To read a great sports novel is to be transported to the match – grinding your teeth as you watch the action, muscles tensed while you cheer or shudder or scream advice at your team. In the best sports novels, you're not just a spectator, but also a player, and a loved one in the front row, and the coach who's staked their livelihood on these players. All while contemplating the nature of hierarchy, dominance, and competition.
Ma'n Abu Taleb's debut novel, All the Battles, is just such a book. The story is built around Amman-based marketing strategy executive Saed Habjouqa, who realises at the age of 28 that he wants to be a boxer.
All the Battles, published in Arabic in 2016 and now translated by Robin Moger, joins the tradition of muscular, exciting, and thoughtful books about boxing, in a line from Joyce Carol Oates's On Boxing and Norman Mailer's The Fight and the novels of F X Toole.
Boxing, perhaps more than any other sport, is made for the modern novel. The sport is pared down to the most essential conflict, and what's at stake is much more than winning – there's also the risk of injury, disability, and perhaps even death. As a species, we have grown up around fist fighting. Saed thinks of one of his matches as the "latest performance of a timeless tale, told in a language that predated language itself".
Like Oates's On Boxing, Abu Taleb's book is not just about the thrills and anxieties of the sport. It's about masculinity, social class, the contemporary media, movement, and choice. It's a page-turner that could easily make non-readers fall in love with fiction.
All the Battles opens on the eve of Saed's first major fight. In popular boxing tales like the film Rocky and FX Toole's Million Dollar Baby, the central characters begin in poverty. Boxing has, after all, offered social mobility to its talents. But the hero of All the Battles starts from a position of financial and social comfort.
Saed has everything he needs for the "right" sort of life: a good education, a beautiful girlfriend from a wealthy family, a solid career.
Indeed, the charming Saed is on the cusp of major success, poised to win a lucrative contract from Etisalat. From there, he goes to box at the Saqf al-Heit Olympic Sports Club, located in the crowded neighbourhoods on the east side of town.
Some of the men from Saed's boxing gym, such as Ahmed "The Hyena", are trying to cross to the west side. Saed, meanwhile, is trying to break into the east-side boxing talks.
At first, he "wasn't brave enough to break into the debate with his softer Westside tongue, which felt like a blunt blade in his mouth. Better to keep it there: dead and dumb".
Yet Saed isn't rich either. The possibility of winning large sums on the professional boxing circuit is seductive. Still, what's most important to Saed is the essential contest: outwitting and outpunching the other man in the ring.
Boxing matches are at the centre of Abu Taleb's debut novel, but they're not the only sort of battle. The struggle for the Etisalat account is, in moments, as anxiety-producing as one of Saed's fights.
At one point, Saed's boss Patrick drives his sports car, with Saed in the passenger seat, straight through a protest in an attempt to get to an Etisalat meeting on time. Protesters jump on the car and throw rocks, shattering the windscreen.
Saed's relationship with his girlfriend, Dina, is another battle. Saed's ancestors were Circassians who battled the Russians to the last bullet, before fleeing. Perhaps the most terrifying and oddly thrilling battle in the book is Saed's silent fight with depression.
Nor are Saed's battles the only ones that matter. The novel is primarily visceral, but it also has a cinematic quality, and its camera is restless, able in a moment to throw us behind a new pair of eyes.
We experience the fights not only from Saed's perspective, but also, compellingly, from Dina's. Her excitement and interest in boxing bloom, and yet she is also in uncomfortable being an outsider and a woman outside of the family section. She is thrilled by the sport and yet hates seeing Saed injured. During one of his fights, "She had a profound sense of isolation and fear, as though death or the end or something more hideous still was watching her hungrily from all sides".
Saed doesn't come from nowhere, and the novel does show his Arab boxing forebears, such as Adib al-Dsouqi, Champion of Palestine. And yet Saed wonders about the apparent absence of Arab fighting traditions.
"The Russians have sambo, the Brazilians jiujitsu, the Iranians the wrestling they practised in public bathhouses. But what about us? he asked himself. Where are our fighting traditions?"
For a time, there had been government support for boxing. But now, Captain Ali says, the government has shifted to upper-class athletes. "It's rugby they're into now. Rugby and horse-riding."
Into this vacuum comes
Ultimate Arab Boxer, a UAE-funded television series not unlike Million's Poet or Arabs Got Talent.
The show is organised by "a group of British experts" in Dubai, Saed's told. He's shown a presentation about "a study undertaken by a British marketing firm on Arab character traits and the readiness of Arabs to follow boxing".
The region's political hierarchies and struggles for dominance are another of the book's many battles.
The English manages to be an excellent echo of the Arabic, and the Abu Taleb-Moger partnership puts up some unpretentiously beautiful sentences. It's also worth noting that the novel, like its boxer, had coaching. All the Battles came out of an Arab Fund for Arts and Culture workshop overseen by Lebanese author Najwa Barakat.
It's a sure thing that this book, like its boxer protagonist, will be chosen for prize fights. Put money on it.