By Alex Wallace
Today, I have the distinct pleasure to introduce to the Anglophone online alternate history something that is entirely new. We have talked much about the need for less Eurocentrism in the community, justly so, but even then the writers of said alternate histories are generally from Western countries. With that said, I am overjoyed to be able to present to the readers of Sea Lion Press the first alternate history novel originally written in Arabic: Yaqteenya: the Old World by Yasser Bahjatt.
Bahjatt is from Saudi Arabia, and is a major voice in science fiction from the Arab World. He was on the panel that presented the 2019 and 2020 Sidewise Awards, which is where I learned of this book.
The book opens with a ship sinking and a man stranded on the coast of a country he has never seen. He comes from Yaqteenya, a land beyond the sea that follows Islam, praying towards a city that some of its people deny even exists. That is the goal of this man: to find the land from which his ancestors sailed so that they could find a new home as their old one was destroyed from invaders, a land called al-Andalus.
Those who are wary of translated works need not worry; in English, this novel’s prose is vivid and refreshing, done with more skill than many books originally written in this language. Its prose is brisk, keeping the plot moving, explaining certain Islamic concepts or Arabic language terms in footnotes. The only major difference from English-language alternate history is the occasional quoting of several passages from the Qur’an in the original Arabic, followed immediately by English translations.
Bahjatt does an impressive job of creating a totally different culture for Yaqteenya, a synthesis of the Arab colonies and its native inhabitants. I remember noting the cleverness of the protagonist’s status as a member of the Sherouka clan. You get the sense that Yaqteenya has a version of Islam as different from Arabia as Uyghurstan or Indonesia may have. You are confronted with the oddly interesting scenario of warriors with a variety of animal totems who pray towards Mecca and have memorized portions of the Qur’an.
One of the major themes underlying the proceedings of this novel is the power of faith; the previously mentioned protagonist goes on his journey in the name of proving Islam right. This is occasionally contrasted with other religions with devotees every bit as sincere as Muslims (but to be too specific would be to spoil the fun!).
In some ways, though, what is so striking about this novel is how Bahjatt has come across similar solutions to similar problems when writing alternate history in a totally different cultural context to the genre we know. He has alternating time periods and a variant of the bricolage that we love with a narrator who occasionally interjects into the proceedings. He does so better than many English-language books.
Yaqteenya: the Old World is a book that should be to alternate history what The Three-Body Problem was to science fiction: the opening of a bold new frontier and a shock to the system, reminding us that we are not the only culture capable of creating bold works in forms we have implicitly considered to be exclusively our own. Anyone with an interest in the genre should read it
Alex Wallace edited the Sea Lion Press anthology "Alloamericana".