Abdo Khal's Throwing Sparks stirs a paradise of horrors in Jeddah
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
The Jeddah of the 1980s that I remember from a childhood spent partly in Saudi Arabia was a happy city, one constantly expanding, to be sure, but which still retained its old quarters amid the malls constantly springing up. Pleasures were the simple ones of wandering around these air-conditioned emporia, swimming off the landscaped beaches of the Corniche, driving into the desert to camp at weekends or buying simple but exquisite shawarma from a tiny cafe - more a hole in the wall - down the road. While more liberal than the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on the surface, at least, Jeddah was not overly given to libertine pursuits; and the religious police were still very much in evidence to ensure the "promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice".
If Abdo Khal's novel, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the "Arabic Booker") in 2010 and is now being published in English by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), is to be taken as reflecting reality, however, there was a whole other side to the city that I missed - and should be very grateful to have done so.
Throwing Sparks is the story of Tariq, who at 50 reflects on his decision 31 years ago to leave "the Firepit", the coastal suburb of north Jeddah in which he grew up, to work for "the Master" in the magnificent marble palace which was erected by the sea during his youth, thus depriving the adjacent neighbourhood of its access to the shore, putting the fishermen out of work, and turning a poor area into a deprived one. Everyone was desperate for a glimpse of the building that became known as "Paradise" - "each of us was scheming to find a way into the Palace or, at the very least, to stand and behold its huge gates from close up".
But as Tariq discovers to his cost, "once inside ... there was no escape from depravity", and his life of service to the Master becomes one of endless acts of torture, immorality and betrayal.
It is perhaps better to think of Throwing Sparks as a nightmare rather than as a depiction of real events in Jeddah. For although the Saudi minister of culture did heap praise on Khal for winning the Arabic Booker, it is no surprise that the novel is banned in their country, nor that the chairman of the prize judges described it as "terrifying".
Its title is taken from a Quranic verse about hell, and from its jaw-dropping opening pages the reader is spared almost no perversion. First-time visitors to the Palace might imagine that it was out of a kindly heart that the Master employed so many people with handicaps. In fact, we learn, he was so "adept at mutilation" that "every able-bodied person who started work there expected to acquire some kind of impairment and could only pray that it would not prove fatal ... eyes were gouged, limbs broken, hair and nails pulled out. Some were burnt, others castrated and still others were emotionally maimed or made chronically sick."
Tariq himself, already so priapic a youth that he had earned the nickname "the hammer", is chosen for possibly the basest role at the Palace. He is one of, and then becomes the chief "punisher". It is his task to sexually assault the Master's enemies - or even friends who had temporarily displeased him - while his employer watches, with each episode videotaped and stored away to keep the victims in line.
As the novel progresses, flashbacks to Tariq's youth reveal that although he may have become ensnared by depravity once in the Palace's service, he was no stranger to it, having had intimate relations with men, women and even a sheep. In two instances, a gruesome literalism is applied to the phrase "cat got your tongue?", while the narrative also includes several murders and at least one case of incest. In short, this is not a book for the faint-hearted.
Neither, of course, should it be classed as the type of fiction devotees of the Marquis de Sade enjoy as a little light reading before bedtime. Khal is a former teacher and street preacher: his aim is not to titillate but to warn against the distortion of values and the hunger for new pleasures that can follow extreme wealth. As he has Tariq's brother Ibrahim, Imam of the Salvation Mosque, preach in a Friday sermon: "Terrorism is not just a matter of an explosion here and an explosion there. Terrorism is the corruption of society as a whole, the withering of its values and principles: that is the real terrorism."
Khal is aware that corruption does not mean just the adoption of what may be seen, because of their prevalence in the West, as "outside" vices - alcohol, fornication and gambling - although these do feature constantly in the Master's circle. His novel also condemns the harshness of a father who kills his daughter for the crime of having premarital sex, just a single act, at that, and one that is presumed by all to have been forced.
And he shines a light on the ordinary Saudis of the villages and suburbs whose lot has not necessarily been improved by the Kingdom's phenomenal growth and changes; indeed, their lives may have been permanently altered for the worse.
Tariq's father, for instance, was a master builder who was "inspired by the Haj and Umrah pilgrims who came from foreign lands", and learnt about their architecture. When traditional methods were replaced by modern construction techniques, however, he went from being a respected figure to being "a mere foreman" - an indignity that afflicted not only his social status but also his salary and his self-respect, and a calamity of the sort that will have befallen a large swathe of Saudi society about which the rest of the world rarely hears anything at all.
Khal writes vividly and poetically, a poetry that the translators Maia Tabet and Michael K Scott should be commended for managing to convey in English - as should BQFP in general, for this is just the latest in a series of fascinating contemporary Arabic novels that they have been publishing in English.
For those who care to read translated fiction - the market in Britain and America is sadly very small - they are providing astonishing insights into countries about which western commentators find it all too easy to offer "expert" opinions, even when their time and experience of these states is minimal to the point of being non-existent. Any political or historical perspective on Saudi Arabia would certainly be greatly enriched by reading Abdo Khal's latest novel, even if the mind boggles at the extremity of his satirical reach.
There is just one part of Throwing Sparks that rings hollow: the genuine love that a young woman has for Tariq in the years before he leaves the Firepit.
We are told that Tariq and his friends Osama and Issa, whose narratives intertwine throughout the book, had been "foul-mouthed children" who were "avoided" and then "shunned" by the whole neighbourhood. "Although we came from decent families, we were regarded as deviants who had strayed so far from the norms of decency that we had become unredeemable."
How is it, then, that the lovely Tahani, of whom there is no suggestion that she shares the trio's delinquency, should be not only object but also returner of Tariq's affections? Perhaps Khal is implying, to use an English phrase, that the devil has the best tunes; and that part of his message is that the corruption he warns against is so insidious because it may not be recognised until it is too late. Far, far too late, at any rate, for the protagonist of this powerful and deeply troubling book.
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.
Updated: November 30, 2012 04:00 AM