We Are Culture

Today the wonderful World SF News blog led me to this report from the Syrian Arab News Agency about the 2nd Science Fiction Literature Seminar in Damascus. According to the report, the seminar was, “organized by the Ministry of Culture in cooperation with the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO).” And the Minister of Culture, Dr. Riad Naasan Agha, was on hand to address the delegates.

The Minister concluded by calling for bolstering science fiction literature in Arab culture due to its ability to open up new horizons.

Can you imagine the UK ministry of culture doing anything like that? Do you even know who the UK’s Minister of Culture is? (I didn’t, and it turns out that her portfolio also includes tourism – New Labour isn’t too keen on culture unless it also brings in dollars to Theme Park Britain.)

The USA doesn’t even have a Minister of Culture (though the NYT thinks that perhaps it should), though the US does appear to make it easier for citizens to promote culture as individuals than the UK does.

Worldcon in Damascus, anyone?

No, thought not.

By the way, the conference was named in honor of Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad ibn Tufail al-Qaisi al-Andalusi, known as Ibn Tufail in Arabic countries and Abubacer in the West, a 12th Century Muslim philosopher best known for his allegorical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqzan. Wikipedia describes the book as follows:

[it] tells the story of an autodidactic feral child, raised by a gazelle and living alone on a desert island, who, without contact with other human beings, discovers ultimate truth through a systematic process of reasoned inquiry.

You may also like to check this post on a web site devoted to Muslim philosophers.

15 thoughts on “We Are Culture

  1. WOW! That sounds really cool.

    By the way, the story of Ibn Tufail is really neat. Worth or a conference, indeed.


  2. There are some obvious problems with having the government, any government, officially approving what is and isn’t appropriately cultural.

    This isn’t to say that I’m all libertarian about it, because I’m not. But it’s an area that can extremely easily become problematic because it’s inherently fraught. Any governmental choices on art are inherently political choices, and inherently statements on what the State approves or disapproves of. It’s nice when you’re in the approved category, but not so nice when you’re not.

    As regards a Worldcon in Syria:

    […] The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press; however, the government significantly restricted these rights in practice, relying when necessary on emergency law provisions that suspend such rights and supersede constitutional practices. The government strictly controlled the dissemination of information and prohibited criticism of the government and discussion of sectarian issues including religious and ethnic minority rights. Authorities detained and abused journalists, writers, and other individuals for expressions of opinion that violated these restrictions, leading them to practice self-censorship. The government also attempted to impede criticism through monitoring of political meetings and informer networks.

    Emergency law and penal code articles dealing with crimes against state security allow the government broad discretion to determine what constitutes illegal expression. The Emergency Law prohibits publication of “false information” that opposes “the goals of the revolution.” Penal code articles prohibit acts or speech inciting confessionalism.


    Freedom of Assembly

    The constitution provides for the right of assembly; however, Emergency Law provisions superseded this right, and the government did not respect it in practice. MOI permission is needed for demonstrations or any gathering of more than three persons. During the year HRW reported that the government routinely prohibited or interrupted meetings of human rights and civil society activists. The government or the Ba’ath Party organized most public demonstrations.

    The government required political forums and discussion groups to obtain prior approval to hold lectures and seminars and to submit lists of all attendees


    The constitution permits private associations but also grants the government the right to limit their activities. In practice the government restricted freedom of association, requiring prior registration and approval for private associations. The government often denied requests for registration or failed to act on them, presumably on political grounds. None of the approximately 14 local human rights organizations operated with a license during the year. By year’s end no license had been issued to an independent association of journalists reporting for regional Arab media, according to press reports. The government continued to block the six-year effort by journalists to form the association.


    e government cited national security as the reason for barring Jewish citizens from government employment, serving in the armed forces, and maintaining contact with Israel. Jews also were the only religious minority group whose passports and identity cards noted their religion. Jewish citizens had to obtain permission from the security services before traveling abroad and faced excessive government scrutiny when applying for licenses, deeds, or other official documents. [There are estimated to be approximately 100 Jews left in Syria.]


    Rape is a felony; however, there are no laws against spousal rape. According to the law, “the punishment for a man who rapes a woman (other than his wife) is at least 15 years in prison.” However, if the individual who commits the crime agrees to marry the victim, he faces no punishment.


    Husbands and wives can claim adultery as grounds for divorce; however, criminal law discriminates against women in this regard. A man can be accused of adultery only if his actions occur in the home that he shares with his wife; a woman can be accused of adultery regardless of venue. The court accepts any evidence a man presents when claiming adultery; if a woman attempts to file for divorce based on adultery, her husband must admit to the crime, or there must be a third witness to the act. During the year there were no reported cases where a woman successfully filed for divorce based on adultery.


    The law criminalizes homosexuality.

    A few Worldcon attendees might possibly see a few problems here.

  3. “(though the NYT thinks that perhaps it should)”

    This is wrong, incidentally; you’re confusing an opinion piece by a single individual with an editorial from the paper; people frequently make this mistake. The Times, like most newspapers, doesn’t at all endorse the opinions of Op-Ed pieces, and makes a regular practice of soliciting opposing views. You’ve cited the views William R. Ferris, not the New York Times editorial board or the newspaper in any way.

  4. Please forgive me for the multiple comments, but having been so negative, I should add that the fact that Syria has held a “2nd Science Fiction Literature Seminar” is certainly a very positive and encouraging development.

    Thanks for helping bring further attention to this quite interesting fact.

  5. Gary:

    though the NYT thinks that perhaps it should

    That “perhaps” was in there just for you. If the NYT was totally opposed to the idea of their being a culture minister I very much doubt that it would have published Mr. Ferris’s Op-Ed. However, the fact that they did choose to publish it suggests to me that their feel the question is worth debating. A newspaper is not some sort of open wiki where people can publish anything they want. Newspapers have editorial policies and decide that they will and will not publish.

    As to government endorsement, it certainly is a double-edged sword. I just thought it was interesting that science fiction is on the “approved” list in Syria and not in the UK. Personally I think a US-style system where people get to choose what culture they want to support is probably preferable.

  6. “However, the fact that they did choose to publish it suggests to me that their feel the question is worth debating.”

    Certainly. I merely note that it’s a common practice for them to post diametrically opposed opinion pieces, and that “worth debating” isn’t at all the same as either endorsing, or taking an official stand of the editorial board, which is what they do in multiple editorials every day. That’s all.

    Otherwise, I find the entire topic of science fiction movements anywhere in the Arab world quite fascinating, and, as I said, obviously a very positive development, for a long list of reasons beyond merely that I’m an enthusiast of sf.

  7. It would be even more interesting, and suprising, and encouraging, if we were to see a similar development in Saudi Arabia, by the way. I’m much less surprised at this taking place in Syria than in any other Arab country, including Egypt.

  8. I’d love to see a Worldcon in Damascus – with 3 caveats – first that there’s some fen on the ground to organize it – the “Permanent Floating Worldcon Committee” can only do so much from a distance :>. Second that there’s enough cessation of hostilities that we can do so safely. Third that I can dig up enough funds to go.

    OK – i’d love to see it there even without #3, I’d just be sad about it…

  9. On the NYT: I’m more with Gary (having had the NYT run an op-ed of mine and then run a leader flatly opposing the idea set out therein)

    On the general SF in Syria question — does anyone know of a bibliography of SF in and translated into Arabic? The number of works translated into Arabic is fairly notoriously low — it would be fascinating to see what had been done already.

    As a piece of philanthropy, translating select SF classics into arabic with permission might be an interesting one…

  10. Gary @ 7 – “I’m much less surprised at this taking place in Syria than in any other Arab country, including Egypt”

    How about Lebanon? Traditionally it is pretty much the most open and democratic Arab country, despite all its various well-publicised problems, and with a freer trade – goods, money, ideas – with the outside world. When I worked for college publisher Prentice Hall in the 90s, Syria had extremely strict and limiting exchange controls while Lebanon had quite a few active publishers and importers operating on a normal capitalist credit-account basis – even though Syria essentially controlled Lebanon at that time (checkpoint soldiers on the streets, leather-jacketed secret police by the passport desks at the airport). Presumably Syria was getting its imports via Lebanon, but still.

    As well as visiting Lebanon a couple of times in the mid-90s, I was born there in 1958 and lived there through the 60s, and it was there I first came across SF. The first sf book I remember reading was Clarke’s “Islands in the Sky”, which I picked off the shelf at the house one of my father’s colleagues in about 1965; I remember buying Budrys’s “Rogue Moon” in Khayat’s for my father for one Xmas; and I still have Cordelia Titcomb Smith’s “Best of Sci-Fi 3”, which I was given (it says) at Xmas 1967, when it cost 3.00 Lebanese pounds, according to the pencil mark in it. (Pics of my Beirut childhood and 90s business return visits are on my site http://www.nawaller.com for anyone interested).

    And hallo… first-time commenter here (I think); and I met you, Cheryl, at Bristolcon at the weekend.

  11. Further to my previous note, I spotted elsewhere that you’re a fan of Tim Powers. This pic and the next nine were taken at the Carlton Hotel, mainly at the pool (so no detail of the interior), and mainly in the early 60s (though actually the first establishing pic is probably 1967 or so). The Carlton has a bit part in Declare, as Kim Philby spends some time being quizzed by US agents in the Carlton Hotel bar; conceivably, “I” was outside in the pool while “that” was going on (if not, then I was living three hundred yards away or so).

    I don’t know if Powers ever went to the Carlton (or indeed to Beirut) or knew much about it and where it was, other than just a name. But still.

  12. Nick:

    Welcome, and thanks for the interesting info. If Powers ever went to the Carlton I suspect it will be mentioned somewhere in John Berlyne’s excellent book, Secret Histories, which is currently say on my “to read” pile.

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