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1.

“The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences. Now it was disappearing; in a sense it had happened, its time was over. Perhaps it seemed irrelevant that Orientals themselves had something at stake in the process …” [1]

— Edward Said, Orientalism

One afternoon, as a teenager haunting a Midwestern American public library in the 2000s, I got my hands on a paperback called The Halfling’s Gem. The book was one in a string of tales by R. A. Salvatore, and I devoured it much as I had the other fantastical adventures in the series. This entry’s first-edition cover features the scimitar-wielding protagonist galloping on camelback through dunes (I remember being disappointed that the cover art was not akin to the glossier images of more recent entries in the series). The story features a setting complete with camels, villainous pashas, and treacherous gold-toothed merchant-pimps. I thought little of these details at the time, being far more entranced with the impending swordfight between the protagonist and his rival. However, the details got wedged somewhere in the recesses of my skull, solidly enough that when I set out to write this essay, I found them waiting there still.

I’m beginning with this description of The Halfling’s Gem not because it is a particularly striking example of Orientalism—the representation of social worlds deemed to be “Eastern”—but precisely because of its mundanity. The speculative fiction market has been strewn with fantasies of African and Asian societies from its pulpy beginnings, including in secondary-world stories. From Robert E. Howard’s “Afghulistan” to the dragon-subjugated cities of George R. R. Martin’s Slaver’s Bay, fantasias of the Orient have long been a critical component of USian imaginaries. These recent stories are links in a longer genealogical chain. The pages of medieval European epics are littered with tens of thousands of slaughtered Muslims (slotted into the categories of “Saracen” and “Mahometan” and “Moor”). The last surviving Knights of the Round Table run off to participate in the invasion and occupation of Palestine. El Cid and his men ride home with mounts jingling with loot ripped from Muslim corpses. In the songs sung of Roland, Charlemagne’s soldiers crack open the doors of Muslim kingdoms and crowd Muslim queens bent before the baptismal font. Richard the Lionheart aches for pork while on Crusade, and only satisfies himself by ripping apart and devouring the bodies of Muslim men at his dinner table. [2] The vivid violence of subjugating Muslims has always been foundational to the body of work we now call Western literature.

Especially since the 1978 publication of the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, there has been a tremendous outpouring of work critiquing such representations. The impact of this collective effort is appreciable in both scholarly and artistic domains. Speculative fiction in particular is an arena within which important representative and theoretical work continues being done. For example, even as markets dedicated to “realist” fiction privilege anxieties about terrorism and assimilation, many fantasists have been busy exploring precolonial epistemes and postcolonial futures. We can acknowledge these victories while still understanding how much work remains until a true structural shift in narrative production occurs. And if we hope for such a shift, we must keep on illuminating the Orientalist boogeymen still lurking within the pages.

The specific boogeyman hounding me here is the depiction of what I am calling “(not-)Muslims,” particularly those inhabiting a (not-)medieval society. [3] The (not-)Muslim is a figure who exists in a secondary world in which the concept of Muslim does not occur, but who is obviously coded for audiences as Muslim through mores, appearance, and apparel. The referent for this code is not the historical reality of Muslim experience in all its wild diversity, but what Sohail Daulatzai and Junaid Rana call “the racial figure of the Muslim,” summoned into existence by the gears of white supremacy. [4] The rancid cocktail of amputations, veils, despots, sexual slavery, timelessness, bad grammar, and the occasional djinn are swished together to call up the idea of Muslims without an open invocation of the same. Far from being neutral conjurations of the imagination, these (not-)Muslims participate in an Orientalist machinery that still props up today’s securitized Euro-American societies.

2.

Afghulistan, as imagined by Robert E. Howard

I have often heard J. R. R. Tolkien hailed as the progenitor of Anglophone fantasy fiction, but the books I snagged from my library’s shelves shared tighter genealogical bonds with the work of Robert E. Howard (d. 1936). Howard penned a slew of adventures set in both historical and secondary-world contexts, many of which were published through Weird Tales. Twenty-one of those tales starred the infamous itinerant warrior Conan the Barbarian, who roamed the half-recognizable landscapes of the pseudohistorical Hyborian Age (an epoch predating the advent of recorded history, in Howard’s imaginary). One of Conan’s earliest debuts—in “The People of the Black Circle” (1934)—brought him to a country Howard dubbed “Afghulistan.”

The close echo of Afghanistan is entirely purposeful. In Howard’s mythos, our own sense of history is actually a shadow of his Hyborian epoch, with twentieth-century civilizational blocks grafted onto corresponding historical societies. Conan’s Cimmerians, for example, exist in a teleology running directly to the Gaels. In the same way, Afghulistan (or “Ghulistan”) is meant to lead into Afghanistan, and “Afghulis” (or “Ghulis”) to Afghans. It is possible that the name is simply a conflation of Afghan and Ghul/Ghoul: the latter a flesh-eating creature from many an Islamic bestiary, popularized through early modern Anglophone Orientalist literature. The name also rings of a phrase often used as a slur against Pashtuns: afghan-e ghul, “the idiot/barbarous Afghan.” [5]

Howard’s Afghulis are indeed barbarous. They are “hairy tribesmen who haunt the hills of Ghulistan” and who “make a profession of murder and rapine.” [6] They are “more like wolves than human beings.” There is a great deal of meditation on Afghuli beards: one Afghuli is even shown to have “grinned like a bearded ghoul.” [7] Their construction work is crude and their metalwork merely captured loot from more civilized abodes. At one point, a “Galzai” woman (analogue for Ghilzai) immediately strips when offered money for her clothes, “as devoid of self-consciousness as of garments.” [8]

Yet if the Afghulis are barbarous, they are constantly distinguished from Howard’s noble barbarian, Conan. When we meet Conan in the story, he is emplaced as the leader of an Afghuli tribe. An act of cabalistic subterfuge quickly convinces the Afghulis that Conan is responsible for the deaths of Afghuli notables, and they set out to execute him in turn. By the end of the story, Conan has taken up his former station among the Afghulis once again. His desire to lead the Afghulis has little to do with attachment or affinity to the people themselves. In Conan’s own words:

I came into Ghulistan to raise a horde and plunder the kingdoms to the south—your own among them. Being chief of the Afghulis was only a start. If I can conciliate them, I’ll have a dozen tribes following me within a year. But if I can’t I’ll ride back to the steppes and loot the Turanian borders with the kozaki. [9]

Afghulistan thus comes into view as a playground where fantasies of unfettered kingship might unfurl—not for locals, but for foreigners from Euro-American analogues. Conan’s career trajectory in “The People of the Black Circle” follows the period’s common fantasies about not only Afghanistan but colonized territories more broadly. Some, such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888), continue to explore a fascination with the regions in and around Afghanistan as a lost piece of Western history via the (replicable) conquest routes of Alexander the Great. Others, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan stories, treat a blend of historical and imaginal African spaces as a canvas against which a capable white man might exercise supremacy over all whom he encounters. These same tropes are used to recount not only fables but histories, as we can see in the memoirs of Josiah Harlan, a Pennsylvania Quaker who claims to have become the Prince of Ghor Province around 1838; and in the meditations of T. E. Lawrence in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a work which places a British colonial officer at the heart of the 1916–1918 Arab Revolt.

Howard himself would repeat this monotonous fantasy in yet another set of Afghan fables called the El Borak tales. These works follow Conan’s modernized double, Francis Xavier Gordon—a Texan gunslinger of Gaelic origins—as he quick-draws his way through Afghanistan (and Afghans). Gordon’s appellation openly references Buraq, the holy creature said by Muslims to have carried the Prophet Muhammad on his night pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the hereafter. El Borak did not claim the name himself but was given it by Afghans, in honor of his martial skills.

Just as Conan before him, El Borak crosses Afghan countries as a well-respected foreigner, subjugating by violence and exerting his will without restraint, Afghans falling into line behind him or lying as corpses beneath him. Despite the vast gulf in time separating the stories, Afghulistan and Afghanistan are fundamentally identical. The passage of millennia has done nothing to shift the local situation, save to introduce firearms. Afghulis and Afghans remain identical in essence. This deep-seated atemporality is the narrative refraction of Orientalist evaluations of Afghanistan as fundamentally stuck in time. [10] The Afghulistan-Afghanistan duality is a static space that will never be brought into a cultured company of peoples. In the words of the scholar James Darmesteter in 1890: “The Afghans do not have a history, because anarchy has none.” [11] Afghulistan-Afghanistan serves to illustrate that point and celebrate it for the sake of white men gone wild.

I’ve begun in the unsettling ambience of Howard’s Afghulistan to illustrate two points. The first is that (not-)Muslims have been an integral part of Anglophone fantasy fiction from its twentieth-century beginnings. The problem has never been the absence of fantasies that treat non-Western societies and their analogues but the approach to representing those social worlds. The phenomenon at work is not historical absence but a long-running Orientalism.

Secondly, I want to make it clear that the appearance of (not-)Muslims is not universally indexed to Islam. Howard’s Afghulis do not profess confessional adherence to Islam or revere the Prophet Muhammad. Religious observance, in fact, is not a salient factor in his depiction of Afghulistan (aside from a few expected oaths of “By Crom!”). Yet even so, we the reading audience are configured to understand Afghulis not because of what lies on Howard’s pages alone, but because of our cultural expectations of bearded, turbaned, militant Brown men. This has everything do with the aforementioned “racial figure of the Muslim.” That the Afghans surrounding El Borak are all but interchangeable with the Afghuls hanging about Conan only drives home the point. Whatever these Orientals believe is irrelevant. All that matters is their role: bit players in their own lands.

3.

But just because religion is not a necessary component of (not-)Muslims in fantasy does not mean that it cannot become constitutive of the phenomenon. In other contexts, such as Glen Cook’s The Fire in His Hands (1984) and With Mercy Toward None (1985), it is absolutely central to the unfolding of events. Cook’s stories follow the rise of a prophet called El Murid who leads a violent, transformative “jihad” in the desert country of Hammad al Nakir. From the outset, El Murid is clearly a patsy manipulated by a mysterious figure in a cave, who gifts him both magical technology and rhetoric by which to cloak it as divine favor. El Murid proceeds to gather followers who profess sincerely, as he seems to, a reformulation of existing confessional practices:

The desert religion had contained no real devil figure till El Murid named him. Evil had been the province of a host of demons, ghosts, and fell spirits without leadership. And the paternalistic God of Hammad al Nakir had been but the paterfamilias of a family of gods suspiciously resembling the extended families of the Imperial and desert tribes …

… El Murid’s teachings banished animism, ancestor worship, and reincarnation. They elevated the family chieftain to the position of an omnipotent One True God. His brothers and wives and children became mere angels.

And the meddlesome brother became the Evil One, the master of djinn and ifrits and the patron of all sorcerers. El Murid railed against the practice of witchcraft with a vehemence his listeners found incomprehensible. [12]

Narrative asides such as these—made here with reference to “the scholars at the Rebsamen University in Hellin Daimiel”—serve as an authorial wink. El Murid and his idiotic followers might be moved by gobbledygook about gods and chosen peoples, but we readers are in the know, just as the author is. What we are witnessing is not the unfolding of divine plans but a pseudo-Weberian sociological process. This approach is not entirely dissimilar from that taken by twentieth-century scholarly revisions of Muslim pasts, such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s Hagarism (1977). The common argument is that what (not-)Muslims say about themselves is superstitious nonsense, while perceptive Western observers can glean the truth.

Read in its context, The Fire in His Hands is a shabbily cloaked revisionist history of the Prophet Muhammad, down to the medieval Christian heresiographical tradition portraying him as an excommunicated Christian cleric. The text makes use of a largely garbled Arabic, with English (mis)translations following proper names, despite the fact we are ostensibly not dealing with our Earth’s past: for example, we are presented with the grammatically criminal “Jebal al Alf Dhulquarneni,” which glosses the Quranic holy figure of Dhu l-Qarnayn as a “sorcerer.” [13] Despite these details, the dialogue itself betrays a distinctively Western-Christian religious mode. A key religious festival is “High Holy Week.” [14] El Murid shrieks about being “the Glory, and the Power, incarnate.” [15] His early opponents are members of a priesthood. In these ways and more, the El Murid stories cannibalize accrued Orientalist knowledge about Muslims to regurgitate the most vicious fever dreams of Islamic pasts. By chapter four, El Murid (our [not-]Prophet Muhammad) is already overseeing mass murders and ordering the slaughter of babies.

4.

Orientalist fantasies are hardly confined to the stacks of twentieth-century fiction and their reprints (the El Murid stories were reissued as a duology in 2007 under the title A Fortress in Shadow). Contemporary works, such as Guy Gavriel Kay’s All the Seas of the World (2022), similarly embrace real-world civilizational thinking in order to imagine (not-)Islamic pasts. Kay offers “Asharites” as his Muslim analogues, distinguished from the Jewish- and Christian-coded Kindath and Jaddites. His stated aim of writing “history with a quarter turn toward the fantastic” signals that these resonances are meant to be mapped onto our Earth’s confessional communities. [16] This intent is what makes Kay’s beautifully rendered, masterfully smithed, often poignant portraits all the more disturbing.

All the Seas of the World brings us to a (not-)Mediterranean setting sometime around the (not-)sixteenth century. One of our principal guides is Nadia bint Dhiyan/Lenia Serrano, a young Jaddite woman torn from her home as a girl by Asharites, forcibly converted to Asharism, and forced into sexual slavery in the household of an older Asharite merchant. Prior to the story’s opening, she has killed her predatory abuser and escaped to become a privateer. Within 2,000 words of the story, we are treated to this meditation from Nadia/Lenia’s viewpoint: “But she didn’t mind killing Asharites.” [17] In Chapter Three, we are treated with another iteration of the thought: “She really did not mind killing Asharites.” [18] In Chapter Eight, she once again reaffirms her path as “[t]he one that might allow her to kill Asharites again. She realized that she still wanted to do that.” [19] By the midpoint of the narrative, she is still searching for a course in life, but with one certainty in place: “She could live anywhere she wanted. Once she knew what she wanted. Other than killing Asharites.” [20] Introspecting in Chapter Thirteen, “[s]he supposed, if she examined her feelings, she still wanted to kill Asharites.” [21] At the end of the story, her thought has been modified to the extent that “[s]he didn’t want to die killing Asharites any more.” [22] In the end, the problem is markedly not killing Asharites, but dying while doing so.

Kay’s narrative tasks us to follow a protagonist whose chief longing is to murder (not-)Muslims. The thought that we might tolerate this because of the character’s traumas rings of the same logics which have claimed so many lives throughout the so-called War on Terror: that specified acts of Muslim violence warranted collective punishment for all Muslims. Through these logics, All the Seas of the World reveals itself not as a “quarter-turned” fantasy interested in patterns of historical imagination, but as a product of securitized thinking from contemporary Europe and the United States.

The exceptional leniency granted to Jaddite ([not-]Christian) violence is accented by the contrasting depictions of Asharites captured and held as slaves in (not-)Europe. All the Seas of the World introduces us to the character of Ibn Rusad—seemingly patterned on Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan/Johannes Leo Africanus—captured by Jaddites in chapter five. Following a couple of paragraphs of discomfort, Ibn Rusad is treated to a luxurious captivity in (not-)Rome: he drinks wine, enjoys sex with concubines, and works as a scholar. He retains his religious affiliation and resolves early on against escaping. Ibn Rusad’s condition is so pleasant that at one point he decides to exaggerate in his memoirs, inventing misfortunes suffered at the hands of the Jaddites for marketing purposes among Asharites. His enslavement is foundational for his legacy as a scholar. Held against each other, Kay’s captives offer inverted portraits of early modern enslavement: brutality and sexual predation among Asharites, and possible social mobility powdered by nominal conversion among Jaddites. Nadia/Lenia spends the narrative pining for chances to kill Asharites. Ibn Rusad passes the same time enjoying multicultural intellectual debates. He is not shown to express a violent thought against his captors.

In fact, All the Seas of the World ultimately inscribes the violence of (not-)Muslims as its central problem. Its final antagonist is one Zariq ibn Tihon, seemingly patterned on one of the so-called Barbarossa brothers: a “khalif” who faces off against the novel’s coalition of protagonists during a siege of his city, Tarouz. Faced with defeat, Zariq tries to flee Tarouz, only to be recognized and mocked for cowardice by Lenia. Outflanked, he resorts to poisoned blades to fight, but is disarmed before being swiftly killed in a duel. Following Zariq’s death, his surrendered soldiers are executed en masse on one of the protagonist’s commands, while the protagonists themselves meditate on their conquest. We are left in a world where Asharite violence is simple, dishonorable, and largely inefficacious. Even Asharite military conquests are credited to Jaddite fractiousness—by an Asharite ambassador, no less. In contrast, Jaddite violence is a textured, complicated psychological matter that requires extended unpacking.

Through such matters and much else, All the Seas of the World takes part in fantasy fiction’s continuing history of Orientalism. In fact, Kay’s bibliography demonstrates his reliance upon a specific assembly of scholars, which lets readers peek into the entanglement of scholarship and art constitutive of (not-)Muslims in fantasy. In Kay’s comments on his previous novel, Children of Earth and Sky—a work which shares the world of All the Seas of the World—he expresses deep admiration for the work of French historian Fernand Braudel (d. 1985). Braudel’s work is widely held to have been foundational for the study of Mediterranean history. Kay, who in his own words “could write an essay on the greatness of Braudel,” professes to be profoundly influenced by his “magisterial” work. [23] In the 1966 work here lauded by Kay, Braudel—even as he expressed disapproval for the ethnic cleansing of the Iberian Peninsula—argued that Iberians of Muslim commitment and descent were ultimately “inassimilable” persons who “refused to accept western civilization.” [24] Thus, in the same breath that we discuss a historical process by which at least 3,000,000 people were ultimately removed from Iberia—some by death, some by displacement—we are encouraged to wonder whether it was really their own fault for having failed to assimilate. These same codes about assimilation remain live in European discourses—liberal and fascist alike—about Muslims in Europe today.

There is no dearth of academic work on historical Muslim social imaginaries that might help authors chart different courses: for the context relevant to All the Seas of the World, the works of Nabil Matar, Chouki El Hamel, and Hussein Anwar Fancy come to mind. [25] I point this out to emphasize that the critique here is not really about Kay getting history “wrong” or problematizing individual authors. My aim is more to highlight the entanglement between a sprawling corpus of Orientalist academic work and contemporary authors’ efforts to generate narrative. Our efforts are not divorced from broader epistemological trappings which ultimately echo within our stories.

Those echoes linger for longer than they should. Nearly thirty years before All the Seas of the World, Kay published The Lions of Al-Rassan: a loose analogy to common Western tropes about the colonization of the Iberian Peninsula, through which Catholic authorities sought to uproot all traces of Jewish and Muslim life in their expanding global empires. In this tale, we are given a binary classification of Asharite characters. We are introduced to several upper-class Asharites: merchants, poets, and kings who dwell in seemingly multicultural spaces. These Asharites participate in a shared pseudo-secular culture in which one might comfortably express contempt for unlettered fanatics while sharing a glass of wine. Contrasted to these are the nonelite nomadic soldiers from the world’s equivalent of North Africa (the same space in which All the Seas of the World would later take place). These rough and ready warriors—at several points described with recourse to their wearing of veils—are rigid and brutal interlopers, posing an existential threat to our protagonists’ glittering way of life.

Once more, these cliches are drawn straight from a long-standing body of Orientalist scholarship which emplaces Iberian history in a straightforward timeline: the glories of the Umayyad Caliphate, the decadence of the Taifa period, the desert bigotry of the Almoravids and Almohads, the corrupted weakness of the Nasrids, and the extinguishing of Judaism and Islam during the birth pangs of today’s Portugal and Spain. These cliches are not a neutral history but a teleology, meant to render the rise of two genocidal colonial powers—Portugal and Spain—inevitable. This is a history in which Jews and Muslims were always meant to be swept away from what would become the West.

The consequences of enshrining this teleology become apparent when considering All the Seas of the World. The Asharite who dwells in Jaddite territories, submitting to Jaddite culture, is shown to benefit from enslavement. The Asharites who live among each other in their homeland are, in the end, thugs who must—perhaps regrettably—be destroyed. Even at the time of The Lions of Al-Rassan’s writing, this was not the only way to see the Mediterranean world. For example, Abdallah Laroui’s History of the Maghrib (1977), translated into English by Princeton University Press, had made available a different view.

Yet better research can be secondary to authorial attitude. To this day, one of the most well-distributed takedowns of Orientalism in fantasy remains the late Terry Pratchett’s Jingo (1997). The story is effectively a long-form lampooning of Orientalist tropes, where the bigotry of the novel’s British analogues (Ankh-Morporkians) against (not-)Muslim (Klatchian) foes is repeatedly summoned only to be dismissed as obvious foolishness. The story’s success is not about the representation of details in Klatchian society. Rather, Jingo excels because of its stubborn refusal to exceptionalize Klatchians. Elites are scheming fools, Klatchian and Ankh-Morporkian alike. Both populaces are capable of suspicion and bigotry, Klatchian and Ankh-Morporkian alike—and of overcoming them. We are given dogged investigators bent on getting to the truth in Klatch and Ankh-Morpork alike. The story is certainly not free of problems. No story is. But it does what so much of Anglophone secondary-world fantasy has failed to do: treat all who appear in it, irrespective of society or even species, as human.

5.

Personally, I came to all the narratives above out of love: love for fantasy, for history, for the thrill of adventure. I have never been alone in that love. Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012) gives us a world of flashing forked blades and dazzling spells, of zealous dervishes and irascible teahouse owners, of shadowy spirits and ravenous ghouls. It is a work that revels in the camp of sword-and-sorcery as much as the feel of a medieval (not-)Islamic world. At the time of its publication, it was also a striking foray: not because it was the first to present an Islamic fantasia, but because it was one of the only ones not seeking to present it to a Western gaze.

Flipping through the pages of Throne of the Crescent Moon, I found myself meeting folks who could have been family: razor-minded scientists, tipsy and bombastic elders, young men with sharpened pieties. The conversations about intolerable tyrants and questionable rebels were no less familiar. Ahmed’s characters and story are not above critique—far from it. But crucially, the story did not seek to explain away its Muslim-adjacent characters. Ahmed did not jam his wine-bibbing holy magician or his madame-spymaster into an intellectualized framework. They did not have to exist according to the rigid logics of how we understand (not-)Muslims to be. They were allowed to breathe on the page—more than that, they were allowed to live in the fullness of who they were.

One of the protagonists in Throne of the Crescent Moon, the aging Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” goes into battle bellowing holy invocations from his scripture. “God is (the one who …)!” he often roars, flinging spells into the faces of necromantic constructs. Language blasts through the malicious intentions and blows them to ash. Language rises triumphant over fangs and claws. Language, in other words, is presented as something more than a medium for communication. Language, regardless of how it is purposed, must be recognized as a weapon.

6.

When I was a child, the veil between language and transformative power was, at best, a tattered one. The pages of scripture before me repeated over and over that our existence was the echo of a single syllable: yaqulu lahu kun fa yakun(“he says ‘be!’ and it is”). Family members would weep to the sound of mournful Arabic words which were incomprehensible to the mind yet mysteriously known to the heart. The voices of qawwals crackling through the speakers warned us that the names of God could never be God. The lyrical verses most cherished by the eldest generation, recited in a Persian that had all but vanished from my immediate world, were arks built from the essence of divine speech, meant to let us set sail towards truth using humanly crafted words. At the graves of those to whom we will one day be joined, I would pass the time using language to invoke a cosmos that worked in rhyme: ash-shamsu wa’l-qamaru bi-husban/wa’n-najmu wa’sh-shajaru yasjudan (“the sun and moon move in measure/and the stars and the trees bow down”).

I am recalling these memories not to invoke a shared investment in Islam, but in hopes that all of us involved in this slippery moment’s interaction—myself and yourself, dear reader—might indeed share an investment in the power of language. Language tantalizes with the promise of meaning, however transient and ephemeral. Language brings us into communion with the living, the dead, those who are yet to be born. Language tempts us with the notion that silence, however holy and full, might somehow be effaced.

So what are we to do as language fails us? What do we do when our language has so completely failed to arrest or even temper the Israeli military’s now exceedingly well-documented assault on Gaza, in which the IDF has—as of writing this—killed over 28,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children; driven over 2,000,000 Palestinians from their homes; cut off available food, water, and medical supplies in Gaza in a weaponization of malnutrition and disease; and done so to the tune of politicians who name Palestinians to be “human animals” and “children of darkness” and “enemies of civilization itself?” [26] What are we to do with language when it is not the prostrations of stars and trees that rhyme in our world but the ongoing state-sponsored persecutions of Afghans, Baloch, Kashmiris, Kurds, Palestinians, Rohingya, and Uyghurs? Whatever our habits of language are, they are not strong enough to help establish emancipation and peace.

The complete insufficiency of what I have written above calls to mind George Orwell’s comments in “Politics and the English Language”:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. [27]

Perhaps this means we have to surrender language as a site of power. That is not in and of itself a bad thing. It will force us to attend more to the tangible realities around which our worldly hopes revolve and make us interrogate our material investments.

But perhaps—and I say this selfishly, as one with professional commitments to language—we could also recommit to language and the search for its possibilities. That recommitment involves examining with sincerity the language by which we are habituated to speak about the so-called targets of the so-called War on Terror. I mean this address not for enemies but friends: friends who, like me, may have come up enchanted by the possibilities of postcolonial theory and literature; friends who may share my current despair that our habits have not realized the promises of the postcolonial name. [28]

If we are to have hope in political and legal language, our narrative language must also be relentlessly and mercilessly investigated. Our registers of speech are connected. We must remain on guard for Orientalist techniques in the stories we inhale, corral those depictions wherever they are found, become increasingly aware of our entanglement as both story-tellers and story-eaters within the political, economic, legal, and academic superstructures.

From a reckoning, perhaps we can together invest in a linguistic practice that reaches for transformative power. That reach has to be a collective one. The call must be heeded now by those who have the power to shape the marketplace of our public discourse.

These are halting, hobbled, hamstrung first steps. May they not be the last.

Tanvir Ahmed


I would like to thank Gautam Bhatia, Carolina Mendoza-Ahmed, Sabauon Nasseri, and William E. B. Sherman for reading drafts of this essay—it has benefited greatly from their comments and critiques.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 1.

[2] For a critical analysis of this last episode, see Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, “The Muslim Body, Raced for Christian Use,” (lecture, RaceB4Race: Rising, Arizona State University, Tempe, 27 January 2024). For a discussion of narratological practices regarding this body of medieval European literature, see Rajabzadeh, “The depoliticized Saracen and Muslim erasure,” Literature Compass 16/9-10 (2019): https://doi-org.revproxy.brown.edu/10.1111/lic3.12548.

[3] For a corollary discussion in science fiction, see Ali Karjoo-Ravary’s treatment of Frank Herbert’s Dune: Ali Karjoo-Ravary, “Is Dune a White Savior Narrative?” Slate, October 27, 2021, https://slate.com/culture/2021/10/dune-2021-movie-vs-book-white-savior-islam.html.

[4] Sohail Daulatzai and Junaid Rana, “Writing the Muslim Left: An Introduction to Throwing Stones,” in With Stones in Our Hands, eds. Sohail Daulatzai and Junaid Rana (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

[5] The term can also signify “the large Afghan,” and in this sense is not necessarily a slur. It also appears as “Awghan-e Ghul.”

[6] Robert E. Howard, “The People of the Black Circle,” Weird Tales, September–November, 1934: https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/42259/pg42259-images.html.

[7] Howard, “The People of the Black Circle.”

[8] Howard, “The People of the Black Circle.”

[9] Howard, “The People of the Black Circle.”

[10] Cf. William E. B. Sherman, Singing with the Mountains: The Language of God in the Afghan Highlands (New York: Fordham University Press, 2023) and Nivi Manchanda, Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[11] James Darmesteter, Chants populaires des Afghans (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, E. Leroux, 1888).

[12] Glen Cook, A Fortress in Shadow (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2007), 35–36, eBook edition.

[13] Cook, A Fortress in Shadow, 50.

[14] Cook, A Fortress in Shadow, 48.

[15] Cook, A Fortress in Shadow, 39.

[16] This term is invoked in multiple forums, such as in the following interview: Charlie Jane Anders, “Guy Gavriel Kay Shares His Secrets for Turning Real-Life History into Fantasy,” Gizmodo, 28 April 2016: https://gizmodo.com/guy-gavriel-kay-shares-his-secrets-for-turning-real-lif-1773635178.

[17] Guy Gavriel Kay, All the Seas of the World (Berkeley and New York: Penguin Random House, 2022), 31, eBook edition.

[18] Kay, All the Seas of the World, 78.

[19] Kay, All the Seas of the World, 259.

[20] Kay, All the Seas of the World, 274.

[21] Kay, All the Seas of the World, 468.

[22] Kay, All the Seas of the World, 636.

[23] Guy Gavriel Kay, “The Big Idea: Guy Gavriel Kay,” Whatever, 12 May 2016): https://whatever.scalzi.com/2016/05/12/the-big-idea-guy-gavriel-kay-3/.

[24] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (London: Fontana, 1966), 797, quoted in Matthew Carr, Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain (New York: The New Press, 2009), 212–213.

[25] Some monographs include Nabil Matar, Europe through Arab Eyes, 1578–1727 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Chouki El Hamel, Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Hussein Anwar Fancy, The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Numerous articles by the same authors are also relevant to this context.

[26] On 9 October 2023 Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated: “We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel, everything will be closed. We are fighting against human animals and we are acting accordingly” (video: https://www.aljazeera.com/program/newsfeed/2023/10/9/israeli-defence-minister-orders-complete-siege-on-gaza). On 16 October 2023 the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted in a now-removed post: “This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle” (https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/netanyahu-deletes-children-of-darkness-post-after-gaza-hospital-attacked-101697588420656.html). On 30 October 2023, the Wall Street Journal gave a platform to Netanyahu in which he stated “in fighting Hamas and the Iranian axis of terror, Israel is fighting the enemies of civilization itself.” (https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-battle-of-civilization-in-gaza-israel-hamas-3236b023).

[27] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (April 1946): https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/politics-and-the-english-language/.

[28] I am thinking here with the recent critique by Shahzad Bashir, “Seeking Knowledge and Being in Early Colonial South Asia” (lecture, Conversations with Saba Mahmood, Lahore University of Management Sciences, 10 December 2023).


Editor: Gautam Bhatia.

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.



Tanvir Ahmed is a historian and storyteller hoping that the next medieval Islamic talisman is the one that works. His short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, The Deadlandskhōréō, and elsewhere. His debut novella is set to be published by Dancing Star Press.
Current Issue
22 Jul 2024

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Translated by: Vivien Urban
Jadwiga is the city. Her body dissolves in the walls, her consciousness seeps into the cracks, her memory merges with the memories of buildings.
Jadwiga a város. Teste felszívódik a falakban, tudata behálózza a repedéseket, emlékezete összekeveredik az épületek emlékezetével.
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Translated by: H. Pueyo
Here lies the queen, giant and still, each of her six arms sprawled, open, curved, twitching like she forgot she no longer breathed.
Aqui jaz a rainha, gigante e imóvel, cada um de seus seis braços caídos e abertos, curvados, tomados de leves espasmos, como se esquecesse de que não estava mais viva.
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I said sky/ and with a stainless-steel plate covered/ the rotis going stale 
मैंने कहा आकाश/ और स्टेनलेस स्टील की थाली से ढक दिया/ बासी पड़ रही रोटियों को
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