Want to advance science? Then advance science fiction. An interview with Yasser Bahjatt, science fiction author and eSports gamer
The relationship between science fiction and its propensity to stimulate technological development is an idea that has been around awhile. But Yasser Bahjatt, an engineer in Saudi Arabia, takes that idea a step further.
In a 2012 Ted Talk and an interview on a blog of the American bimonthly magazine Foreign Policy, Bahjatt suggests there is a correlation between regions with high concentrations of research and development and those regions’ comparatively robust science fiction scenes. In his Ted Talk, Bahjatt says that if we want to advance science, we have to have a strong science fiction culture—a very intriguing idea.
Along those lines, Bahjatt cofounded Yatakhayaloon, an organization with the objective of spreading and encouraging the Arabic SciFi culture and its content, and coauthored a number one best seller in Saudi Arabia, HWJN (Hawjan)—a science fiction fantasy novel about a jinn falling in love with a human girl.
According to Foreign Policy, Hawjan was banned in Saudi when the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice called for a thorough examination in response to concerns over inappropriate content, in particular, that it was promoting sorcery and devil-worship among young people, especially girls. While the ban was lifted in Saudi, it is still banned in Kuwait and Qatar.
Bahjatt’s story has been featured in Foreign Policy and he attended this year’s Worldcon, where he sat on panels and promoted Hawjan. We tracked him down and asked if he’d be willing to share a little more about his story and his ideas, and here are his answers.
In your 2012 Ted Talk, you announced Yatakhayaloon as an initiative to create an open platform for writers and artists to work together to explore the correlation between research and development and a robust science fiction scene as well as serve as a publishing house. Can you tell us a little more about this idea and Yatakhayaloon? Have you done more research and exploration about the correlation between a region’s research and development and its science fiction scene? How is the publishing side going?
First let me explain the name “Yatakhayaloon;” it is one word in Arabic that translates to “they are imagining.” Regarding the idea of Yatakhayaloon, let us say it is a long term experiment in social science to figure out whether there is a causality between SciFi and R&D. We still do not have any solid evidence of causality but have strong coloration data.
The idea actually started from a simpler question: “Can you mention one technological development that was not described in SciFi at least 20 years prior to its existence in reality?” This question started as a joke but the longer the joke went one that more I realized that no one can actually mention any such technology; and if they do, I would easily find its SciFi reference to prove them wrong.
So now with Yatakhayaloon we want to see if scientific development grows in the region with correlation to the amount of SciFi exposure and if any technologies would be developed from the region that we can clearly point out its reference in our SciFi. Wish us luck!
How long have you been reading science fiction? What are your favorite stories? What about them resonate with you?
I have been reading and watching SciFi for as long as I can remember. I also started writing SciFi when I was 16. My favorite SciFi both to watch and read is Star Trek. I love the concept of building what-if universes that explore the human possibilities and how we can always be better than what we are.
In 2013, you co-authored HWJN (Hawjan ) with Ibraheem Abbas. Foreign Policy reported that it shot to the top of the bestseller list in Saudi Arabia. Were you surprised by its success? Why do you think it was such a success?
Yes, we were not expecting HWJN to make it to the best seller list, let alone the #1 seller of all books in Saudi. I mean, this is our first publication both as writers and as a publishing house; we both have no experience in the area at all.
We both, however, are X-P&Gers [former PG&E employees], so we treated HWJN as an FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Good) as that is what we know. I think that was partially part of our success. Although the market was full with other publishers, some of which had been in the market for over 150 years, our approach was not expected.
But that was not the only thing, we also changed the writing style from tradition Arabic—that almost any writer thinks that he has to use to succeed in this market—to an easy local dialect. This made it much more accessible to the young adult segment.
Last was timing and good luck, as we were able to convince the organizers of one of the large local events to give out HWJN as a gift item to their attendees just 10 days prior to its first formal signing event. This move gave us huge traction and momentum with hundreds of highly influential people talking about it positively on the same day, creating a wave of interest.
Did you expect the reactions that led to the banning of HWJN? Is it still banned in Kuwait and Qatar?
I expected the noise, as we realized from monitoring Saudi social media that schools started complaining from the fact that students are reading HWJN all the time at school. So I did expect that schools would start banning the book as it was disturbing the class day. But we never expected that teachers and schools would start rumors about the content of the book without even reading it. And, unfortunately, it is still banned in Kuwait and Qatar, and most bookstores are still afraid to put it back on shelf in Saudi.
Reuter’s reports that the Arab Thought Foundation’s Fikr’s fourth annual cultural development report said that an Arab individual on average reads a quarter of a page a year compared to the 11 books read by an American and seven books by a British person. In an article about this finding, Al Arabiyaa News reported in contrast that internet use and television viewing were much higher among young people. In addition, as president of the Electronic Sports International Federation, you are a leader in fostering the mainstream growth of video games and eSport competitions. What do you think about these mediums (internet, television, video games) as avenues to cultivate an interest and foster a growth in the science fiction genre? Is Yatakhayaloon exploring those mediums? If so, how?
Yatakhayaloon at its core is a content generation house. We started with publishing because that is the easiest starting point when you do not have the cash needed for the other mediums. However, our plan does include growing our content development for other mediums in the upcoming years.
The first step we are taking for that is HWJN the movie, which we are hoping to be able to get the support needed to make it as good as a Hollywood production. But that is not all we want to do. We are also working on scripts for SciFi shows and have a couple of game design documents for some SciFi games.
But as you can imagine the financial needs for such projects are huge, and finding investors for such amounts, especially in a region that has never been part of such a movement, is not easy. We hope that by showing our track record of success with HWJN and other novels (and soon graphic novels), that investors would be more open to taking such risks given the potential returns and clear interest in the market.
Can you talk more about video games in Saudi Arabia? How popular is it? Who plays? Do most play online or solo? What games are popular? Also, is there any friction between gaming and the Saudi culture, like you experienced with HWJN? And finally, how do you hope to affect culture both in Saudi Arabia and internationally through eSports and video games?
Wow, you got me off guard with that one. Let me answer this one in short (as the full answer is very long). You can safely say that gaming in Saudi (especially professionally as eSports) is nonexistent if it was not for one area football. Saudi players have proven that they are amongst the best players in the world when it comes to eFootball and we have huge communities of players there. Everyone plays; it is the #1 pass time activity for guys in Saudi. How I hope to affect culture with eSports? I don’t expect to impact culture, only the sporting part of it.
Are tabletop strategy games (i.e., Axis and Allies) among those played in Saudi Arabia? If so, which ones?
Unfortunately, although I am a huge fan of strategy games both table top and electronic, such games do not have a fan base here. And I think that is because they need an active imagination that Yatakhayaloon is still working on building in the minds of our youth.
What are your favorite video and tabletop games? Why?
I love StarCraft & War Craft. As for table top games, I am more in love with classic games than others; my favorite is Risk. I really have no answer for the why part; I just do. I mean who does not love Blizzard’s games?