Let’s all pledge to read at least one Arabic novel this year!
Sometimes it seems the older I get, the less cynical I become, a thought occasioned by the announcement that a Saudi Arabian writer named Abdo Khai has won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles, said to be a satire on the corruptions of wealth and power.
Called “the Arab Booker” (the British Man Booker is a sponsor), the prize carries a $60,000 award, and elevates Khai to the top ranks of Arab literature. As far as I can tell, you won’t be able to read the novel in English translation any time soon. But then, it’s not available in Saudi Arabia, either.
The novel is also known as She Throws Sparks, with both titles referring to a verse in the Koran in which infidels are warned of the torments of Hell (Sura 77, Aya 31), according to The National, an English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The novel is a rapid-fire “account of sex, repression, love and despair” about “the destructive impact that power and limitless wealth has on society.”
Wait — you mean Muslims have these moral quandaries, too? That’s what makes me all dewy-eyed and idealistic when I read about something like this. Maybe, after all, the pen is mightier than the sword — nah, no chance of that. But perhaps story, storytelling, and the exchange of culture can help us find our common humanity.
And not only by highlighting what we have in common, but also by communicating, via story, some of the ways we are different. Different is good, don’t you know, as long as we agree not to kill one another over it. As an example of some the most readily observable differences, consider the terms in which one of the judges praised Khai and his novel:
“The winning novel is a brilliant exploration of the relationship between the individual and the state,” said Kuwaiti writer Taleb Alrefai who chaired the judging panel, as reported by Reuters. “Through the eyes of its two-dimensional protagonist, the book gives the reader a taste of the horrifying reality of the excessive world of the palace.”
Can you imagine any American or British judge praising an English-language novel for its “two-dimensional protagonist”? Me, neither. There’s something very interesting going on here, some cultural discontinuity, and aren’t you thrilled to discover it, and the possibility of bridging it? I know I am.
The more I learn about Khai, the more fascinated I become. The Arts Fuse reports on an interview between Jonatan Levi, co-founder of Granta magazine, and Khai that took place at an unspecified time in the past. Khai, it turns out, grew up poor in southern Saudi Arabia. After his father died, his mother moved to Jeddah.
Troubled by his fixation on girls, Khai’s mother sent him to Riyadh, which Khai says was “like Siberia–if you wanted to punish someone you sent them to Riyadh.” The man he lived with had a large library, with Dickens, Hugo, Mahfouz, but at 14 Khai found religion and became an Islamic fundamentalist street preacher.
Some friends from the south came to visit, and took Khai to see a movie called The Cow, which he describes as “pure porn!” The next day, the friends climbed a tree outside the U.S. Consulate to spy on the women in bikinis around the swimming pool. “So I stopped preaching and started writing.”
Is that a charming story, or what? You may call me a dreamer, but I fervently believe much of the tension between the West and the Islamic world could be lessened if we merely took the time to read their novels and get to know their writers.
In that spirit, the other writers short-listed for the Arab Booker: Rabai Al-Madhoun, The Lady from Tel Aviv (Palestinian); Mansoura Ez Eldin, Beyond Paradise (Egyptian); Rabee Jaber, America (Lebanese); Mohamed Mansi Qandil, A Cloudy Day on the West Side (Egyptian); Jamal Naji, When the Wolves Grow Old (Jordanian).
Don’t you think it’s a good idea to read more books in translation? Time was, we could only encounter alien cultures as mediated through Western writers, like Joseph Conrad or Sir Richard Burton or Freya Stark, all of whom produced outstanding books still worth reading.
But now we can go directly to the source. So let’s pledge to read at least one Arabic novel this year — who is with me? Oh, and report back here, please.