In 2012, Yasser Bahjatt delivered a Ted Talk in Doha about how science fiction advances actual science. He argued that almost every major scientific advance was envisioned decades earlier (at a minimum) by science fiction, and brought examples from Jules Verne (fuel powered vehicles), H. G. Wells (the Atomic Bomb), and Star Trek (motion controlled computers). Science fiction propels humanity forward, and you could see it in pretty much every region of the world except one – The Arab countries.
At the end of his talk, Bahjatt announced that he was founding Yatakhayaloon, the League of Arabic SciFiers: an open platform for science fiction writers and artists from all across the Arabian World. The goal? To help propel the region forward. Bahjatt cofounded Yatakhayaloon with his friend Ibraheem Abbass. From what little I have managed to gather from the internet, the league has published several science fiction novels, and submitted a bid to host the 2022 WorldCon in Jedda. Among the novels, you can also find Abbas’ HWJN, a very religious adult science fiction novel that was a bestseller in Saudi Arabia until it got banned for blasphemy.
Jinn Are Like Humans
“We are just like you: we eat, drink, sleep, feel happy and sad, get married, and have children, and… most of all, we love! Do we not live in this world with you as intelligent responsible creatures? Do we not worship Allah and follow his messengers also like you? So why then would you imagine our world with this amusing, shallow view?”
According to Islamic tradition (I apologize for grossly oversimplifying), Jinn are a separate category of supernatural being, parallel to humans in Allah’s hierarchy. As such they are subject to judgement and an afterlife. When Mohammed delivered Allah’s message, some Jinn listened to him speak and converted to Islam. In HWJN these Jinn are called the Nafar.
The Nafar are humanitarian Jinn. They live in and adapt to human societies, but also exist on a separate plane from them. Contact and communication is possible (but difficult), but Nafar society frowns upon it and considers it to be very inappropriate behavior. HWJN, the protagonist Jinn, is a Nafar, and this book is his first-person narrative.
HWJN lives with his mother and grandfather in an abandoned house in Jeddah. He is a direct descendant of those Jinn who heard Mohammed’s message. HWJN recently graduated his studies and began working in a medical center. Of course that means he’s old enough for his mother to start nagging him about getting married. His life dramatically changes when a human family moves into his house, and the teenage daughter, Sawsan, moves into his room.
Jinn are Religious
“Extremist Jinn find it unacceptable to live in Human houses, but my kind follow a much more lenient view. We find it okay to live with them – I mean with you – so long as we do not harm one another.”
This book was a fascinating read as it opened up a window into two worlds I know very little about: Islam and Jinn. In this book, Islam is an objective truth. HWJN as a Jinn knows more about this than your average human. He is an authority, and we should respect authority. Yes, of course I disagree, but it was still very informative, and ultimately I have mixed feelings.
I learned for example, that one of the greatest possible sins was polytheism because there is only one god. Engaging in activities considered polytheistic, such as animal sacrifice is a mortal sin and one for which there can be no redemption. It’s important because at a certain key point HWJN tries and succeeds on saving a character from this gravest of sins. If the character would have succeeded, they would have been beyond salvation.
HWJN is a Stalker
This book is also about the romantic relationship between a Jinn and human. It’s a very inappropriate relationship, and also one that makes absolutely no sense. HWJN when describing his feelings does not provide any physical descriptions that could induce passion, which makes sense considering that the book was published in Saudi Arabia (and it didn’t stop it from being banned). I still thought that this was a very unreliable narration. Jinni and humans are closely related. There was no way HWJN was blind to the physical attributes of the girl he was stalking.
There is very much a creepiness factor in this book. HWJN develops a crush for the teenage Sawsan because he is living in the same room with her. The Jinn exists on a separate plane, which meant that he could observe her, but Sawsan couldn’t observe him, which basically meant that the Jinn knowingly adopted the role of male stalker. Something I as the reader couldn’t ignore.
Not Science Fiction
The story itself is supposed to be adult science fiction. I think I’ve covered the adult point, but it’s worth dwelling on the science fiction aspect. The book attempts to rely on Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Jinni society is so far advanced from human society that to us Jinn are like magic, which is why the book should be considered science fiction. This doesn’t work.
HWJN’s relatives are practitioners of sorcery and black magic. This allows them to shape change, and possession is also possible. In order to defeat evil, one needs to demonstrate faith in Allah, not science. Therefore, IMO this book is better categorized as religious fantasy. Really well written fantasy, but still fantasy.
I enjoyed the book, but I haven’t made up my mind if I‘m going to read more books written by Ibraheem Abbas. My main hesitancy has to do with how women are portrayed and treated in this book, but I will also admit to having a problem with a book that treats Islam as an objective truth for which there is no room for disagreement. I can understand a character who holds that view, but when it is the author itself that’s more of a problem. Abbas is clearly staking out his target audience, and that target audience does not include practicing Orthodox Jews.
The Omer today is grandeur in courage. Both of which work with this book. Abbas does an excellent job in world building, and the societies of Jinn he created, which have a very strong basis in Islam are truly a grand thing to behold and experience. However, this pales in the face of HWJN’s courage, the courage to stand up to his evil relatives, the courage to attempt to rectify his mistakes, and ultimately the courage to realize he was wrong and to do right by Sawsan (who is very much an object throughout this story). I wouldn’t consider HWJN a role model, but I do admire this attribute in him.
(see below the trailer for the novel)
About the Authors
Ibraheem Abbas is a creative director and a film maker, he is also the co-founding member of Yatakhayaloon (The League of Arabic SciFiers) that brings together fans and creators of Arabic SciFi, its main objective is to encourage the Arabic SciFi culture and enrich its content empowering it to become globally competitive.
Yasser Bahjatt is a technologist & futurist who is the first Saudi to ever go to Singularity University’s Graduate Study Program where he was the lead engineer on the Matternet project.
He has a BS in Computer Engineering from King Abdulaziz University.
Yasser is an active member of the TED community as he was the first to translate TED talks through the open translation project to Arabic and was also the #1 most active TED translator for a period of time. He was the organizer or co-organizer of several TEDx events including TEDxArabia, TEDxJeddah, TEDxKAU & TEDxUQU.
Yasser’s talk at TED@Doha about the relationship between SciFi and Scientific development announced the launch of Yatakhayaloon (Arabic for “They are Imagining”), an initiative to kick start the Arabian contemporary SciFi culture, in a 20 year experiment to prove that SciFi growth results in Scientific development growth.
His novel Yaqteenya is the first ever Arabian alternate history novel. He also co-authored the English edition of the two Arabian best sellers HWJN & Somewhere.