Abdo Khal’s award-winning Arabic novel is as much about unchecked power and wealth as it is about human nature
BEFORE ANYTHING else, here’s a disclaimer: this book is not for the faint-hearted. There’s blood, there’s gore and there’s every excess one can take in, even in the wildest of one’s nightmares. This also explains why the book—Throwing Sparks by Abdo Khal—has been banned in his native country, Saudi Arabia, besides Kuwait and Jordan.
Khal delves into the darkest recesses of human nature and portrays an imaginary world in which protagonist Tariq Fadel lives and grows up. While on one side is the ‘Firepit’—the name given to a coastal suburb of Jeddah where Tariq spends his early childhood—on the other is ‘Paradise’ or the ‘Palace’, which deprives the neighbourhood of its access to the shore, snatching the livelihoods of fishermen, and turning the deprived area into a stricken one.
Everyone longs to be inside ‘Paradise’—“the Palace seemed like a gift from heaven, as enchanting as a droplet of water turning into a snowflake as it floats to the ground”, writes Khal. But “once inside… there was no escape from depravity”, he adds. What makes the Palace a living hell is its owner—simply known as the ‘Master’—who spreads a reign of terror in the area.
The Master chooses Tariq to be his chief ‘punisher’, a job that involves sexually assaulting the Master’s enemies, or even friends who had temporarily displeased him, while his employer watches. The novel follows the confessions of the ‘hit man’, as the first-person narrative account criss-crosses the lives of childhood friends Osama al-Bushri and Issa Radini, the Master’s lover Maram whom Tariq takes a liking to (“Maram dominated my mind; her spirit was so radiant that she could brighten the darkest gloom”), Tariq’s aunt Khayriyyah, half-brother Ibra-him and long-time lover-turned-‘victim’ Tahani (“Tahani was the only bright spot in a life otherwise cloaked in darkness and gloom”).
“The Master had snatched thirty-one out of those fifty years, without realising that he was sinking his teeth into carrion”, writes Khal about Tariq, now 50 years old, as the latter reflects on his decision 31 years ago to leave the Firepit. Like everyone else inside the Palace, Tariq has chosen to become its puppet and has everything stolen from his life. But he wants to break free, or worse still, kill the Master. “I had been carrying images of his dead body in my mind for a very long time, summoning up visions of murder while lying in bed, killing him a different way before falling asleep every night”, the author writes.
For fear of providing any spoilers, what happens in the end is best left to the imagination of the readers.
Throwing Sparks was originally written in Arabic (it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, regarded as the ‘Arabic Booker’) in 2010 and has now been published in English. Considering it’s a translated work of fiction—Khal writes vividly and poetically, a poetry that the translators so beautifully manage to convey in its new avatar—the book is indeed commendable, the dark and deeply disturbing imagery notwithstanding.