The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Speculative fiction and the IP conflict

Speculative fiction, a sub-genre of science-ficton of fantastic fiction, is generally really about the present than the future. The idea is to represent an alternate history or imagined future that really tells us about the present. I read two examples of this recently, both related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I found quite moving and intriguing recently.

Correction: I originally attributed the second story to Israel Shahak rather than Israel Shamir, its actual author. There's a big difference -- see the link in the comments or the above bios. Mea culpa and thanks for Ethan for taking the time to correct me.

One is by one of my closest friends and generally one of my favorite persons, Nabil Shawkat, who has done everything in his life from work on the original BBC Arabic team (most of which went on to found Al Jazeera), work as a Cairo correspondent for Al Arabiya, write odd restaurant reviews for Al Ahram Weekly, translate the Arab Human Development Report, self-publish two collections of his oddball articles and a myriad of other things. These days Nabil pens a surreal column for the Egyptian version of the Daily Star where his alter ego is a megalomaniac arms dealer and man-about-town. I sometimes think that you really have to know Nabil to get it, but his latest missive (my favorite so far) is touching and a great example of speculative fiction:

The premise was simple enough. I was going to throw Israel into the sea, and for once both the Israelis and the Arabs agreed. At that time, the Israelis were building a wall to separate them from the Palestinians and all types of negotiations were underway to give the Palestinians a state that would have been both claustrophobic and impoverished. That was when the idea hit me. Why not create a major archipelago in the West Bank and Gaza?

Massive amounts of soil would be moved from Israel’s east to its western shores, creating prime real estate opportunities in the Mediterranean and turning the separation wall into an underwater artifact. It wasn’t a new idea, not totally. At least two companies were doing the same in the United Arab Emirates at the time, albeit on a much smaller scale. As earth was moved from the West Bank to the Mediterranean, water would come in from the Mediterranean to submerge almost 50 percent of the West Bank, turning Israel into a Mediterranean island. The rest of the West Bank would remain above sea level, and with the help of modern architecture, would be connected with bridges to look like a modern Venice, but infinitely larger. In my calculations, the islands of the West Bank would be big enough to house 15 to 20 million people, including tourists and visitors. The U.S. would buy and rent all the new land in the Mediterranean, and the proceedings would be used to finance the entire project.
It's really a great piece and you should read it all.

The other piece of speculative fiction about Israel/Palestine is altogether darker. It's by Israel Shamir, a controversial Swedish-Russian-Israeli critic of Israel and Judaism (attacked by many, including Palestinian activists, as anti-Semitic -- see comments below.) His piece imagines a hearing by a reconciliation commission in such a state in 2015, during which former Israeli security supremo General Dan Ayalon is grilled about suicide bombings:

Ayalon: The suicide attacks did not occur due to our neglect or impotence. To the contrary, they were our greatest achievement.

Deputy Chairman: What do you mean by achievement? Hundreds of innocent Israelis died!

Remember the beginning of the 1990s? After Rabin’s electoral victory, the West Bank and Gaza were cut off from Israel; check-posts were set up, and the Palestinian workers were forbidden to come and work in Israeli cities. Their places were taken by tens of thousands of guest workers we brought in from Thailand and China. Palestinian workers could not find an employment back home, either: their lands had been taken by settlers and by the military. Being pushed off their lands, locked up in their own villages and towns, the Palestinians were bound to resist. We could not stop the Palestinian resistance completely. This was our first presumption. We had to give in somewhere, had to channel their resistance into some palatable form. This was presumption number two. The third was our desire to preserve our main advantage, their relative lack of military experience.
It takes time to train a soldier; at least half a year just for beginners. A fighter who has survived a few battles is worth ten fresh ones. With experience, a fighter becomes more daring and cautious. We were afraid that, in the course of resistance, a well-trained guerrilla army would form and challenge our hold on Palestine.
Chairman: What rot! In 1993, Arafat came back to Ramallah and Gaza with thousands of seasoned fighters, who fought in Lebanon and Jordan.
Ayalon. Arafat’s fighters had received their salaries, and did not want to fight. They wanted to rule whatever they were allowed to rule. They had yet to learn their ropes around Palestine, for the country had changed a lot since 1967, and they had had little touch with the country since then. So Arafat’s army was of no concern to us. The people we were worried about were the youth of First Intifada. They were daring, brave, knew their way around the country and they were not afraid of us. We could break their arms, as Rabin ordered, but we could not break their spirit.
Once, during a brainstorm session in my office – it was in 1993 – Motti, the head of the Psy-Op section said:
- We can’t stop their attacks, but we can kill every attacker.
- How can we achieve this?
- We can create a virus of self-destruction and infect the youth with it.
- What do you mean – a virus?
- A system virus, like the one that assaults computers. We have the greatest power in the world, our control over media. Through it, we shall glorify those who die, not those who keep fighting. What I mean is: let us promote their suicide attacks, said he.
Again, read the whole thing -- it's chilling.