Saed leads a comfortable, yet boring, middle-class life. That is, until one afternoon, he leaves work early and crosses into the rough side of town, in search of a run-down boxing club. His obsession with this underground sport grows: he starts skipping work and showing up with visible injuries. Things begin to unravel as he quits his job, trains full time, and is entered for the fight of his life. Will this be the making of him, or is it the end of the road? Maan Abu Taleb’s stylish debut novel is beautifully observed and carefully paced; far from being a celebration of machismo, All the Battles approaches the pervasive presence of violence in society with nuance and grace.
Read an exclusive extract from Chapter 18 below…
‘The captain screamed in Saed’s ear. Urged him to put in more effort, to be stronger, faster, more resilient. Saed gave him everything, and as he did, the captain’s voice began to fade from his mind. The captain raised him farther off the floor. From somewhere, Saed managed to summon more energy and then his limbs started to go numb: he was like the fan that still turns after its plug has been pulled. Somehow he gritted his teeth and kept going, and then the pain took hold. It was a battle with his pride now. Would he quit? Every time he pushed himself off the floor he asked himself the same question, with the captain screaming over him and his body screaming beneath him. The captain was well aware of the battle taking place in Saed’s mind and he intensified his assault, switching between encouragement and threats. Saed braced himself, finding ways to keep his body moving, choking back the breakfast that was surging up from his stomach toward his mouth. He was on the side of the captain, fighting against his arms, his legs, the nausea in his stomach, and his cramped lungs. He had a minute to take a gulp of water, pant, and wipe away his sweat, and then they started again. Three minutes: skipping, punching, then working on his stomach and chest, then punching, then lifting his knees to his chest. This was the only unit of time he’d know till the fight was over. His body was learning. Absorbing the fact that he must exert himself to the maximum for these three minutes, followed by a minute’s rest and water, then back to work. It was to be a ten-round fight, and Saed had never fought for more than five. Every round thereafter was uncharted territory; the further into the fight he went the further he was from home, and he had no idea what he might find there or how he would react. Some boxers liked to take their opponents into the fifth and sixth rounds because they knew they’d turn into zombies. Bilhajj had won fights in the eighth, tenth, and twelfth rounds. Saed broke before the session was over. The pain overwhelmed him. His muscles wouldn’t obey him and he convinced himself that the captain was far away, that pride was a matter of perspective. He paused for a moment and the captain went wild, grabbing his arms and forcing him to continue with the exercise. He told him that he had thirty seconds to go and then he’d get some water. Saed began again. The seconds lengthened, gaping wider and wider apart, unbearable; the pain growing rapidly sharper while the clock maintained its stubborn crawl. The captain raised his voice still louder and Saed failed again. Then the time was up. Following the morning session Saed would drink a shake made of protein powder plus a banana or an orange, and then he and the captain would go out to a nearby restaurant that had agreed to provide them with a lunch of white rice or pasta with vegetables six days a week until they departed for Dubai. They would eat and sit staring out at the busy back street.
An hour after this Saed had his sessions with the captain’s friend, Iskandar al-Bilbeisi, or Eskeisi, who specialized in massage treatment. Eskeisi was short and powerfully built, with a surgeon’s steady precision, and treated Saed’s body as though it were a completely separate entity. Every day, Saed placed himself, unresisting, into his tender care. His joints and tendons hurt, but it was a pleasurable pain. At first, Eskeisi wouldn’t say a word, only “Relax,” but gradually he began to open up, as if, having gotten to know Saed’s body, he was now ready to acquaint himself with his personality.
“Some people work with potatoes, some people work with iron, some people work with spices. You work with this,” he said eventually as he kneaded Saed’s body. “This is your livelihood and you have to look after it. It’s no different from a machine: keep it oiled, repaired, cooled, and ventilated.” He turned Saed over and pressed his wrists into his back as he went on talking: “And what’s this gym? It’s a factory, that’s what it is. A plastics factory, no arguing about it. The raw materials come in to Ali and he shapes you into the finished product.” He had turned Saed again, raising his leg and bending it till Saed’s knee was in front of his eyeball. With their noses almost touching, Eskeisi resumed in a murmur: “You’ll see when you’re a professional. They measure every inch of you: your right wrist and your left wrist, your handspan, across your shoulders and chest, the circumference of your neck. All of you. It’s like when you check out the specs on a pickup truck. Same thing. The difference, of course, being that some can afford a pickup and some can go all out for a Beamer or a Merc. Now you, Saed, the way I see it, are a classic S-Class Mercedes. Not a scratch on you, original engine and bodywork. One of the older models, perhaps, but in mint condition.” He lowered Saed’s leg to the ground, lifted the other, and bent it up and across his body till the knee was touching the floor on the opposite side of his body. “I want you to let me look after this Merc so I can make sure it lasts the distance. Your engine’s running perfectly, Saed. I want you to look after it so it doesn’t fall apart and break down on you when you need it to go. I want you to look after it and keep it good as new, because otherwise it’ll be good for two or three trips, and then we’ll have to toss it on the scrapheap.” The captain usually emerged from his office as Eskeisi was finishing up. With the pads on his hands he’d climb into the ring and they’d work on tactics and skills. The captain knew that it was easy enough to stick to a plan in training when nothing was threatening the fighter and he had all his energy intact, so he used this session, the second of the day, to drum the basics of a solid defense into Saed and get him used to thinking clearly at the outer limits of exhaustion. As soon as Saed began to seem as if he was out of ideas the captain would start bellowing, a sadistic staff sergeant skilled in tormenting his troops; the tone that had lost some of its impact by the end of the first session took on fresh force after lunch as the gym started to fill up with potential witnesses to his shame. The days passed quickly. To the outsider nothing seemed to change; only Saed and the captain knew what progress was being made: a millisecond shaved off here, a head ducked lower, an angle tightened. A grim repetition whose joyless inflexibility would sap the morale of most office workers, but which was pure addiction for the fighter. He would train and check his phone and that was it. Every day his skills became more polished, his sense of anticipation more measured, his movements more natural. He was entering a zone in which he was in step with the rhythms of his body, working through offensive and defensive routines one by one until he felt he owned them. It was like he’d been handed an M16 to replace his old Kalashnikov, then a hand grenade, then a flame-thrower, then a rocket launcher, then a pistol, then a sniper rifle. He had the lot now, knew how to use them, and knew, too, how and when to switch between them. And he wouldn’t forget, just like no one ever forgot how to ride a bicycle, or forgot the sky’s noon blue from their childhood summers, or the scent of the one waiting for you to come, or who waited no longer.
Maan Abu Taleb is the founding editor of Ma3azef, the Arab world’s leading online music magazine, and he holds a master’s degree in philosophy and contemporary critical theory. Born and raised in Amman, Jordan, he now lives in London.
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