Abdo Khal Wins 2010 ‘Arabic Booker’

Youssef Rakha = 1, M. Lynx Qualey = 0.

Rakha called it: The 2010 prize has been awarded to the Saudi Arabian writer Abdo Khal for his novel Spewing Sparks As Big As Castles.

A few weeks ago, the Egyptian journalist and poet looked into his crystal ball and said:

Khal is the most established and celebrated writer on the shortlist, and one might be forgiven for expecting the jury to embrace the least contentious choice after so much public acrimony.

Tonight’s announcement was made by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction judging chair, Kuwaiti writer Taleb Alrefai.

Said Alrefai:

The winning novel is a brilliant exploration of the relationship between the individual and the state. 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.

Hopefully, the extract of Spewing Sparks As Big As Castles made available last week to subscribers of The National and Al Ittihad does not give a full idea of the book’s value Perhaps the translation was flawed? Based on the (3,000-word-ish) extracts, Spewing Sparks was not one of my top three.

The National quoted Khal as saying that he believed he won because he followed a “new approach” in his writing style. “Although I was chosen among the finalists, I did not expect to win.”


And, why not, the whole opening to the published excerpt of Spewing Sparks As Big As Castles, translated by Anthony Calderbank:

People, shadows of themselves, crammed into a shabby quarter since long ago

The name of our quarter is The Pit, or The Salt Mine, or The Bottom of Hell, or Inferno; all are terms that reflect torment, and our lives.

The quarter awakens before the sun’s rays penetrate the windows of the huddled houses to the contented lapping of the satiated sea. It awakens to the racket of boys preparing to set off down twisting lanes on their walk to school and the raucous banter of fisherman returning with fresh catches from trips begun the previous night, and songs on the radio exuberant in the dewy morning air: He said good morning without saying a word, Morning breeze, say hi to the one with radiant cheeks, We are farmers on the land of our country.

Songs that soothe the soul, refreshing like the drizzle of summer rain, they pierce the breast, and lungs expand to receive life’s refreshing air. The alley awakes to the rattle of padlocks on shop doors as the owners open up, and the cries of street hawkers calling after young school children, tempting them to purchase a sweetie or a poorly manufactured toy or a snack that begins with the mouth and ends up with a runny tummy for whoever’s bowels have not been previously fortified.

All things pass with quiet deliberation towards their daily demise. The sun proceeds unhurriedly across the sky above our quarter until it hangs directly overhead and sheds its vertical rays, overwhelming the faded colours of the walls, or the doors, or faces, or freshly laundered clothes hung out to dry on the roof tops. Everything dries so incredibly quickly here.

And the last task our exhausted sun undertakes each day – after it has cast off its searing heat – is to descend towards the palace in complete peace.