The Great Arabic Boxing Novel: Ma’n Abu Taleb’s ‘All the Battles’

Hoopoe Fiction has recently published the English translation — by Robin Moger, no less — of Ma’n Abu Taleb’s brilliant, light-on-its-feet boxing novel, All the Battles:

From a review by ArabLit’s editor in The National:

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.

Keep reading at The National.