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Chapter one finds Saed, a young Jordanian, preparing for his first competitive fight. The restlessness and sleeplessness he feels before the big event is something we can all identify with. In his late twenties, Saed finds in boxing an escape from his daily life and problems, his work in the office of an Amman advertising agency, his boss, his relationship with his girlfriend Dina, which is placed under more strain by his foray into the world of boxing, and a flirtation with co-worker Deema. The novel follows Saed as he discovers and develops his boxing talent under ‘the captain’, who believes “God made him to box” but worries that he found Saed too late for him to realise his potential.
Maan Abu Taleb is the founding editor of Ma3azef, the Arab world’s leading online music magazine. Born and raised in Amman, Jordan, the author now lives in London. He holds a master’s degree in philosophy and contemporary critical theory, which interest is apparent in the novel’s background reliance on philosophical ideas, which inform the novel though are not explicitly stated. The old adage, write about what you know, is evident also in the central theme of the novel; the author is himself a boxer.
Abu Taleb is a self-confessed fan of American sports writing. A novel about sport is a new thing in Arabic and All the Battles has been criticised in some quarters for the style of the Arabic. Abu Taleb acknowledges the linguistic challenges of writing in a novel about boxing in Arabic, telling an audience at Rosetta Stone bookshop that “when you write about bodily sensations you have to resort to metaphor”. He also mentioned boxing terminology as being another challenge because there are multiple Arabic words for, for example, a left hook, that differ between areas and generations.
For the author, the rhythm of the language was important in the Arabic but, he said, the translator had to find the right rhythm for the English version. Robin Moger has produced a very readable translation. Moger is an award-winning translator. He has just won the 2017 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of the novel The Book of Safety by Yasser Abdel Hafez. Moger has said that he makes choices about the books he translates based on his enjoyment of them. He has translated several interesting and original works, such as Otared by Mohammad Rabie and Women of Karantina by Nael Eltoukhy and was one of the translators for Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus (I B Tauris, 2013), which won the 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.
The experimental nature of the Arabic version, i.e. that the sports novel does not really exist in Arabic literature, and Abu Taleb’s “great willingness to write in a different way in Arabic” was one of the things that attracted Moger to the novel. He also feels that the novel “says some really interesting things about masculinity and failure” . Its treatment of masculinity in the Middle East is one of the things that makes this novel refreshing. This topic typically receives much less attention than women’s issues, especially in the West. Therefore, it feels significant to have a novel which highlights the issues facing young Middle Eastern men, in what has been described as a “rumination of what it means to be a man in the chaos of the Middle East”.
The author has said that All the Battles is about the universal human predicament but is coloured by the Arab world, that the setting of Amman accentuates these universal problems. For Abu Taleb, a book about the Arab world does not have to be purely about the Arab world, which is not an entirely different place. Human experiences are universal.
Saed experiences something like a mid-life crisis. He gives up a ‘good job’ to pursue boxing. Becoming obsessed with boxing, he can’t go a day without training. For him the gym is an escape, “somewhere totally apart from all that lay outside the walls, a place in which everything was clear cut; a place of victory and defeat”. Life is complicated. As Abu Taleb says: “When you go to the office you don’t really know who’s won or lost.”
The protagonist is caught between two worlds; the boxing gym and the advertising agency, the East Side and the West Side. Through Saed’s dilemmas the author highlights issues of class in Arab society. Saed is from the privileged West Side of Amman but travels to the poorer East side in search of a boxing gym (boxing being seen as a crude, lower class activity in Jordanian society), where he discovers a different world and struggles to fit in. There is a huge contrast between the East and West side of the city. The people speak differently and rarely meet. Al-Dabea (the hyena), a talented boxer at the captain’s East Side gym, works as a binman on the West side.
If I were to find fault with this novel, which I very much enjoyed, it would be in the female characters, who I found somewhat less convincing than their male counterparts. For example, Dina considering that Saed’s bruises made him more handsome seems rather like wishful thinking on the author’s part, and the strange behaviour of Dina’s friend Asil and Deema’s flirting don’t quite ring true. However, although one might criticise the portrayal of the women in the novel as stereotypes, in a way this is appropriate as the novel is told from the viewpoint of a young man, who might well not have a well-developed understanding of women.
This novel can be enjoyed even if you are not a fan of boxing. But, be warned, the graphic and bloody descriptions of the fights, both in the ring and in the street pull no punches. Abu Taleb has produced something different in Arabic literature, through which he addresses universal human concerns and issues of masculinity, both universal and more specific to the Arab world. This novel is one you want to keep reading. Saed is a young man trying to find his place in the world. As a reader, you want to know what is going happen to Saed and you care.
Selected from Banipal 61 – A Journey in Iraqi Fiction – Spring 2018
Click here to go to Contents of Banipal 61