Illustration — Tala Salman
I’ve been breaking my rule of not having my phone next to me while writing. I put it on the right of my laptop, and take a few peeks at the notifications. One of my apps tells me I’m feeling “ready for a fresh start, but feelings are not facts,” and gives three tips: “Power in routine. Pressure in sex & love. Trouble with spirituality.” Another one tells me “if you’re single, don’t try to make relationships happen right now.” In another, coded messages for logistics of my surprise birthday, interrupted by messages like “We are stupid” and “Lebanon is for summers not futures,” appear. One after the other, they tell me about what’s to come. The screen I am supposed to be in conversation with tells me nothing. I accumulate these futures and conjure an immersive environment that I am happy to postpone by writing this.
And so I start typing. Perpetual Postponement. As I write, I make a little lab. In the far right of my range of sight, I place a bouquet of flowers I made with the Takkoush on Tallet Al-Khayat. My lab, however, is not in the area. The bouquet is placed in such a way, next to the window, that the neighbors can also see it. I sterilize my workspace. I rub my pen with alcohol. I spray some on my paper. In thick black, I write كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا (a popular Arabic saying misconceived by many as a verse from the Quran that translates as: “The stargazers [conjurers/fortune tellers] lie even if they tell the truth.”) and I place a red pen next to it for an upcoming surgery. I have been actively obsessed with this sentence for the past four years, but have never looked into it inquisitively yet. Postponing. I brought it up in front of friends and collected hearsay. I spray hearsay with a little alcohol and place it on the table. From the drawer next to me, I take out a small notebook, a gift, that says “my first novel” on the cover, and I put it next to the rest of my tools.
I have been wanting to toy with this experiment for quite some time. I still don’t feel ready to, but appreciate the inherent latency and elasticity of this publication’s premise. Perpetual Postponement—an invitation to exhale failed presents. Phew. My lungs are cramped and I can’t breathe out. My shoulders are stiff—my right from past trauma, my left from a car accident. “They’re not failures, ya Raafat,” the echoes of pop positivity tell me from lips of temporary lovers, “we learn from them.”
I hear “learn” in an extended slow motion, “lurrrrrn,” and it bothers me like a midnight mosquito. They are failures, and yes, we can learn from them. I do not need to be protected from the idea of failure, my trouble with reality will be solved with a routine of sex and love. But thanks. I need to ensure that I come to terms with the fact that this text might also fail, and that it’s ok. I am also realizing that every text I write now needs to have a big introduction, just so it can be situated, and to explain to you that I write out of care, and towards explorations of courage, and as you read, that I don’t want you to think highly or lowly of my thoughts, but rather accompany me in an experiment that is happening—as I write and as you read.
I hear “lurrrrrrrn” and I feel a community that has not yet learned that hateful judgement and shaming are why we are still in need of training to exhale failed presents—a community that only calls for a form of justice without putting the labor of designing platforms for it to happen. Instead, it dwells on birthing microstructures of fear—virtual and physical spaces of attack and condemnation—to disable and dispose of anyone whose truth is another. As I write this, it is June 2020, nine months after the ignition of our most recent popular uprising in Lebanon. Instead of voices blooming into flowers, voices have become corpses, including mine, planted by the uncompromising tide of conforming change. While not personally attacked, I have been hesitant to write. And I have been hesitant to admit that I may be afraid to write. I write introductions in my head, sometimes on my phone, that either end up as Instagram posts or as captions of Instagram posts. I make a face that makes me look like a dom daddy, snap a picture and share the selfie pretending it’s innocent with an insightful caption that I know would be later cited in the bed behind me by one lover or another. “I think a lot about what you wrote…”. Everything is research. Everything is interesting.
I remember finding it very hard to make friends as a kid. I always thought of the other kids at school as other people’s children running around. The playground was a very existential place for me. It was where nuclear families suspended their illusions of safety, and sent their offspring to be exposed to other nuclei that would maybe change them by exchange and proximity. Did I want to stay pure? This feeling never left me. And now as I bite ears of strangers, and they tell me what they think is true, I can enjoy these moments of collision between my fictions and theirs, and let our respective loss of purity arouse me rather than push me away.
I rub my phone with a wet wipe and place it next to the notebook on my table. This is a very valuable notebook to me. It has most of my sober ramblings on my dislike of the translation of the word “fiction” to Arabic, خيال, which actually means imagination. The translations of imagination and fiction to Arabic are the same. There is no word for fiction as such in Arabic, and I feel it limits the possibilities of our thinking as a creative [political] community trying to find new ways forward. This is why I’m in my lab today. My hypothesis is that an inspection of كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا can offer a lexicon for political, speculative fiction writing—one whose aim is to develop intimate, just, and futurist versions of possible presents, as well as one that serenades our community into the scripting of stars where blueprints of new futures can be invented, organized, and realized.
In red, I write “fiction” on a pink piece of paper and place it slightly under كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا. I put them close to each other so they belong to the same universe. This is what I enjoy about experiments such as this one—the invisible connections that could be, rather than the ones that are. Building ecosystems that could sustain new life, rather than ones designed for life as is. My lab is both a laboratory and a labyrinth. And as I write, I split into several selves tasked to journey in separate forking paths. Diversions become integral parts of the experiment. Distractions. Speculations. I fabricate these moments of writing, and design detailed setups in my imagination. I imagine other writers in their labs doing the same, and I love them. I place bouquets of flowers in strategic corners for them to see, smell or encounter them. I imagine they are doing the same. I think of us as a moving cloud of intimacy, one that is built out of an invisible tissue of trust that we exist beyond proof, that we see each other, and that we are a collective even if we have not yet met. In this text, I put myself close to you so we belong to the same universe. It is that potential intimacy that I enjoy about experiments such as this. We are here and elsewhere. And as I consider, we consider together.
I consider the understanding of fiction as a medium of political speculation that is essential to the process of producing alternative realities. When I use the word fiction, I don’t mean to speak about things that are not real. Perhaps the core difference between fiction and imagination for me is in the act of publication embedded in fiction—publication as a process of making public, not just in the traditional (or printed) sense. In that logic, fiction is the architecture of sharing imagination, and this act of sharing is crucial to building new/other worlds.
Most of our understanding of the world comes through a series of fictions that have been very actively realized over existing natural bodies or previous fictions. There are many examples of this. My favorites are nation-states. They’re like the instant noodles of talking about fiction, so I use them often. While it is common knowledge that the production of nation-states is the result of the fabrication of geopolitical borders overlapping existing geographical landscapes, I use this example to say that the lines drawn on a map that render a stretch of land into a nation are examples of fiction, and the operation of fiction as published imagination. A nation’s shape, name, flag, identity, and governance model are all part of this publication process. While it can start by taking on a centralized form, this fiction’s impact has several ripple effects on the landscape and the people who in turn disseminate said fiction by enacting it. A city can become a capital, and another a slum. A person can become a slave, and another a god. What edits the actualized landscape, in this case, is the fictionalized manifestation of an imagined scenario.
What I mean to allude to is that fiction is not only the imagined potential of what this landscape can become, but rather the tactics of materialization of what is and what can be imagined. Here, we can reflect again on the proposal to offer fiction as a tool to publicly share imagination. While the process of imagining takes up a big chunk of the formation of a fiction, the imagined cannot manifest without this architecture of fiction. Fictions can actualize social imaginations, like the standardization of sexuality and gender roles; economic imaginations, like the mainstream failure to imagine anything beyond capitalism; systemic imaginations, such as the sectarian makeup of the ruling elite in Lebanon; and geographic imaginations, such as geopolitical markings.
These manifestations are not as static as their authors would like them to seem. Fictions are being birthed, shuffled around, reinstated, and communicated every day. Regardless where one stands on the transformative nature of global uprisings today, for example, they are formations of currents against a destructive tide of the enslaving ruling class. They are the consolidation of fictions in opposition to more manifested fictions. The success of such revolts will not be through overthrowing regimes, but rather through an incremental buildup of counter-currents where possible new fictions are being consolidated.
We will succeed if we are able to understand that by telling our stories, we are not doing so to become visible, but rather to build a completely different world that we will inevitably inhabit. We will succeed if we manage not to replace oppressive fictions with similar hegemonies. The success of our revolution is when it becomes common sense that truth is multiple. And that truths co-exist alongside one another. And that when they are in conversation, the ecosystem that results from it is most powerful. So, to have this conversation about the need for an investigation of fiction towards speculative politics, one has to primarily think of it as a conversation about this new power—about the possibility and accessibility of claiming power and changing reality with the permeating tenderness and unparalleled force of collective intimacy.
Unpacking fiction through this translation experiment further clarifies its possibility as a modus operandi for our coming politics. In my work, I propose the definition of fiction as a cycle of two phases, activation and dormancy. Active Fiction is what is commonly defined as “real”. It is the fiction that has been concocted and connected to power infrastructures that materialize and maintain it. Dormant Fiction is what is usually labeled “fiction,” because of the general consensus that the word means “not real”. Dormant Fictions are those that have been subordinated by fictions that are activated, or those are still new and have not yet found ways to activate themselves. Fictions usually begin as Dormant, and gain momentum and power as their authors and affiliates strategize and develop relevant architectures and networks to activate them.
Beyond geopolitics, we can look at the politics of civil rights: Women’s rights in Lebanon are Dormant Fictions, and the demand for equal civil rights for all citizens is considered heretical by the ruling class, leading to the destruction of traditional society. This propaganda of destruction, which consists of instilling fear in the hearts of the public, is one of the most powerful tools used by the ruling class to maintain their Active Fictions, especially when popular opinion is supposed to be the source of power within a democratic system.
I look at this sentence in front of me. كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا. The stargazers (conjurers/fortune tellers) lie even if they tell the truth. It’s a sentence that has become a folk staple—pronounced always in formal Arabic—to fend off any truth to speculations about the future outside the parameters of agreed-upon logic. It’s a sentence that most people think is a verse from the Quran or perhaps an excerpt from a Hadith by the prophet Mohamad, which explains the formal Arabic it’s continuously cited in. While not being so, it has not been heavily refuted, because it does not conflict with the fiction of political Islam—rather, through its dissemination, it further activates it as a single-author belief.
In mainstream political Islam, there is only God (one creator) who can write and read the past, present, and future. According to the Quran, قُلْ لا يَعْلَمُ مَنْ فِي السَّمَوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ الْغَيْبَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ (Surat al-Naml, 65; Say: “None in the heavens or on earth, except Allah, knows what is hidden”), a dismissal of speculators that is further specified in a Hadith من اقتبس شعبة من النجوم فقد اقتبس شعبة من السحر (“Those who solicit a division of stars for knowledge have quoted a division of magic”).
What I find interesting is that كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا manifests and further activates the fiction of political Islam as the exclusive provider of truth for its people, and scripts it beyond religion into a form of social practice that is casually used by people that are not Muslim. Using a very simple structure, it is seductive, conclusive, contradictory, and reassuring. كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا tells us without a doubt, that any input outside an Active Fiction’s matrix of possibilities is false, even if it ends up being true. Through it, an Active Fiction casts a blanket speculation to castrate all the Dormant Fictions around it in order to maintain its control.
From this lab, I can speculate that كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا acts as a tool for political domination. This hypothesis also allows the sentence to be a labyrinth of its own. While the context of its inception is rooted in Islam establishing itself as a clear monotheism against other religions, including pagan and multiple deity forms of worship, we can use كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا to read how the ruling class reacts to counter-fictions today.
Moving away from the specificity of the context of Islam, كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا can offer a political route to participate in the cycle of shifting fictions. The sentence can be unpacked as an apparatus of one political hegemony claiming that it is the only source of truth, criminalizing those who have different interpretations of how the world works, and dismissing any conversation or debate in the process. They are lying even if they are telling the truth.
Speakers of counter-fiction become the contemporary منجمون (fortune tellers), as they see and publicly share things beyond the frame of the governed Active Fiction—they thus automatically become liars, even when they are telling the truth. In the fiction of the State, the revolution of the hungry becomes the cause of hunger. When millions of Lebanese citizens filled the streets in the few days following October 17, 2019, in one of the largest non-sectarian and nation-wide protests in the country’s history, the regime did not immediately fight back with force, but rather by emphasizing a propaganda of destruction, disseminating a fear of system failure in the hearts of the people to maintain the status quo.
They lie even if they tell the truth. At this moment of collision, between one fiction and another, imagination cannot act alone. We need, within the Arabic language, a radical, nonsensical interpretation of fiction, fiction-writing, and truth to enable us, as stargazers and as listeners, to understand that system failure emancipates us and allows for new imaginaries to come into fruition. System failure is not an end. That the most promising of revolutions this country has ever witnessed is decelerating is a result of a failure to share our imaginations in a strong enough way as to counter state propaganda, itself built upon maintaining the status quo by triggering a survival instinct among most of the population.
It is that state propaganda that has made people believe that the stargazers dreaming on behalf of everyone are in fact thugs that devaluated a national currency that would have otherwise been just fine. This fiction permeated by the state is powerful because of its familiarity of voice and the strength of its ecosystem. The truth of the state is everyone’s mother tongue. It is enacted by the media, police, religious clerics, and political leaders. It cannot be bypassed without system failure. And the system is so strong that hungry people at home do not believe hungry people on the street who are screaming that both are hungry. The system is so strong that even the people on the street are not sure if it can be broken. To break it, we need a form of nonsense that would allow the rewiring of truth. And we need a mechanism for this declaration to depart from this enforced truth to be shared and considered.
With the black marker I write الحق, “the truth,” on my left wrist. I take my time, improvising a minimal Kufi script. It looks sexy. I spend time tracing and retracing the lines, and meditating on truth as truths, a layering of transparencies rather than a mode of judgement or point of reference. I draw until it stops looking sexy. Or legible. I write truth over truth over truth, and can only think about this as a key to open the palette of كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا. I get more excited.
I move the paper with the word “fiction” on it to the side, and flip it upside down. I stamp my wrist on the blank side and the moist ink of truth above truth prints a fading flower. I look at the bouquet in the far right of my range of sight, and I see the reflections of the smiles of my neighbors in the water filling the glass vase. I get more excited. I pick up an Exacto knife from the set of tools on the table and slice the other paper, separating the words from one another.
Everywhere I lay my wrist, I stamp a flower. It’s funny this is happening, as recently, every time I practiced a healing session on someone, I planted flowers where I felt pain in their bodies, and watched the flowers bloom and take over the healing process. I could only do this when I exit my affiliations with logic and stop thinking. And without thought, my sterilized table became a garden. If anything, this garden is healing me from forms of logic I may have told myself I’d forgotten, and people’s ideas of me that I may have told off but are still stored in me as I write this. And, if you can also see it vividly, it may also be a garden for you.
With these papers scattered in front of me, I rearrange the sentence to communicate my claim that an inspection of كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا can offer a lexicon for political, speculative fiction writing. If we can agree on the fact that revolutionaries are stargazers who speak beyond the Active Fictions designed and governed by the ruling class, then it becomes inevitable that these stargazers are conceiving a counter-fiction. They not only imagine worlds beyond the existing and enforced one, but rather share these imaginations in budding, public architectures we can call fictions—tactics of materialization of the imagined that can be spoken, shared, and joined.
Now, what if we consider منجمون as an Arabic translation for “fiction writers”? Like stargazers, fiction writers seek knowledge from sources unknown to ruling systems and their police. Looking at the same sky, the police incites fear of the dark, and fiction writers connect the stars. Like stargazers, fiction writers build futures by speaking them. From horrors of the dark, they spin heroes, safe houses, and ways out. They speak the truth not because it is the truth, but because it is one that can happen. They make truth possible.
Next, we would integrate this proposal into our main sentence, so “the stargazers lie even if they tell the truth” can become “the fiction writers lie even if they tell the truth”. To pinpoint fiction here, we need to first understand what is being withheld. Truth in this sentence is a notion that only belongs to one author. And it alludes to the presence of only one truth. It does not commit to knowing what the truth is, but in any case, removes the possibility of its authorship from the hands of fiction writers.
The way truth is withheld in this context almost renders its content unimportant. This sentence dominates by castrating meaning and castrating possibility. It dominates by condemnation, not by generation. To appropriate this sentence, we bombard it with counter-fiction. We reflect on the production of reality within a cycle of Active and Dormant Fictions to define lying as an act of fabrication: If fiction writers are essentially lying, i.e. always speaking beyond what is comparatively true, then lying, as an act of fabrication, becomes in itself the very mechanism of producing truth. And that translation of fiction to Arabic is in fact الحق, “the truth”.
This new interpretation of كذب المنجمون ولو صدقوا allows this sentence to become a mirror. It looks back at its own author from a new truth that admits multiple truths. Truth as a fabrication, and not a benchmark. I use this moment of reflection to speculate on system failure—the failures of logic, language, and history. What if in تنجيم as fiction writing, we could not only read stars, but also script new stars in the past, present, and future that would emancipate us from the oppressive hegemony of reality?
When I write fiction, this text included, I never aim to be referring to anything but the truth. And in writing this text, I may have realized that this urge to work on a substitute to the existing translation of fiction to Arabic—however temporary—may be a desire for me to build a lab with a vase of flowers that would be placed in a way that the smiles of my neighbors can be seen in the reflection of the water. And every day, these neighbors would visit, sometimes with new neighbors making labs near mine, and we would talk about our work. Each of us in their labs would be scripting stars, and placing vases of flowers in ways that allow us to see each other’s fictions and let them pollinate our own.
And I propose this in a sense that المنجمون would always be plural. Our worlds grow as we allow each other’s fictions to appear in our own, to believe each other’s fictions and to reuse them. Reflections of vases upon vases, everywhere the light rests, are stamping flowers. With time, these flowers bloom. They take over logic and thinking. Sterilized places become flower bushes with blooms that heal from a world of one fiction to a world of many. They grow as we allow many moments of truths to be fabricated and shared, reformulated and edited. They become gardens where we script our fortunes as truths.
Raafat Majzoub positions his work at an intersection between politics, intimacy and futurecasting — exploring fiction as a tool for individual and collective agency towards constructing new worlds. He is the founding director of The Khan: The Arab Association for Prototyping Cultural Practices and Lecturer at the Architecture and Design Department at the American University of Beirut; raafatmajzoub.comللغة العربية