccable correctness of the texts read. However, I find this flaw to be a part of an expanding problem online publications face, being robbed of the linguistic care they deserve regardless of their format.

With digital age having its vices, it is wise to approach the book seeking its cultural and literary value which Islamicates surely possesses. A variety of stories will give you a glimpse into the world that, in the media, is presented in a tentative or twisted way. While reading the stories the reader may stumble upon their own prejudices and misconceptions allowing them to take up a gauntlet and widen their horizons. Not all the terms embedded into the narratives may seem understandable, but it is the reader’s choice to expand their knowledge or remain ignorant to the significant part of the religious world. Thus, they can find the read dull and cast it out, or become acquainted with a different sort of speculative fiction than the one they usually immerse themselves in. The choice is always theirs to make. As for the rest, Insha’Allah.

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