Desert Ruritania

Cities of Salt

by Abdelrahman Munif, translated by Peter Theroux
Vintage, 627 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Trench

by Abdelrahman Munif, translated by Peter Theroux
Pantheon, 554 pp., $25.00

Few subjects lend themselves so naturally to enraged satire as the development of the Gulf states. The emergence of these desert Ruritanias has been so fast and so preposterous that the weapons of Horace and Pope seem inadequate to deal with it. Mild and witty mockery of the follies of the oil age is too gentle a treatment for a subject which would have provoked the fury of Juvenal and the excoriations of Swift.

Imagine a stretch of sand which no one has ever coveted, a few palmthatch huts, a few thousand nomads, and some camels. Picture a ruler accustomed to counting his meager treasury in his tent, a wary traditional chieftain who doesn’t want the money offered him by foreign companies. Then add oil, outside pressure, and a mass of immigrants, close your eyes for a year or two, shake the mixture, and when you focus again you will find that the ruler has gone, the huts have become a city of glass and aluminum, and the nomads stare with bewilderment at foreigners behaving like children presented with a vast empty space and unlimited power to build what they want. “Let’s put up three skyscrapers here,” they exclaim to one another, “let’s make one of the world’s largest airports there.” This is not an invention of Swift or Thomas More, or even of Orwell or Aldous Huxley, though it is worthy of all of them. It is Abu Dhabi.

Despite the Gulf’s potential as a subject of fiction, however, Arab novelists have shied away from the region. As the Palestinian writer Jabra I. Jabra has remarked, “The arduous and painful move from nomadic existence to oil” remained unchronicled until Abdelrahman Munif published the novels under review, the first two parts of a trilogy, in Arabic in the mid-1980s. His previous work, still mostly untranslated, consists largely of fiction about other parts of the Middle East: one of his most acclaimed novels attacks political repression in a fictional state that closely resembles Iraq.

Abdelrahman Munif was born in Jordan in 1933. His father was Saudi and his mother Iraqi, but he himself has been in trouble with the countries of both his parents and was stripped of his Saudi nationality for political reasons. For most of his adult life he could have been described as a politically active, left-wing Baathist working as an oil economist. In the pre-Asad days he advised the Syrian leadership and in the 1970s he was employed by the government in Baghdad where he edited a periodical on oil and development. After quarreling with the Iraqi regime, Munif managed to flee the country and traveled to France before returning to Damascus where he now lives as a full-time novelist. His politics seem to have softened but he remains mistrustful of American policy in the Middle East and was strongly critical of the Gulf War.

Munif names neither real people nor real places in his fiction—no doubt a wise precaution …

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