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Autumn 2019

An Enemy From Another Dimension: Israeli and Palestinian Science Fiction and Fantasy

The recent publication of two English-language anthologies of science fiction stories, Zion's Fiction and Palestine 100, allows us to examine the complexities of reality in the cold light of the stars.

Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature, Mandel Villar Press, 2018 320pp

Palestine + 100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba. Comma Press, 2019 Basma Ghalayini (ed.), 198pp 

“[Palestine] does not even come within our comprehension.” Chaim Weizmann to Gregory Lurie, 1903*

1

Which of the following tales is science fiction or fantasy? A. An Israeli astronaut unites the nation ahead of his daring mission, but in a tragic turn of events dies when his space shuttle explodes over a Texas town called Palestine. B. A gay Palestinian man moves into a new flat with his Jewish husband in the city of Tel Aviv; he discovers that the residents of his new abode have convened a meeting to assess whether or not he is a security risk. He uses his skills on social media to gain massive support, the tenants all end up supporting him and the meeting never takes place. Strengthened by the experience, the man goes on to lecture about Palestinian and LGBT issues in Israeli-Jewish schools across the country. C. Foxes are seen on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, fulfilling a biblical prophecy concerning the rebuilding of the Temple. An overjoyed rabbi at the Western Wall sends out a press release inviting the Jewish people to weep tears of joy with him over this supposed sign from God.

The answer is that none of these stories are science fiction or fantasy, they all actually happened. The astronaut who perished was Ilan Ramon, the gay Palestinian man is Zizo Abul Hawa. The rabbi sent the press release about the foxes on August 8, 2019.

The reality in Israeli and Palestinian society ranges from the fantastical to the dystopian. Against the odds, the Zionist movement largely succeeded in its epic mission: the creation of a Jewish, Western-style society in the Middle East. But for many Palestinians, reality has a different shade. Whether it’s the indignity of the checkpoint, or witnessing IDF surveillance drones in operation, everyday life competes with the dystopian vision of Black Mirror in its unrelenting harshness.

This is why the recent publication of two anthologies of Speculative Fiction, Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature and Palestine + 100: Stories from a Century after the Nakhba, is an unusual event. An invitation for readers around the world to explore something else; not reports from an ongoing conflict, but rather to sail on the ocean of imagination. What is Israeli or Palestinian sci-fi/fantasy? And what can it teach us about the societies that produced it?

2 – The Trouble with Critics

Before we continue, a note on the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

A work of science fiction, sci-fi for short, must have a component that is speculative, i.e. it does not exist at the present time. Seeing that humanity recently devised a way to restore dead brain tissue to life, and that Israeli scientists can grow human bones in a laboratory, a sci-fi writer working today may very well witness one’s fictional creations knocking on the door as quick as a nightmare. Fantasy, for its part, is a much older literary form, functioning according to a different set of rules.

In his audio course “How Great Science Fiction Works” Professor Gary K. Wolfe offers a useful distinction between fantasy and science fiction. If the dragon is organic, such as Smog in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, then it’s a fantasy dragon. But if the dragon is brought to life using genetic engineering or robotics, as in the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, then it belongs in a work of sci-fi.

In this light, some of the stories included in Zion’s Fiction, edited by Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem, are not sci-fi at all but fantasy. Zion’s Fiction is a traditional collection of sci-fi/fantasy stories which (a) function as sci-fi stories, i.e. they were read (and bought) by a community of fans before being selected for the anthology, and (b) the writers inhabit a relatively powerful society which enjoys free relations with the outside world. In this sense, it is not unlike an anthology of Italian sci-fi or Norwegian sci-fi, selected by local fans of the genre to showcase their work globally.

Palestine + 100 is a different kind of sci-fi/fantasy collection. We are meant to read it in order to learn (if not actively supporting, by the purchase), something about a society defined by its conflict with another. The stories that were commissioned for the publication were financed by the British Arts Council; in that sense they are not “organic”, i.e. they weren’t read by a community of sci-fi fans before being selected for this anthology. The order has been reversed; rather than showcasing Palestinian sci-fi to a world mainly familiar with the Arab-Israeli conflict, the collection showcases the conflict using the mostly unfamiliar genre of Palestinian science fiction. This is embodied by the book’s dedication to the memory of British photography student Tom Hurndall, who was shot by an IDF sniper while volunteering for the International Solidarity Movement in the Gaza Strip, dying of his injuries nine months later. The sniper who killed him served six-and-a-half-years in a military prison.

3 – Planet Arab

Why, though, is a collection of Palestinian sci-fi so unexpected? Palestinian fiction has traditionally been concerned with the dilemmas of Palestinians, not with space travel or the distant future. Palestinian writers, I suggest, are more likely to explore nature than technology, presenting their connection to the land as “superior” to that of the Jews. A 1970 collection of short stories translated from the original Arabic to Hebrew (Palestinian Stories) includes trees that were replanted in Tel Aviv, but still remember the rich Islamic history that they had witnessed (“The Sad Sisters”); oranges that decompose once Jews take over the lands from which they originate (“The Land of Sad Oranges”); and a dog that proves itself superior to humans by returning to the village where it was raised despite the presence of Jewish forces there (“The Dog Brown”). Here, nature is a counter-force to the various elements that seek to weaken Palestinian society. This reliance on the land as a source of strength, one that the machinery of the Jews can never match, is also apparent in the name that Palestinians have given their uprisings against Israel, Intifadas. This is the shudder an animal creates to get rid of fleas.

The emphasis on the Palestinian connection to nature and the land continues in Palestine + 100, where the grass and hills of the homeland cannot be replaced by virtual reality (“Song of the Birds”) or even a physical reconstruction of an alternative Palestine (“N”). In similar fashion, in her 2013 sci-fi film Nation Estate, the artist Larissa Sansour explored the possibility of a future Israeli nation packing the entire Palestinian population into an immense skyscraper, containing a recreated Jerusalem and a reconstructed Hebron.

This short and powerful film includes ironic references to key actors in the Middle Eastern drama (the water in the pipes that service the building are supplied by Norway, the moving stairs bear the caption “American Express”). But even in this futuristic building, the protagonist waters an olive tree planted in her home, evoking once again the understanding that Palestinians, even in the future, will remain connected to the land and will not give any of it up. In Palestine + 100, Palestinian ghosts emerge to terrify Israelis (“The Key,” “The Curse of the Mud-Ball Kid”) out of their false sense of security; the Jewish school system’s e-learning portals are hacked, Hebrew replaced with Arabic (“Digital Nation”). Not only do the fictional Palestinians refuse to relinquish one inch of land, one tree, one house, they also refuse to let go of even one memory. In “The Association” the two exhausted societies agree to a radical solution: the past is eradicated and nobody is allowed to bring it up ever, yet even then Palestinians demand, and even murder, to hold on to their full memories as a people. Jewish reactions to the memory-loss dependent peace deal are not discussed in this story.

Interestingly, “Digital Nation” also contains a brief discussion on why Arab literature hasn’t produced a great deal of science fiction. While one could argue that The Virtuous City, a work of utopian fiction written by Al-Farabi in the ninth century, is an exception, the assertion seems mostly true. It is also interesting that the writer of “Digitial Nation,” Emad El-Din Aysha, chose to place this discussion in the mouths of Jewish characters. “They know the pitfalls that come with Utopia,” says the Jewish character as he looks at the Palestinian flag on display in what is no-longer Israel, “they had a Utopia, of sorts, in the time of their Prophet, then it all fell apart.” This concept, that the Arabs are currently unable to progress beyond the visions of once-real glory, is also reflected in what a Palestinian character tells his sister in “Song of the Birds,” “You know how us Arabs are, we are trapped in the rose-tinted memories of our ancestors.”

These are rare moments in the anthology that deal with a larger issue than the Arab-Israeli conflict, in this case, the question of how Arab literature tries to examine what went wrong with the Arab world’s attempts to come to terms with Western modernity.

Elsewhere in the collection, for example “N,” the writer Majd Kayyal presents the interesting argument that it is somehow the Palestinians’ job to liberate Jews from Zionism. A Palestinian character poses an ironic question: “What were we supposed to do? Put a sofa out under the shelling and open a psychotherapy clinic to cure Holocaust trauma?” This question, in the context of a sci-fi story, is deeply moving as it reveals that Palestinians’ reactions to the presence of Jews are much more complex and, at times, sensitive than Israeli readers might be aware of.

This has not always been the case. A bizarre story, “The Jew and the Cognac Bottle” caught my attention in Palestinian Stories. In this story a Palestinian narrator meets a Holocaust survivor living in Italy who is so crippled by his loss that he spends most of his time drunk. He earns a living as a pimp. He confronts the Palestinian, insisting that he is not a Jew but a Pole and that his homeland is Poland and not Palestine. The author, who first describes the man with contempt on account of his drunkenness and because he is a pimp, is eventually moved to pity when he learns how the refugee ship which carried the man’s family to Haifa sank.

The theme of sexual perversion is also present in Palestine + 100. I don’t know why this is the case, but Israeli-Jewish women are presented as sex workers and porn stars in “Sleep it off Dr. Schott” and “The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid” respectively. Palestinian sexuality, on the other hand, is rarely mentioned, with the exception of “Sleep it off Dr. Schott” which features a Palestinian woman being recruited to spy on Dr. Schott after sleeping with a man (Dr. Schott, like the character in “The Jew and the Cognac Bottle,” is also a drunk). In other stories, some Israeli characters are simply murderous. In “Application 39,” set during a future so polluted that breathing without an air mask is impossible, IDF soldiers kill Palestinians by shutting down their air-masks. In “2030,” perhaps the most ‘classic’ science fiction adventure story in the collection, brilliant Palestinian engineers are able to hack an IDF drone and organize a non-violent protest before being slaughtered by IDF soldiers. It seems the writer is turning to us, wherever we might be as we read, and asking: “Don’t you watch the news? How did you think this was going to end?”

4 – The Jew in our Stars.

Unlike Palestine 100, the stories featured in Zion’s Fiction lack the distinctive thread needed to bind them together thematically. There are dark fantasy tales like “In the Mirror” and “Death in Jerusalem.” In the first, a female protagonist inherits a magic mirror that allows her to alter her life choices—albeit at a cost. In the second, a powerful fantasy tale akin to the works of Neil Gaiman or Roger Zelazny, an Israeli woman marries an American man who is the embodiment of all gun-related deaths.

The collection also includes sci-fi stories that verge on parody—or are at least very funny—like “The Stern-Gerlach Mice” and “My Crappy Autumn.” Both rely on a blunt Israeli narrator, living in an extremely parochial society but with a sci-fi twist. In the first, in addition to all that they already deal with, Israelis must now contend with a genetically-enhanced race of mice. In the second—genuinely side-splitting if you are familiar with Israel—the Messiah himself arrives, only to fail at changing anything. In that sense, “My Crappy Autumn” shines as a wonderful farce.

But these are not the only directions that the anthology points to. Some stories are “classic” sci-fi stories, in the sense that they do imagine a technology or social reality, and then develop it further.

In “A Man’s Dream,” some people have the power to make figures from their dreams appear in their own beds. Upon falling asleep, a married man teleports his young female neighbor into his bed, unclothed, no matter how many times his wife yells at him to stop. In “The Slows,” medical technology can accelerate the human growth process; men and women who raise offspring from infancy to adulthood become a minority, and are studied like a primitive society by the majority culture.

The anthology can be split between stories set in Israel with Hebrew-speaking characters, and tales that feature distinctly non-Israeli characters, who inhabit a cardboard mock-up of an Anglo-American society. This includes stories like “Two Minutes Too Early,” where puzzle-solving becomes a major sport, and “The Perfect Girl,” which features a school for powerful telepaths.

One exception is “White Curtain” by Pesakh Amnuel, translated from Russian, which depicts philosophical and romantic issues. As Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem explain in their introduction, until recently most Israeli literature was realistic and concerned with the “serious” questions of an idealistic society caught between a multitude of needs. Science fiction and fantasy were seen as childish, not anything that a serious person of letters would dabble in. The late Amos Kenan, Teitelbaum and Lottem inform us, was offended when it was suggested that his 1984 dystopian novel The Road to Ein Harod was a work of sci-fi.

This suspicion of sci-fi/fantasy meshed well with the idea of the serious writer being concerned with the grand themes of Jewish destiny. While Jewish writers in central Europe like Karel Capek, who coined the word robot, and Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris in 1961, are still hailed as masters of the literary form today, Israeli kids usually discovered sci-fi through reading translated dime novels in the late 1950s, or watching Star Trek – The Next Generation when it aired in the country in the 1980s. In the Jewish state, sci-fi was not just silly, it was connected to a mostly American and somewhat decadent material culture. It was nareshkiet (Yiddish for foolishness), American nareshkiet at that. But this changed as Israel rapidly Americanized from the mid-1980s, and the World Wide Web made all cultural products much more accessible.

5 – Masked by an Energy Field.

It is important to note that, with the exception of one minor character in “My Crappy Autumn,” Zion’s Fiction does not feature any Arab characters. In Palestine + 100, Israeli characters exist; even if they are slightly cartoonish or perverted, the presence of Israelis as those who exert control over Palestinian lives is inescapable. But in Zion’s Fiction, the Arabs do not exist: not a single story expresses any curiosity about them, or what they might be doing. In a genre willing to embrace thorny topics like space exploration, robots with souls and aliens, this lack of curiously about a whole different civilization a stone’s throw away from the Jewish one is perplexing.

This profound lack of interest may relate to something I mentioned earlier. Arabs are one half of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and as such belong in the realm of the “serious questions.” If high-minded Russian literature must always address the question “How can Russia be saved?” then high-minded Hebrew literature asks “How can we resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict?” Well, not with nareshkiet space-ships, ray-guns and robotic lovers, at least. That’s one possible part of the answer; another may be that this is not what Zion’s Fiction is about. As I noted earlier, the goal of the anthology is to showcase Israeli sci-fi to the greater world, not to win the Nobel Prize for Peace.

This staggering imbalance between Jewish and Arab societies, one mostly oblivious to the other while the other is keenly hurt by the first, is not new. In his 2009 book Land and Desire in Early Zionism, the late historian Boaz Neumann argued that Jewish people who came to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea did not see the Arabs as foes or even as competition. Rather, they were considered as part of an unchanging natural world, caretakers of the land until the real owners—the Jews—could return to it. The Palestinians, for their part, believed that it was precisely their relationship with the land that would save them from Zionism.

At least one Zionist leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, warned (in 1923) that the Arabs could not be bought off with the promise of technological progress and relative wealth as imagined earlier by Theodor Herzl the founding father of Zionism. But Jabotinsky did not suggest offering Arabs a political partnership. He urged the Jews to construct an “Iron Wall” between the two societies, in the hope that after repeatedly failing to push back the Jews, the Arabs would eventually yield to the Jewish will and allow the emergence of a mostly Jewish society in their midst. This concept, that a people can be “taught” by technological violence to accept a political reality, still casts a shadow over Arab-Israeli relations today, with Israeli-Jews often speaking about “branding the collective mind” of the Palestinians and “bringing back deterrence.” There is an interesting connection here, I think, between the Palestinian sci-fi anthology and the concept coined by the Zionist leader. The controlled violence suggested by Jabotinsky is mirrored, in exaggerated or dystopian terms, by the writers who bear it.

6 – Zion, Palestine, and those who Walk Away from Omelas.

While working on this review, I chanced upon the 1973 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (winner of the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Short Story) by Ursula K. Le Guin, printed in Volume 2 of The Hugo Winners anthology series.

The story is about Omelas, a happy prosperous society without much by way of technology or capitalism. The collective happiness of the residents is dependent upon one child being kept locked away in a basement, with little food and no human contact, for the child’s entire life.

When children born in Omelas come of age, they are taken to see this child. Naturally, they weep and are filled with rage. However, as time passes, they mostly accept the notion that the happiness of so many people is indeed “worth” the pain suffered by a single child, and find ways of accommodating themselves to the existing social order. The story, of course, centers on those who reject it and—as the title says—walk away from it.

Palestine + 100 and Zion’s Fiction, while very different, share the basic freedom that sci-fi provides writers and artists. To discuss the issues that matter, the things that are going on; to speak about the child locked in the basement, without being driven out of town with pitch-forks.

The reason science fiction writers are allowed such freedom, I think, is that at the end of the day the general public really does view the genre as nareshkiet. It is still not taken seriously as literature.

One of the reasons Speculative Fiction/Sci-Fi is so powerful is that it allows us the possibility of exploring how humans, meaning ourselves, might react to extreme technological and social conditions. Science fiction, like any other literary form, can address the most complex and relevant issues of the day and also offer us escapist fantasies, yet most people only notice the former after some years have passed.

An example of this is Lavie Tidhar, an award-winning Israeli sci-fi writer, who published Unholy Land in 2018—in which the Jewish State was created in Uganda, riffing on the Uganda Scheme, a British proposal from the early 1900s to turn a portion of East Africa into a Jewish state. Few readers in Israel, though, seemed to take interest. Imagine the interest that might be shown if the book is made into a Netflix series or an Amazon Studios production!

Tidhar, featured in Zion’s Fiction and mentioned in Professor Gary K. Wolfe’s course as an exemplar of the genre’s expansion in recent years, is a multiple award winning writer who is fairly unknown in Israel by people other than hard-core fans of sci-fi—meaning most of the population.

It would be a shame if the publication of Palestine + 100 and Zion’s Fiction also passes without notice. Both shine a refreshing light on their societies, using a perhaps unfamiliar genre in order to deepen our understanding of the two peoples. These collections give the reader a chance to walk away from Omelas and be, at least for a little while, free to explore what other ways of being are open to us – here, now, or in other worlds.

*Quotation taken from the 2016 art catalogue released by the Petah Tikvah Museum of Art where it is used by Doreet LeVitte Harten in her essay ‘On Science Fiction and Zionism’.

The author wishes to thank the poet Sheikha Helawy for her help researching Arab science fiction.

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