A chat with a bestselling author in Saudi Arabia

Yasser M. Bahjatt

All over the planet, even at the most remote desert oasis, people dream about the future, about the sky above, space, or about magnificent or terrifying events that could or might happen. It has probably always been this way. 

The Arabs might not be known for innovation. However, the culture of science fiction has now reached into the heart of Muhammed’s kingdom. Yasser M. Bahjatt, an immensely popular Saudi Scifi novelist from the bustling metropolis of Jeddah, is a member of the TED community. His voice has reached far beyond the middle East. He is the author of an alternate history book Yaqteenya and co-authored (along with his business partner Ibraheem Abbas) a best selling scifi romance HWJN.

Historyradio.org: Is there a long tradition of SciFi in Saudi Arabia?

Yasser M. Bahjatt : Not within the time frame you think of. There is an older tradition, though, that goes back more than 1001 years, with the 1001 nights.

Historyradio.org: What made you become a scifi writer, and not a traditional novelist?

Yasser M. Bahjatt : I had this idea that all scientific development starts with SciFi. I did my research and found a strong correlation between the per capita consumption of local SciFi within any culture and its per capita patent registration. So, I thought, interesting…….. now if only I could prove causality. So, looking back at my data, I found that there was this one part of the globe where both per capita patent registration and scifi consumption were almost non-existent, and that part was the Arab world where I live.

This lead me to the idea to try and start a SciFi movement in the Arab world and track our scientific progress and see if by growing SciFi here we can actually grow human knowledge.

Historyradio.org: So there isn’t a lot of focus on science in Saudi Arabia?

Yasser M. Bahjatt : Not really, not in main stream at least. We have a few universities and technology hubs, but not as much as needed.

Historyradio.org: What does it take to make it as a scifi novelist? Do you need some special insight into current science?

Yasser M. Bahjatt : Sure, you do need to have some good grasp of the current state of science and where we are at, but also some understanding of how science works and how it progresses. But more importantly you need to have a creative imagination and good story telling skills, at the end it is the story that captures your readers, scifi is just the garnish.

Historyradio.org: What sort of science fiction writer are you? Do you write hard science like Asimov, or more fantasy related literature, like perhaps Frank Herbert, the writer of Dune?

Yasser M. Bahjatt: I think I am somewhat in the middle, I like the freedom that soft/fantasy related scifi allows you, but also, I make sure to include some solid scientific extrapolation and design.

Historyradio.org: You recently made it on the bestseller list at Amazon. But you’re even more popular in Saudia Arabia, aren’t you?

Yasser M. Bahjatt : Yes, my book did make it to the bestseller list in local bookstores, but my partner Ibraheem Abbas (who founded Yatakhayaloon with me) has three bestselling novels one of them lasted on the list for almost a year. Keep in mind that the bestseller list here not only covers genre fiction, or even novels; the list covers all Arabic books. My novel HWJN has held the #1 bestselling book in the GCC for several months (outperforming Dan Brown’s Inferno. When our book was published, Inferno came in 2nd place).

Historyradio.org: Is it easy to make it as a writer in your country? Do you get any form of public subsidies?

Yasser M. Bahjatt : No we do not get any subsidies, in fact to make it as a writer in my part of the world you have to bear the cost of publishing your first book and pray it performs good enough so that a publisher might notice you. I think our company “Yatakhayaloon” has been so successful because we were the first to focus on SciFi/Fantasy and a genera in Arabic, and our youth were hungry for such content.

Historyradio.org: Who is your own favorite scifi novelist?

Yasser M. Bahjatt : I mainly read Star Trek novels, but in general what I love the most about SciFi and fantasy is world building, and if the novel has a rich universe with a compelling story I will read it.

Historyradio.org: What is your next writing project?

Yasser M. Bahjatt : I think I will be focused on Yaqteenya for some time now, I just published a short story from the history of that universe titled “The Battle of the Palm trees” that will be published in the anthology Everyone: Worlds Without Walls from The District of Wonders. I am also currently working on the second book of the series “Yaqteenya: The New World” that will take place immediately after the closing chapter of the first book “Yaqteenya: The Old World”.

Additionally, I am working on a joint project with my partner Ibraheem Abbas entitled “F.U.L.L”, an interesting concept pitched to us by my good friend Yassir Nasief, can’t give you much details about the plot just yet, but it is set in the near future and it explores the social fabric of human greed and inequality in resource distribution, and how this human greed is so elusive that no matter what you do to force it out of humans it still finds its way to dominate.

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