x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abdo Khan on the right path

The winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction talks about growing up in rural Saudi Arabia and his success as a novelist.

Abdo Khal received the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction on Tuesday.
Abdo Khal received the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction on Tuesday.

Perhaps Abdo Khal, the Saudi Arabian author whose satirical novel Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles won the third International Prize for Arabic Fiction on Tuesday night, was an unlikely candidate for the $50,000 (Dh184,000) award known as the Arabic Booker. His book tells the story of a Jeddah thug who gets sucked into the bullying and power plays of a local tycoon's palace. It was the bleakest and most insular story on the shortlist, a book of such unrelieved darkness that it left the BBC's correspondent at the award press conference spluttering at its lack of hope. Khal's response at the time was elegant: "The night is dark and full of secrets, and we have to disclose those secrets in our novels," he said. But, as he explains to me later via an interpreter, the style of his book shouldn't have come as any surprise.

"I wrote several novels, among which were Death Passes from Here and There is Nothing that Makes Me Joyful and Nobody in My Heart," he says cheerfully, "and in all these novels I was accused of being a dark writer. Spewing Sparks is nothing but a continuation of the same style." In fact, he says, it is his duty as a novelist to look into the shadows. "Any novel is nothing but an endeavour to take some shots of the reality the characters in the novel are living," he says. "The thing is, life is not happy."

These days, though, Khal's life seems pretty good. He writes for the Saudi newspaper Okaz and, despite being unavailable in the kingdom, his fiction has a growing following, sure to be increased by this prize. All of this strikes the author as being pretty unlikely, too. Growing up in a rural village in southern Saudi Arabia - "a village that people would not remember by any means," he says - he "wouldn't even have dreamed of becoming a simple carpenter", much less a prize-winning novelist. I ask him what he might have done instead.

"My mother wanted me to be a reader of the Quran, an imam," he says. "I wasn't successful in learning the Quran word by word, and therefore, unfortunately, it was not a fulfilled dream for my mum." His teachers suggested to his mother that, as a feeble student, he should train for a life as a manual labourer. "The shock was that, physically, I cannot bear any weight on my frail body," he laughs. Exasperated, Khal's mother decided he should become a carpenter, and the family moved from their village to Jeddah, where Khal enrolled in the university. To his mother's surprise, he managed to finish a course in political science. "I remember that once she sent me from Jeddah to my first teacher with a gift and a message that this donkey who was good at nothing has succeeded in finishing his university studies," he says.

Academic success briefly raised her hopes that her son might turn his life to something worthwhile - "that I might become an engineer, might become a lawyer". He disappointed her again, becoming a writer. "In Saudi it is women who tell stories," he explains. Indeed, his first piece of fiction to see print came out under a female pseudonym. His mother told him: "There you are, becoming a man, and suddenly you are a woman telling stories."

"When she died," he says, "I had the freedom to go along this path of writing stories." Will he remain free? The boldness of his fiction may derive from the fact that, he says, "there are no eyes supervising me". Obscurity inspired boldness. Now, of course, all eyes are on him. As he told the press conference: "I am maybe imprisoned by the Booker. Just give me the money and leave me alone." There's not much hope of that. elake@thenational.ae