Islands, rooms, and Queues

Three Tropes in Arabic Science Fiction

  • Wessam Elmeligi University of Michigan-Dearborn
Keywords: Arab spring, narratology, dystopia, futurism, science fiction, Arabic literature, island motif, medical science fiction, authoritarianism, spiritualism


This study traces the development of science fiction in Arabic literature along narrative trajectories illustrated by reading four narratives that focus on the motifs of place and power. Starting with Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the article analyzes the scientific focus of this 12th century philosophical narrative at the peak of Islamic Andalusian philosophy. The island motif exemplifies the unity of creation and the almost pantheistic existence of humanity within nature, in an amalgam of scientific pursuit of spirituality. The article then moves to Youssef Ezeddine Eassa, one of the pioneers of 20th century Arabic science fiction, whose Kafkaesque short stories, novels and radio dramas expounded on the philosophical notions of earlier Arabic literature but within a Kafkaesque motif of closed waiting rooms and a nightmarish city, where trials, interviews, and appointments turn into grotesque future fantasies. The last trope is exemplified by Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, a futiristic dytopian narrative of endless queues, where minimalist apocalyptic visions of life are stifled by surveillance and control. In all four narratives, there is an invisible force watching as the characters intersect with their communities. The motifs of island, room, city, and queue represent the development of science fiction and futurism in Arabic fiction as attempts to grapple with the crisis of isolation and the awareness of, and endeavors to understand and even interact with, higher powers, whether spiritual or political. This article reads all four narratives from a narratological lens, examining how the three writers used motifs to construct their visions of existence.