Dystopian Genre: Not Far from Reality?

The dystopian genre has always been a popular concept reproduced throughout different eras within media and literature. The envisioning of a depraved totalitarian environment that is under the guise of a “perfect” society piques everybody’s imagination. After continually reading or watching novels or movies and acclimating to

the dystopian genre, the formula for creating dystopian works becomes clear – demolish government and let humanity scramble for power. Such methods are generally achieved through global-scaled catalysts, such as wars, epidemics, invasion by alien beings, and (my personal favorite) technology acquiring sentience and revolting against humanity. However, even after regurgitating the same formula over and over, why hasn’t the dystopian genre “died out”? Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s novel, Utopia, is created by the same formula seen in other works, however, it contains a major aspect that sets Utopia apart from others – it is CLOSELY related to reality.

Utopia is set in the year 2023 in a US-marine protected colony in Egypt. The colony houses and protects wealthy and affluent individuals, or Utopians, against the Utopia .jpgimpoverished populace called “Others.” The catalyst for the dystopian future is contributed to the United States producing a new super-fuel that stumps the Middle East’s petroleum reserves. After having their sole trade of income become worthless, the Middle East’s middle class disintegrates and results in the economy’s downfall. This setting is not far from the truth. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the unemployment rate in Egypt was increased from around 9% to 12% in 2011. CAPMAS reported that the economy’s negative impact is contributed to the 2011 uprising “that toppled long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak drove tourists and foreign investors away, drying up foreign reserves.” The employment drop coincides with the economy plunge in Utopia and could even be seen as a prediction made by Towfik himself considering he first published Utopia (in Arabic) in 2009.

Another ‘coincidence’ is made in recent news by NY Times. NY Times reports “The International Monetary Fund approved a $12 billion loan for Egypt on Friday [2016].”  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is an International organization located in Washington, D.C. with the goal of supporting countries in economic need. The symbolization of the US Marines protecting the wealthy in Utopia shows similarity with the I.M.F.’s loan to Egypt in reality.

“It’s a positive trend that unemployment is going down, especially because most of the unemployed are youth, and this means that we’re not too far from reaching a single-digit rate.” – Reham ElDesoki, an economist at Arqaam Capital

Utopia isn’t the only work that reflects reality considering there are various novels that share the same similarities. But I believe Utopia’s plot resembles the economic state within Egypt to a more immediate degree in light of Towfik predicting the event long before 2009. If we take a step back and glance at the genre as a whole, we can reflect the fascination towards dilapidating cities, depraved human nature, and totalitarian system evokes a certain inherent fear we share towards our future.

 

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Crossing Borders: Sexual Assault

Recent sexual assault allegations following the movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, has created an outburst of daily headlines containing new reports of rapes and assaults within various industries. In a recent interview with Sarah Silverman, the Guardian’s journalist, Sophie Heawood, has described this outbreak as “a horrible two weeks for women in Hollywood.” However,  Silverman contradicts Heawood’s statement by adding in her own two cents: “’It’s probably been the best two weeks for women in Hollywood ever. It’s a better two weeks than the silence of the past.’”

We tend to believe sexual assaults are ‘new’ due to the recent disclosure of actors and affluent individuals that committed the appalling acts within the Hollywood industry. Yet, even before the Weinstein scandal, it was (and presently is) very apparent that women have endeavored various acts of sexual harassment and assault within America.  But we should understand that these occurrences are happening at a larger scale outside American soil. By examining Roland Rugero’s novel, Baho!, we can acquire better insight towards the poorer social position women face outside our range of vision.

Rugero’s Baho! subtly examines the dynamics of women’s maltreatment within a small village, Hariho, in Burundi. Baho!, depicts a mute man’s [Nyamuragi] false accusation of premeditated rape towards a 14-year old girl, Kigeme. Nyamuragi’s accusation was a result of Kigeme misinterpreting his gestures made in order find a bathroom to relieve himself. In consequence of the misunderstanding, the men of Hariho take it upon themselves to punish the presumed rapist.

An assortment of factors deters the vindication of Nyamuragi. In particular, the anxiety of sexual assault women in Hariho bear. Kigeme recounts that “the obsessive fear of rape has haunted this country’s women.” (Rugero 15). A whole country of women are on high alert of being assaulted. In fact, from the Human Rights Watch’s report in 2015, there was around 323 (264 women and 59 girls) reported cases of sexual assault or rape within Burundi in a span of 4 months. This also doesn’t take into account unreported cases. This outrageous number of assaulted women provides insight to the apprehension seen within the village of Hariho and explains the swift labeling of Nyamuragi as a deviant.

“From May through September 2015, 323 (264 women and 59 girls) reported cases of rape or sexual assault that occurred in Burundi”

The village men also contribute to not only prolonging Nyamuragi’s ‘trial’, but the uneasiness women experience as well. This is seen when the women of Hariho are consoling Kigeme after the incident occurred. Instead of chipping in their support, the men ogle the women and converse among themselves which “women [are] gorgeous” (Rugero 26). The hypocrisy seen within the men provides an explanation to why Nyamuragi’s trial becomes very one-sided: they are attempting to make Nyamuragi a martyr. By ‘cleansing’ the village of the rapist, they are attempting to also cleanse their own sins.

Throughout history, it has predominantly been men that ruled and created societies throughout civilizations. Men created ’ideals’ that women in society should follow; be submissive and docile; provide food for the husband; etc. Women are perceived more as a sexual symbol rather than as human beings within the men’s psyche. This symbolization becomes an ideology that men seek and impose towards women. The ideology dominates men as a result. Action must be taken to rid of this burden women are born into for a better future. As noted within both the Hollywood industry and the nation of Burundi, in which the fictional world of Baho! takes place, the junction of women throughout the globe is the fear of assault. This fear, unfortunately, crosses the borders of nations.

Kindness is Expendable

“Poverty does away with shame and your courtesies.” (Mujila 30)

Environment plays a major factor in molding behavior and morality. In particular, the behavior and morality of the individual within said environment shape the ethics for others. This raises the real question: who or what contributes to their morality? Through Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s, Tram 83, the dynamics of poverty depraving virtue is explored.

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Tram 83‘s plot unfolds within a banana republic governed by a subversive General that impedes progression for the inhabitants. The mining fields discriminately affect the poor population’s livelihood due to mining powering the economy’s health. The local’s hopes and dreams become crushed by these mining fields and, as a result, live a stagnant lifestyle filled with debauchery. The residents quench their thirst within the confines of an infamous and seedy nightclub: the Tram 83. Mujila places characters with contrasting personalities to examine the dynamics of society’s ethical behavior. Lucien is an intellectual with a firm conviction to write about humanity’s virtuousness. Requiem has a pessimistic outlook towards society and manipulates others to achieve a higher position than everybody around him.

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Poverty is undoubtedly seen everywhere within Tram 83. Through the poorly constructed buildings and the “metal structure [that] is unfinished” (Mujila 2), the dilapidation of buildings exudes the poor economy residents reside with. Due to this impoverished state, morality and behavior are as absent as their financial livelihood. For instance, the population’s diet consists of cats, dogs, and rats “barbecued with potatoes and accompanied by chili peppers and an ice-cold beer.” (Mujila 128) The City-State’s population are confused why others (the Europeans in specific) show “tenderness” to these animals when they are just seen as food. The General’s son even states he couldn’t “bear watching” the French exhibit their love for the dogs and wanted at least “a little attention and love” himself (Mujila 129). This not only emphasizes the scarcity of resources but also demonstrates the irony behind eating the very same animals that have what they most need: kindness.

Kindness is needed to guide them through this turbulent state they are left in. The need to unite and not put one another down is necessary to support each other’s livelihood. However, the poverty-stricken conditions forced upon the population chips away sentimental affections and leave them in a depraved state. Morality and values are seen as weak but indulgence becomes widely accepted. As it result, debauchery becomes the common basis of their own created morality.

To Deprive the Deprived

It’s no surprise when we listen to current events that contain the poor’s seemingly futile attempt to climb the social ladder. It’s also not surprising to hear accompanying news about the wealthy adding another cent to their wallet. Here’s where I insert the old saying: “The rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.” However, looking underneath the designer clothes and putting material possessions aside, the renowned ‘elite’ class should be the same as any other person, right?

 

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If the rich continually get wealthier at the cost of depriving others and are aware of it, why continue the hoarding? If the poor become so impoverished that they resort to stealing and selling themselves in order to survive, are they any different from animals? These questions dwell deeper than the social binary of poverty and wealth and cross into questioning the self: Is the human species inherently ‘good’ or ‘evil’? This questioning of human nature could be further reflected on the dystopic novel, Utopia, by Ahmed Khaled Towfik.

Towfik sets his novel in a future Egypt after the collapse of the middle class that stratifies social classes into complete opposites of the spectrum: either be very impoverished or very wealthy. Resources are abundant within the confines of a barrier populated by high-class individuals (‘Utopians’), while the unfortunate lower class (‘Others’) meagerly attempt to survive outside the walls. The novel is first introduced by a narrator (nicknamed Alaa) that immediately demonstrates to be very depraved and sadistic towards others. Alaa exudes arrogance and self-absorbent that is also seen within the Utopian community. Hard drugs are used recreationally by the young and old, rape frequently occurs that it has become ingrained within their culture, and values or morals heavily revolve around the material wealth. As said by Alaa himself, what else would you be able to do after living in this so-called ‘artificial paradise’? (pg.9) After having everything within their grasp, it is up to Father time in deciding when Utopian’s ‘humane’ attributes disappear.

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The role of narrator switches with an Other, Gaber. As a former college graduate before the economic collapse, Gaber lives the same lifestyle as his brethren. However, Gaber seems to be the only one with an understanding of the circumstances that resulted in the dystopic society they currently abide in. A different perspective outside Utopian society serves to give a much more ‘grittier’ tone. Others are demonstrated to live in very indigent conditions stricken with disease and famish. As a result of a depraved lifestyle, violence and rape runs amok accompanied by a high rate of drug usage.

Alaa and Gaber come from differing upbringings yet the environments they lived in have inhumane traits witnessed throughout. However, Gaber seems to have the worst end of the stick compared to Alaa’s ‘generous’ lifestyle. In spite of his position, Gaber charted the remaining ‘humane’ remnants of altruism left and supported Alaa within his own accord. Demonstrating through poverty, one can appreciate sentient life.

 

Lost in Translation

You must have read a couple of novels, epics, and plays during your academic career that was first intended for an audience of a different language. These works of art were then translated to the English we are familiar with. However, somebody had to translate the piece of literature, correct? This brings into question the translator themselves: is the translation ‘authentic’ or did the translator add in a ‘bit’ of themselves while translating certain passages or even pages?

 

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This dilemma regarding translation is the main focus in 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Elliot Weinberger & Octavio Paz. Weinberger & Paz explore 19 (and an extra 10 in the afterwords) translations various authors transcribed about a single Chinese poem throughout history. The poem was created before the 17th century by Wang Wei, revered as a “master of poems” at the peak of the Tang Dynasty in China. You can only imagine the pressure the authors felt in giving this respected poet the justice it deserved in their translations.

 

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What makes the poem, “Lu Zhai” or “Deer Park”, very tedious to translate is the fundamental issue of differing alphabets the Chinese and the English language have. In the classical Chinese, a character signifies a word of a single syllable as seen above. Therefore, when reading in classical Chinese, the grammar and vocabulary we know in English can be defined in a few Chinese characters or pictographs. As a result, the translating authors feel as though they are playing a “… game of pretending to read Chinese,” (pg 3) by attempting to choose the most ‘appropriate’ word in English to represent the Chinese character.

 

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You may ask yourself now, “Why does any of this matter? They are only words and a single or couple of substituted words shouldn’t make a big difference.” If that was the case, there wouldn’t even be 19 (plus 10) different translations about a single Chinese quatrain. Since classic Chinese characters ‘pack’ a lot of meaning in a single ‘word’, the responsibility lays on the translator to a.) literally attempt to transcribe the work to the English alphabet then to common English words or b.) make a few adjustments with an added context in order to bring out its true “essence.” As a result, the readers will obtain a different reading experience when reading different translations coming from different authors. Therefore, we gain an array of perspectives and concepts throughout each of the translations made.

So what makes a translated work ‘authentic’? Well, unless you have a lot of time on your hands to set out in learning a complete language, then there might really be no ‘correct’ answer. Heck, when we read a novel in English, we always come across something ‘new’ we missed on the first or third time we read the work. Not every reading experience is always the same. The final answer is up to you, the reader. If you don’t like a certain work’s translation, then go on to the next one with a different translator. Give your gratitude to the translators for making switching possible. Or we would really need to set a chunk of our time aside to learn a variety of languages.