Sci-fi Wahabi may or may not be the alter ego of Sophia Al Maria. If so, it’s akin to the human disguise David Bowie’s alien took (as Thomas Jerome Newton) in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. The theory gains traction when you discover that Al Maria called her first book The Girl Who Fell to Earth. Described in the New York Times as “a visceral exploration” and “an original outlook on ancient ground”, this memoir switches between America, Qatar, Egypt and outer space. Al Maria’s childhood in Doha – the newest hot spot on the Gulf’s coastline – laid the foundations for her concept of “Gulf futurism”, in which past, present, desert and skyscraper hook up in an infernal Ballardian tragicomedy (all gold-plated, of course). Al Maria also makes art, writes screenplays and is about to direct her first feature film. She telepathed the following answers to Shumon Basar, who received them through a lesser known worm-hole called the 21st century.
Shumon Basar Your alter ego, Sci-Fi Wahabi, has time-travelled from the Gulf in 2099 to visit you today. What does she tell you? Is it good news or bad?
Sophia Al Maria The Anthropocene mass extinction event is ON! In a spectacular cascade of ecological disaster! Try to survive long enough to see your enemies fall.
SB You’re credited with coining the term “Gulf futurism”, which has made its way to the attention of Bruce Sterling, no less. The modern Gulf region is young, measurable in single-digit decades. Is an obsession with the future inversely related to age?
SAM Gulf futurism is bi-partite. You have the phrase as a way to sum up the obvious, ie the exposés and observation towers and architectural renderings and bizarrely naïve master-planning, etc. But then it is also intended to be a term that might open up conversation about what is happening to our bodies, our minds and our land in the process of being dunked into a hyper-consumerist capitalist machine. It’s happening everywhere. I just think it has happened with bolder, more contrasting strokes in the Gulf, and so it is an interesting perch from which to observe the changes the future demands of us.
SB What is it about sci-fi that seems to resonate with Dubai or Doha? And are there traditions of indigenous sci-fi, literary or otherwise, that you feel you’re continuing?
SAM Mars, the moon – both desert landscapes, even if they’re tinted in different colours… So there’s something deep in the Western mythology of science fiction that rhymes with our landscape. From Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon to Tatooine in Star Wars, Dune obviously: the desert is cinematically the ideal location for SF. Cheap and alien. With regard to SF and fantasy lit in the region, there are lots of things happening now, from dystopic novels coming out of Egypt to hard SF in the Emirates and Saudi. Most of the stories my father told me as a child, the ones my cousins and I exchanged as teenage girls, the paranormal mobile phone videos I’ve found as an adult – all full of fantastical and unexplainable phenomena. There
is more than Fox Mulder’s desire to believe. People
SB You once told me that the two things that liberated Gulfi youth from the past to the present-future were the mobile phone and the car. Can you explain why?
SAM If you think of history as something defined by the laws of physics, and the discovery of gas and oil wealth as a sort of event horizon from which there is no going back… what’s happened is a wormhole stargate mindfuck. The pressure is intense – culturally, politically, environmentally. So of course, as in any oppressive situation, cracks form and energy is released. It’s simple. Communication + mobility = escape velocity. If only for a brief moment of falling in love or being flung from a wreck.
SB Your “fiction-memoir” The Girl Who Fell To Earth has been received well internationally. What kind of reaction has it had within Qatar among the generation who might identify with the book’s journeying themes?
SAM I had a bit of a Hester Prynne moment in Doha when I went to speak to Northwestern University Qatar students about the book. Many were livid. I got some who were furious about the personal content but there were others who took more umbrage at the fact that I depicted poverty in the local population. One girl asserted that the book was “spit in the face of Qatar”. Obviously, I disagree. That said, the negative was offset by all the amazing ones who were chiming with it, so I was saved from the stake.
SB Qasida is the title of a fantasy saga you’d like to write set in the Gulf. Will it be populated by fantastical beings, landscapes, or both?
SAM All of the above. It’s based on pre-Islamic poetry and that is full of wild chimeras and hallucinatory journeys. Ghouls and gamblers and brigands and battles.
SB You studied in Cairo, and now you’re planning a feature film set there called Beretta, in the mould of a female rape-revenge. Can you imagine things ever getting better there for women, especially given that since 2011, it seems to have got worse?
SAM I don’t like to imagine there is anywhere to go but up from here. It has got dark, to be sure. However, I have to say that this aggression is not new, it’s just more visible. A decade ago, in Cairo, I was dragged from a moving vehicle by my hair and neck and breasts and had my clothes shredded off by a mob of men, and it was in celebration, not anger! Zamalek had beat Ahli. Big deal. Let’s try and rape a girl. Natural, right? The only difference is that the fear of consequences is now gone. And so things are worse, particularly in the safety of an anonymous crowd. That’s why I’m making Beretta. A girl gets a gun and goes on a misandristic killing spree around the city. Some might worry that it comes off as a fascist feminist film. I have the ultimate respect for those who are on the ground physically extracting people from these situations or working in communities to change local reactions. But I’m tired of people “exploring” the “issues” in cinema. I want to make a statement. That is fun to watch. There’s too much good taste in Arabic cinema right now. I just want a little action daydream – some fantasy justice for women in the trenches of the streets.
SB As a young scriptwriter and director, do you feel optimistic, in the third century of cinema, that there’s scope for newness to be made and received? Do you see the possibilities broaden or narrow?
SAM As a format, I think the 90-minute-plus movie is withering on the vine. I am optimistic about other narrative forms, though – all the inheritors of cinema’s mantle. TV is the new novel, games are the new movies, even reading comics has changed massively for me now with all the various readers for iPads. All that excites me. Storytelling has been straining at its seams for so long and something new has got to synthesise soon.
SB If the internet shut down for a year, with due warning beforehand, what do you think would happen to life on Earth?
SAM Depends where. Lots of places wouldn’t notice. Maybe in some places things would go back to how they were 20-odd years ago without much hitch. Regression is easy, after all. But then look what happened in Egypt when the net was blacked out. In urban places I suspect it would be an exciting time.
SB You’ve talked about the relationship between media and flesh, and cite Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, where TV fuses with bodies, as an influence. What about the internet and flesh? Are they related, or is the “new new flesh” the total abandonment of skin and bones?
SAM This “new new flesh” probably won’t be in the Videodrome/Tetsuo sense. I figure we are just terraforming the planet, like bacteria around a volcanic vent, or mangroves or whatever, for that which is coming. The fleshless ones. We’re doing this by building the internet – creating the perfect conditions for some new kind of lifeform that will someday just wake up – like a code kraken from the depths. As we build out and fill the internet, an intelligence will undoubtedly emerge. I think it’s inevitable that we’re building all this for some next-level life.
SB If you were given the choice to always be happy and never feel sad, would you accept the offer?
SAM What are you, a genie? Wishing for happiness forever must have a terrible catch attached. Hidden fairy-tale fees. Perma-joy sounds like the ultimate demented state. Anyway, I don’t trust happy people. They’re not paying enough attention. §