Note — Nov 08, 2020

Teaching Science Fiction While Living It in Lebanon

Fantastic read. Nadya Sbaiti is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut and in the midst of revolution in Lebanon last year, designed a course as an “interdisciplinary graduate seminar in which we engaged as both text and method a range of historical, legal, and cultural works of scholarship, film, and literature (in translation and the original Arabic).” The course became even more relevant with the pandemic, and then the horrific explosion in the port of Beirut. Instead of a feared irrelevance at analyzing fiction during these events, Sbaiti and her students found great value in exploring utopias and dystopias, a place to project their “anxieties and worries in order to manage and make sense of the coming unknown.” In the piece she offers glimpses at the therapeutic value of the course, the fictions of the global south, new viewpoints on colonialism, imperialism, and social justice, and as with afrofuturisms, a plethora of fascinating non-western authors. Be sure to click through for the rich “syllabusesque” bibliography at the end, and the online magazine itself was new to me and quite interesting. (Via Justin Pickard.)

Situating them within genealogies and landscapes of the global south produced critical thematic assemblages around colonialism, imperialism, social justice, and climate change. We drew on the philosophies of 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun alongside interventions from Afrofuturism and techno-orientalism to explore constructions of time and modernity, evolutions of technology, and revolutions in culture. […]

There is an immanent tension between inspirational possibilities and bleak futures that Lebanon seems to exemplify, lodged in the cleft between a utopian revolution and its dystopian likeness. I began to imagine the possibility that this class—in this place and at this time—might resolve some of this tension. […]

And therein lies the core of science fiction’s immense methodological potential: its ability to translate dyadic elements—time and space, present and future, foreclosure and possibility—into legible existences. In so doing, it massively disrupts claims to universality on two planes—the lived and the intellectual. […]

So with its vast universes and myriad realms, characters, and outcomes, science fiction reminds us that we can, in fact, exist in dimensions more expansive than our physically and temporally circumscribed present suggests. […]

Sci fi literary and artistic output increasingly serves as a witness for the lives of those who have long existed on the political and social margins of society and who have been the targets of technological, medical, social, and political experiments.