Fiction: An Excerpt from Fadi Zaghmout’s Hope On Earth

4 June, 2023,
Reading Time :12 minutes

Fadi Zaghmout’s latest novel in Arabic, Hope On Earth, is set in Jordan, in a dystopian world where people no longer die because they can be upgraded to better and more functional forms. Thanks to AI, a person’s essence or “soul” can be transferred from one body to another to preserve it, and so a person’s essence lives forever.

In 2023, some argue that “AI has hacked the operating system of human civilization.” In Zaghmout’s story, the question is, what remains of the original and are you human or machine? In this new world struggling to create legislation, a fanatical religious group has come up with their own principles of punishment and reward based on “ancient religious” doctrines. They target the young, convincing them to surrender their fate to them.

 

Fadi Zaghmout

Translated by Rana Asfour

 

The sight of angels hovering over each of Omar’s shoulders petrified us. It wasn’t the fact that they had materialized out of nowhere that shook us, nor was it that we ever believed that we were witnesses to a divine miracle. The advent of these horrific apparitions confirmed our deep-seated suspicions that Omar had fallen prey to that most detestable group, surrendering his right to self-determination. It had dawned on us that his departure was only a matter of time. It was now up to the algorithm to decide his fate, to pluck him at random from our midst in order to hold him accountable for what his hands had committed on this Earth. And there, locked up in the skies with no chance of escape, it would be up to them to decide how his century-long sentence would be spent, in heavenly bliss or tortuous hell.

We were jolted back to the present by Janna’s screams. She appeared crazed, her mind unravelling at the enormity of the truth right before her eyes.

“What have you done?” she shouted. “What have you done, you crazy man?” she repeated, slapping her own cheeks.

The Arabic original of Hope On Earth by Fadi Zaghmout.

She stood trembling in place, bewildered and unsure about where to go and what to do in the face of this calamity. Uncle Jamal shot up and engulfed her in his arms, fearing that she might, at any moment, black out and collapse from shock.

In turn, I quickly moved to switch on the lights in an attempt to disperse the darkness that had taken over the room. I realized that it was the right thing for me to do, because as the light disseminated throughout the room, the apparitions dimmed. Subdued to faint streams they appeared less visible, which somewhat succeeded in calming Janna.

“Turn them off,” she ordered him aggressively and firmly.

“I can’t,” he replied.

“I am telling you to switch them off!” she repeated.

She seemed determined to take matters into her own hands, perhaps assuming that an authoritative approach would force him to regret his decision, or at least knock some sense back into him. When he did not respond, she approached him and waved her hands over both his shoulders hoping to erase the apparitions from existence.

“I really can’t do anything. The matter is out of my hands,” he told her, deadpan.

“Then in whose hands is it? Whose hands?” she erupted before, I, astonished and mesmerized, watched as she, for the first time ever, raised her arm up high over her head and then brought it down to strike him.

He stood there, paralyzed in place, and in complete shock. He cowered into himself for a moment and received the blows that were now raining down on his arms, shoulders and head, hoping to absorb her anger in the process. When she wouldn’t stop and he could take it no longer, he unfolded himself to his full height and shoved her.

“Get away from me,” he hollered, incensed and angry.

Omar clearly hadn’t processed the impact his decision would have on her, on us, and on everyone who loved and cared for him. And I don’t think he ever did. He had allowed his unwieldy irate temperament and his selfishness to control his destiny. And on this day, his shouting and belligerence failed to intimidate and subdue Janna’s “craziness” as they had managed to do before. If anything, her screams escalated, her anger spiraled and her blows intensified as she sprang to catch up with him as he tried unsuccessfully to escape to his room. We intervened then, shielding him from her reach until we could get him into the kitchen, shutting the door behind us. We settled him at the kitchen table to cool down from the exertion of what we had all been through. I rushed to fill a glass with water and handed it to Jamal who encouraged him to drink up, all while entreating him to calm down and reconsider.

“Just breathe, ammo. That’s it. Just breathe, my love,” he told him.

This close to Omar I feasted my eyes on the two angels and drank in their details. I was disappointed to discover two bearded men dressed in the traditional thawb and turban, which, in my view, suggested the inventiveness of their maker who could not fathom the likelihood of a female angel. Perhaps whoever it was that configured them wanted them to resemble the male characters depicted in popular books on Islamic heritage. I surmised that it could be possible that the group responsible for this software had wanted dimensional portrayals of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina or Ibn Hayyan, with the wings added as an innovative afterthought. In so doing, they had overlooked the crucial fact that angels, unlike humans, are genderless beings.

I tried to stop myself from getting upset over this detail, particularly when we were in the midst of clearly bigger issues to worry about. I mean, did I really expect those who proselytize an extremely religious doctrine, and who called for exacting their self-styled principles of punishment and reward to be any less masculine? And would I have felt more vindicated had one of the angels been a man and the other a woman? What if they had both appeared in ambiguous form, one similar to mine, would I have then jumped for joy at this group’s recognition of a genderless existence, albeit one restricted to spiritual beings without corporal bodies? What if they had appeared in the image of my own two “angels,” Janna and Jehan, who since my birth have refused to leave me alone to shoulder the world and have insisted on holding me accountable for all my actions? Would I have applauded them and thanked them for extending their operations to include Omar?

“What does she have to do with me? It’s none of her business.” Omar was now shouting, clearly still agitated even after he had drunk the water.

“It’s my life and I’m free to do with it as I please. I am grateful that she raised me but that’s the extent of my loyalty and respect for her,” he shouted at no one in particular. He kept up a barrage of curses and insults and in his blind rage seemed oblivious to the two angels perched on his shoulders, who kept a silent, yet vigilant, watch. To my surprise, and seemingly unperturbed by my curious stares, one of the angels produced what looked like a feather from one pocket of his tunic, and a paper scroll from the other pocket after which he proceeded to write something down. Omar shifted in place each time the angel wrote something, making man and angel appear in sync. And even when the unsuspecting Omar was silently absorbed in private contemplation, the angel, privy to Omar’s inner thoughts, continued on with his task.

“Actions are only by intention,” Jamal said, voicing what I had been thinking. His words were directed at both the angel and Omar in the hope that the angel would excuse Omar his angry outburst and realize his good intentions and his kind essence. At that, Omar visibly calmed down, finally having understood what had happened, and he began to ask for forgiveness.

“There is no god but God, Muhammad is his Messenger. I seek forgiveness from God Almighty, besides whom there is no god, the Ever-Living, the Eternal, and I repent to Him.”

He muttered what was left of his supplications, after which I seized my opportunity.

“Okay Omar,” I asked. “Which of these angels records the good deeds and which one records the bad ones?”

“The one on the right is the angel of good deeds,” he replied.

“Are you sure?” I asked, trying to sow doubt into him. “Because the angel on the left is writing,” I joked. He wasn’t. I lied to scare him so that he might realize the error of his ways.

“No, no, it doesn’t work that way. The angel of good deeds has authority over that of the bad ones. It doesn’t allow it to record anything before I’m allowed a respite in which to repent for my wrongdoing, whether in deeds or words. If I choose not to repent, then my sins are recorded,” he answered confidently.

“Looks like you’ve been taken for a ride. The algorithm is flawed because the angel on your left hasn’t stopped writing as though on a vengeful warpath directed at you,” I continued in an attempt at further provocation.

“Look! Look!” I added to hone in on my point.

As he turned his head towards his left shoulder to check out matters for himself, I put my palm against his right cheek and pushed as if to aid him in his pursuit, while at the same time, I placed the palm of my second hand over his left eye in an attempt to block him from seeing the angel. He cried out in pain at the pressure I was inflicting on his cheek and in frustration as I continued to block his view. Exasperated, he finally shoved my hand away.

“Dumb ass,” he cried.

Jamal finally intervened.

“Enough ammo, stop bothering your brother,” he admonished me, after which he reassured Omar that the angel wasn’t writing anything at all.

I had no intention of ceasing my harassments. I felt it my duty to argue with him and to provoke him so that he might once again question this irrational decision. I wanted to prod the reasons behind placing his blind faith in the justice of these two angels and those behind their design. I wanted to question him about the legislative principles these programmable angels were fed, and how they measured up against his own beliefs. Had he taken any of that into account before reaching his decision? Was he even aware of what he was being judged on? Or had his love for adventure and new experiences clouded his judgement, setting him on a path that could only spell his end one day?

Janna chose this moment to barge in on us before I could ask him anything. She appeared to have calmed down and asked us to leave the room so she could talk to Omar alone. We left and went off to bed.

 


 

While Magda and I lay side by side in conversation about the meaning of life, watching the sun sink into the horizon of one of the most captivating beaches in Neom, Janna was hailing a taxi to fly her to the spaceship where Omar lay in induced unconsciousness, serving out his centenary-long purgatory. Jehan had taken advantage of her absence and gone to our house in Abdoun to whisk away Uncle Jamal to live with her in her apartment.

I’ve always been impressed with Jehan’s ability to seize opportunities that open up to her, and that’s how I know that she couldn’t have let this one slip away. Fully aware of the ongoing controversial public debate regarding the rights of robots, like my Uncle Jamal, that are in possession of full human consciousness and able to decide their own fate, it is quite evident that she has decided to take advantage of the situation in order to push forward her own agenda. On one side of the debate were the conservatives who opposed equality between machines and humans. Their argument was rooted in the principle that machines were made by man, who in turn was made by the Creator, and therefore it would never be permissible to equate machines with humans. On the other side of the argument were the liberals who believed that since machines now possessed a degree of awareness, one not very different from what any human possessed, including feelings and sensations, they should be treated as equal to man.

“How can we allow ourselves a return to slavery and what would certainly be a repeat of that shameful period of human existence?” Magda asked me as we discussed this matter under the moonlight.

I agreed wholeheartedly. Uncle Jamal had lived with us for many years now and I had never glimpsed a shred of anything that set him apart from any one of us. However, I also realized that the matter was not as simple as all that either. Like other dialectical matters, there was no single truth. Today’s machines were constantly evolving and were being manufactured in various shapes and sizes, with infinite capabilities that simulated those of humans, but often time exceeded them too. Therefore, I saw the wisdom in a classification system. Uncle Jamal’s category of robots for instance was created to satisfy human beings’ need to transfer consciousness into an enduring body able to sustain life for longer periods of time.

On the other hand, the case for current human evolution could be argued in much the same vein. Recent years have witnessed an acceleration in human evolution due to the integration between humans and machines that has resulted in upgrading the human with diverse tailored customizations, depending on each individual’s desire and whim. As humans we no longer share one comprehensive form, and the disparity between us, between those who have access to the financial means to upgrade themselves and those who do not, has become vast.

“How can we set boundaries that we agree upon at a time when boundaries have become illusory, flimsy, changeable, and even contradictory?” I asked her.

“It’s no longer a question of what a machine is,” Magda commented.

“Rather a question of what a person is?” I cut in.

I almost hastened to answer her question by referring to the fact that humans are creatures made of flesh and blood, while machines were composites of steel, iron, and various other metals. But, I remembered that this also wasn’t completely true since flesh, blood, and pigments were now being manufactured in laboratories, rendering the human body a theatre showcasing the administrations of intricate machines.

She did not wait for my answer, because her statement had been one of discontent. Instead, she replied with a question of her own.

“Do you know what scares me the most about this whole issue?” she asked as she reached for my palm, as if wanting to steel me to the fears rumbling through her mind.

I tightened my grip, leaned over and looked deep into her eyes. “Tell me,” I urged.

“That we have begun relinquishing major existential decisions to these algorithms. Eventually a day will come when they decide everything and when that happens, they will refuse to be regarded as anything other than human-like.”

“This means you are against Uncle Jamal choosing how to live his life?” I asked her while mentally getting ready to oppose her.

“I never said that,” she replied. “Technically, everyone’s equally the same to me. Any rational person is able to deduce that and doesn’t accept the injustice we see today. But the problem is that we, humans and machines, are governed by the same collective, law, algorithm, and random order,” she said as she squeezed my hand trying to soften the impact of her words.

“We are all lost these days. None of us can tell a truth from a falsehood, and all of us are struggling to keep up with or to comprehend the rapid changes taking place.”

“So why not just relax and let the algorithm decide for us?” I joked, mimicking her Egyptian dialect.

“It’s happening anyway so you’re right, why should we bother our heads thinking about it?” she agreed.

She inched herself towards me until she was leaning over me. Her arm burrowed into the sand beneath my neck so that when her fingers emerged from the other side to play themselves against my forehead, my head completely rested itself on the fleshy crook of her arm. Leaning in closer still, our eyes locked.

“What beauty is this?” she murmured seductively.

 

Fadi Zaghmout is a Jordanian author and gender activist. He holds an MA in Creative Writing and Critical Thinking from Sussex University in the UK. He has four published novels: The Bride of Amman, Heaven on Earth, Laila and Ebra wa Kushtuban. His work has been translated to English, French and Italian. In 2021, Fadi was one of the finalists for UK Alumni Global Award under the category of social impact. He tweets @fadizaghmout.

Rana Asfour is the Managing Editor at The Markaz Review, as well as a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.

Arabic literatureartificial intelligencedystopian fictionJordanTranslation

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