On Monday, Saudi authors Yasser Bahjatt and Ibraheem Abbas learned that their science fiction book, which shot to the top of the best-seller list in Saudi Arabia, had been banned from sale in Kuwait and Qatar. The episode was familiar: in late November, Saudi Arabia's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice yanked the book from shelves for a thorough examination in response to concerns over inappropriate content. The book, called Hawjan, is a fantasy/sci-fi story with religious themes that spurred rumors, particularly from parents, that it was promoting sorcery and devil-worship among young people, especially girls. For Abbas and Bahjatt, also the founders of a group dedicated to promoting Arab sci-fi, the suspensions have been a lesson in navigating the difficult literary terrain of a region that grapples with the genre's intersection of science, religion, and modernity.
"There is almost no science fiction in the region -- it does not exist as a genre," Bahjatt told Foreign Policy. After seeing the immense popularity of Hawjan, he stressed that the dearth can't be attributed to a lack of demand and instead blamed it on the restrictions of conservative Islamic society. "In the past two decades in the region, imagination has been systematically shut down ... I think part of it might be religious. Rather than go ahead and try to [understand] religion on their own, people started relying on scholars to tell them."