Using elements from Arab culture to build a fantasy or sci-fi world
September 11, 2014 6:19 PM   Subscribe

What elements of Arab culture (history, fashion, calligraphy, ...), including literature, would you choose to build a fantasy or sci-fi world (or any other type of word) that you'd like to visit time and again?

It could be a mish mash of Arab and non-Arab elements, a fusion of references so to speak. Thoughts?
posted by cyrusw8 to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Algebra. And no, I'm not kidding,
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:33 PM on September 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

Have you read Alif the Unseen? Wilson created a rad magical-realist world; djinns, a mysterious old manuscript, computer hacking, and Islam were some of the major elements.
posted by momus_window at 6:38 PM on September 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Have you read Dune?
posted by mr_roboto at 6:40 PM on September 11, 2014 [15 favorites]

Check out the Mechanical Sky series by Donald Moffitt.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 6:45 PM on September 11, 2014

The food!

Also, the poetry of Khalil Gibran and Moroccan/Moorish architecture.
posted by sevenofspades at 6:48 PM on September 11, 2014

Brilliant. It could be haphazard visuals as well..
posted by cyrusw8 at 6:51 PM on September 11, 2014

Came in to mention Dune!

Actually, a friend of mine was involved with this animated movie of Gibran's The Prophet that's getting good reviews right now. Cool question!
posted by jbenben at 7:07 PM on September 11, 2014

Besides algebra, there are all sorts of other intellectual pursuits: astronomy, poetry, design....
posted by easily confused at 7:09 PM on September 11, 2014

Visuals? Lush, structured gardens, studded with pavilions studded with glorious, righteous tiles. Lush turquoise glazes on pottery pieces. Carved panels in stone and wood; the arabesque, geometric glory of ceilings. Dances. And food. All the spices, all the pots of mint tea.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:13 PM on September 11, 2014

More visuals: rich, lush textiles. Tasseled cushions galore. Silk tents rippling in the desert wind, etc.
posted by Specklet at 7:18 PM on September 11, 2014

I am not even a maths person, and I would say maths. The number zero. No fancy visuals but wow, important.

Also have you read Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt? Awesome book.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:19 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re astronomy: Arabic star names. Some of the translations can be quite poetic, maybe some useful connections to be made there.
posted by Lorin at 7:20 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's this concept called "aniconism" in Islam. Basically, (as I understand it in my very limited way) you're not supposed to depict any sentient creature in art, nothing that could have a soul, because the potential to worship those depictions as god divides people from being able to concentrate on the actual divinity of god. So that's why a lot of Arabic art is focused on beautiful stylizations of lettering and abstract geometric patterns instead of pictures of animals and people. Using this concept of aniconism to springboard off into some kind of fantasy structure where depicting some things is forbidden because of the power it would imbue into those depictions might be an interesting angle to take. The subsequent changes to art, fashion, design, all those things, would really affect your worldbuilding.
posted by Mizu at 7:30 PM on September 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

definitely the music. and architecture.
posted by hejrat at 7:32 PM on September 11, 2014

Description de l'Egypte is where nineteenth Europe got many of its orientalizing fantasies of what the Arabic world looked like. Lots of the illustrations will be more specifically Egyptian than what you want, but there are tons and tons of images of objects, interiors, and deserts that you can combine to create your imagined world -- you'll be in good company!
posted by EmilyFlew at 7:33 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

also 0 got to the arab world from india via persia if i'm not mistaken. but that's neither here nor there.
posted by hejrat at 7:34 PM on September 11, 2014

You could do a lot worse for inspiration than checking out the Sandman issue "Ramadan". It's the last story in the "Fables and Reflections" trade paperback and won several awards.

You might also check out the GURPS Arabian Nights sourcebook, which is a RPG supplement but has a good overview of how to approach the material, and an excellent bibliography.
posted by murphy slaw at 7:37 PM on September 11, 2014

Check out Pashazade, an SF story where the Ottoman Empire never collapsed but modernized. The idea of that kind of world is what's interesting to me. The politics and culture of it.
posted by adamrice at 7:37 PM on September 11, 2014

They beat you to it by over 100 years: Orientalism

"Orientalism is a term used by art historians and literary and cultural studies scholars for the imitation or depiction of aspects of Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures (Eastern cultures) by writers, designers and artists from the West. In particular, Orientalist painting, depicting more specifically "the Middle East", was one of the many specialisms of 19th-century Academic art, and the literatures of Western countries took a similar interest in Oriental themes."

I wouldn't feel comfortable going there; YMMV.
posted by doreur at 7:41 PM on September 11, 2014

That's what I want to avoid @doreur. I am well aware of Orientalism. Let me ask the question from another perspective: What kind of visual motifs can a visual artist (a quintessentially Arab artist, to avoid all the Orientalist talk) encapsulate in their work to create an instantly recognizable visual trademark?
posted by cyrusw8 at 7:49 PM on September 11, 2014

Extravagant man-made islands in the shape of palm trees or the planet.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:01 PM on September 11, 2014

One of the chapters in Sandman is about a mythical version of classical Baghdad. I'd love to visit that place. (But now Dream has it, so it never existed.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:05 PM on September 11, 2014

Diyafa--hospitality towards strangers.
A rich oral poetry tradition
posted by Ideefixe at 8:18 PM on September 11, 2014

Tents, or nomads in general. You could make a lot of easy parallels between a Bedouin and some kind of space nomad.

Bazaars. I know that every culture has markets, but every movie set in the Arab world seems to have a chase through a bazaar.

To go with what Mizu says, some of the more religiously inclined will actually white out or otherwise remove eyes from photographs/images. In a sci-fi setting you could have holograms which are lifelike except for missing eyes.

Connectedness. From the Middle East you have relatively easy access to Europe (overland or via the Med), both coasts of Africa and India. Even now, Dubai has set itself up as some kind of business travel hub. So having it as some kind of crossroads between different races could work.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:24 PM on September 11, 2014

Another novel to recommend is The Mirage by Matt Ruff. I read it, it's a fun book. It casts some modern ideas into a world where Arab culture became the dominant world culture as opposed to European.

Some of the things it has include illicit alcohol - it's sort of like pot in modern America, or in the 20's during prohibition. It's not hard to find but there are lots of morality police trying to keep it out of the hands of normal people. Along that line, every culture has its vices, so I guess figure out what your fantasy Arab vices are. Maybe smoking hash in a hookah is fine but wine is forbidden. Maybe weak wine is OK but beer is some sort of heathen barbarian drink. Along the same lines, traditional historical foods of the middle east would be nice touches - dates, spices, lamb instead of beef, Turkish-style coffee.
posted by GuyZero at 8:53 PM on September 11, 2014

Also look at George Alec Effinger's Marîd Audran books, with their Cyberpunk/Middle East settings, starting with When Gravity Fails. More info here.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:30 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hey, I just published a story that attempts to do sort of what you're describing. My approach was to spend a bunch of time at the library downtown reading up on the specific period in history I wanted to target. Like Cool Papa Bell mentioned, Arab culture was the center of the scientific world for centuries. There's a lot of unexplored territory around that period, so I encourage you to read about it first to get a feel for it.

As far as making the setting feel right, I would re-familiarize yourself with A Thousand and One Nights, especially for fantasy. If you're interested in that sort of setting, check out some of Ted Chiang's work. He often sets stories in some part of the pan-Arab world. There are also some examples like A Mosque Among the Stars, but otherwise there aren't isn't a lot of sf in that setting, certainly nothing like a movement as far as I can tell.
posted by deathpanels at 9:51 PM on September 11, 2014

If you're looking for visuals, one of the architectural hallmarks of the Middle East (originated in Persia, but found throughout the Arab world as well) is based on some very clever engineering.
posted by kagredon at 9:52 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow -- this post has perfect timing with regards to your question.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:37 AM on September 12, 2014

Doubling down on Effinger. When Gravity Fails is the master class.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:13 AM on September 12, 2014

Flying carpets. Like the brooms in Harry Potter. Everybody has one and they're taken for granted.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:01 AM on September 12, 2014

Girih tiles and the geometric principles that underpin them.
posted by embrangled at 8:07 PM on September 12, 2014

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