Read and Write with Natasha

The impact of Arabic science fiction with Fadi Zaghmout

May 13, 2024 Natasha Tynes Episode 56
The impact of Arabic science fiction with Fadi Zaghmout
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Read and Write with Natasha
The impact of Arabic science fiction with Fadi Zaghmout
May 13, 2024 Episode 56
Natasha Tynes

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 Jordanian author and gender activist Fadi Zaghmout is passionate about the transformative landscape of Arabic science fiction.

His novel Heaven on Earth and its sequel portray the prospects of a world free from the clutches of aging and invites reflection on the societal ripples such a future might create.

In our conversation, we scrutinize how these boundary-pushing themes are received in the traditionally conservative Arab society and the growing appetite for narratives that dare to chart the unexplored territories of tomorrow.

We also tackle the shifts in publishing strategies and the promise of platforms like Amazon KDP for Arabic literature.

Don't miss this insightful episode of a rising star in the realm of Arabic literature. 

Support the Show.

****************************************************************************

➡️ P.S: If you find my content useful, you might want to check out my Substack newsletter, in which I talk and vent about the writing life:


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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Send us a Text Message.

 Jordanian author and gender activist Fadi Zaghmout is passionate about the transformative landscape of Arabic science fiction.

His novel Heaven on Earth and its sequel portray the prospects of a world free from the clutches of aging and invites reflection on the societal ripples such a future might create.

In our conversation, we scrutinize how these boundary-pushing themes are received in the traditionally conservative Arab society and the growing appetite for narratives that dare to chart the unexplored territories of tomorrow.

We also tackle the shifts in publishing strategies and the promise of platforms like Amazon KDP for Arabic literature.

Don't miss this insightful episode of a rising star in the realm of Arabic literature. 

Support the Show.

****************************************************************************

➡️ P.S: If you find my content useful, you might want to check out my Substack newsletter, in which I talk and vent about the writing life:


Speaker 1:

I know, like people who start reading for me, if they start reading by reading Layla, they would have Layla as their favorite book. If they start reading for me, heaven on Earth, jannah on Earth, it will be their favorite book.

Speaker 2:

Yeah.

Speaker 1:

Probably because the Bride of Amman is the first one and people start reading for me by reading the bride of amman.

Speaker 2:

That's why probably that's the reason hi, friends, this is read and write with natasha podcast. My name is Natasha Tynes and I'm an author and a journalist. In this channel I talk about the writing life, review books and interview authors. Hope you enjoy the journey. Hi, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Read and Write with Natasha. We have with us today Fadi Zaghmout, who's a Jordanian author and sexual freedoms and body rights advocate known for his impactful writing. He holds a master's degree in creative writing and critical thinking from Sussex University in the UK. His influential novel, the Bride of Amman, explores themes of sexuality and societal norms. Zaghnoot has authored four other novels, including two science fiction works envisioning a future where aging is defeated. Wow, fadi, thank you for joining us today. I'm a huge fan of your work. I read a number of your novels. I love them, especially Arous Amman. It was amazing. So, fadi, the first thing I'd like to ask you is to tell us about your most recent novel. What is it about? How was the process of writing it?

Speaker 1:

Yes, the first day. Thank you, natasha. I'm so happy to be on your podcast, so happy. Thank you for the nice introduction for me and, yeah, I will tell you about my latest book. It's actually it's called Amal al-Ard. It's Hope on Air. It's a sequel for my second book, which was Heaven on Earth. It's a sequel for my second book, which was Heaven on Earth. It was published in 2014, and the Arabic one and the English got out in 2017. In Heaven on Earth and also I continued in Hope on Earth we imagine a nearby future when science defeats aging. So, heaven on Earth. The setting is in 2091, about 70 years from now, but the sequel is after 100 years from now. Towards the end of the first book, there is a decision that is made by Heaven Jannah, where she votes for controlling aging, to ban old age altogether. So, after 30 years, we follow the consequences of this decision on the life of her children, amal and Tamal.

Speaker 2:

Okay, I see. So this is a fascinating idea, especially now there's a lot of talk about like, not anti-aging, but living longer, right, Longevity yeah. And you know there's lots of doctors that refer to longevity, like Peter Atiyah and others, and I was wondering how does this concept translate in the Arab world? You know the Arab world, it's a conservative religious, I mean we don't want a stereotype, but in general, and the idea of beating aging, how was it accepted in the society, among your readers?

Speaker 1:

Yes, actually, the whole genre of science fiction is very niche in the Arab world. Remember, when I first published the Bride of Amman, people wanted me to write a sequel for the Bride of Amman. It was very social, about social issues. So when Heaven on Earth came out, people were surprised it didn't receive the same reception as the Bride of Amman. But then, after a few years now, because people started reading about these topics now, where the media caught up on covering stories about new medicine, new supplement that will increase aging, like science is very close to defeat aging. So people became more interested in the concept.

Speaker 1:

And I was surprised when I was in Jordan last month because I did the book launch event and then I had a book discussion with, you know, mona Hamza. She had a book club for ladies. There were around 30 ladies in the book club and they are middle-aged. Then there's 50s and 60s and all of them they read it. And they are middle-aged, in their 50s and 60s, and all of them they read it and they they loved it, although some of them they told me that they have they never liked science fiction, but reading this one was different in their eyes. They liked, they liked it and they enjoyed it and they started thinking about the, the, the things that I tacked in the in the book, all the ideas that I present in it interesting.

Speaker 2:

I want to go back to the, the concept of science, of arabic science fiction novels. Yeah, so lately, I think the past few years, you know, when I go back to amman and go to like bookshops there, I started noticing more science fiction books than before, and I usually talk to the bookseller to recommend the latest arabic books because I don't find them here in the us. And he recommended a number of science fictions. So what? First, why do you think science fiction was not traditionally accepted in the Arab world and is the tide shifting? Is there more acceptance of science fiction now, and why?

Speaker 1:

I really hope that things are changing and that people start reading more science fiction. I'm not sure if this is the case or not. I really like to find more Arabic science fiction novels to read, but there's only a few of them right, and even I got an idea to start a publishing house focused on translating science fiction to Arabic and publishing original Arabic science fiction. I think it's very important because the trend in the Arabic novel, as you know, it's more about historical fiction, so it has been, in the past 20 years, all about historical fiction. This is the trend. People love reading about history, but we have been living in our history for a long time, so I think we need to start imagining the future so that we can contribute to it.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, that's fascinating. Do you think the fact that the society is traditional in general that's why they kind of shy away from experimentation in fiction, or maybe not?

Speaker 1:

I mean your analysis In general. Yes, I mean, when we grew up, our society was a closed society before the internet came and opened everything, so people traditionally were conservative. But I hope that things are changing and they start accepting different ideas. But you know, because also the religious aspects of things you know lots of people don't accept new ideas that they might perceive opposing their religious beliefs. So this is one thing to think about.

Speaker 2:

yeah, yeah, so one of the things that are unique about you is that you push the envelope and you discuss racy topics in in the region, including, um, uh, sexuality, female sexuality, which is a topic you know very few people talk about it also, uh, gender identity, gender expression, sexual identity. So, like in your first book, uh, you had a gay character and how the gay character had to get married to a woman because his, that was his, the only choice that he had. I remember your second or your third novel, where there was a lot of discussion about female sexualities and female sexual needs, and these are topics that are still considered taboo in the Middle East. So how did you get the courage to discuss them and were there any repercussions?

Speaker 1:

yes, actually I. When I started, as you remember, I started on on my blog blogging. So this is how I started to write and at the time yeah, in 2006 I think I started to write on my blog. I I actually started to write because I wanted to talk about issues related to sexual freedoms and body rights, because everything was censored at the time. And then the internet came and blogging came and suddenly we have this space of freedom that we don't have to go. There's no obstacles between us, so we can just write and publish to the public and people can read it.

Speaker 1:

And you know, at the time all the spotlights were on the bloggers. So I called my blog the Arab Observer at the time. So I didn't know how people would perceive what I write about. So I had my identity was hidden at the beginning, but then I wanted the readerships, so I started telling my friends that this is my blog, so read it. And then I started going to bloggers meetings and making connections with them, contacts with them, and then everyone knew that I was the one writing care this behind this blog and I started to write in english. So I had I'm talking about these topics and then I I found out that I got so much support at the time, probably because people who read my blog at the beginning were english speakers from west ammanis who are more exposed to the West.

Speaker 1:

But also I had lots of opposition as well. So we had lots of heated debates on my blog at the time. And then I reached to a point where I felt that these topics needs to be discussed in Arabic, not just in English. So I started to write in Arabic because, you know, even in London, if you read an English magazine, even if it's printed and published in Jordan, if you read an English magazine, you will find the language, the mentality behind it is much open, much more accepting and tolerant. But if you read any Arabic magazine, you will have the same words, the same mentality, mentality. So I started to write in Arabic, and then I found out that I write better in Arabic, of course.

Speaker 1:

And then, after a few years of blogging, I thought I also wanted to be in a novel in traditional media. So I wrote the Bride of Amman, the first book, and people loved it. They were telling me now you talked about the elephant in the room that no one talks about, yeah, yeah. So that encouraged me, but then things haven't progressed much in Jordan in the past 10 years, and now censorship is even more than before, like when I published Layla. After probably six, seven years, it was banned from entering Jordan. And when I went to the publication department and asked, he told me like you know, fadi, I don't know how the Bride of Amman passed. If it was up to me I would have banned it, but it passed. I don't know how. And people read it. Yeah, but Layla, we can't allow it to end.

Speaker 2:

Until now, Layla is not allowed in Jordan.

Speaker 1:

Actually, yes, well, what they told me? That if you print a book in Jordan, you can print it and distribute it to bookshops. You can print it and distribute it to bookshops without asking for the permission from the publication department, but if you print it outside Jordan and you want to ship it to Jordan, you have to ask permission to enter. So at the beginning I had an Egyptian publisher and that's why they didn't allow allow us to to get it inside to import it. But then I changed to a publisher and then now it's available it is available in jordan it is available.

Speaker 2:

Yes, yeah, yeah and has there been any backlash from people who read it?

Speaker 1:

online.

Speaker 2:

I mean as authors. You know, like we, I mean I always yell that, which is, I think, part of the career that we chose. So it's fine, we get used to it. We get a thicker skin. So, has there been any backlash at Jordan?

Speaker 1:

No, not so much. Not so much. Probably because it didn't have the chance. Because it was banned at the beginning, it didn't have the chance to be widely read like the bride of Amman. So maybe that's the thing, or maybe people shy about talking that they read this book because you know Layla is a sexually dominant woman. There are some explicit sexual scenes. So they read this book because it's you know Laila is a sexually dominant woman, there are some explicit sexual scenes, so probably some people read it.

Speaker 2:

But we don't want to say that they read it, but the book was translated into English correct, Correct yes, yeah, as Laila. Layla, it was translated, and how did it do in English?

Speaker 1:

It's okay, it's fine.

Speaker 2:

Okay, so of all your books and you have a lot of books translated in many languages, so congratulations I wish I had your discipline to write and you still think the Bride of Amman was the most selling of all your books yes, of course.

Speaker 1:

Yes, it is. I don't know why, maybe it's because it's the first one. Yeah that.

Speaker 2:

That was my question. Why? Why? Why do you think? Of all your books and it's still now. I mean people still talk about it yes, there is magic behind it.

Speaker 1:

I don't know what. What is it? What's the magic behind it? Because I like, I know, like people who start reading for me, if they start reading by reading layla, they would have layla as their favorite book. If they start reading for me, heaven on earth, it will be their favorite book yeah probably because the bride of amman is the first one and people start reading for me by reading the bride of amman. That's why probably that's the reason, yeah yeah.

Speaker 2:

so you're like a marketing genius, let me say I've been following your marketing methods and I learned a lot how you market your work, how you talk about it, and one of the things that I really like about you is your transparency. You're very open about struggles. You're very open about writing struggles, personal struggles, work struggles, and you're also open about criticism. So I noticed sometimes you would actually highlight a negative feedback and you're also open about criticism. So I noticed sometimes you would actually highlight a negative feedback and you would discuss it and you're like one of the few authors that actually do that and I love that a lot, because some authors they will only share. Like I got a five-star review on this and I got nobody shares the negative feedback, which is an integral part of the writing journey. So how did sharing the negative feedback help your journey as an author? For me, like, I even liked you even more because I realized you read. You know you're not just promoting the good stuff. Yeah.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, yeah, how did sharing that help you. I mean it helps to get different opinions from people. If they agree. I mean some comments. You know you get sometimes negative comments. That just means to say the book is really bad, it's terrible, nothing in it is good. So it's not constructive criticism, right. But sometimes they give feedback and when I share it and then if I have more than one person agree with the feedback, then it means that there is something in it right, something that I can learn from and change probably yeah but also I have learned because you know like it's hard to satisfy everyone, so people will not agree on something.

Speaker 1:

They will never agree on anything actually. Yeah, that's true and yeah, if I go and read now the reviews on the Bride of Amman and you see the different opinions of people, you will be surprised. Everyone has different intakes, different angles, Everyone sees things in a different way. So I usually try to get different opinions and if I hear the same comment several times, then I will think about it more and think maybe they have a point here or not.

Speaker 2:

So I want to go back to your marketing efforts. As I said, I learned a lot from you. I just always watch what you do and I try to emulate it. And where did you get the most engagement or the most success? Like, what is your favorite marketing method that works for you specifically, especially because most of your readers, I would assume, are in the middle age?

Speaker 1:

Probably connecting with people. I would say at the beginning it was the blog.

Speaker 1:

It was the platform where I got the most exposure from, but then it's connection connection, so I try to.

Speaker 1:

It's very important to have book events when a new book come out, even though, like, if you talk online, if you do whatever you do online, it's essential to have this core readership that comes to an event and actually buy them. It's very hard I don't know if it's hard or easy to sell online. You need to spend lots of money on ads, like if you have or if you want to sell organically. It's not. You know Facebook and Instagram they limit the organic reach, no matter how many followers you have. So you have to spend on paid ads.

Speaker 1:

And because I don't sell the books on my platform, so I usually rely on the publisher, so I think I need to work on that, to have it on my website and start working on that digital marketing for the books on my website. That may be something that I need to need to explore, but for now, I think it's word of mouth and doing the events to have like people reading the book so that they would, if they like it, they would be the ones who will promote it for you so how do readers connect or find you online?

Speaker 2:

what is the channel where readers talk to you about your books? You know, uh, give you a comment where? Where is that? I mean the reason I ask these questions because there's a lot of aspiring writers that listen to this podcast, so I always like to get some tips that would help them yes, of course.

Speaker 1:

So I'm on all social platforms, but mainly my blog, my website, where I write about my blog, my books, and also instagram. Oh, I have a facebook page. Uh, I have, okay, probably instagram. As you said before that it's now the most important platform social media platform where you can promote your books. Probably TikTok, but I haven't worked much on TikTok. Maybe it's a good platform to explore.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I started doing some TikTok here and there it's interesting, some tiktok here and there it's interesting. You get higher reach than instagram, but instagram has a more loyal, but has more loyal followings.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. So, tiktok, people just see your video and then they move on. They don't usually come back instagram the same people, uh. So maybe tiktok, uh, you'll have more like reach, but are they loyal? You know that is, are they that engaged that they will gonna keep coming back? So that's something to think about. Because you know our time is limited, where should we spend most?

Speaker 1:

of our time on it. Yeah, yeah, that's true.

Speaker 2:

So, Fadi, what does the future hold? What are you working on now?

Speaker 1:

Well, actually Because.

Speaker 2:

I know from your social media posts you're always working on a new book.

Speaker 1:

Actually, now I'm on a break, so I didn't start writing anything new.

Speaker 1:

Okay, yeah it was stressful several months in the past few months I didn't start writing anything new. Okay, yeah, it was stressful several months in the past few months, so I took a break. Now I'm free, so I'm thinking about my next book. I'm thinking about writing another sequel for Hope on Earth, so it will be a third book in this series. So it might be it be uh, the book to write, the next book to write, but I still didn't decide. Maybe I'll take a break, have another story and then go back because I, I like it, I, I like heaven on earth and I like hope on earth and I like all the ideas that's happening and now and now, everything that's happening in AI is fascinating and it's scary in a way, and there's lots of things to think about and to explore and to write about.

Speaker 2:

Actually, yeah, that's true, because you were one of the first people that talk about the issue of longevity and you started talking about it like way before it became mainstream. So I I found that like fascinating how you immediately jumped on it, especially in in in arabic. So, yeah, I see where, why, why you would go to the sequel and, which is interesting, do you think now sequels are a better way to sell books rather than a standalone novel? Because, like, I'm personally working on a sequel as well and, you know, maybe because it's it's it's a better way to sell books but also just to get more loyal readership. So where are we in the terms of sequels, especially in the Middle East and among your target audience?

Speaker 1:

Actually, for me, the motivation wasn't about selling more books although I'd like to have more books sold but the motivation was because I had feedback from people who read the first one and they loved it a lot. So I want I want it as a beat for them for the second one, because some of them were like this is the best book I have ever read. So one of them actually said but you know that he wrote the film script for Heaven on Earth, for the book, an entire film script.

Speaker 2:

Oh, he did, oh really.

Speaker 1:

Yes, and he was awarded a fund to develop the script from the Royal Film Commission. And now he's thinking how to tell it.

Speaker 2:

When is the film coming out?

Speaker 1:

It's still there because he's looking for for for fans to to do the film, the actual film. So he's exploring option either to do it as a tv series or as a a movie. So these things motivated me, like okay, like people love it to that extent. One one of the readers she had she has a tattoo here a tattoo. She showed me a tattoo and she told me like she wants to name her child janin. So these kinds of feedback it's a nice name actually exactly.

Speaker 1:

it's a nice name, so it made me want to to write the sequel, and then I had these different ideas about in the sequel that I wanted to explore. You know, in the sequel I didn't mention that when I talked about the book earlier. I had this idea once they defeat aging and people stop dying from old age, so the human life will be indefinite, and then so religious people start asking when are we going to get punished or rewarded for our sins, good deeds or bad deeds?

Speaker 2:

Yeah.

Speaker 1:

So, and then some religious groups come up with the solution, actually, and they come up with an algorithm, they make a chip here with a hologramic you know, angel, the angels that we have on our shoulders who write that, write, and this will now, with oh yeah, With artificial yes, write.

Speaker 1:

And this now, with artificial intelligence yes, in the future, with artificial intelligence. They can actually read your thoughts and your actions and they can measure it if it's a good or bad, if it is with the teaching of your religion or not. And then, at one point, because they can't die, but they have to get punished or rewarded, so what they do after, suddenly, the algorithm also picks you and it puts you into a sleep mode for 100 years and in a VR where you can live an experience like being in heaven or being in hell. So this is how you will get rewarded or punished.

Speaker 2:

Oh wow, oh wow. This is like the series Black Mirror. Yeah, if you watch Black Mirror?

Speaker 1:

it's very similar. Very similar. So now, yeah, technology is.

Speaker 2:

That's fascinating.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, technology is opening so many things in front of us. We're becoming so much powerful, so we can do lots of horrible things or lots of good things, and that's why it's important to science fiction to work out horrible scenarios that might happen.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, have you ever thought about or explored self-publishing, and where are we when it comes to self-publishing in the Arab world?

Speaker 1:

Yes, actually I explored that with Ibrahimo when it first came out. It was because I published it in 2020 and it was the COVID year and most of the publishers were not functioning, they're not replying, and I didn't want to go through the process of sending my manuscript and wait for a publisher, so I decided to do that. At the time, we had jamalonecom and they started doing print on demand service, so so I was happy to explore that and I I worked with a designer, with an editor, so I had the book ready and I uploaded to their website and then I asked for 10 copies and next day I had them. So it was nice.

Speaker 1:

I started promoting the book, but then, after a few months, people were telling me it's not available on jamalone. And when I asked them, they said, because they did, they had an issue with supplying the paper, so because they imported the paper from China, so they didn't have the paper to print the book. And so then I signed with the traditional publisher, I signed with Al-Ahmadiyah and then I had it published traditional publisher. But now then, jamal, now they're not in business anymore. You know that they stopped operating. Ah.

Speaker 2:

No, I didn't. Why did they stop operating? Do you know?

Speaker 1:

Do you know why Is it a?

Speaker 2:

supply issue.

Speaker 1:

I think they tried to expand very fast, so they they had lots of money and then they didn't know how to manage things and then it didn't work out for them, although they were the largest online bookseller in in the arab world, but they couldn't sustain the business.

Speaker 2:

Oh, wow.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, that's too bad.

Speaker 2:

What about using Amazon KDP? Because you know Amazon, they're not going to run out of paper. Would you explore Amazon?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I'm not sure for the Arabic version. I tried that as a PDF, but the print version. Someone told me maybe I need to work with it, so we have the format in the Arabic format, like the. I don't know how to arrange the PDF so that when it's printed out it's printed out correctly, because it doesn't support, I think, arabic books Publishing. It doesn't support I think Arabic books.

Speaker 2:

Publishing. It doesn't Okay something to explore. So where do people find your books now?

Speaker 1:

If I want to go find some people who are listening now.

Speaker 1:

Yes, so the English ones are available on Amazon and different other websites online. The Arabic ones are also available on Neil Wafura on Amazon and different other websites online. The Arabic ones are also available on Nilo Afourad, Asir Al-Kutub, Warraqoon. Now there are several Arabic online platforms In bookshops now the publisher and the best distributor is Dar Al-Ahliya, so it's available in Amman, in the bookshops in Amman, in Jordan, actually, and they go to book fairs in the Arab world. They take the books with them, but they're not distributed in other countries, as I know Well. Actually, I found the last one here in Abu Dhabi. I found it in Kenneconia the other day in Abu Dhabi, I found it in Keniconia the other day in Abu Dhabi and probably in Dubai. It's available.

Speaker 2:

That's good. So any final thoughts, Fadi, before we conclude.

Speaker 1:

Yes, also, I think, if they prefer audiobooks, the Bride of Amman and Layla, available as audiobooks in English, in Arabic, on Storytel. I have on audible, yeah, on audible, the bride of amman and lady okay yeah, and the arabic ones are on earth, available on storytel and the ibrahimo available on south south podcast oh they, oh, they do Audible, they do audiobooks.

Speaker 1:

Yes, yeah, actually, south, they started this project. I'm not sure if they're going to continue, but they picked my book and another book I don't remember the name of the other book and they launched last year, so I don't know if they added to their library of books, but actually I enjoyed this experience. Yeah, because I wanted to say that the Arabic audiobook for Ibrahima Choban is narrated by Lana Nasser. Do you know her? She's an amazing Jordanian actress and her voice is amazing, so she did like a radio drama, so it's a very nice experience to listen to it.

Speaker 2:

Oh, that's nice. Yeah, sure, I'll check it out. Yeah, I love audiobooks. I listen to a lot of audiobooks when I walk my dogs, and so that's fun.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I remember you wrote a piece about it, it's been fascinating.

Speaker 2:

Fadi about audiobooks, yeah.

Speaker 1:

Yes, last year.

Speaker 2:

Because was it last year? I mean I consume a lot of books between audio and reading and Kindle. I mean that's the only way I can read so many books is because I keep changing the platforms. I cannot just depend on like one before I go to bed and read. That's not enough because it's my career, right, so I have to find other ways to consume consuming that's good amazing so, yeah, so fadi, thank you very much.

Speaker 2:

this has been amazing. People can find your books, as you said, on Amazon or Neil Furat and other, and also on audio, and thank you very much for your time and best of luck with your next work and for anyone who's listening or watching. Thank you for spending this time with us and until we meet again.

Speaker 1:

Thank you, natasha, I really enjoyed this talk with you. Until we meet again.

Speaker 2:

Thank you, Natasha. I really enjoyed this talk with you. Thank you for tuning in to Read and Write with Natasha. I'm your host, Natasha Times. If today's episode inspired you in any way, please take the time to review the podcast. Remember to subscribe and share this podcast with fellow book lovers. Until next time, happy reading, happy writing.

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