World Books: In Search of a Saudi Tolstoy

Abdo Khal -- winner of the Arab Booker

Abdo Khal—winner of the Arab Booker

By Bill Marx

Saudi Arabian author Abdo Khal won the $60,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the Arab Booker) for his novel Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles, which is also known as She Throws Sparks.

Taleb Alrefai, who served as chair for this year’s panel of judges, said, “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.”

In 2008, I spoke with journalist and novelist Jonathan Levi, who co-founded the literary magazine Granta, serving as its U.S. editor until 1987. The writer has just visited Saudi Arabia, and he spoke to dissident novelist and journalist Adbo Khal and other authors about the state of Saudi writing. Levi talks to me about Khal’s challenges and what else he learned about literary life in the country. Along with a podcast of the conversation, there’s an excerpt from a Levi essay on the trip that deals with his encounter with Abdo Khal.


Below is an excerpt from an essay Jonathan Levi wrote after his visit to Saudi Arabia. In this section, he recalls his meeting with Abdo Khal.

At four o’clock on my last full day in Saudi Arabia, Ebtihal Mubarak [a reporter for the Arab News] and I finally sit down in the coffee shop of the Jeddah Hilton with Abdo Khal. I’ve only read Ebtihal’s quick translation of the first chapter of his novel Immorality. But looking across at him, with his high, mahogany cheekbones and Yemeni brush mustache standing out against his white thobe and ghutra, he looks a little bit like a thug who’s gone respectable. Abdo is the first writer Ebtihal has brought me who isn’t solidly middle-class.

“I was born in the south,” he tells me through Ebtihal’s translation, “a very poor farming family. “My father died. We moved to Jeddah and all I wanted to do was read romantic stories so I could get on with the girls in the neighborhood. My mother thought I was going bad, so she sent me to Riyadh. Riyadh was like Siberia—if you wanted to punish someone, you sent them to Riyadh.” Luckily, Abdo was rooming in the house of a man with a big library—Dickens, Hugo in Arabic, Mahfouz, and Darwish. Somehow, in 1976, at the age of fourteen, Abdo found Allah and became an imam. He really was a southern boy, I thought, images of child preachers out of Sinclair Lewis and Eudora Welty turning the Hijazi Mountains into the Ozarks.

“I was out in the streets preaching, ‘you’ve got to believe in jihad or you’re going to hell.’ I really believed it. I even went home and tore up all the pictures and smashed the TV.” But Abdo’s spiritual leader was someone slightly more frightening than Elmer Gantry or Jerry Falwell. Juhaiman Al Otaibi was a militant fundamentalist who, at the end of 1979, in the company of 200 followers, attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca and took hundreds of hostages, protesting the corruption of the royal family. It took two weeks for the government to retake the holy places. 250 people died, 600 were wounded. 68 terrorists were beheaded in the aftermath. Juhaiman was one. Abdo could have been another.

“Except in 1977,” Abdo says, “some friends from the south found me. They told me, ‘we’ve got something to show you.'”

Our club sandwiches and Pepsi’s arrive. Abdo takes a mouthful of fries and waits for the waiter to move off.

“It was in Old Jeddah, an old house that had been turned into a cinema. We sat down. My friends were giggling. Then the movie came on. It was called ‘The Cow,’ and it was pure porn!”

I eat half my sandwich waiting for Ebtihal to stop laughing, uncover her face and translate.

“The next day, they took me to the U.S. Consulate and we climbed a tree outside the wall. Inside was the swimming pool and a bunch of ladies in bikinis.” One boy fell off the tree into the Consulate garden and broke his leg. All the American women gathered around him. “He got to see the Cow for free,” Abdo laughs and takes a sip of his Pepsi. “So I stopped preaching and started writing.”

“Society is suffocating,” Abdo says, as we talk about Immorality and Saudi Arabia. “People aren’t human. They walk in fear, not from the government but from everyone around them who is telling them how to live.” Life means being afraid of everyone. There is more life inside the grave than out. All tender human feelings are buried. Ebtihal nods even as she translates for me. “We all become victims,” Abdo says. “And victims are deformed, amoral characters.”

I say goodbye to Abdo. I think, maybe this guy from the south, this sometime fundamentalist, this potential pornographer, while he may lack the epic sweep of Tolstoy, has the makings of a Saudi Simenon, or at least a Jeddah James Ellroy. I promise to try to get him to the States or England to meet western writers. He says something in Arabic to Ebtihal and laughs.

“What was that?” I ask as we walk out of the lobby into the light.

“Next time,” my Bedouin Virgil says, tucking her hair securely into her hijab, “he promises to take us to see ‘The Cow.'”


  1. […] piece on Abdo Khal by Jonathan Levi , called “In Search of a Saudi Tolstoy,” is unfortunately demeaning—it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Orientalist; more like […]

  2. […] can read an earlier portrait of Khal here and  more about the book, […]

  3. […] more I learn about Khai, the more fascinated I become. The Arts Fuse reports on an interview between Jonatan Levi, co-founder of Granta magazine, and Khai that took […]

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