‘Life on Hold’: A Novel of Stalled Dreams in Saudi Arabia

A novel where the “days are all much the same, bringing nothing new” is a difficult thing to pull off. And Fahd al-Atiq’s Life on Hold, trans. Jonathan Wright, couldn’t be characterized as a page-turner. But the book does manage to craft a compelling narrative about the contradictions of contemporary Riyadh even as the protagonist remains stranded in nowhere-land:

lifeonholdThe opening of the novel has an amorphous, squashy quality: It races through the protagonist’s childhood, university years, and acquisition of a governent job without much concrete detail. Several times, we hear that the truth is elusive and the days “very much the same.”

But the book settles into a different rhythm when an adult Khaled and his father leave “new” Riyadh and go back to their old neighborhood.

The new Riyadh is something completely different from the city Khaled knew as a child: “…Riyadh had changed into something else, something like the sterile concrete house that they had recently moved into and that they called a villa.” The new city was one “that muffled sounds, like a pressure cooker about to explode.”

Or as Khaled’s friend Walid said, in this new Riyadh, “Real neighborhoods are dead, real society is dead, real people are dead[.]”

Khaled’s family made a journey much like that of many middle-class Riyadhis: from a close-knit community in mud huts to a new, concrete home where the windows are sealed shut and each person is sealed into his or her particular alienation. In this new world, Khaled notes three categories of Riyadhis: “[1] a puritanical camp and [2] a camp that was rushing into a new consumer lifestyle at full tilt and [3] in the middle stood a third camp of people who were lost and adrift[.]”

Khaled’s brother, who goes off to fight in Afghanistan, is in the first camp, and several of his friends are in the second. But Khaled, and more particularly his sister, are stuck in the third, not knowing which way to turn.

As the novel progresses, Khaled and his father make several trips between the old and new Riyadhs, as his father wants to repair and rent out the old mud home.

The clearest parts of the narrative are when Khaled recalls his childhood, at the start of the 1970s, in a neighborhood “that seemed to have emerged overnight from a pile of dust.” It was a community of mud-brick houses, built without a city plan, but with a sense of belonging. The flashbacks have Khaled’s coming-of-age story — understanding girls, sex — while in the foreground, we realize that he still hasn’t come of age.

It is the same for Riyadh, about which the protagonist thinks that it had “become a hive of activity without producing anything real and without the most basic elements of life. Everyone was constantly running but they didnt know where they were going.”

The end of the novel grows squashy again, without a clear critique of Khaled’s situation; “the elusive truth was still elusie,” both for the protagonist and for the novel. Still, despite that, it paints an interesting portrait of a man and city that have lost hold of who they are.


  1. I look forward to reading this book, especially because of my lived experiences in Riyadh.

  2. Thanks for the review, Marcia. I thought the book was especially interesting as an account of a Saudi working-class childhood and adolescence in a time of disruptive change. That’s not a world we usually have much insight into, though ‘Throwing Sparks’ in English will add to the corpus.

    1. I definitely thought it was worth reading. & I understand THROWING SPARKS, trans. Maia & Michael, is finally out & on its way to shops, readers, etc.

      1. & it’s been on my table so long to give it a review…couldn’t believe it came out in 2012. Yikes.

  3. I lived in Riyadh for twelve years during the 1980s and 90s. I know exactly how days can be characterized as “very much the same.” I also know the difference between the “old” and the “new” Riyadh, even though I am an American woman. The title of this book describes the lives of most expats while they lived in Riyadh, but I didn’t know whether Saudis felt that way or not. I supposed many did, judging from the zeal and frequency with which they traveled abroad, and now, we have this novel, which promises to open the Saudi perspective, at least somewhat.

    The three categories of Riyadhis described by the protagonist were in evidence even to female expats like me, and I often wonder how the people have evolved (both expats and Saudis) since my departure in 1998.

    In spite of, or many because of, the contradictions and cultural conglomerations that characterized Riyadh, I miss my life there, and still look for ways to reconnect. This novel appeals to my heart, and I hope I can buy it on Amazon.

      1. I bought the Kindle version straightaway, and began immediately. Re-reading your review, I now understand your description, “…an amorphous, squashy quality.” I don’t know how else to explain the lack of concrete details, lack of plot development, etc. This novel might be one of those literary works that holds more symbolism than story.

        I’m also baffled by Khaled’s physical symptoms, which seem to have a physical, rather than emotional basis. I hope they will be explained as I progress through the novel.

        In any event, the translation is good. I’ve read other Arabic translations that do not flow well in English, as if they were transliterated with respect to meaning, much like words are transliterated with respect to sound, thereby adding a layer of obscurity to an already multi-layered language.

        The best part of the novel, for me, is that I can visualize perfectly the streets, old neighborhoods,, mosques, and people that Khaled mentions. I lived on busy Khazzan St. briefly, before moving to one of those high-walled concrete villas that seal everyone in and everyone else out. Truth to tell, I preferred living in the villa, but visited Khazzan St. frequently for walking and shopping.

        1. I think the center part of the novel is where it’s at — the movement between old and new, where he does get into concrete detail. And the weakest part was the opening. But indeed, I don’t think you can fault Jonathan’s translation.

          1. Translation is absolutely critical, especially from Arabic to English. You can’t simply translate in a straightforward manner, as you can with some other languages. Jonathan did a great job. You do not get the sense of reading a book in translation.

  4. Thank you for the review. I look forwards to reading the book.

    1. Please share your thoughts when you’ve read it!

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