There has always been a thin line between utopia and dystopia; If utopia is an imagined perfect place or ideal state of affairs in the social, legal and political sphere, dystopia would be its counterpart. Neither exists in pure form; in reality societies may simultaneously feature characteristics from either extremes of the spectrum or oscillate in-between. In theory, the most desirable utopias would ideally share a common ethos of peace, social justice and environmental conscientiousness, but such values are not definitive. Since there is no indisputable formula for creating a utopia, this presents a paradox – your dream might be someone else’s worst nightmare. Utopian ideals tend to be underpinned by utilitarianism in order to come to fruition but this doesn’t necessarily equip those ideals to be universally appealing. For instance, depending on your moral perspective, it might be tricky to square the fact that a person’s Shangri-La might feature a fair dose of decadence and debauchery. Even some purported utopias exhibit aspects of bigotry, ultra-Nationalism or warfare in order to stabilise the status quo. Dystopias are drawn from our discontent about the present, stretched onto the worst imaginable scenario. In the same way as Thomas More’s Utopia was a response to inequality he witnessed, living as he did at the epochal fault-line between medievalism and nascent merchant capitalism, contemporary utopias and dystopias are very much commentaries of the present.
The Arabic term for utopia is al-Madinah al-Fadilah, meaning ‘virtuous city’. In recent times though, this phrase has been somewhat subverted by Ahmed Khaled Towfik, a master of the contemporary Arabic dystopia genre. Towfik has authored and translated a plethora of popular science fiction literature while serving as a medical professor at Egypt’s Tanta University. His best-selling novella is also called Utopia. It has been described as: ‘far more convincing a depiction of a nightmarish future even than A Clockwork Orange’. The novella is set in 2023 on a US Marine-protected colony on the Egyptian coast, in which an elitist minority of overindulgent youth live in superficially ordered enclaves devoid of compassion towards a swarm of bitterly impoverished ‘Others’ living in chaotic slums outside their gated colony. Alaa, the bored rich protagonist of the novel, describes his morning routine: ‘I wake up. I take a leak. Smoke a cigarette. Drink coffee. Shave. …Have sex with the African maid. Have breakfast.’ The ‘Others’ become voyeuristic kill-targets for sport simply to quench the boredom of the rich, culminating in a violent revolution; eerily prescient of the uprisings that subsequently emerged in Tahrir Square.