Who are the ‘Arabic Booker’ Nominees? Abdo Khal

Abdo Khal began his life in a small farming village in southern Saudi Arabia. It was after his father died that he moved to Jeddah. Later, his mother sent him to Riyadh because of a few misadventures. There, he became a fiery streetside preacher, calling out for jihad.

But friends from his small southern town came and changed his life, he told interviewer Jonathan Levi.

They showed him a censored film–“pure porn,” he told Levi–and he stopped preaching and started writing.

Khal is now a Jeddah, Saudi Arabia-based writer, on the IPAF shortlist for his “painfully satiric” novel She Throws Sparks, which examines the destructive effects of great wealth on life and the environment. Khal has written a number of novels, including Cities Eating Grass (1998), Immorality, The Mud, Death Passes from Here, Days Don’t Hide Anyone, and Barking as well as several collections of short stories.

Currently, Abdo Khal also teaches Arabic to sixth graders at a government school. Unfortunately, his books have been censored in Saudi Arabia, although they are still available to some degree, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

From the Monitor:

“Mr. Khal, an elementary school teacher, publishes overseas like other novelists. He paid a Lebanese publisher $3,000 in 1995 for 1,000 copies of his first novel and brought back a dozen himself to hand out to friends and newspaper critics.”

The piece on Abdo Khal by Jonathan Levi , called “In Search of a Saudi Tolstoy,” is unfortunately demeaning—it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Orientalist; more like “big white brother”-ist—but it does offer insight into the writer’s past.

“Society is suffocating,” Abdo told Levi. “People aren’t human. They walk in fear, not from the government but from everyone around them who is telling them how to live.”

What is She Throws Sparks about?

“A painfully satirical novel, She Throws Sparks depicts the destructive impact that power and limitless wealth has on life and the environment. It captures the seductive powers of the palace and tells the agonising story of those who have become enslaved by it, drawn by its promise of glamour. She Throws Sparks exposes the inner world of the palace and of those who have chosen to become its puppets, from whom it has stolen everything.”

The title has now been re-rendered as Spewing Sparks As Big As Castles. The title is a reference to the Qur’anic: انها ترمي بشرر كالقصر

More About Abdo Khal (now the winner of the 2010 Arabic Booker):

And, why not, the whole opening to the published excerpt of Spewing Sparks As Big As Castles, translated by Anthony Calderbank:

People, shadows of themselves, crammed into a shabby quarter since long ago

The name of our quarter is The Pit, or The Salt Mine, or The Bottom of Hell, or Inferno; all are terms that reflect torment, and our lives.

The quarter awakens before the sun’s rays penetrate the windows of the huddled houses to the contented lapping of the satiated sea. It awakens to the racket of boys preparing to set off down twisting lanes on their walk to school and the raucous banter of fisherman returning with fresh catches from trips begun the previous night, and songs on the radio exuberant in the dewy morning air: He said good morning without saying a word, Morning breeze, say hi to the one with radiant cheeks, We are farmers on the land of our country.

Songs that soothe the soul, refreshing like the drizzle of summer rain, they pierce the breast, and lungs expand to receive life’s refreshing air. The alley awakes to the rattle of padlocks on shop doors as the owners open up, and the cries of street hawkers calling after young school children, tempting them to purchase a sweetie or a poorly manufactured toy or a snack that begins with the mouth and ends up with a runny tummy for whoever’s bowels have not been previously fortified.

All things pass with quiet deliberation towards their daily demise. The sun proceeds unhurriedly across the sky above our quarter until it hangs directly overhead and sheds its vertical rays, overwhelming the faded colours of the walls, or the doors, or faces, or freshly laundered clothes hung out to dry on the roof tops. Everything dries so incredibly quickly here.

And the last task our exhausted sun undertakes each day – after it has cast off its searing heat – is to descend towards the palace in complete peace.

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Categories: Arabic Booker, fiction, Saudi

8 replies

  1. Arabic fiction is on the move with the emergence of Abdo khal on the literary scene and the award introduces him to a wider spectre of the reading world. Indeed, the concern to write about the subalterns and the abuses of wealth in a country that apparently has an easy going life calls for a lot of conviction.. To write the tormenting locale, the lurking dangers of luxuries and the intense observations made by a sensitive artist will go a long way in baptizing Arabic literature to the unseen levels of readership. winning an award while rising from the ashes is no mean achievements.Abdo khal is one of the voices that will usher in a season of hope and recognition for the Arabic literature.

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