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
(from an Amazon review of
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