Abdelrahman Munif (b. 1933)
      Here we have a 12 page excerpt from a 2500 page quintet of novels, all a fictional ccount of the development and decline of the Arab world in the 20th century. Munif may be described as a pan-Arabic writer, a man who’s lived allover the Middle East and North Africa.
      For our anthology, the choice from the book was made to fit in with their sub-category of “Literature, Technology, and Media,” although for our purposes the excerpt fits more appropriately in the section on Arab literature (mostly in the 20th Century). And really, is the story so much about the technology, or about its kind of overwhelming effect on the culture (some of it only in potential)

from Anouar Majid, "The failure of PostColonial Theory after 9/11."
      Muslim encounters with the West, whether in Europe or at home, are fraught with tensions, partly because most Muslims seem to have experienced such encounters as one form or another of colonialism. The Jordanian-born Saudi writer Abdelrahman Munif's novel Cities of Salt, the first volume of an epic quintet published in Arabic in 1984 (also discussed in The Review, April 5, 2002, in an article by Rob Nixon), brilliantly captures the traumatic changes undergone by the Saudis in the last century. The machinery of the oil industry disrupts the serene desert landscape. American ships unloading semi-naked women to entertain their isolated male compatriots awaken in Arab men a disturbing desire, one they can neither resist nor accept. Saudi workers now find themselves segregated by a new class system. As they begin denouncing this new cultural imperialism, the emir is increasingly seduced by Western gadgetry, including the radio and telephone, which strengthens the Arab leaders' connection with remote centers of power.
      Soon, Saudi Arabia turns into a consumer society attracting all sorts of scheming opportunists. A workers' strike leads to government repression and death, but the workers are inspired by a religious leader who preaches that Muslims are duty-bound to resist oppression. Amid increasing social turbulence, the religious leader blames the Americans for being "the source of the illness and the root of the problem."
      Thus Munif's fiction not only chronicles the transformation of the tribal ways of a Bedouin society into a fast-moving, oil-producing, autocratic nation, but it also foreshadows some of what has become known about that desert kingdom since September 11. Saudis remain deeply suspicious of America's designs on their country. And yet, the novel shows that despite the denunciations of America, the kingdom's fate is closely interwoven with that of the United States. Osama bin Laden's family, for instance, would have never made the wealth it has now, nor would the entire country of Saudi Arabia be well off, if oil had not been discovered and exploited by those demonized Americans.
      Cities of Salt reveals that inviting Americans to exploit local oil was a devil's bargain from which the Saudis' deeply conservative temperament has never fully recovered. The country was forcibly incorporated into the global capitalist system through the flow of oil, and the Saudis, like most of us, became what Daniel Yergin termed "hydrocarbon" people living in a hydrocarbon world. No wonder such a violent transition into modernity is, according to the author Sandra Mackey, described by the Bedouins as waqt al-takhrib (the period of destruction). It's almost as if the discovery of oil had cost the Saudis their country, culture, and even their jealously guarded independence.

      From this perspective, it is easier to understand the motives behind Munif’s introduction of the radio into his novel. It is more than a The God’s Mut Be Crazy kind of insertion of the wonders of the modern world to a backwards and awestruck people. It is the harbinger of a desire that will encompass his world of Harran, and which will alter the lives of the protagonists forever.
      The opening has a very savvy Rezaie inspiring in the Emir a notion to see what is beyond these shores, to acknowledge the endlessness and fascination of eh world. Now, although he speaks bravely, this is an emir who prefers dry ground, and the shallows to the high seas. So, as part of the discussion about the fascination of eh world, there is the introduction of the radio, which “will bring the whole world to [the emir] and bring [him] to the farther point of the world.
The fascination of the people with the device seems poised between general fascination and the desire to please the Emir.
      As the emir sees this as a way to mystify and impress his subjects, he thinks not of any of the repercussions, or even of the workings of the devise itself. Some analogues here to our own growing dependency on technology that most of us can’t begin to understand, well, at least until we learned that the internet is like a series of tubes.
      The story becomes interesting in the convocation of the majlis, and the kind of questioning of the activities of the Emir. Bottom of 1105, where the questioning of the new world of corruption is done, and also the cooperation with the Americans. And we see, ultimately, that the radio has already imprinted itself on the town, almost without discriminating (except where the strength of Ibn Naffeh’s prayers drown out the sound of the radio).
And in the talk of the cafe owner, which seems to function as a kind of center of commerce in this world, it may be projected that the desire for this kind of entertainment is going to determine the future of the town.
      One wonders, too, at the stories within the stories. Would not the king get some kind of warning from the lesson of the King of Serandip—that he too will potentially be reduced to dust from the status of eh king. There is another warning of death on the next page (1102).
      On 1107, when the preacher is reading from the Koran, there is a warning that “submission to the world” will result in dissention and fighting.
And what of the story of the sea birds who are trying to determine thepower of the sea to encroach on their land. In the first instance there is a kind of insistence to liste to wise counel (as the tortoise did not). A story which also involves having to migrate because of the way the local place is becoming uninhabitable. There is a message of banding together and fighting the force that is encroaching on their territory, with the help of a superior power, but the listeners are too awestruck by the technology to hear the message that is chosen for them.
      The story begins in Wadi Al-Uyoun somewhere in the desert sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, the reader is transported into an oasis community whose people live much the same way as they did in ancient times, nothing ever changes here, they know very little of the world outside the oasis except the news received from the occasional caravan passing through. One day some Americans arrive, soon many more arrive, then one day all the trees are bulldozed over and the people are moved out and dispersed, and the drilling for oil commences. A few make their way to a place called Harran, and the book follows the development of Harran from an out of the way caravan stop on the coast to a modern oil exporting sea port. Rather than having a main character, the novel is really about the land itself and tells the story of many individuals.

(from an Amazon review of the novel)
      So few great books from the Mid-East translated into English, this is in the same class as Mahfouz's "Cairo Trilogy", but this one's better for those interested in the roots of modern problems between the Arab world and the west. The scene where the people watch the Americans come out in shorts to sunbathe, the chapter with the ship of women arriving , also the emir's obsession with one new toy after another, the telescope, the car and the radio - all is told in a way both hilarious and unforgettable, though a tragic kind of comedy.
      I can see why this book has been banned in Arab countries. Cities of Salt details the transition of an unnamed Arab emirate from how it had apparently been functioning to a current, oil producing state. The story, taken as a whole is heartbreaking. The story begins before oil is discovered, and tells a tale of a generous, yet human, people. Their Emir, unbeknownst to them, allows some Americans into the country to test for oil and eventually, drilling takes place. On the way, people are driven out of their homes, villages are leveled, lives irrevocably, irretrievably changed. The old way of life is gone, and with it, the general pleasantness and generosity that had once been prevalent. The story is of mainly of a place, the characters only secondary, for their is no true protagonist, save the land. Characters play the lead for a time, but soon something happens, someone leaves, someone arrives and things change again. Cities of Salt is a moving and bittersweet story told in a matter-of-fact manner, a story which mourns the passing of a way of life, without being mournful itself.