Saturday, 4 September 2010

Saudi Arabia - Cities of Salt

Abdelrahman Munif

As part of my learning about Saudi Arabia, I read the epic Cities of Salt (Al-tin) by Abdelrahman Munif.  Munif was a Saudi citizen who was brought up in Amman, Jordan and, despite being one of the foremost writers in Arabic in the late 20th-century, doesn't seem to be terribly well-known in the West.  He was well-educated, having studied at the Sorbonne, as well as the University of Belgrade and spent many years living in both Iraq and Syria.  Many of his books are banned in Saudi Arabia (no surprise there) and Munif, who died in 2004, criticised modern Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and parodied their ruling classes in his writing.  He was once a member of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath party and was stripped of his Saudi citizenship because of his political beliefs. 

Post-colonial literature

When I was in university in Dublin, I studied courses in post-colonial literature and I could see Cities of Salt fitting into a post-colonial literature course quite easily.  It has been compared to Chinua Acebe's book, Things Fall Apart, which I've also read and there are definitely parallels between the arrival of the British in Nigeria in the late 19th-century and the arrival of the Americans in the Gulf in the 1930's.

Wadi al-Uyoun

The book starts in a wadi called al-Uyoun, which is somewhere in Arabia, before the arrival of the Americans and their mysterious pursuit of water and eventually oil.  The people of the wadi are described as almost child-like in their innocence and there is a strong sense of centuries of unbroken tradition, as the famous orchards and water of the wadi serve as a much-needed respite to caravans crossing the hostile landscape of the Arabian peninsula.  The caravans in their turn bring news of faraway places, much sought-after tools and products that the villagers receive in return for their hospitality.  The arrival of the caravans in Wadi al-Uyoun is a time of a great joy, but also a time of sadness, as it often takes some of the wadi's young men with it, as they leave to see the world and seek their fortunes. 

Miteb al-Hathal

One of the things about this novel that I found most difficult to understand was the constant change in narrative.  I think this might be a particularly Arabic form of story-telling, but the novel moves from one narrator to another, leaving lots of characters at a dead end, no longer to be heard or seen of again. 

The story first unfolds through the eyes of one of the wadi's elders, Miteb al-Hathal and, unlike many of the other narrators in the book, Miteb's spirit pervades the entire novel, so that he is still hovering over the events that happen towards the end of the book.  When the Americans first arrive in the wadi, it's almost as though they've landed in a spaceship, such is the wonder and fear experienced by the villagers.  Unlike his peer Ibn Rashed, who welcomes the arrival of the Americans, Miteb is filled with a sense of dread, as he observes these newcomers and tries to figure out the significance of their sudden appearance in the wadi.  At first, he's seen as an old fool, but eventually, as the Americans come more and more often and their behaviour becomes more and more intrusive, the villagers turn to Miteb for leadership.  But by then it's too late and the famous orchards of the wadi are pulled down around their ears and the villagers are forcibly moved on.

Ibn Rashed

Ibn Rashed is Miteb's rival and, whereas Miteb represents a mindset that is naive, sincere and incorruptible, Rashed sees an opportunity to make his fame and fortune, regardless of the impact it has on his society and its traditions.  He's seen as a traitor by many people, but there's also a sense that he is a pragmatist, realising that there is little he or anyone in the wadi can do to stop the advance of a new era. 

After the destruction of the wadi, Miteb disappears into the desert, to become a haunting ghost-like figure, who only re-appears at moments of extreme tension.  Ibn Rashed, on the other hand, becomes a very real figure, employing the bedouin to work on the construction of a new American city in a (fictional) location on the Persian Gulf, called Harran.  I suspect Harran may be based on Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia, as it fits the period and the pattern of growth of that city. 

There are also some really funny bits in the description of this culture clash, as Ibn Rashed observes the Americans' strange exercises, which they do every morning, stretching out their arms and legs and bending their bodies in a way that seems incredibly strange as a form of prayer ritual!  Their is also the shock that the young bedouin men get, when they reach Harran and see the sea for the first time ever - it's a landscape that they just can't get their heads around, or begin to understand.  Although, Ibn Rashed reigns supreme throughout a large part of the novel, like most middle-men, he eventually becomes irrelevant, as Harran grows and prospers and a more traditional set of Arabian entrepreneurs takes notice and moves in, leaving Ibn Rashed to die a broken and irrelevant man. 

The role of the Emir
Munif makes an important comment about the role of the Emir in all of this.  When the Americans first arrive in Wadi al-Uyoun, it is under the protection of the Emir.  This is challenged by Miteb, but he is told in no uncertain terms that the Emir has taken the side of the Americans and will crush any of his subjects/kinsmen who object.  A new Emir comes into power during the development of Harran and is painted as a much more sympathetic character, albeit one who is completely enthralled by the presence of the Americans.  The new Emir becomes obsessed with the gadgets that the Americans bring him, such as the telescope and the radio.  I see the telescope as an important symbol of the Emir's impotency as he increasingly becomes a remote observer of the changes that are happening in his country.  As the novel progresses, there is an increasing sense of distance between the Emir and his subjects.  In true, autocratic style, the novel is only brought to an end by the Emir's death. 

The relentless march of progress

Towards the end of the novel there are a series of stories about the various different characters who show up in Harran.  The lorry-drivers, who gain our sympathy in their attempts to establish their business of transporting people from the older population centre of Ujra, to the new city of opportunities and wealth, Harran.  Eventually they are put out of business by bigger and faster lorries and even these, within a short period of time, are put out of business by a fleet of brand new passenger buses that ply the Ujra-Harran route. 

Likewise, the traditional healer Muffadi is side-lined, scorned and eventually scape-goated, after the arrival of a (supposedly) Western-qualified doctor, Subhi al-Mahmilji.  Muffadi becomes an incredibly important character towards the end of the novel - his demise coincides with the arrival of the first soldiers in Harran and the unleashing of their harsh regime, torturing and eventually killing Muffadi.  His death finally unites the workers and the inhabitants of Harran, as they go into open revolt against the Americans and the Emir, leaving an inconclusive end of the book. 

Other themes

There are many other themes in the novel, including the poignant story of Umm Khosh, an older woman in Wadi al-Uyoun whose son left with a travelling caravan, as many of the other local boys did, but failed to return, or even send her a message to let her know he was alive.  It's a theme of grief and madness and it was really touching how the villagers rallied around her and tried to shield her from the worst excesses of her insanity. 

There are the over-arching themes or separation and the loss of a traditional way of life.  Miteb's family is left scattered and defenseless, when he disappears into the desert.  We can take this literally, of course, but I think Miteb also symbolises the loss of a traditional way of life.  He becomes a ghost, a shadow that fades in the glaring sun of the desert, but reappears at night to comfort the bedouin and terrify the Emir and the Americans.

There is the theme of sex.  When a ship laden with scantily-clad women arrives in the American part of Harran, it throws the entire community into disarray.  The men become restless and unsettled, unable to concentrate on their work, or look at women in the same way again.  It's an insignificant and (seemingly) innocuous event, as far as the Americans are concerned, but it has a profound affect on the community in Harran and challenges their moral standards in a way that highlights the most negative aspects of cultural interaction. 

The Americans are keen to study bedouin culture and learn Arabic, so they come around with little leather-bound notebooks, asking questions that are incredibly inappropriate and rousing the suspicions of the local people.  This raises an interesting theme of the importance of the written word to Arabian culture.  The Americans' note-taking is seen as a kind of sorcery, even the leather covers are compared to the leather amulets that people wear to ward off evil.  Also, as far as the local people are concerned, there is only one book of importance, which is the Qu'ran - they can't understand why anyone would want to write words which are not somehow related to the Qu'ran and, in a sense, words themselves and the act of writing are given a religious significance that I'm sure the Americans would never have suspected. 

Cities of Salt is a long read and a sometimes difficult one, but it's an incredibly important book that touches on many themes of relevance to readers in the Arab world and deserves greater recognition by readers in the West.

Image credits

The photo of the book cover was taken by me - this is the copy of Cities of Salt that I read.

The beautiful photo of the desert in Saudi Arabia was taken by flickruser OrangeSmell aka Arnaud Desbordes, who is from Poitiers in France.  Thanks Arnaud for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License.
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