At the 2011 World Fantasy Convention, I was assigned the task of moderating a panel on Islamic Fantasy. The title of the panel, in keeping with the overall theme of “Sailing the Seas of Imagination,” was simply “Lands of Islam.” Here’s the description: Islamic lore is one of the world’s richest stores of fantastic premises, as illustrated by Burton’s 1001 Arabian Knights [sic] and its sequel. A look at the legends and lore from this fascinating cultural source, as well as other Middle and Near Eastern stories and myths. Are there specific dos and don’t for writing Muslim characters with authenticity? And what are the considerations about using Muslim characters in the current political climate?
I felt, with a moderator’s prerogative, that it was important to tackle the panel description and point out how it conflates Arab culture and Islam. Many of the story elements we find in the 1001 Nights are not in fact “Islamic,” but are derive from pre-Islamic folk traditions that span not only the Middle East but Northern Africa through India and beyond. More than that, I wanted to point out the issues of “Orientalism” and “othering.” Although we had only about a week in which to prepare, I contacted the other panelists with my concerns and dove into research. I was disturbed that none of the panelists were Muslim, so I invited Saladin Ahmed as a “ghost panelist” and read from his essay, “Muslims in My Monitor” (The Escapist, 31 August 2010). So much for preparation. In the end, the panel went very well, judging not only by my own convention-addled wits but by the feedback from the panelists and audience.
Now comes the interesting part. At breakfast, I noticed a group of women wearing hijabs (head-scarves) sitting together at a table. Clearly, they were not attending the convention. I greeted them, explaining that I was to moderate a panel on Islamic fantasy and asking if they had opinions about how Muslims are portrayed in contemporary literature, who gets it right, what they find offensive. Only one of the women spoke English, and she referred me to their (male) translator, who was quite willing to speak with me, but only about the purpose of the group.
It turns out that this was a group of Afghan women, traveling in the United States to heighten consciousness of the plight of women under the resurgent Taliban. “Do not forget Afghanistan,” he told me. “Do not forget these brave women,” and went on to describe how they had, at great cost and danger to themselves, set up schools and businesses.
It turns out that one of my charitable causes is afghans for Afghans, which sends hand-knit and crocheted blankets and sweaters, vests, hats, mittens, and socks to the beleaguered people of Afghanistan. In recent years, they have partnered with local organizations such as Help the Afghan Children, CURE Hospital in Kabul, and Roots of Peace, that clears fields of land mines. A special project sent gifts of hand-made scarves to each woman member of the Afghan Parliament. Other local groups serve refugees or mothers of newborn babies. Generally, I knit items for children, especially thick woolen socks that get distributed through village schools and clinics. Because the Afghan winters are bitterly cold, the garments must be of animal fibers like wool or mohair, and because these are expensive, many friends scour thrift shops for remnants that I put together to make colorful, variegated socks and mittens and vests.
It turns out that…
I don’t know where this connection will go. Perhaps the story will unfold in a way that reaches other people who are connected in other ways. The important thing is that we do not read and write science fiction and fantasy in a vacuum. Our words and our lives form tiny threads that link us, sometimes in the most unexpected ways, to the larger world. This isn’t idle amusement, this is real life, and it stretches from our dreams to the needs of desperate, impoverished people.
Keep the faith. Pass it on. Come back and tell us about it.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.