Abdelrahman Munif,
Cities of Salt
(Vintage, 1985;
Peter Theroux, trans., 1987)

Abdelrahman Munif is an Arab writer who deserves a place somewhere between Garcia Marquez and Pramoedya Toer, based on this splendid work of fiction.

This is the story of a quiet desert oasis that becomes the staging area for a massive oil exporting operation in the 1930s. Further, it is the story of the Bedouin who move from a semi-nomadic lifestyle directly into the 20th century with its lifestyle and gadgets.

Or at least, they come to be aware of this lifestyle and gadgetry -- they are never really fully able to participate in it. The new community of Harran has money but most of it remains in the American compound on the other side of a wall.

This story is beautifully told and completely from an Arab point of view. At times it borders on "magic realism" where fantastic things were "said to have happened." It is also a classic critique of colonialism, and of the colonized, with both its rebels and its collaborators coming to life in these pages.

They are not a particularly religious group -- but identify culturally as Muslims. There is serious culture shock as the unlettered desert dwellers come face to face with (often half-naked) North Americans, their technology and attitudes.

Two characters dominate: Miteb al-Hathal is the prophet of doom who correctly prophesizes that the coming of the Americans mean the end of his oasis community; Ibn Rashed is the entrepreneur-collaborator who is a one man personnel agency for the Americans. But in the end he loses favour with the Bedouins.

These characters, introduced at the beginning, come from one oasis community that is flattened near the beginning of the narrative to make room for oil equipment.

Al Hathal watches as the tractors "attacked the orchards like ravenous wolves, tearing up the trees and throwing them to the earth one after the other." (A scene, by the way, which anyone whose family had been displaced to make room for the "modern age" could recognize.) He gives an anguished cry. Then he disappears into the desert.

But the novel focuses not so much on al-Hathal and Ibn Rashed, but on a series of characters in vignettes that proceed towards the book's climax, with others moving from the foreground to the background. Each one of these, misfits and "big-men" is fully introduced, fleshed out and sympathetic; the reader is asked to identify more often with the dispossessed than those who profit from the newcomers.

One is tempted to call this novel "a must read for understanding the problems of today's world" or "how others see Americans." But it's just a novel, and I know the folks running the world right now are far too busy to have any time for reading fiction....

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 10 September 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.