How Female Middle Eastern Sci-Fi Is Predicting Our Climate Crisis.
In our contemporary political climate, art-making can be used as an alternative approach to stagnant environmental policies, in order to advocate more sustainable environmental outlooks. This is a call for creative intervention: creation in an artificial landscape that can be used to platform inclusivity and care, propagating alternative realities with more sustainable futures.
Spearheaded by Palestinian visual artist Larissa Sansour, sci-fi film in the Arab region is being utilised as a way to address environmental urgency. This has primarily been adopted by independent female filmmakers, such as Basma Alsharif, Shahad Ameen and Mounia Akl. Art has long been used as a non-violent form of protest, and once again female art-making has embodied nature in order to oppose patriarchal, urban and political warfare. Through rethinking environmental art-making, alternative realities can be virtualised, which can be used to draw attention to those who are geographically, economically and socially feeling the inactivity of environmental policy.
In the Arab region, the union of information technology and art beams far back, arguably to the first draft of the Sumerian fantastical text ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ in c. 2150-2000 BC. Beyond the text and before it migrated West, Islamic mystics and physicians started practising the art of alchemy, with its ancient prototype of Takwin emerging in the seventh century, due to the work of chemistry’s founding father Jabir ibn Hayyan. Takwin tapped into both the physical and spiritual forces of nature, where an empathetic approach was taken to the production of non-organic matter. For example, Abu al-Qasim’s twelfth century Takwin text ‘The Sources of Truth and the Explication of Paths’ (Uyun al-haqa’iq wa idah al-tara’iq) addressed how alchemy could artificially produce sustainable life on our planet. The text shows how non-human life was accepted with a similar consciousness to our own human life, with the environment and artificial life as equally valued.
Fast forward: in 2016, an Egyptian woman named Rana el Kaliouby co-developed the first AI that could recognise human emotions. The software company Affectiva tested their AI on over six million faces from over eight-seven countries, and has the computerised capacity to feel emotion undiscriminated by ethnicity, gender or race. El Kaliouby harkens back to ancient Arabic practises by showing the importance of care towards artificial matter. In 2019, Affectiva is still the world leader in emotion recognition, bringing us closer to a more heartfelt and human understanding of artificial intelligence and information technology.
By creating artificial intelligence that is attentive to its surroundings, it shows promise for a technological future attuned to its environment. This aligns with recent research into how AI can tackle our climate crisis, with machine learning currently being developed to monitor solar geoengineering, energy production and carbon emissions. El Kaliouby’s AI reminds us that there is an empathetic approach needed towards our planet too, and that creating AI with scientific superpowers simply isn’t enough. The female Middle Eastern researcher suggests that we need to program AI to be emotionally receptive to our environment and those within it – that perhaps empathy and care in a dystopian future can be of equal salvation to our planet.
In female Middle Eastern film, there is an attempted subversion of the sci-fi genre’s master narratives. Without undermining popular value, these films contrast the un-empathetic attention to artificial life as popularised by the codes of the mainstream Western sci-fi genre. With its apocalyptic, clinical and people-crushing narratives highly-grossing in cinemas, we are sold a heartless future of ‘pure’ science and artificial intelligence, led by stereotypically dissociative characters such as ‘Star Trek’s’ Spock. What we are being sold is a clean, cold and white-washed aesthetic that can never exist in our times of climate crisis. By writing empathy as protest against such narratives, alternative and feminist art-practise can be used to emotionally map the realities of our changing environment.
Using literal space, Larissa Sansour provides a necessary remapping of our environment, showing how feminist and decolonial configuration can shape a new future. She depicts this as a place and space where poor environmental policy is not a danger to those situated on a sociopolitical and geographic border. In ‘A Space Exodus’ (2009), Sansour appropriates Strauss’s famous track “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, made famous by Kubrick’s 2001: ‘A Space Odyssey’ (1968), as an astronaut can be seen planting a Palestinian flag on the moon. Sansour re-writes a dominant artistic and political narrative in order to protect her own reality. She positions her female subjectivity in the film (by embodying the astronaut) as an alternative to the genre’s predominantly masculine figuration in space travel.
Sansour also shows that whilst Palestine cannot be put on (Google) Earth’s map, it is present in her artistic (outer) space. Political stagnancy isn’t the only factor rupturing our space — our geographical borders are also changing due to climate crisis. We should be reacting to this fluxus by productively creating localised, community-focused, safe sites, with the aim to decolonise physical space beyond the theoretical text. As Sansour’s film shows through the case of Palestine and virtual feminisms, politics can be used with empathy to create safer spaces, working with the change that our planet is experiencing rather than disrupting our planet further.
This productive redevelopment of social and artistic sites through the medium of sci-fi is also practised by experimental Kuwati visual artist Basma Al-Sharif. Like Sansour, Alsharif does not use sci-fi to show us an unfamiliar future. Rather, she uses art-making to map a cartography increasingly difficult to navigate, presenting her future as existing on virtual plains that are only accessible to those travelling privileged trade routes. One of her most popular films ‘Ouroboros’ (2017) follows a figure through the landscape of the Gaza Strip, a sweltering journey that rests upon mass-mediated images of environmental trauma. This journey bears similarity to our current crisis of desertification, the process of human intervention causing semiarid regions to morph into deserts, with now 90% of the Arabian Peninsula under threat. To put this into perspective, the Arab world contains one third of the world’s deserts. Alsharif’s film draws attention to this shifting landscape not only threatened by degradation of arable land, but how this is often the cause of economic warfare. She marks political redevelopment as the main trauma of our climate crisis, with her cyclical film predicting that our harmful future is not far off.
Mounia Akl’s work firmly desecrates this safe gap between our present and the future, with her short film ‘Submarine’ (2016) reconstructing a real-life event that started affecting Lebanon parallel to her production. The film predicts the problem with the Lebanese garbage crisis, as we now know it today — the denial that local disaster is not of national (and global) environmental concern. The film looks at the Lebanese garbage crisis at its point of evacuation, with the main character, Hala, unrecognisable amidst the waste, and the only person in the small village who protests against leaving her changing home-scape. Lebanon’s waste crisis began in 2015, with the closure of a landfill site in Naameh that had reached capacity. As a result, Sukleen, the waste-collection company, had nowhere to dispose garbage and had to halt operations, leaving waste to pile up on the streets of Beirut. New political parties (such as Beirut Madinati and the Waste Management Coalition) were formed to tackle the enviro-political odour, but to this day this government has not taken action, and the situation has become detrimental. With over half of the country’s landfill sites now shut, over 200 landfill sites have taken to openly burning their garbage.
This not only hurts the environment further, but poses a huge health risk to residents near the burning landfills — which have been built in poorer neighbourhoods where people already have limited access to healthcare. By virtualising only one character in the village who recognises the crime inflicted upon them, the film mirrors the demographic that is denying the crisis. Influenced by party politics and preoccupied by urban warfare, the government fails to amend the crisis in poor areas, which are far removed from their own homes. The other characters in the film fail to recognise their garbage-drenched village as their own home anymore, an attitude adopted by the government’s current inactive policy as the crisis becomes worse and intervention becomes more removed from political concern.
Environmental matter is intrinsically political, as the organs of our global landscape cough under political pressure. Female Arab sci-fi art is the alternative reality being used to raise awareness of our climate crisis and xenophobic reality. The movement sheds light on current political issues by projecting apocalyptic images of an imagined future society where present attitudes and actions continue without heart. As shown by works from the movement and various other splinters of regional sci-fi, all draw attention to the importance of carving new socio-political landscapes, using new technologies in order to craft new artistic horizons. Female Middle Eastern sci-fi film is taking our planet to heart, reconciling the spiritual with a genre that, in popular cinema, has become clinical and scientific. An ode to the ancient (he)art and a safer future for all.
Words by Roisin Tapponi