The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

She Throws Sparks

The winner of this year's International Prize for Arab Fiction (IPAF), also known as the Arab Booker, has been announced: it's the Saudi writer Abdo Khal, for his novel ترمي بشرر (She Throws Sparks, somewhat unaccountably translated as Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles). The National recently ran excerpts of the six short-listed authors' works (seemingly unavailable online or in Cairo) and interviews with each of them. Here's how Khal's excerpt--translated by Anthony Calderbank--opened:

People, shadows of themselves, crammed into a shabby quarter since long ago

The name of our quarter is The Pit, or The Salt Mine, or The Bottom of Hell, or Inferno; all are terms that reflect torment, and our lives.

The quarter awakens before the sun’s rays penetrate the windows of the huddled houses to the contented lapping of the satiated sea. It awakens to the racket of boys preparing to set off down twisting lanes on their walk to school and the raucous banter of fisherman returning with fresh catches from trips begun the previous night, and songs on the radio exuberant in the dewy morning air: He said good morning without saying a word, Morning breeze, say hi to the one with radiant cheeks, We are farmers on the land of our country.    

Songs that soothe the soul, refreshing like the drizzle of summer rain, they pierce the breast, and lungs expand to receive life’s refreshing air. The alley awakes to the rattle of padlocks on shop doors as the owners open up, and the cries of street hawkers calling after young school children, tempting them to purchase a sweetie or a poorly manufactured toy or a snack that begins with the mouth and ends up with a runny tummy for whoever’s bowels have not been previously fortified.

All things pass with quiet deliberation towards their daily demise. The sun proceeds unhurriedly across the sky above our quarter until it hangs directly overhead and sheds its vertical rays, overwhelming the faded colours of the walls, or the doors, or faces, or freshly laundered clothes hung out to dry on the roof tops. Everything dries so incredibly quickly here.

And the last task our exhausted sun undertakes each day – after it has cast off its searing heat – is to descend towards the palace in complete peace. 

My literary references in Arabic tend to be overwhelmingly Egyptian, so a passage like this--with its focus on a traditional, lower-class space; its sense of cyclical timelessness; and its universal, allegorical elements ("the quarter," "the palace")--puts me strongly in mind of Mahfouz's Children of the Alley, or The Harafish

I only skimmed the excerpts (a friend in Abu Dhabi sent them to me), and found them difficult to evaluate, partly because it's hard to get a sense of a novel from a small truncated section, and partly because some of the translations seemed stilted. None of them really grabbed me. 

The blog Arabic Literature (in English) has a bio of Khal, as well as "mini-reviews" of the excerpts, worth reading. Others have written about the (I suspect, in literary circles, unsurprisingly catty) politics of the selection process.


Having read the excerpts more carefully, I'd like to add something to my earlier, much-too-dismissive remarks. A Cloudy Day on the West Side by Mohamed Mansi Qandil creates a powerful sense of foreboding in its description of a young girl's dangerous and mysterious trip with her mother, to have a Christian tattoo applied to her arm.

The mother paid no attention to her, and continued giving her orders: "I want it to be big and clear, but it should look faded as though it has been on her skin for many years, a real one, as though she had been born it." 

America, by Rabee Jaber, tells of Martha, a Syrian woman who emigrates to America in search of her husband. It has some beautiful images:

..the train – like a kettle on a winter fire – would emit two plumes of steam and then a third before the roar reverberated and the black iron beast pulled away.

She was totally preoccupied with Khalil. After marrying him she thought of herself as having been an empty sack before that. Then Khalil had arrived and filled her with wheat and lentils. The first time she had heard the word “America” emerge from his mouth, her heart had missed a beat.

From the window in the hideous, black hotel (which she later remembered as leaning to one side, as if it were in danger of falling) she would see the smokestacks of the steamships bursting up into the clouds – that’s how low the clouds were!

And the section from Where the Wolves Grow Old, by Jamal Naji, has a great opening:

Azmi al-Wajih has humiliated me three times. The first was in the house of his father, who had fallen in love with me and married me. The second was on the day he caught me in the inner room of the house of Sheikh Abd al-Hamid al-Jinzir. And the third was thirteen years later, when I was thirty-eight years old.