The New Saudi Novel (Again): Rebellious Pamphlet or Artistic Revolution?

Saudi writer Abdo Khal and the not-particularly-sexy cover of his Arabic Booker-winning She Throws Sparks

Yesterday, the AFP published a new look at shifts in the Saudi literary landscape. Yes, we know that Saudi novels of the last five years are talking about sex and money in shockingly frank ways. Yes, we know that many Gulf literary critics and writers—including celebrated Kuwaiti writer Laila Othman—have decried the ‘tyranny of sex’ in the new Saudi novel.

The AFP gave plot synopses of a number of these new novels, and asked prominent Saudi authors what they think about the “new” Saudi novel.

Controversial Saudi woman writer Badriya al-Bishr:

There is a new generation of novelists that uses a new language, simple and direct, in dealing with subjects that were not evoked in the past, like the right of a woman to be in love or to work.

Bishr’s latest novel, The Swing, tells the stories of three Saudi women in Europe.

Umaima al-Khamis, who was longlisted for the Arabic Booker for her novel al-Wafah, was not as excited as the others about the art and craft of the new Saudi novel. Al-Khamis:

Many young people are attracted to novels to express their views and ambitions. This could have a negative impact on the artistic quality of the novel, as it turns into a rebellious social pamphlet that aims at most to break stereotypes and uncover what is hidden.

But Abdo Khal, who won this year’s Arabic Booker for his novel She Throws Sparks, told the AFP that a novel is a “work of art and not an editorial or a political pamphlet.”

He added: “At the same time, art has accompanied all revolutions and reforms.”

I’m looking forward to having another go at Khal’s She Throws Sparks; the opening excerpt that came out when he won the Arabic Booker was rather uninspiring. But perhaps I’m just a raging nationalist who can’t stand to see non-Egyptians take home literary prizes; who knows.


  1. LOL. I love your “raging nationalist” comment 🙂 I remember Bilal Fadl had dedicated a sizeable part of one of his episodes to discussing “Tarmi Bisharar” (which I had always thought was taken from the Quranic verse in Surat Al-Mursalat #77, verse 32, which is part of a description of hell).

  2. Well, at least I’m not a raging nationalist of my American side. 🙂

    I thought it was taken from 77:33, innaha tarmi bisharar. No?

    1. I think we’re talking about the same verse. But I just found the translation a bit jarring with the “she”. I would have translated it as “It Throws Sparks”.

      1. Yes, I don’t know where the “she” came from. Although I haven’t heard if the book has an English-language publisher, and if then they’ve settled on a title.

  3. Well, I recently read Khal’s novel and loved it. It starts off kinda slow, but man does he deliver. To be honest, I don’t know how someone who doesn’t know anything about Saudi Arabia would experience the novel, but to me it was breathtaking. I’ve heard people describe it as “terrifying,” and in a way it is. The “master” is an important character who is obviously (but implicitly) a big-name Saudi prince. The way he interacts with his subordinates, the way his very existence permeates throughout Khal’s universe, the way sexual violence functions in the novel…all that forces me to consider “She Throws Sparks” a masterpiece. Honestly, when I discover a book like this I savor it and mourn it when it ends. I did the same thing with The Brothers Karamazov, The Harafish, Cities of Salt and Breakfast of Champions.

    And if you’re wondering about the “she” in the title, you’re right, it should be “it.” It’s just that Arabic, like French (I think?) doesn’t have the word “it.” So EVERYTHING has a (grammatical) gender. So in Arabic, sun, tree, car (ironically), table, magazine, fish, turtle, cake, sandwich, page, letter (i.e. an epistle), apple, banana, heaven and hell are feminine. Meanwhile, moon, pen, dog, toilet, box, nail, letter (i.e. in the alphabet), dress, veil and milk are masculine. Khal’s title is part of a Qur’anic verse, and the she/it refers to hell, which is grammatically feminine.

    This may not make sense to people who speak only English. Some of my friends find it hilarious to think of, say, milk as a “he” (e.g. “Hey Ahmed, where’s the milk?” “Oh, sorry, Khalid, I drank him all.”)

  4. Tarek, thanks for the explanation for the non-Arabic-familiar-reader. I think Marwa and I just didn’t know why anyone would keep it as “she.” But the book is now in the hands of excellent translators, so I look forward to seeing what they (a he and a she) make of it.

    I read the opening and wasn’t particularly moved, but if, as you say, it picks up, then I look forward to reading the rest.

    And sayyara is more or less “feminine” in English as well. People often refer to vehicles as “she.”

  5. I’ve tried to read some well-received Arabic novels before, like the works of Rajaa Alem or Muhammad Hassan Alwan. I’ve always been under the impression that the influence of Arabic poetry is so great on some novelists that they seem obsessed with producing this…I don’t know, “adorned” language. I never know what the heck Rajaa Alem is going on about. I never encountered that with Mahfouz or Munif. It may or may not be just a bias I’ve formed from reading primarily European and American novels, but I just can’t stomach some of this Poetic With a Capital P crap. At certain points I felt Khal was dangerously close to that type of writing, but he never got to the point of drowning in self-indulgence. But what I really loved about the novel is just that he seems to have pulled off a hell of a feat: He pretty much encapsulates the entire Saudi power structure in the relationships between a few characters. And the verisimilitude is outstanding.

  6. I definitely agree that the simple Mahfouzian language has great beauty, although I also formed my taste on European and American novels.

    You should write a review of /Throwing Sparks/ (I don’t like “It Throws Sparks” as a title, either, the indefinite pronoun sounding too vague in English…)

    1. Yeah, the title is tough to translate. The problem imo is that in Arabic it’s instantly recognizable as a reference to hell. And also I think that the imagery in Arabic is far more vivid than in English. I mean, how exactly does one “throw” sparks. If I were to use poetic license, I’d call it “Hell Throws Sparks.” Maybe “Throws Sparks”?

      Writing a review may be a good idea. The question is: Where?

  7. Speaking of feminine vehicles, my mother’s name is Aziza, and she tells me about a childhood memory of hers: When they first got TV in Saudi Arabia, she started watching Egyptian movies, and was thrilled to discover that a character in the film was named Aziza as well. Unfortunately, it turned out that Aziza was a cow.

  8. Hahaha. Aziza is a lovely name.

    Review possibilities: Jadaliyya, Ploughshares, AGNI, The Quarterly Conversation, World Lit Today, here.

    And speaking of women in Saudi, it’s #women2drive day…

  9. You think it’s avail in Cairo?

  10. I think it might be, but not %100 sure. By the way, don’t hold me to that “best novel ever written” claim. Voltaire’s Candide may be better, although I’m not sure Candide is a novel.

    I haven’t actually read Candide.

  11. Btw, I don’t know if you’ve been following this on twitter, but did you notice that one of the women who drove is named Aziza? That’s not a very common name in Saudi Arabia lol

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