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'Terrifying' Saudi novel wins Arabic Booker

By Daniela Deane for CNN
Saudi writer Abdo Khal, who won the 2010 Arabic Booker Prize, for his novel, "Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles."
Saudi writer Abdo Khal, who won the 2010 Arabic Booker Prize, for his novel, "Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles."
  • Saudi Booker winner says he writes about "double standards"
  • Novel depicts ravages of limitless wealth
  • First Gulf-area Arabic Booker winner
  • Novel banned in Saudi Arabia

London, England (CNN) -- Saudi novelist Abdo Khal, who won the Arabic Booker prize for his novel depicting the ravaging effects of unlimited wealth, says he writes about the "double standards in our life."

Khal won the prestigious $60,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel, "Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles."

The book, whose title is a Koranic reference to hell, chronicles the seductive powers of an ultra-wealthy palace, telling "the agonising story of those who have become enslaved by it, drawn by its promise of glamour," said the organizers of the prize.

"It's a terrifying novel," Kuwaiti writer Taleb Alrefai, who chaired the prize's judging panel, told CNN in an interview from Abu Dhabi. "The owner of the palace tries to do everything he wants. Very, very ugly things happen in this palace."

Khal told CNN he felt "great happiness" when he found out he won the prize. "It's a great honor," he said. He told reporters in Abu Dhabi that winning the prize was "like a medal on your chest" and that he hadn't expected to win.

It's a terrifying novel. Very very ugly things happen in this palace.
--Taleb Alferai, chairman of judging panel

He is the first Arab writer from the Gulf area to win the prize, which is in its third year and dubbed the Arabic Booker because it is supported by Britain's Booker Prize Foundation.

"I'm happy it's gone to someone from the Gulf," Alrefai told CNN. "It means a lot. This novel is not allowed to enter Saudi Arabia itself."

Asked why the novel wasn't allowed in Saudi Arabia, Alrefai said: "It's not allowed because it is so brave. It names the things by their real name. The owner of the palace is a very rich and powerful man who controls the life of the people. If you go behind this symbol, you can understand why it was not allowed."

Alrefai said winning the prize means the novel will now be published in various languages -- and become widely available to readers in the West, who he said are mostly familiar with writers from Egypt, Syria or Lebanon.

Khal told CNN his writing "is about the double standards in our life, the overlapping of the two worlds, how these two worlds interact."

Set in Jeddah, where Khal lives, the novel follows Tarek, a young man who leaves his family in a poor community in the Saudi city to work for a rich businessman living in a palace. Tarek is lured by the corrupt, but affluent lifestyle of the palace. As a servant, he must carry out his master's wishes, though, which include torturing enemies.

Khal likened the two worlds depicted in his novel to the East and West. "They're different, but they're also so much alike," he told CNN in Abu Dhabi. "This is how things happen in life."

Asked at a press conference how much his explosive story depicts reality, Khal said his "story-teller is talking from a personal perspective. And that's why he can talk about the ugliness of his world."

Khal beat five shortlisted authors to win the prize, which is also funded by the Emirates foundation, with the goal of garnering a wider audience for Arabic literature.

Previous Egyptian winners Bahaa Taher and Youssef Ziedan both picked up Western publishers following their wins, as well as a number of translations. A total of 113 Arabic novels from 17 countries were entered for this year's prize.

The other shortlisted writers were Rabai al-Madhoun ("The Lady from Tel Aviv"), Mansoura Ez Eldin ("Beyond Paradise"), Rabee Jaber ("America"), Mohamed Mansi Qandil ("A Cloudy Day on the West Side") and Jamal Naji ("When the Wolves Grow Old").

Khal was born in 1962 in Al-Majanah, Saudi Arabia. According to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature website, Khal left his birthplace with his family at an early age in search of a better life.

"Like their maker, Khal's heroes come from marginal groups and struggle for salvation," it said.

A controversial writer, he has been criticized in the past for advocating openness in Saudi society.

In an old television interview, Khal said "many of the problems in our societies are buried down under and we hardly talk about these issues. We need to address the realities we are facing instead of sitting back and flogging ourselves for meaningless issues."

"When I write, I don't think about censorship," he said, "so I work based on my vision towards all what surrounds me."

CNN's Saad Abedine contributed to this report