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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.1

Munif names neither real people nor real places in his fiction—no doubt a wise precaution for a political novelist in the Arab world—and yet their real identities are often very obvious. Cities of Salt and The Trench are novels about Saudi Arabia (transformed fictitiously into the “Sultanate of Mooran”) in the period from the concession agreement of 1933 between the Saudi government and the company later known as Aramco, up to the deposition of King Sa’ud in 1964. Harran, the scene of much of the first novel, is transparently Dharan; Mooran, the stage of the second, is Riyadh. The three “sultans” portrayed—Khureybit, who “wanted children and clans of descendants from women, as well as blood ties with all the tribes, to strengthen his dynasty and fight the injuries of time,” Khazael, who “wanted women only for themselves, and pleasure only for itself,” and Fanar, the austere and abstemious prince who did not want to live in a palace—are vivid portrayals of the first three Saudi kings, Ibn Sa’ud, Sa’ud, and Feisal.

Munif has described writing a historical novel as “a reshaping of history within a particular intellectual framework…the social and psychological reshaping of an environment with the aim of discovering the deep, internal movement of history.”2 In Saudi Arabia’s case this is a difficult thing to attempt because historical sources, at least for Ibn Sa’ud and the period covered by the first novel, are scarce. But the works are far more than a fictional narrative of the kingdom’s history. Within the distant chronology imposed by real events, Munif explores the tensions in society which the oil age has created and explores them from different and conflicting angles. It is a vast canvas inhabited by hundreds of people and, although the characterization tends to be parsimonious, the cumulative achievement is powerful and impressive.

Cities of Salt opens at Wadi al-Uyoun, a small oasis inhabited by people who have spent thousands of years tending their flocks and waiting for the arrival of caravans from the desert. They are proud and generous, although they have little to give, and their understanding of nature, their immemorial customs, and their part in a great tribal confederation give security to their existence. Life is simple but noble, and there appears to be no ill health and little ill feeling in the community. Sophisticated novelists often write lyrically about primitive places, but it is strange to find an urban Arab intellectual among them. Some of the sentiments could even have come from the band of English travelers like Wilfrid Thesiger, who loved the bedouin and believe that “all that is best in the Arabs came from the desert.”

No foreigners had ever wanted Wadi al-Uyoun just as no foreigners had ever wanted most of the rest of the Arabian peninsula, although occasionally little bits had been occupied to deter rivals. “We don’t want Koweit [sic],” Lord Curzon was informed by the India Office at the turn of the century, “but we don’t want anyone else to have it. This sounds rather bad, when it is baldly stated; but it is the true explanation of a good deal of our diplomacy.” It was not until the 1930s that important economic considerations overtook unimportant strategic ones. In that decade the inhabitants of Wadi al-Uyoun have their lives disrupted by a party of Americans digging holes in the sand. They do not understand why the intruders are there or what they are looking for, but they assume, in that world of scarce elements, that the search is for water. At first the inhabitants find the Americans merely odd, especially when they are sunbathing or doing what the Arabs assume are their morning prayers, “kicking their legs and raising their arms in the air, moving their bodies to the left and right, and then touching their toes until they were panting and drenched in sweat.” But later their surprise turns to anger and then to fear and despair, especially when the Americans, driving terrifying machines, attacked their oasis and their

orchards like ravenous wolves, tearing up the trees and throwing them to the earth one after another, and leveled all the orchards between the brook and the fields. After destroying the first grove of trees, the tractors turned to the next with the same bestial voracity and uprooted them. The trees shook violently and groaned before falling, 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.

Shortly afterward, the sultanate’s police arrive and order the inhabitants to leave Wadi al-Uyoun “by sundown tomorrow.” After the destruction of their homes and livelihood, some are persuaded to work in the port of Harran where, to discourage them from changing their minds, they are forced to sell their camels. More Americans are in Harran, communicating with the natives by whistling, patting the emir on the back, and having their photographs taken standing beside a camel or a donkey. Still more arrive by ship, accompanied by wives and girl-friends, and they hold a noisy, scantily clad party on the beach which shocks the Arabs, gives them erotic dreams, and makes them feel miserable when they wake up. The Emir of Harran (who is a subject of the Sultan of Mooran) loves the gadgets brought by the Americans but he is also intimidated by them. He takes a childlike delight in his radio, his motor car, and his telephone, but he is frightened he will not be able to work the radio, he is terrified of being driven in the car, and he wishes the telephone would say “Allahu akbar” instead of making a Christian-sounding ring.

Harran rapidly undergoes a number of transformations. One of the emir’s bodyguards puts on military uniform, recruits a number of Arabs into what he grandly calls “the Desert Army,” and struts around the bazaar cursing the inhabitants and whacking them with his baton. This is done to impress the Americans, who are busy constructing their own district and erecting barbed-wire fences to keep the Arabs out. The behavior of “the Desert Army” and the foreigners leads to a revolt among the native workers, but the growth of Harran continues unimpeded. By the era of the second novel it has become virtually uninhabitable, full of noise, smoke, and refineries, and the Americans have settled a few miles away in their own perfect, highly sanitized apotheosis of a town back home.

The action of The Trench takes place in Mooran, the desert capital of the sultanate, and much of it concerns the figure of Dr. Subhi Mahmilji, a Levantine physician who has practiced in Lebanon and Syria. Sensing the possibilities of enrichment and political power in the oil age, he moves to Harran and then to Mooran where he manages to acquire great influence over the lazy and sensuous sultan, Khazael. The doctor is in fact a monumental bore who preens himself on his (very limited) knowledge of philosophy and sees himself as the physical and moral builder of his adopted nation.

When he arrives in the capital he is depressed by the contiguous mud houses, the camels roaming the lanes, and the brackish, bitter water; even though oil is now flowing to Harran, Mooran “still waited for rain that never came, for caravans that had lost their way.” However, he is reassured by the reflection that it is after all the capital and must sooner or later become richer than Harran.

The doctor toadies continually to the sultan, naming new streets and buildings after him and arranging for an acolyte to write his biography. He also sets up an intelligence agency, with the help of the Americans, which he assures Khazael is so efficient it “can hear ants crawling in the dark.” After thus protecting his position, he encourages the unsentimental expunction of Mooran’s past and its reconstruction as a glittering capital. Land deals become the place’s main business, the building of palaces its main industry. “No one talks about rain and herds anymore,” the doctor is assured, “all you hear about are the prices of land, property, gold and cars.” The decade covered by The Trench, Sa’ud’s reign between 1953 and 1964, was a particularly corrupt period of Saudi history, the era of Cadillacs and incessant palace building, and Munif makes the most of its excesses. People frantically try to sell their camels and horses to buy cars, and the rich build as many palaces as they can afford; the sultan constructs one for each wife.

The author punctuates his account of this crazy process with the reflections of those who disapprove of it and refuse to participate. Unlike the doctor, they do not regard Mooran as a cluster of mud huts but as an ancient town formed around the mosque, the market place, and the cemetery. Nor, naturally, do they regard themselves as savages living a primitive life in the desert. In a passage that also illustrates the fine quality of Peter Theroux’s translation, Munif writes:

The people there lived humble, even rough lives. Fathers inherited from their forefathers a simple view of life and death; and because they did not expect much of life or fear death during the years they spent on earth, toiling for a crust of bread, and though the crust was hard or remote most of the time, they did find ample time to contemplate their surroundings, and took delight in memorizing poetry, verses from the Koran and old folktales. On the long summer nights they found their spirits departing beyond life and death and their eyes wandering the heavens to locate the stars and planets or trying to read in the wind the signs of dust storms, locusts and catastrophes.

Munif presents us with a number of characters who try to remain loyal to themselves and their traditions: the “wise man” of the market place who can divine a camel’s career just by looking at it, the “wise fool” who used to shoe donkeys and who tells the people truths they don’t want to hear, the herb doctor who dislikes money, the old woman who, in spite of her sons’ new wealth, wants to carry on selling henna and dried apricots as she did in Amman. In Mooran’s new society the decent and the innocent become losers and misfits, and they renounce it by leaving the city or refusing to take part in its development. The old woman goes on a pilgrimage to Medina. Shamran, the “wise man” of the market place, shuts himself up in the coffee house and reflects on the changes. It is not just the physical alterations that disgust him—the cars and roads and endless new buildings—but the effect these have had on the people.

How is it possible,” Munif asks in Cities of Salt, “for people and places to change so entirely that they lose any connection with what they used to be? Can a man adapt to new things and new places without losing a part of himself?” The Trench‘s answer to the second question is a firm no. The people of Mooran have lost their traditions, their manners, their feelings of community, and their behavior and relationships with each other have completely changed. The customs and beliefs that anchored their lives have gone, along with their sense of identity, and they are left floundering.

The author’s satire is strong and angry, yet his target is not so much the people as the society which has been imposed upon them. He is not quite Juvenal or Dean Swift, even though he too sets out “to vex the world rather than divert it.” In Munif’s story the evil is not in the people but in the circumstances produced by the oil age, in the rootlessness and loss of values caused by the great changes. It is in a society corrupted because it has no need to work, because people who used to labor for a meager living can now make fortunes simply by receiving bribes or trading bits of desert. The evil is in a society which can buy anything—goods, services, even loyalty—but produces virtually nothing. Even the people at the top (except for the self-deluding doctor) recognize that everything is rotten, but they don’t care so long as they continue to become richer and more powerful. Their society has lost all cohesion, and only money and repression can keep it together. As the director of the security agency realizes, “most people in Mooran needed money or fear, and…those who were not won over by money could be frightened by the stick, even if the stick was never used.”

In Cities of Salt the author seems to suggest that there was never any possibility of a compromise between the existing Arabian societies and the voracious, American-led movement that destroyed them: it was the Red Indian story all over again, the history of great, unstoppable forces sweeping across a primitive landscape. The style, the vision, and the irrationality here are reminiscent of García Márquez. There are no crosscurrents, no subtle interaction of cultures, no attempts by people on either side to penetrate and understand the other. To the Arabs, the Americans and their machines may have been incomprehensible but they were also overwhelming and thus demanded submission. To the Americans, the Arabs were picturesque savages, worth a photograph on their camels but not worth the effort of trying to understand them.

Yet the view from The Trench is more complicated than that and reflects Munif’s own opinions as an oil economist and political radical. In the second novel the author is not claiming that Mooran should have been left in its timeless and forgotten condition. He is arguing instead that its development has been carried out stupidly and dangerously. As he himself explained several years ago in an interview published in a newspaper of the United Arab Emirates:

The tragedy is not in our having the oil, but in the way we use the wealth it has created and in the future awaiting us after it has run out…. In underdeveloped countries…oil becomes a damnation, a ceiling that screens the future from view. In twenty or thirty years’ time we shall discover that oil has been a real tragedy for the Arabs, and these giant cities built in the desert will find no one to live in them and their hundreds of thousands of inhabitants will have to begin again their quest after the unknown. Oil could have been a road to the future; it could have made possible a natural and continuous progress from nomadic life to civilization…but what actually happens is nothing like that. As a result we shall again have to face a sense of loss and estrangement, this time in complete poverty.3

There could be no clearer expression of the central message of Munif’s fiction. It is a message which is still relevant and which might profitably be studied by both the Gulf Arabs and their backers in the West.

  1. 1

    See, for example, Munif’s article in the Guardian, April 1, 1991.

  2. 2

    al-Watan, September 10, 1985. I am grateful to Dr. Rasheed El-Enany for the translations from the Arabic press and for his perceptive article on Munif in I.R. Netton’s Arabia and the Gulf: From Traditional Society to Modern States (London: Croom Helm, 1986).

  3. 3

    al-Khalij, November 21, 1984.

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