Three Banned Saudi Novels Everyone Should Read

22 November, 2021
“Uni­verse Tree” #2 (cour­tesy artist Sha­dia Alem).

Rana Asfour


Throw­ing Sparks, a nov­el by Abdo Khal, trans­lat­ed by Maia Tabet & Michael K. Scott
Blooms­bury, Qatar Foun­da­tion Pub­lish­ing (2014)


Reporters With­out Bor­ders has described the Sau­di gov­ern­ment as “relent­less in its cen­sor­ship of the Sau­di media and the Inter­net,” and in 2021, it ranks the coun­try 170th out of 180 coun­tries for free­dom of the press.

That said, how­ev­er, what was obvi­ous at the Riyadh Inter­na­tion­al Book Fair, held in Octo­ber of this year, is that books long since con­sid­ered taboo or con­tro­ver­sial in the King­dom were for the first time, being dis­played on shelves. Vis­i­tors, speak­ing to media out­lets, expressed aston­ish­ment at find­ing books on Sufism and athe­ism as well as long-banned books by clas­sic authors such as Dos­toyevsky and Orwell (1984) cor­rob­o­rat­ing the government’s Vision 2030 that “books lay at the heart of its reforms cam­paign.” This was in vast con­trast to the 2014 fair, in which orga­niz­ers had con­fis­cat­ed more than 10,000 copies of 420 books.

In an inter­view with the UAE’s The Nation­al news­pa­per in Octo­ber, Mohammed Hasan Alwan, Chief Exec­u­tive at Lit­er­a­ture, Pub­lish­ing, and Trans­la­tion Com­mis­sion at the Sau­di Min­istry of Cul­ture spoke of the “cul­tur­al trans­for­ma­tion” led by the Kingdom’s youth who with the government’s bless­ing are hop­ing to “ele­vate the king­dom’s sta­tus as a lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al hub both in the region and internationally.”

Despite the emerg­ing glim­mer of hope that many bans would be eased on authors’ works, unfor­tu­nate­ly there still remains a long list of banned books and authors, for rea­sons that at times seem baf­fling. For the three authors whose nov­els we review below, the gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to uphold its deci­sion to pro­hib­it their books in the King­dom, despite their avail­abil­i­ty on the Inter­net. The sil­ver lin­ing? Ban­ning a pub­li­ca­tion more often than not cements its fame.

Abdo Khal’s Throw­ing Sparks (Tar­mi bi Sharar) won the 2010 Inter­na­tion­al Prize for Ara­bic Fic­tion (IPAF) and Khal has been called a “pil­lar of Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture.” This satir­i­cal nov­el is incen­di­ary from the word go, begin­ning with Khal’s choice of title: a par­tial Qur’anic verse from Surah Al-Mur­salat, Aya 32, that describes the fires of Hell as large as cas­tles. The nov­el swirls around sodomy, cor­rup­tion, shame and injus­tice, all tak­ing place with­in a cas­tle sit­u­at­ed on the water­front of a coun­try con­sid­ered to be the cra­dle of Islam’s birth­place. Of course such a fic­tion was nev­er going to go unno­ticed, hence it came as no sur­prise when it was banned in Sau­di Ara­bia and oth­er Arab coun­tries, as was the case with all Abdo Khal’s pre­vi­ous works, the excep­tion being his 2005 nov­el Fusooq (Immoral­i­ty).

Despite this, the author and  jour­nal­ist still lives and works in Jed­dah. He is the author of a dozen books, includ­ing A Dia­logue at the Gates of the EarthThere’s Noth­ing to be Hap­py About; and Cities Eat­ing the Grass. Some of his nov­els have been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, French and Ger­man. In addi­tion to his writ­ing, Khal is a mem­ber of the board of direc­tors of the Jed­dah Lit­er­ary Club, and the for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of the Ukaz news­pa­per, for which he writes a dai­ly column.

The novel’s jaw-drop­ping first chap­ter ensnares the read­er, and the first few lines of the Ara­bic ver­sion are as a noose that wraps itself firm­ly around the reader’s neck, tight­en­ing and restrict­ing the pas­sage­way of air with every turn of the page. A book not for the faint-heart­ed, crit­ics have described the graph­ic tor­ture scenes as “revolt­ing.” Khal relent­less­ly shows no mer­cy as his char­ac­ters non­cha­lant­ly mete out injus­tice, and only a few pages into the nov­el, the read­er quick­ly learns to expect that no mer­cy will in fact be forthcoming.

The nov­el fol­lows 51-year-old Tariq whom we meet rem­i­nisc­ing about his life and lament­ing his 31 years lost in the ser­vice of the “Mas­ter” — the cru­el, immoral own­er of the mag­nif­i­cent cas­tle despite the news­pa­per and mag­a­zine pho­tographs that sug­gest­ed “an ami­able and gen­tle-heart­ed man who was vir­tu­ous and right­eous to a fault.” Tariq is tasked with the job of sodom­iz­ing the Master’s rivals, and “not dis­mount­ing the vic­tims until after he had pound­ed them to a pulp and all that remained was a heap of moan­ing and gasp­ing bones,” all while the lat­ter and his cohort watched on, in amuse­ment, from out­side the tor­ture chamber.

In between his “tasks” Tariq has fall­en in love with the Master’s mis­tress Maram, whom he likens to “touch­ing a live wire” as untold mis­ery await­ed any­one caught glanc­ing her way when she was in the Master’s com­pa­ny or when she stepped out onto the dance floor. With each new “task” and every pass­ing year, Tariq grows increas­ing­ly rich­er and more pow­er­ful, even­tu­al­ly exact­ing his own vengeance on those he blames for his moral detri­ment and sul­lied existence.

Abdo Khal was born in the vil­lage of Al-Majanah in south­ern Sau­di Ara­bia in 1962. While Khal was still a young boy his fam­i­ly moved to the har­bor city of Jed­dah, where he still lives and where he has drawn inspi­ra­tion for many of his works. He stud­ied polit­i­cal sci­ence at the King Abdul Al Aziz Uni­ver­si­ty in Jed­dah and has writ­ten more than a dozen nov­els and short sto­ry col­lec­tions. Khal’s books, some­times high­ly crit­i­cal of Sau­di soci­ety, have often been banned and Arab crit­ics have accused him of under­min­ing moral val­ues. Khal says his texts are con­tro­ver­sial because they allude to the “sacro­sanct taboo tri­an­gle of the Arab world: sex, pol­i­tics and religion.”

When I met Abdo Khal at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture in Dubai in 2014, the thing that stayed with me after a very brief con­ver­sa­tion pre­ced­ing his talk was his insis­tence that when­ev­er he writes and how­ev­er painful what he writes about is, he always comes to the work from a place of love. He added that despite being pos­sessed and obsessed with the novel’s sto­ry­line, he nonethe­less had to stop sev­er­al times dur­ing the writ­ing of this nov­el in par­tic­u­lar, feel­ing ill at the words and ideas spew­ing out onto the page, yet feel­ing help­less and unable to stop them from flow­ing nonethe­less. He was even­tu­al­ly hos­pi­tal­ized and it was the encour­age­ment of his wife who spurred him to com­plete his work as he’d fal­tered many a time, unable to go on.

And go on he did. The nov­el con­tem­plates sen­si­tive, often volatile issues with respect to Islam, sex­u­al­i­ty, moral­i­ty, mas­culin­i­ty and hon­or. In a scene where Tariq approach­es his loath­some aunt and won­ders if he was there “to give the lie to all her dire warn­ings or to con­firm them,” one can­not but pause, reflect and won­der whether such a book, with such a dark hor­rif­ic mes­sage, is actu­al­ly con­ducive of dis­pelling the myth that already sur­rounds a coun­try shroud­ed in gos­sip and mys­tique, or whether fuel has been added to an already rag­ing fire.

From a dif­fer­ent stand­point alto­geth­er, it serves well to remem­ber that, based on the author’s biog­ra­phy print­ed on the inner flap of the Eng­lish-lan­guage hard­back copy, Abdo Khal start­ed out as a preach­er, before turn­ing to full-time writ­ing. One won­ders whether that makes this painful, dark satir­i­cal nov­el that throws light on the excess­es of the rich and wealthy — whom Tariq calls “deviants and perverts…motivated by bore­dom: tired of what is social­ly accept­able, they seek what­ev­er is nov­el or uncom­mon to break the monot­o­ny of rou­tine plea­sures” — a cal­cu­lat­ed deci­sion on the author’s part, not too far afield from his preach­ing days. In that light, one could argue that the cas­tle of Hell that Abdo Khal con­jures up in his nov­el is no more than an elab­o­rate form of cau­tion­ary ser­mon to warn peo­ple of the con­se­quences of sin and vice and their detri­men­tal effects on indi­vid­u­als and soci­eties; a Hell on Earth and damna­tion in the after­life in which as read­ers ven­ture towards the end of the nov­el, God is ulti­mate­ly The Gra­cious and Most Mer­ci­ful.  The per­fect end­ing to a per­fect ser­mon if ever there was one.



Cities of Salt, a nov­el by Abdel­rah­man Munif
Vin­tage (1989)

Still banned in Sau­di Ara­bia after all these years, Cities of Salt was writ­ten by Abdel­rah­man Munif in exile in Paris, and lat­er pub­lished in Beirut in 1984. It is a blis­ter­ing look at Arab and Amer­i­can hypocrisy fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery of oil in a poor oasis com­mu­ni­ty. Set in what could eas­i­ly be the east­ern Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la where Sau­di oil was first dis­cov­ered, the nov­el stretch­es from the 1930s to the 1950s and offers not only a glimpse into the “butch­ery” of the land­scape in which “the trees cried for help, wailed, pan­icked, called out in help­less pain and then fell entreat­ing­ly to the ground, as if try­ing to snug­gle into the earth to grow and spring forth alive again,” but it also sheds light on the dec­i­ma­tion of the core val­ues of Saudi’s Bedouin soci­eties with­in the Penin­su­la as well as the rag­ing rise of polit­i­cal Islam in the region at the time.

Described by some as the great­est “petrofic­tion” nov­el writ­ten after WWII, Cities of Salt is the first in a quin­tet that togeth­er con­sist of 2,500 pages, mak­ing it the longest nov­el in mod­ern Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture — one com­mit­ted to the author’s vision to see an Arab world freed from what he once described as the “tril­o­gy of oil, polit­i­cal Islam and dic­ta­tor­ship.” It has been described by Edward Said as “the only seri­ous work of fic­tion that tries to show the effect of oil, Amer­i­cans and the local oli­garchy on a Gulf country.”

This inci­sive his­tor­i­cal nov­el begins with the poor inhab­i­tants of an oasis in which the bonds of fam­i­ly and reli­gion hold every­one in per­fect har­mo­ny. When oil is dis­cov­ered by Amer­i­cans invit­ed to search for it by the country’s rul­ing elite, they shat­ter the tran­quil­i­ty that once per­vad­ed the area. The impact of mod­ern­iza­tion rush­es to the fore­front and read­ers get a keen sense and under­stand­ing of the resent­ment the locals feel toward the cal­lous and unjust non-Mus­lims whom they blame for the increase in mate­ri­al­ism and loss of spir­i­tu­al and com­mu­nal val­ues, and a back­ward, pater­nal­is­tic local gov­ern­ment that ignores the press­ing social problems.

Abdel­rah­man Munif.

The nov­el roams along with nos­tal­gia for the “sim­ple” past in which the “wadi’s peo­ple were known for their strange mix­ture of gen­tle­ness and obses­sion.” Described as “peace­able and hap­py,” with the tribes’ ancient myths and mag­i­cal super­sti­tions a lamen­ta­tion of today’s con­tem­po­rary truths, Cities of Salt excels at doc­u­ment­ing clash­es both absurd (the sets of jump­ing jacks per­formed by the non-Mus­lims at dawn are seen as demon­ic prac­tices by the oasis work­ers awak­en­ing for prayer) and the much more seri­ous and volatile, such as the work­ers’ strike in 1953 and oth­er events loose­ly based on real polit­i­cal events.

When British author and left­wing activist Tariq Ali asked Munif what “cities of salt” meant, he explained, “Cities of salt means cities that offer no sus­tain­able exis­tence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dis­solve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust.”

Abdel­rah­man Munif was born in Jor­dan in 1933 into a trad­ing fam­i­ly of Sau­di Ara­bi­an ori­gin, though his moth­er was Iraqi. He was stripped of his Sau­di cit­i­zen­ship for polit­i­cal rea­sons in 1963. He stud­ied law at Bagh­dad and Cairo uni­ver­si­ties and took a PhD in oil eco­nom­ics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bel­grade. Dur­ing his oil indus­try career he served as direc­tor of crude oil mar­ket­ing. In Bagh­dad he edit­ed a month­ly peri­od­i­cal, al-Naft wa al-Tan­miyya (Oil and Devel­op­ment). He lat­er became a full-time writer and spent the rest of his life in Syr­ia. “Oil is our one and only chance to build a future,” Munif once told Peter Ther­oux, the trans­la­tor who would bring Cities of Salt into Eng­lish “and the regimes are ruin­ing it.”



Adama, a nov­el by Tur­ki al-Hamad trans­lat­ed by Robin Bray 
Saqi Books (2003)

Accord­ing to Adama’s pub­lish­ers, Saqi Books, al-Hamad’s explo­sive nov­el became an unlike­ly best­seller in the Mid­dle East, sell­ing more than 20,000 copies despite being offi­cial­ly banned in sev­er­al coun­tries, includ­ing the author’s native Sau­di Ara­bia when it was pub­lished in 1998. Set between the late six­ties and ear­ly sev­en­ties, Adama is a com­pelling com­ing-of-age sto­ry that explores issues of sex­u­al­i­ty, under­ground polit­i­cal move­ments, sci­en­tif­ic truth, ratio­nal­ism, and reli­gious free­dom. Adama is the first in Turki’s tril­o­gy to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish; it is expect­ed that a trans­la­tion of the sec­ond instal­ment, Shu­maisi (also by Saqi Books) and the final instal­ment al-Karadib will follow.

In his tran­quil mid­dle-class neigh­bor­hood in Saudi’s oil province, Dammam, eigh­teen-year-old Hisham doesn’t quite fit in. He believes in two imper­a­tive truths: edu­ca­tion and mak­ing his fam­i­ly proud.

As he boards a train to take him to the uni­ver­si­ty, flash­backs of his life show him as a bud­ding philoso­pher who spends his days read­ing banned books (which he has to lie about) and devel­op­ing his polit­i­cal ideals, par­tic­u­lar­ly books on the banned Ba’athist par­ty for which he becomes a spokesper­son. His Sau­di Ara­bia is a nation embroiled in inter­nal con­flict, torn between ancient tra­di­tion and new­found pros­per­i­ty. Hisham finds him­self caught up in the strug­gle for change, devot­ing more and more of his time to a shad­owy group of dis­senters even as he ques­tions both their motives and meth­ods, and con­tin­u­al­ly berates him­self for “being such a dis­obe­di­ent son.”

Tur­ki al-Hamad.

The result is an intense show­down between Hisham’s love for his fam­i­ly, his firm­ly-held philoso­phies, and his yearn­ing for social jus­tice. He awak­ens to pas­sions both pri­vate and polit­i­cal, com­ing to grips with the para­dox­es of a con­ser­v­a­tive land where illic­it plea­sures co-exist with the appa­ra­tus of a mer­ci­less state. Adama ends with the pro­tag­o­nist get­ting off the train to start his life at university.

Tur­ki al-Hamad is quot­ed on the cov­er of one of his nov­els: “Where I live there are three taboos: reli­gion, pol­i­tics and sex. It is for­bid­den to speak about these. I wrote this tril­o­gy to get things moving.”

Tur­ki al-Hamad is a high­ly suc­cess­ful author in the Arab world. His nov­els are con­tro­ver­sial through­out the Mid­dle East; he is the tar­get of four fat­was (reli­gious edicts) claim­ing his life. He is the author of Shu­maisi, also pub­lished by Saqi Books in Lon­don. He con­tin­ues to live in Riyadh and teach­es at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Beirut. Al-Hamad was arrest­ed Decem­ber 24, 2012 after a series of tweets on reli­gion and oth­er top­ics. He was freed in 2013.



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