Abdo Khal’s ‘Arabic Booker’-winning novel is effectively banned in his native Saudi Arabia. But he says a new generation of readers is seeking out his work

The latest winner of the International prize for Arabic fiction – the “Arabic Booker” – puts Arab countries’ censorship in the spotlight. I met the Saudi novelist Abdo Khal in Abu Dhabi, as he picked up his $60,000 award at a gala dinner in March. All his books are effectively banned in his home country, he told me, as well as in Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan. So I was startled to find the Saudi culture minister, Abdul Aziz Khoja, praising Khal as an “ambassador for creativity“, whose win is a victory for Saudi literature.

Khal is a teacher and journalist in Jeddah, a prominent columnist and culture editor of the Okaz daily newspaper. Yet ever since he started writing short stories 30 years ago, he, like many Saudi novelists, has had to publish his books abroad (now in Beirut), for broaching what he calls the “trio of taboos” – sex, religion and politics.

While few books are explicitly banned in Saudi Arabia, if the censor’s stamp is withheld, imports are barred. Khal’s Lebanese publishers, Al Saqi, told me this happens with all his books – hence the euphemism that they are “unavailable” in the kingdom, which allows the government wriggle-room to deny that books are banned or confiscated. As in Egypt, the strategy is to keep shifting the goalposts while pandering to opposite constituencies: religious extremists and those lobbying for openness. Uncertainty about the boundaries fuels self-censorship and the resort to foreign publishers. Countries keep a firm hand on imports, while paying lip-service to freedom of expression. As Khal points out, such are the contradictions that even the novels of the Saudi labour minister, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, are “banned from local markets”.

You can see why Khal’s novel, Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles (its title is from a Koranic verse about hell), might alarm the censors. A grotesque satire on limitless wealth and the inequalities it spawns, it’s about a boy from the Jeddah slums who rises as a henchman in a ruthless tycoon’s palace, only to crave salvation for his fallen soul. A translated extract charts a Dante-esque division between The Pit, or slum quarter, and the palace. In Khal’s view, “excessive wealth – which is not God-given but acquired – results in serfdom. When someone is excessively rich, he creates slaves to service his desires. It’s like a stone used to crush bones and flesh; the reality is horrific. Money has created lords and serfs. In the past, it could buy the whole body. Now it buys a part of the being – but it’s still serfdom.” He likened wealth to “stagnant water, bringing in many diseases”.

Khal was born in 1962 in al-Majanah, near the Yemen border – a mountainous area of Saudi Arabia known for its writers, artists and singers, but also latterly as a cradle of terrorists. The youngest child of an illiterate farming family, whose father died when he was small (he’s the only survivor of 11 brothers), he moved to Jeddah then Riyadh. In the 1970s he was recruited into the militant Wahhabi Sunni movement led by Jahayman al-Otaibi, whose followers were to take thousands hostage in the Grand Mosque during Friday prayers in November 1979, in the so-called Siege of Mecca. Yet as a teenage muezzin, Khal was saved by his taste for cinema. He had already been excluded from the movement, he said, for habitually sneaking off to the movies.

He still sees literature and film as liberating alternatives to stifling interpretations of religion. “Art is the only way to open horizons in front of your eyes, instead of being bound by inhibitions and prohibitions. With art you can open up spaces, and make people feel what human beings should feel.” Khal, who studied political science at university in Jeddah, sees the Juhayman movement as the source of “all the problems of the country”. It was “the first movement to use religion … against development, progress and modernity”. Though the uprising in Mecca was crushed, “the state adopted Juhayman’s ideas to placate his religious followers: no TV, no singing, no movies. The result was terrorism – including al-Qaida and 9/11 – which threatens the Saudi state.”

Just before his prize was announced, there was an arson attack on the Al-Jouf literary club in Jeddah, of which Khal is a director. The club had been rebuilt after it was burned down in January 2009, partly for hosting women writers. But for Khal, the rise of Saudi book clubs is proof of a revolution among the young. As he wrote in 2004, Saudi society “is no longer as reserved as it used to be. The continuous revolution in communications has engendered a loosening of rigid fanatical attitudes.” His novels find readers at home among those who buy books abroad, online or at book fairs in the kingdom, where, he said, the censors “turn a blind eye for 10 days in a game of cat and mouse”. Some booksellers acquire stock at these fairs to sell under the counter. “What’s beautiful in Saudi Arabia is we have a society of readers. Because of years of preventing people from accessing books and information, there’s been a revolution in reading. People seek out authors whose work is unavailable. They feel you’re expressing their own thoughts.”

Like previous winner of the IPAF, Bahaa Taher, whose Sunset Oasis was published by Sceptre last year and is now longlisted for the Independent foreign fiction prize, and Youssef Ziedan, Khal is now likely to gain readers in many languages. When I asked if the prize might make his books, or those of other banned Saudi writers, more openly available at home, he was far less hopeful. But at least it “opens a window. We sons of the Gulf are looked upon as though we only have reservoirs of oil, not creativity.”

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