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HWJN

It isn't easy being a science-fiction publisher in one of the most conservative societies in the world.

This week, Yasser Bahjatt and Ibraheem Abbas learned that their science fiction book HWJN, a huge popular hit in Saudi Arabia, has been banned from sale in Kuwait and Qatar. The book, about a young girl who befriends a genie, gained immediate popularity among Saudi youth, particularly young girls. But with rumours circulating that the book promoted sorcery and devil worship, Saudi Arabia's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice pulled the book from shelves last month.

While the committee has now authorised Saudi sales to continue, its suspension from sale in Kuwait and Qatar attests to the difficulties publishers facei in conservative Arab societies. We spoke to Yasser Bahjatt about his publishing company Yatakhayaloon and the challenges in establishing science-fiction as a viable genre in the Arab world – it's a fascinating story, which you can read here.

 

On being a science-fiction publisher in one of the most conservative societies in the world

This week, Yasser Bahjatt and Ibraheem Abbas learned that their science fiction book HWJN, a huge popular hit in Saudi Arabia, had been banned from sale in Kuwait and Qatar. The book, about a young girl who befriends a genie, gained immediate popularity among Saudi youth, particularly young girls but with rumours circulating that the book promoted sorcery and devil worship, Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice pulled the book from shelves last month.

While the committee has now authorised sales to continue, its suspension from sale in Kuwait and Qatar points to the difficulties in publishing sci-fi in conservative Arab societies and raises important questions about freedom of expression in the region.

We spoke to Yasser Bahjatt about his publishing company Yatakhayaloon and the challenges in establishing science-fiction as a viable genre in the Arab world.

IPA: Yasser, congratulations on the success you have achieved with HWJN. What inspired you to publish Arab science fiction?

I’d been conducting my own research on whether scientific progress was linked to cultural aspects. The results I found were amazing. I found a strong correlation between the amount of science fiction a person in any country is exposed to, and patents per capita. When looking at the Arabian world I found those two to almost be zero, and then it clicked. If I boost Sci-Fi in the region, would scientific development boost as well?

IPA: HWJN generated huge buzz among Saudi youth, becoming the number one selling book in the country. Why do you think that was?

Firstly, we are the only Arabic Sci-Fi novel on shelves. Secondly it is related to the language used in the novel. Almost all Arabic books are written in traditional Arabic that is not used at all in daily life; this makes any novels written in Arabic seem unreal. In our case we wrote the novel in traditional Arabic but the dialogue in local slang. Additionally, we took a novel approach to the topic of Jinn (genies). By attempting to scientifically explain the genie’s existence we made our readers feel it was real.

IPA: Your book was pulled from shelves in response to complaints that it contained inappropriate content. Did you foresee that happening? Why do you think it’s now been reinstated?

I knew that we would get in trouble by the second month of publication. I started hearing a lot of complaints from schools about kids reading HWJN during class. I knew that we had pissed off teachers and expected them to do something about it.

What happened was that a rumor started (probably from school teachers and management) that the novel contained sorcery, witchcraft and blasphemy, and parents and educators were petitioned to call the authorities and file a complaint. Of course all these allegations are false, but since a complaint was filed the officials had to investigate, and when they actually did read the novel they found nothing of the sort.

IPA: You’ve described your publishing company, Yatakhayaloon, as an ‘open platform’? What’s the publishing model you have in mind?

To be honest we still do not know, we are very new to publishing. Both my partner and I are ex-P&G, we come from the FMCG industry and have totally different views on how to operate in the market than traditional publishers do.

However, we have learnt a very interesting way of how to develop both content and a fan base before we actually publish a book. This was a process that was used for HWJN and that we’ve refined with our second novel Hunaak! (Somewhere). I can't get into much detail about it, but you can say it is a kind of crowd sourcing of critics and authors.

IPA: Science-fiction has often been used by authors as a device to challenge mainstream thinking around morality and social structure. Is your intention with Yatakhayaloon to invite Arab readers to contemplate an alternative form of society?

I am not sure I would use the word alternative. The way we see it, we have a lot to offer to the world through our religion and culture. We just need to take a hard look in the mirror and find our old, young, open-minded self, and aspire to get back into shape!

IPA: It’s an inspirational story, Yasser – good luck with your publishing career!

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