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Yasser Bahjatt Hopes to Better the World Through Science Fiction

Yasser Bahjatt’s love for science fiction and gaming began at a young age.

Yasser Bahjatt, a TEDx host, engineer, and science fiction enthusiast has dedicated his life to the advancement of both Arabian culture, and the rest of the world’s culture through encouraging interest in gaming and science fiction. Bahjatt and his partner, Ibraheem Abbas, launched a media company called Yatakhayaloon that aims to inspire Arabian authors and readers to create and embrace science fiction, because as his research has indicated, a strong cultural interest in science fiction correlates with a society having a higher rate of technological and social advancement. Bahjatt has authored and co-authored four sci-fi novels, including two Saudi Arabian best-sellers, and the first ever Arabian alternate history novel, which were published by Yatakhayaloon. He also is the President of the Electronic Sports International Federation, with which he hopes to encourage greater human connectedness through the Saudi Arabian people’s love of eFootball (soccer, for the Americans). Three of his four highly acclaimed novels are published in English, and available on Amazon, though the other is still being translated.

His vision isn’t limited to the written word, in fact, Yasser Bahjatt is passionately interested in building his own video game, and intends to create a movie and a television series set in the universe of his first best-selling sci-fi novel, HWJN (Hawjan). Since childhood, Bahjatt has been in love with science fiction, and has been writing stories and dreaming up ideas. When asked if he ever recognized the impact his love of sci-fi would have on his life, he mentioned having a notebook from school filled with sci-fi stories of his own design. “I’m holding in my hand right now a story I wrote when I was 15 for a writing assignment. The fact that I still have this notebook ‘til this day shows that I knew it was important for me to keep.” He adds that the story was the only homework he ever submitted in his life, and he never thought “at any point” that he’d be writing and publishing for a living.

Now, even though he spends most of his time working on any one of his many projects (though the emphasis has been on Yatakhayaloon lately, he says), Bahjatt still makes time for real-time strategy computer games, and television shows such as the original Star Trek, and the new Battlestar Galactica. He hopes to bring this passion into the lives of others, and encourage sci-fi and gaming to flourish in Saudi Arabia, for the betterment of the country.

One Small Step for Fiction, One Giant Leap for Science

Bahjatt’s theory on science fiction furthering the advancement of science sprung from a casual joke claiming no technological advance in the last 200 years was born of an original thought, but that all new technology can be traced back to its inception in a science fiction novel. As he began to research in order to win the bet, he realized he truly could not find any scientific advancement that wasn’t preceded by the writing of a sci-fi author, and thus the concept behind Yatakhayloon was born.

The most challenging technological advancement to find a sci-fi source for was the atomic bomb, but even that world-changing invention wasn’t born of pure science. Yasser Bahjatt (and others) found a novel called The World Set Free, written by H.G. Wells in 1913 that discussed in detail the splitting of an atom to release vast amounts of energy that could be weaponized, an idea that preceded the scientific community’s discovery of the atom bomb. This amazing realization prompted the creating of three theories that may describe where knowledge such as this originated, because of how fantastically unlikely it seems that a writer came up with the concept of the atomic bomb before the world even knew about atomic fission:

  1. First, everything in the universe is already encoded into us,
  2. Second, the universe did not have the concept of the atomic bomb until humanity invented it,
  3. And third, we as humans have the ability to conclude and deduct all the laws of the universe through our known and unknown senses.

These concepts may seem far-fetched, but there are studies that may prove, at least partially, the third theory. A few studies were done, Bahjatt says, that show humans have senses even they don’t know about. For example, a study on tracking was done that proved that after shaving a man’s hair and beard, his ability to successfully track prey drops by 20%. This is just one small discovery that points towards the existence of unconscious and undetectable human senses that may allow us to understand or “know” things which we physically cannot.

Making the Dream into Reality

After Yasser Bahjatt came up with the idea behind Yatakhayaloon, he went to his partner who worked at a marketing firm, the only guy “crazy” enough to embark on this journey with him. The partner, Ibraheem Abbas, came up with the idea of calling their company Yatakhayaloon, a verb that means “they are imagining.” The company is groundbreaking in many ways, one of which is using the verb Yatakhayaloon as a noun, an unheard of manipulation of linguistics. As Bahjatt says, this represents the largest goals of the company; inspiring others to stretch their imaginations past things like traditional writing conventions to create “new ways of treating language,” which is simply not done in the Arabic language. To encourage growth and change in a culture, you must grow and change the medium in which it expresses itself. This, Bahjatt says, is “mind-twisting.”

Yatakhayaloon has been focusing mainly on the publication of their novels, the first of which, HWJN, was released nearly 3 years ago to a massive uproar that no one was anticipating. The novel, which tells the story of a Jinn that falls in love with a human woman, was banned in Kuwait and Qatar and was banned by the religious police in Saudi Arabia. Bahjatt, to provide some context, clarified the difference between “banning” a book in the USA, versus the UAE and surrounding countries. When modern Americans hear about a banned book, they imagine a disgruntled PTA meeting getting a book removed from the school curriculum. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, a having a book banned by the Ministry of Information and the religious police means it is no longer sold in stores and is traded in back alleys and black markets like illegal drugs. Depending on the reason for banning the book, possession of it could result in serious fines, or worse. Bahjatt mentioned that as one of the authors of the HWJN if he was found guilty of the accusations against him (namely that the book was written by devil-worshipers who want to teach children black magic), the punishment would be death.

How successful was this sci-fi novel in the Saudi Arabian market?

Despite the controversy, HWJN rose to the top of the charts as the #1 selling book in Saudi Arabia for 3 months straight. When the book was removed from the shelves, one bookstore reported a 20% loss of profits from those sales alone.  When Bahjatt and Abbas heard about the uproar, they “just decided to drive down to Headquarters of the Anti-Magic Division of Religious Police (yes, we have an Anti-Magic Division, like something from Harry Potter) with a few boxes of HWJN.”

Abbas found an empty desk, dumped out the books, and started signing books dedicated to the staff members working in the Anti-Magic Division. Eventually, the head of the division heard about this and wasn’t too pleased. He sat down with the two authors, who fought against the banning on the basis that the Ministry of Information had no issues with the book. “We were tackling controversial issues,” Bahjatt admits, “but we never crossed the line.” By the end of the day, the Anti-Magic Division had to drop the whole issue. Eventually, Qatar lifted the ban on HWJN, but Kuwait is still resisting its presence in their country, so much so that when Bahjatt and Abbas brought the book to have it inspected by their government (and then hopefully certified for publication), the Kuwaiti authorities wouldn’t allow them to bring it through the gates.

Outside of Saudi Arabia, the series of novels is doing well, despite the initial difficulty translating the rhythm and flow of the original text. Bahjatt says, “a lot of translators missed the point that you’re not translating from one language to another, you’re translating from one culture to another.” The challenge arose from filling in the cultural gaps without eliminating the taste and structure of the novel. Because of this, the first, second, and fourth novels (HWJN, Somewhere, and Yaqteenya) have been published in English, but the third novel, Binyameen, is still being translated, a process that can take 3 or more months to get right. Luckily for Yatakhayaloon, the other three novels have not been banned or anything of the sort, despite that Binyameen features an Israeli protagonist, a rather controversial choice in Bahjatt’s region. It could be because they don’t involve as much magic, but Bahjatt believes it’s because they’ve proven themselves to be “too much of a headache to deal with.”

A Lifelong Love of Gaming

When Yasser Bahjatt was only 5 years old, his father gave him an Atari gaming console, beginning a lifelong passion for video games, technology, and science fiction. Bahjatt says that he constantly asked his father “how the hell does that thing work?” This question propelled him to the engineering side of video games, and he so he taught himself to read and write code at 5 years old. This love of engineering and the overshadowing dream of one day building his own video game inspired him to get a degree in engineering and has kept him active in the gaming community ever since.

Bahjatt has immersed himself in Saudi gaming culture in hopes of creating a larger and more dynamic gaming community that promotes interest in technology and science fiction, which he believes will then influence the advancement of technology. He is doing this by helping eSports to gain a more international level of importance, which will hopefully encourage the unification of a global gaming community through his efforts as the President of the Electronic Sports International Federation (eSIF).

Though he personally has no interest in sports, Bahjatt recognizes how games and competition (including electronic games) help to maintain peace between cultures. The creation of games stems from the predatory nature of human beings. As civilizations began to develop, battles and wars sprung up between villages to steal or defend the others resources. As humanity developed, society tried to avoid any unnecessary bloodshed while still establishing their dominance; thus, games and competitions that display physical strength were created.

“Gaming and sports have always been a rich venue to connect people and remove boundaries,” Bahjatt says. Nowadays, however, Bahjatt believes physical strength isn’t as important as “intellectual or technological strength,” and eGames are less about intimidating possible competitors for food or land, and more about connection. It’s all about “breaking down boundaries,” Bahjatt says. “50 years ago, no one would dream of playing a game with someone on the other side of the planet,” and now, he does it on a daily basis through online games like Starcraft and Warcraft. Other MMORPG’s (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) accomplish this same feat and help to create a global human connectedness.

Science Fiction: The Final Frontier 

A lifelong Star Trek fan, Bahjatt believes the goals and aspirations of Yatakhayaloon align exactly with the goals of the crew of The Enterprise (“Except of course in the last three movies,” Bahjatt jokingly adds): to explore new ideas and venture where no other man has gone before. This deep-seated love and fascination with science is not a new concept in Saudi Arabia and the surrounding nations, but one that has unfortunately been pushed to the side as of late. The movement of Arab and Muslim culture to Spain in the Middle Ages, Bahjatt believes, was the sparking point for the Renaissance. The Middle Eastern culture brought with them forward thinking and innovation: “The science, technology, and sophistication helped get Europe out of the Dark Ages.”

In the Qur’an, the holy Islamic text, there are tales of King Solomon commanding great feats of science, many of which have had a large impact of the evolution of science fiction. One such story recalls King Solomon asking a Jinn and a scientist to bring him the throne of Sheba while the Queen was away. The Jinn replied, “I can bring you the throne by the time you leave your courtyard,” which would roughly be a few hours. The scientist replied confidently, “I can bring you the throne before you can blink.” And so he did. This ancient display of science-based teleportation has enthralled scientists from every nation the world over for hundreds of years. Bahjatt says, “This is the norm for King Solomon,” who also had the knowledge to communicate with animals, harness wind power to move whole armies, and could build palaces of glass. To clarify, Bahjatt mentions that the Qur’an never claims that these are miracles or feats of holy faith, but science and knowledge, which, in Arabic, are represented by the same word.

When asked which historical feat of science he was most excited for, Bahjatt said, “Replicators- being able to materialize anything at any time, as well as teleportation, is very intriguing to me. We have taken the first baby steps with 3D printers,” but we still have a long way to go technologically. To encourage scientists and future scientists to pursue fanciful technology such as teleportation, they must be exposed to science fiction first.

“Science fiction is the main drive behind scientific development”

Bahjatt and the other minds behind Yatakhayaloon believe that “science fiction is the main drive behind scientific development: the more people consume sci-fi, the more scientific advances will be created.” Though that theory has yet to be proven causally, the correlation, Bahjatt says, is too strong to ignore.

“Our gut feeling and our belief is that sci-fi is driving reality. There’s a 20-year gap between the two at minimum because it is kids that change sci-fi and reality.” When children who read and watched science fiction throughout their youth grow up and realize the technological wonders they read about aren’t real, it encourages them to acquire the skills to make sci-fi into reality, as Bahjatt did when he pursued his engineering degree. Regardless of factual causality, an influx of sci-fi can only do good in the world,

Imagine the universe as a huge, dark desert, and humanity is a group of people walking together in the darkness. If one of those people turns on a flashlight, where will the people walk? Towards the light, of course. Each new science fiction is a new flashlight. The more people who switch on their flashlights, the easier it will become for people to find the future. The only way to show more options (for technological advances) is to have more societies turning on their lights.

SF2Reality Prize Sweepstakes and Contest: Bring Sci-Fi to Reality

The next step, Yasser Bahjatt says, is turning pure fiction into reality. The goal is to get people interested enough to convert fiction into fact, and “shorten the 20-year gap to a much shorter cycle, with more rapid (technological) development.” To encourage this idea, Yatakhayaloon is launching a new program called the SF2Reality PRIZE Contest, in which they take examples of fictional technology from Bahjatt’s third novel (Yaqteenya) and offer prize money to the inventor who can make it into reality. The options for this year long contest include creating a Liquid Chemical Camera (a camera that operates on liquid chemicals and uses different methods to capture the images) or a FM Audio Recorder (an audio recorder that uses FM modulation to physically record audio data rather than AM modulation that is used currently to record our data in all its forms). These concepts are not currently real, but they aren’t impossible, more “just out of the reach of the realm of possibility.” Bahjatt’s hope for the future relies on creating an innovative and creative culture through a growing interest in science fiction, and hopes the SF2R PRIZE Contest will inspire that passion in others; “If I can make something up and then turn it into real technology, that would really be something.”

Featured Image: Yasser Bahjatt as a Jedi, courtesy of Yasser Bahjatt

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