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by Abdo Khal
Translated by Maia Tabet, Michael K. Scott
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2013, Pbk, 368 pages. ISBN: 978-9992179093
Redemption in Jeddah
Abdo Khal’s award-winning novel, Throwing Sparks, is a welcome addition to the growing list of English translations of recent Arabic fiction. Khal won the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction for the original Arabic edition, Tarmi bi Sharar, published in 2010, even though the novel was banned in his native Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries. Indeed, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, the publisher of the English edition, are to be commended as this kind of cultural intervention can only improve the Arab-Western encounter of the last two decades. Moreover, the translation of fiction – novels – is also significant as the genre is the quintessential Western cultural form, and yet it is in non-Western contexts, and especially the Arab and Muslim world, that writers and readers have brought a new vitality to the genre. And, of course, that this is a novel by a Saudi writer, who is known and respected in the Arab world, and that it is a novel set in a Saudi city – Jeddah – in the last decade, are notable aspects as we in the West know so little about the literary and filmmaking scene in the Saudi kingdom, other than perhaps Abdulrahman Munif’s magnificent Cities of Salt trilogy.
Throwing Sparks traces the life stories of Tarek Fadel and his small group of friends, especially two other boys, Issa and Osama, as they grow up together in a slum district of Jeddah known as “the Firepit” and move on to lives in very different circumstances. All of them are children of abject poverty with abusive or absent parents, and all are victims of sexual violence, and victimizers as well. And so, barely beyond adolescence, it would seem that their collective fortune has turned when one of the boys, Issa, meets the family of a wealthy and powerful man whom they will later know as “the Master”, and the three friends are miraculously lifted from the abject poverty of the Firepit into the opulence and vulgar decadence of “the Palace”.
Though Issa and Osama figure in the plot and the narrative as a whole, and other friends, relatives and enemies dominate particular chapters, the novel is centered around the life of Tarek, as it is to some extent both a kind of confessional novel and a profession of faith, and so written in the first person. Once inside the Palace walls Tarek quickly found a place in the Master’s household as a Punisher, a professional rapist who specializes in sodomizing men, enemies or rivals, or simply victims of the Master’s aberrant whims. Apparently, due to his endowment – his nickname in the Firepit was “the Hammer” – and the skill and energy with which he carried out his assignments, he quickly earned the trust and respect of the Master who asked him to assemble a team of professional rapists, the Punisher Squad, which he led before dissolving them as the Master’s whimsy drew his attention elsewhere, notably to a woman with a history, Maram.
Throwing Sparks is chronological, with much of the narrative set in the Palace or the time the boys were there together. Khal frequently uses flashbacks to the early years in the Firepit to provide background on our characters and explain their motivations for actions taken later, in the Palace period. And so we are introduced to other characters, such as Tarek’s shrewish Aunt Khayriyyah whom he forcibly moves from the Firepit to his villa and later violently assaults and mutilates, and notably Tahani, the neighborhood girl whom Tarek and Osama both loved and wooed, leading to calamity for all concerned. Indeed, even Maram is tied back into the narrative, as she is woman with roots and a story, or rather a score to settle, intertwined with those early years in the Firepit. For the most part Khal is deft with the release of information, developing the plot and building the tension, as the separate vignettes converge within the last few chapters. However, there are moments of repetition, from chapter, to chapter of information which we already know, though this might be a deliberate device on the part of the author, hinting at the oral traditions of Arabic storytelling.
Yet it is two women, the Master’s mistress, Maram, and his sister, Mawdie, the beloved of Issa, who pull the plot along its course towards the disastrous conclusion. As much as this is a novel about men – including sex between men, as most of the male characters are either bisexual or homosexual, or, as the narrator tells us, simply desire “boys” – women and the suffering they must endure are a feature of Throwing Sparks. Though Khal does much to encourage our empathy for the various women of the novel, and though the novel clearly condemns the vile treatment of women and their secondary status in Saudi Arabia, one gets the sense that women are set on a pedestal, which is not necessarily progressive. Still, before we conflate the narrator and Khal we should remember that this is a novel which renders the consciousness of a depraved man, and to some, that way of thinking about women is consistent with misogynistic violence. As for sex and sexuality, there is no sensuousness in the world of this novel. Sex is about conquest and subordination, while love is almost always discussed without sex, as a kind of transcendent sentiment.
Far from love and transcendence, Throwing Sparks might be described as a novel about torture as the narrator is a “punisher” and nothing more, and as there are brief descriptions of “punishment” scenes, but I think this is a shortsighted, if not an incorrect reading of the novel. As with the sex scenes, there is minimal detail offered about the torture scenes, allowing Khal to sidestep any accusations of cheap salaciousness or worse. Indeed, torture – rape – is consistent with the larger themes of the novel, that is, the depravity which flows from a particular kind of social and political order, and so it is apt rather than gratuitous that our narrator is a torturer, and the epigraph of the last section of the novel, “The Second Threshold”, emphasizes this point linking such politics to terrorism.
Moreover, while there are many 20th-century Western novels about torture, or confessions of torturers, or torture victim narratives, in terms of recent Arabic fiction it is Elias Khoury’s brilliant and terrifying novel, Yalo, that comes to mind. Unlike the latter, which offers us a claustrophobic realist urban context, that is, Achrafieh and the Mathaf-Museum crossing areas of Christian East Beirut, Throwing Sparks is not really a realist novel, as its two spaces do not figure in the narrative as in other novels, taking us back to the British and French novels of the 19th century, or Mahfouz’s Cairo. Khal’s use of social space is appropriate since the slum space of the Firepit is opposed by the palace of the Master, as a kind of dialectic within which the characters emerge, and that is what he chooses to emphasize. Indeed, the contradictions of their lives in the Firepit, that is, various reprehensible crimes, fully unfold outside the area, during their adult lives in the Palace. We might read these crimes as sins, or a virus which can never be fully treated, or we can see the Palace and its relative freedoms – in a loose use of this word here – as a space which permits the unfolding or, in a biological sense, the festering of these crimes and the narrative consequences.
Undoubtedly Throwing Sparks was banned for political reasons, though we might assume obscenity was probably cited by the authorities in the countries concerned. In some ways Khal’s novel is reminiscent of a recent Lebanese film, Marc Abi Rached’s “Help” (2009) which follows a prostitute as she escapes from the murderous clutches of a Lebanese warlord/businessman, aided by a gay cross-dressing roommate and a homeless orphan Shia boy, Ali. The allegory of Lebanon and Lebanese politics is unmistakable and the film upset many local viewers and was banned shortly thereafter, as there were scenes which vaguely depicted a ménage à trois as well as the breasts of the main actress, Joanna Andraos. I suggest that the film and this novel are politically dangerous as they represent politics in the Middle East in its rawest form, zero degree, that of gangster capitalism. Whether they are warlords or “Masters”, the ruling elite are finally businessmen. There is no longer politics as we might normally think of it, with parties and collective struggle, and there is no longer class politics. This is a world of the fundamental struggle between master, or the Master, and slave. It is a stark world, yet not a primitive one, but, rather the late modern present of many countries. Khal, who studied Political Science, is keen to point out this conundrum as the Master is a masterful businessman who seizes public assets for himself, such as water front properties, ruining the local fishermen, and uses the offices of the State to entice and then financially ruin his rivals, and of course manipulates the stock market on a daily basis. Such crude violations and abuse of power are reminiscent of well-known regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, and fueled the protests and movements of the Arab Spring of the last three years.
This last point presents us with an interesting conundrum as the novel is indisputably Islamic in tone and content: Khal was a street preacher earlier in his life and the Arabic title of the novel is Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles and derived from the Qur’an. Still, the novel form is a curious thing as it forces all of us to squeeze our experiences into a frame which was created long ago in the 18th and 19th centuries. And so we find ourselves, whatever our faith or secular commitments, or wherever we are, sleepwalking – or rather writing – in the steps of John Bunyan and his 17th century proto novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Indeed, as Tarek grows more disillusioned with his life and “job” at the Palace, and as his friends die or disappear into their obsessions, while we might expect a final act of vengeance, and a gratifying murder of the Master – at least for an American readership – instead we have a spiritual conclusion as the novel ends in the Salvation Mosque in the midst of a prayer led by Ibrahim, Tarek’s half-brother, and while it is somewhat ambiguous, it is nonetheless uplifting in its simplicity and humility of spirit.
And perhaps this surprising conclusion is the most eloquent and moving moment in Throwing Sparks, for whereas many authors might offer blood and closure – revolution and/or revenge – this is a novel of politics and faith which proposes something more open-ended and transcendent.
Published in Banipal 47 – Fiction from Kuwait