Friday Finds: An Excerpt from Maan Abu Taleb’s ‘All the Battles’

Over at the IB Taurus blog, they’ve posted an “exclusive” excerpt from Maan Abu Taleb’s debut novel, All the Battles, sharply translated by Robin Moger:

This novel, Abu Taleb’s first, is a fantastic read. As ArabLit’s editor wrote:

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.

But, for those who haven’t yet made up their minds about buying or borrowing a copy, I.B. Taurus has published an excerpt from Chapter 18. It opens:

‘The captain screamed in Saed’s ear. Urged him to put in more effort, to be stronger, faster, more resilient. Saed gave him everything, and as he did, the captain’s voice began to fade from his mind. The captain raised him farther off the floor. From  somewhere, Saed managed to summon more energy and then his limbs started to go numb: he was like the fan that still turns after its plug has been pulled. Somehow he gritted his teeth  and kept going, and then the pain took hold. It was a battle with his pride now. Would he quit? Every time he pushed himself off the floor he asked himself the same question, with the captain screaming over him and his body screaming beneath him. The captain was well aware of the battle taking place in Saed’s mind and he intensified his assault, switching between encouragement and threats. Saed braced himself, finding ways to keep his body moving, choking back the breakfast that was surging up from his stomach toward his mouth. He was on the side of the captain, fighting against his arms, his legs, the nausea in his stomach, and his cramped lungs. He had a minute to take a gulp of water, pant, and wipe away his sweat, and then they started again. Three minutes: skipping, punching, then working on his stomach and chest, then punching, then lifting his knees to his chest. This was the only unit of time he’d know till the fight was over. His body was learning. Absorbing the fact that he must exert himself to the maximum for these three minutes, followed by a minute’s rest and water, then back to work. It was to be a ten-round fight, and Saed had never fought for more than five. Every round thereafter was uncharted territory; the further into the fight he went the further he was from home, and he had no idea what he might find there or how he would react. Some boxers liked to take their opponents into the fifth and sixth rounds because they knew they’d turn into zombies. Bilhajj had won fights in the eighth, tenth, and twelfth rounds. Saed broke before the session was over. The pain overwhelmed him. His muscles wouldn’t obey him and he convinced himself that the captain was far away, that pride was a matter of perspective. He paused for a moment and the captain went wild, grabbing his arms and forcing him to continue with the exercise. He told him that he had thirty seconds to go and then he’d get some water. Saed began again. The seconds lengthened, gaping wider and wider apart, unbearable; the pain growing rapidly sharper while the clock maintained its stubborn crawl. The captain raised his voice still louder and Saed failed again. Then the time was up. Following the morning session Saed would drink a shake made of protein powder plus a banana or an orange, and then he and the captain would go out to a nearby restaurant that had agreed to provide them with a lunch of white rice or pasta with vegetables six days a week until they departed for Dubai. They would eat and sit staring out at the busy back street.

Keep reading over at I.B. Taurus.


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