في روايته الملحميّة “مدن الملح” الصادرة في خمسة أجزاء بين عامَيّ 1984 و1989 يستعين الرّوائيّ العربيّ عبد الرّحمن منيف بالصّحراء لمواجهة النّزعة الاختزاليّة للاستشراق وخطابهِ القائم على إسقاط الفكر الأوروبيّ الغربيّ على المجتمعات غير الغربيّة ومنها العربيّة الإسلاميّة في عصر الاستعمار الأوروبيّ الحديث. إلّا أنَّ الخطاب الاستشراقيَّ المميِّز لمجمل الفكر الغربيّ الحديث لم ينتهِ بانتهاء الهيمنة الأوروبيّة الاستعماريّة المباشرة على العالم العربيّ في العقود الّتي تلت الحرب العالميّة الثّانية، فبقيَ مؤثّراً في أفكار التّحديث والتّنمية الأمريكيّة لمرحلة ما بعد الحرب، ومن ذلك ما يتّصل بمشاريع التّنمية والبناء في العالم العربيّ. ويُعدّ الوجود الفاعل لقوى التّحديث والتّنمية في المملكة العربيّة السّعوديّة مثالاً صارخاً على الخطاب الاستشراقيّ، وهو الخطاب الّذي كرّس عبد الرّحمن منيف رواية “مدن الملح” له.
Rewriting the Desert of Arabia to Counter Orientalist Reductionism
In his epic-narrative Cities of Salt, a quintet in 2500 pages (published 1984-89), Arab novelist Abdurrahman Munif invokes the desert of Arabia to counter orientalist reductionism. Orientalist discourse is projectionist by nature and thrives on othering non-westerners to create epistemological dichotomies and polarities. As a field of learned study, whose academic roots can be traced back to late 18th century Europe, Orientalism reveals considerable geographical ambition that was soon put to work for the benefit of colonial powers. The quick demise of European colonial hegemony after World War II, however, did not put an end to the Orientalist discourse characteristic of much western thought and sensibility then. Instead, it continued to inform modernization and developmentalist thought of post-World War II America, especially the United States development projects in the Arab world. The powerful presence of the American modernizing forces in Saudi Arabia is one such stark example of orientalist influence; to that Cities of Salt is devoted.
Abdurrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt is a text that interrogates the desert, not simply to bring back to mind a magnificent age of spirituality threatened and undermined by the sudden arrival of modernizing forces in Arabia, but also, and more importantly, to counter an orientalist discourse that marginalized the Orient and made it a target of modernity.
Cities of Salt is a narrative text that resists genre categorization. Epic in scale, the quintet may be seen as an attempt to depict a history of a people (rather than a state) at a crucial moment in the people’s life— the transformation of a region after the discovery of oil in Arabia in the first half of the 20th century. Conversely, histories of states often marginalize the masses to the advantage of individual figures who allegedly shape the destiny of the state. Both histories, however, share an interest in the formation of nations and raise identity questions. As a people’s history, Cities of Salt has no central character from beginning to end. Instead, characters come and go, appear and disappear, according to their significance in a general scheme of things. Therefore, characters can motivate action and determine the course of events at a given moment irrespective of their personal qualities: noble-mindedness or baseness, benevolence or evil, courage or cowardice. When they draw attention, it is because of the extent to which they manage to be effective in the narrative, but also because of their relationships with other characters and other elements in the text, especially time and place. In this sense, the one thing in common among the numerous characters in Cities of Salt is their destiny: they all proceed towards an unknown future. Hence the title, al-Teeh (or the wilderness) of the first part of the quintet.
The Novelist and His Work
In Cities of Salt, as in many of his fictional works, Abdurrahman Munif consciously undertakes to “fashion a novel that is uniquely ‘Arab’ in its view of history as well as in its narrative style” (Meyer 72). To achieve this twofold teleology, Munif takes his time in Cities of Salt to “refamiliarize” his readers with a view of history that asserts the “fictiveness” of the novelistic text and, subsequently, of history (77-78). He subordinates individual characters, both native Bedouin and foreign Americans, to history, by indirectly introducing them and later dispensing of them, while allowing the narrative to unfold and move smoothly from one point to the next. He thus “parodies realism’s exaggerated dependence on character development,” giving vent to “his historiographic preoccupations” (82-3). Such a writerly choice enables Munif to remove human characters from traditional spheres of heroism, in order to give the desert, as a place, a chance to take part in the encounter with the forces of modernization. In this sense, Cities of Salt becomes a text for the desert, drawing its vigor precisely from the forces of nature with which the modernizers are toying.
Although Munif’s engagement with the place happens a long time after its transformation, his narrative captures the moments when the place is undergoing the transformation and its inhabitants are departing, either physically or metaphorically. As petroleum is extracted from the land, modernity encroaches uninvited, causing an “enormous leap from traditional desert life, with its Bedouin ethos and cosmic sense of time, to the frenzies of consumerism and conflicts of class and wealth in ultra-modern cities” (Hafez 165). Consequently, “A pastoral world [is] swept away,” and we witness “the crushing of the life of the desert, with its freedom, independence, and dignity, under the wheels of a repellent juggernaut” (165).
In the opening volume of Cities of Salt, entitled al-Teeh (The Wilderness), the local inhabitants, who live in a pre-national time and enjoy unity with their surroundings, are perplexed when a small group of Americans suddenly appears and starts digging up the ground, buying up land, and building a whole new town. Those foreigners have come with a strong recommendation from the local Saudi emir (or prince) to a pragmatic and opportunistic dignitary. They are on a mysterious mission, which they never explain to the local people. The almost mythical figure, Mit‘ib al-Hadhaal, instinctively suspects them and warns that these developments bode ill for the community of Wadi al-‘Uyoun (the Valley of Fountainheads) and for the natural rhythms of desert life. When the American yellow tractors tear up the desert trees and destroy the oasis, Mit‘ib al-Hadhaal, a simple man with a prophetic soul, vanishes on his camel into the desert, leaving behind a wife and teenage kids, and enters legend as a mythic figure in collective consciousness. His disappearance and the intermittent reported sightings of him by the community become symbolic of the disappearance of an old way of life. The scene, then, moves to the coastal town of Harraan (a fictional representation of the oil-rich city of Dhahraan), where the Americans need to build a port and a pipeline to the wells they have drilled. The uprooted Bedouin are tricked into becoming exploited construction workers, as the Saudi emir presides over the growth of a company town and a class society enforced by police thugs. News of these great changes travels far and wide and invites investors from all walks of life. Among those who arrive to exploit the situation is the Syrian doctor, Soubhi al-Mahmalji, who provides medical care and opens a hospital, and soon marries off his own daughter to the Saudi emir. When a selfless local healer, Mufdhi al-Jad‘aan, is murdered by the police force, a strike breaks out, the police open fire but cannot quell the workers, and the Saudi emir departs. The events of the first volume, al-Teeh, cover the time span of about 20 years and are narrated in the style of an oral storyteller, recounting the fate of a culture destroyed by enforced modernisation.
The Subject, Modernization, and Arabia
Writing on his writing in al-Kaatib wal-Manfa (or The Writer and Exile,) Abdurrahman Munif explains the absence of heroes and central characters from his narrative, once and for all, as a necessary strategy of storytelling:
The singular hero of a novel, who has occupied the entire arena for a long time, marginalizing other characters into mere decoration, is illusory; and it is about time he stepped down from his pedestal, and occupied nothing more than his due status in place and time. (76)
Munif’s denunciation is interesting. In its assumption of the contingency of the central character’s position in narratives of the modern world, the quotation points to a significant writerly issue: the social constitution of the subject. According to Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge, the subject position is by itself “an empty function, that can be filled by virtually any individual when he formulates the statement” (93). It does not predate the events that make it possible in utterances, but “is established in a demonstrative time whose earlier stages are never lost, and which do not need therefore to be begun again and repeated identically to be made present once more” (93) A number of “effective operations” that have already been performed by different individuals, “but which rightfully belong to the enunciating subject,” define the subject and conceptualize his position in verbal utterance, “not…as an individual who has really carried out certain operations…who has interiorized…a whole group of propositions, and who retains…their potential reappearance” (94). Rather, the enunciating subject plays a double role. On the one hand, it “is linked to the existence of an operation that is both determined and present”; on the other hand, it “links, by means of this operation and the statement in which it is embodied, his future statements and operations” (94-5).
In other words, the subject can be collective and infinite. It defies fixity and is potentially capable of assuming a variety of doers and altering with each subsequent sentence. Foucault has earlier asserted in “What Is an Author?” that, given the alterity of the subject position, “the subject should not be entirely abandoned. It should be reconsidered, not to restore the theme of an originating subject, but to seize its functions, its intervention in discourse, and its system of dependencies” (137). The subject position is, therefore, a mere syntactical space in a sentence to be filled by different actual selves temporarily. Subject positions predate individual selves but it is power that enables their occurrence. An individual occupies a subject position only through a process in which s/he is subjected to power.
In light of the preceding discussion, absence of singular heroes from a literary narrative can be explained in terms of the characters’ relations to a constituting power at a given moment in time. In premodern societies powerful institutions were limited in number and influence. An individual’s behavior was often molded by norms and values long established and agreed upon by members of the community. An individual was not subordinated to institutions but subjected to a certain hierarchy of power into which s/he was born and which s/he left as inheritance to posterity.
Munif dismisses singular heroism as incompatible with the reality of human life, especially in an age in which men stand helpless in the face of encroaching machinery. Change is happening so fast that men’s long-preserved sensibilities cannot cope with the demands of modern life. Since modernity was initially the product of urbanity, its procession outside its milieu is contingent. When applied to a context as historically and geographically different from that of Western Europe as the desert of Arabia, modernity becomes threatening precisely in its claim to progress and development. Particularly so, since its arrival in Arabia was closely and teleologically associated with the search for, and discovery of, petroleum. This happened while Arabia was being traversed almost exclusively by camels, a time when many men who left home often failed to return.
The notion of progress is worth attention in this context. As a key theme of modernization theory, progress is epistemologically dependent upon the tradition vs. modernity dichotomy. Allegedly, modernity can only reveal itself in progress that is made possible via inventiveness and the urban domination of the country. This is the story of the victory of modernity in America, a victory that was possible after conquering the West through the agency of the machine, itself an expression of human accomplishment. The western success story thus stressed the need to control nature in order to have viable modernity. Originally “developed in European social science to explain the process of transformation from traditional to modern societies,” modernization theory later gave way to the assumption “that the transition to modernity, the condition of being modern, would recapitulate the European experience,” with the aim of having “former colonies…end up looking much like” their European colonizers (Opello and Rosow 201-2). However, this universalistic approach does not consider specific characteristics of societies and nations; consequently, it renders the modernizing process contingent. In many cases the European model ended up justifying “the power, violence, exploitation, and racism through which Europeans imposed the state in non-European areas,” transforming “non-European ways of life…so that they reinforce the global order” (202).
It is, therefore, not a stretch to say that as a “normative theory of human transformation and agency,” modernization (and its 20th century developmentalist thought) can be traced back to “imperial reason: in those Enlightenment doctrines of progress, evolution, and change that were historically articulated with the practice of European colonialism and colonial capitalism” (Saldaña-Portillo 7). However, rather than maintaining the discourse of “civilizing mission” of the age of colonialism, American developmentalist thought highlighted “the imperatives of self-determination, independence, free trade, industrialization, and economic growth in a postcolonial era” (19-20). The problem with the American developmentalist thought of modernization is that it “render[ed] as ‘natural’ normative concepts of growth, progress, and modernity” and insisted on a unilateral “theory of human agency and model of subjectivity” (5-6). It postulated a set of modalities and marketed them as working modes of progress. Not only did it “subscribe to the idea that societies moved through stages of development,” but also envisioned such movement as being “contingent on the development of the members of these societies into free, mature, fully conscious, and self-determining individual subjects” (6). As a result, developmentalist vision ended up “depend[ing] on colonial legacies of race and gender in their theoretical elaborations of subjectivity, agency, consciousness, and change” (7). Although it promised to raise the standard of life and provide prosperity for all, “rooted in its action as a vehicle for facilitating decolonization,” American developmentalism actually redeployed the “logics and structures” of European colonialism (21).
The success of the European model of modernity in modernizing the United States led some American modernization theorists to believe in the viability of their own example and its applicability to non-Americans. The American model advocated hybridization and universality, following the European model, and assumed that, since modernization is largely a social process, forging new forms of state building—industrialized, urbanized, and bureaucratized—is necessary for the continuation of the process of modernization. Mechanization of non-Americans came to be considered constitutive of an index of modernization. A stark example of the American modernization theory as a discipline of knowledge about states can be seen in W.W. Rostow’s treatise on the five stages of economic growth. In it, Rostow stipulates that “it is possible to identify all societies…as lying within one of five categories” (4). His categories are the traditional society, the preconditions for take-off, the take-off, the drive to maturity, and the age of high mass-consumption (4). Rostow’s conceptual frame of thought suggests that growth, and so progress, has an inevitable, inherent, and standard nature and is, therefore, more or less applicable to every state. Consequently, states that fail to modernize independently of the (originally European) US model, become eventually in need of American intervention to help regulate their economies. Equally significant here is the implication that American modernization theory, in the way it sanctions intervention by the more advanced and more developed USA, will ultimately support coercive modernizing forces inside the states themselves, thus giving vent to all sorts of violence.
The Saudi dynasty, modernizers of Arabia, where events in al-Teeh take place, is a case in point. In 1902, Abdulaziz (or Ibn Saud, as he is known in the West) captured the city of Riyadh and, with the help he continually received from Britain and the Allies after World war I, managed to defeat the Sharif Hussein of Mecca, a victory Ibn Saud needed to claim power over Arabia. Thus, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded, the only state in the Arab world named after a person. By 1930 Ibn Saud conquered the last few strongholds in the desert of Arabia and began the process of modernizing his state. In 1933, Ibn Saud granted the first oil concession to what later became Aramco. As Sabry Hafez explains, modernity arrived in a perverted form, one based on ecological violence and displacement. It encouraged “devastation of customary ways of living…, consumerism and conflicts of class and wealth in ultra-modern cities” (165). It grew and spread “inseparable from the proliferation of tyranny” and throve on “corruption, greed and human weakness.” Soon after establishing the Kingdom, modernizing the state went hand in hand with monopolizing power. To this end, the Saudi dynasty encouraged forms of coercion such as “religious dogma and the enlisting of foreign support” (165).
I have earlier stressed the contingency of modernity when applied to a context as historically and geographically different from that of Western Europe as the desert of Arabia. Perhaps it is useful to briefly draw a picture of the desert of Arabia and its inhabitants in the first half of the 20th century, that is, when petrol was being discovered and the Bedouins’ life was transformed beyond repair. Wilfred Thesiger, who traversed the Empty Quarter of Arabia for five years after World War II, notices that “only Bedu can live in the desert that cover all but a small part of Arabia.… Except for some serfs and the rabble in a few of the larger towns, all these Arabs are tribesmen” (91). Since the Bedu were isolated from the outside world by the desert and the sea, Thesiger explains, “there is no record of any migration into the Arabian Peninsula” (91). At a moment of engaged meditation, Thesiger reflects that
nowhere in the world was there such continuity as in the Arabian desert…. Successive civilizations rose and fell around the desert’s edge…. They lasted a few hundred or a thousand years and vanished; new races were evolved and later disappeared; religions rose and fell; men changed, adapting themselves to a changing world; but in the desert the nomad tribes lived on, the pattern of their lives but little changed over this enormous span of time.
Then, in forty years, less than a man’s lifetime, all was changed; their life disintegrated. Previously the great Bedu tribes of the Najd and the Syrian desert had dominated central and northern Arabia. All traffic between the oases, villages and towns, the pilgrim caravans, everyone in fact who moved about Arabia, had to pass through the desert, and the Bedu controlled the desert. (92)
After the First World War, the Bedu increasingly lost their control, thanks to the arrival of the automobile and the wireless, which turned the desert into an open plain for the newly emerging Saudi (dynasty) government to command (Thesiger 93). Central authority was gradually enforced, replacing tribal laws and wrenching loyalties away from kinship ethos. While tribal law was based on consent, the new state of Saudi Arabia ruled via institutionalized state instruments, such as the police, security intelligence, and the army. Not only was “the structure of tribal life…breaking down,” especially in northern and central Arabia, “as a result of…administrative interference from outside,” but “the economy of Bedu life was also collapsing” (94). Introduction of mechanical transportation soon undermined the most important vehicle of the Bedu mobility, the camel, which they bred and sold to Arab rulers and rich merchants, in addition to using it for their own transportation and trade. The camel caravan tradition rapidly declined and camel breeding was marginalized in significance and scope alike. With the loss of their characteristic means of mobility, the Bedu stood defenseless in the face of soaring means of livelihood, caused by the discovery of oil. While their herds traditionally provided them with food and drink, and their caravan trades with other requirements from towns and villages outside the desert, “no one any longer required the things which they produced” (95).
The Desert (Ethos) and the Encounter with Orientalist Reductionism
I have earlier said that Cities of Salt has no central character from beginning to end. Instead, characters come and go, appear and disappear, according to their significance in a general scheme of things. Munif’s explanation of the absence of central character from the narrative, quoted above, is intelligible and, indeed, plausible insofar as it accounts for man’s predicament in modern times. However, it does not adequately explain other absences from Cities of Salt, such as the absence of educated, learned, and intellectually cultivated minds, as well as the absence of dissenters. In both cases, the educated and the alienated are key figures in the modern novel, defying conformity and typology. It is true that characters such as Mit‘ib al-Hadhaal and Mufdhi al-Jad‘aan appear to be eccentric in some ways: the first in his reiterated warnings of the demonic quality of the modernizing forces, the American oil companies; the second in his rejection of money in return for medical treatment he provides but acceptance of gifts such as rabbits and ibexes. However, none of these characters breaks away from social conventions even in their difference. Mit‘ib’s angry departure from Wadi al-‘Uyoun (and so from the entire narrative) is not the first departure of a tribesman from the valley; Mufdhi’s preference for animals over money is in harmony with a long-established practice in desert life. Their quasi-eccentric social behavior, therefore, does not set them apart from the canvas of desert life in Arabia. Their survival in the collective memory of their fellow Bedu, long after their ambiguous disappearance, is the result of certain qualities that they possess: Mit‘ib’s prophetic soul, Mufdhi’s disdain of the material. Both these qualities subscribe to desert-world ethos, the characteristic moral value system typical of Arabia for thousands of years. And it is this ethos that Cities of Salt celebrates.
It is my contention that absence of heroes and central characters from the narrative is the result of the persistence of that ethos in the text. As I said at the outset of this paper, I believe that Munif’s text, wittingly or unwittingly, interrogates the desert, not simply to recreate and bring back to mind a magnificent age of spirituality threatened and undermined by the sudden arrival of modernizing forces in Arabia, but also, and more importantly, to counter an orientalist discourse that marginalized the Orient and consequently made it a target of modernity.
As a field of learned study, whose academic roots can be traced back to late 18th century Europe, Orientalism reveals considerable geographical ambition that was soon put to work for the benefit of colonial powers. As Edward Said explains, “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” (2). Western European travels to the East resulted in the emergence of a body of imaginative literature about the Orient, which soon led to institutionalizing discussions and analyses of the people, geography, cultures, languages, and ethnicities of the Orient (2-3). The body of knowledge thus created, partly informed by scanty but diverse writings dating back from prehistoric Greece, interchanged in the early 19th century with academic meanings of Orientalism. The term became “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (3). Systematically growing as a body of theory and practice, Orientalism became a venue for “considerable material investment,” whose continuation “made Orientalism, as a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness” (6). Acquiring a hegemonic nature, Orientalism utilized already existing European ideas about non-European backwardness and developed a “flexible positional superiority, which put the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the upper hand” (7). Soon people of the Orient were reduced to a handful of notions, categories, and stereotypes.
In his encounter with the reductionist discourse of Orientalism, Abdurrahman Munif does not hesitate to allow for the existence of a handful of native characters whose conduct satisfies the cultural assumptions that Orientalists made about Arabs. But he does that for a purpose: to expose Orientalist episteme and debunk its agency and subjectivities. While “the Orient is,” for the American explorer, “the other side of the looking glass, and its cultures are the antitheses of his own,” (Semmerling 33), the scientific knowledge with which the American modernizer is equipped—whose fruits are equally promised to the modernized—is here deflated and made an agent of dubious morality and pragmatic righteousness. The character Emir Khalid is a case in point. The telescope he receives as a gift from the Persian entrepreneur, Hassan Ridhaa’i, is used not to explore the new horizons of burgeoning construction, but to experience the pleasures and pains of carnal deprivation. As soon as an American ship arrives carrying dozens of white females and lays anchor at the harbor, the Emir uses his telescope to eye the scene of blatant promiscuity on board the ship. Here, Munif returns the colonialist gaze of the modernizer and, with it, the latter’s claim to civilization. The mythical sex appeal of the male Westerner is here transposed, as the procured American prostitutes descend to satisfy sex-starved explorers on a foreign land. A typical Orientalist approach to the subject would assert the “virile stature” of the western traveler, who “uses his phallic powers as he travels to an awaiting, virginal locale,” “penetrates into the feminized body of the Oriental land,” and “opens it up to discovery” (Semmerling 34). Instead, Munif relegates the modernizer’s virility to the realm of bestial oblivion, possible only on the periphery of desert land.
Further, Munif makes the American modernizer’s need for the mediation services of Ridhaa’i necessary for the infiltration of Arabia, thus making it possible to question the adequacy of Orientalist superiority for western modernization theory. When Ridha’i later presents Emir Khalid with a radio and teaches him how to use it, the Emir behaves in a childlike manner, feeling important as he shows the radio off to his guests, the people of Harran, and turns it on for them to hear different kinds of programs, which are coming from the bottom of the wondrous box (Chapters 63-4). Within the context of modernity, the character of Ridha’i may stand for the intelligent, resourceful, and manipulative mediator that modernizing Westerners needed to infiltrate Arabia. He has a strong sense of, and love for, travel and exploration and manages to win the Emir through the wondrous experience of the telescope and radio, which, as he explains to the Emir, will put the world at the latter’s footstep.
The Presence and Absence of Characters
It may not be an exaggeration to say that Cities of Salt follows a constant pattern of presence and absence of (human) characters, and that the pattern serves a specific teleology: to undermine the human agency of Orientalist discourse and, consequently, renders the othering of non-westerners mythical. Conventionally, as narrative agents in Orientalist texts, (central) characters have the potential to distort the narrative, as they carry a baggage of sensibilities and norms that subscribe to Westerners’ views and misconceptions of themselves and others. Munif’s is a text that celebrates desert ethos. Unadorned, his style gives little attention to literary devices, in order to keep the “sequentiality” of narration intact. Rather than adhering to “narrative techniques that impose a ‘problem-solution’…or a ‘heroic personality’” framework on the novel, he takes a stand that is faithful to “the storytelling discourse” (Meyer 76-77) and its roots in oral traditions of Arabia. Therefore, the desert, rather than human beings, is granted agency. To achieve this teleology, Munif maintains the western view of the desert as symbol of the Arabs, at the same time that he defies the polarity of the symbol. He does this by “juxtaposing” the desert land, where the Arab Bedouin historically lived, with the sea, which is the means the American oil companies use to travel to Arabia. Constantly, “The desert symbolizes the native consciousness of the Arabs, while the sea represents the foreign consciousness of the Americans” (81).
Further, Munif employs “objective narration” combined with “an empathic voice that represents the shifting consciousness of the community,” revealing the Bedouin as having “no inkling of the technology that the Americans bring with them” (Meyer 78). The presence of Americans everywhere in the desert oasis absentiates the Bedouin natives, only to create a collective view of the Americans that “confers on the foreigners an aura of mystery similar to that which orientalism conferred on the Arab world” (79). The American oil company’s utilization of scientific methods to probe the desert land appears to be “fetishistic” and invested in the agency of the machine (79). In order for Munif to make Cities of Salt a text for the desert that draws its vigor precisely from the forces of nature with which the modernizers are toying, he depicts the desert in two ways: the desert as an infinite source of material wealth available for everyone, especially for entrepreneurs; the desert looming large in the narrative as a space for spiritual wealth beyond measure. By so doing, Munif resists the temptation to write a narrative of resistance to development, at the same time that he rejects the hegemonic modernity of American intervention. His text, as Stefan Meyer explains, is a “counternarrative” that privileges a sense of community over individuality, recounting the story of destruction of Arabia from the viewpoint of the Arabs themselves. Consequently, Munif’s characters reveal a degree of “ambivalence” that is the result of “a tension between the truth that is expressed and the primitive terms in which it is articulated [i.e. by the Bedouin]” (82).
An interesting example of this tension in al-Teeh is the long interview scene (Chapter 47). In it, a simple man applying for a laborer’s job at the American compound in Harran, in a group of twenty men selected for an interview at the Central Administration, is scrutinized and questioned in detail. The information the American company management demands scares Ibrahim al-Falih off his guard, as the questions penetrate deep into his family history and dig up information he, as a Bedouin, is not used to giving (322-327). He feels besieged and threatened when his interrogators ask him about names and numbers of female members of his family. To his concern and surprise, his interviewer finally asks, “Would you like to go to America for training?” Al-Faleh’s negative answer begets another question, one that shows the modernizing discourse at its most naïve, “Why not?” The desert man’s explanation now comes equally surprising but firmly rooted in a love for one’s native land: “The jackel is a lion in his own country,” a statement that looks forward to later moments of resistance and strike in the novel.
The importance of the desert of Arabia to the narrative in Cities of Salt cannot be overemphasized: the desert is a space whose essence is endangered when modernity is enforced upon the Bedu and their environment. A clear example of the violent transformation to which the desert is subjected appears in Chapter 43, where the new town built in the old Harran is constructed of barracks that, in the day time, feel like tin cans. In the night time, the barracks “became suffocating ovens reeking of heat, sweat and sleep,” contrary to “the atmosphere of the tents,” which was “pleasant and agreeable late at night and at dawn” (293). The pristine beauty of the desert space is soon disrupted by smoke and dust under the metal roofs. These roofs “became their [i.e. the workers’] worst enemy, for they not only radiated heat but shed melted leaden death constantly from the earliest hours of daylight until late at night” (294). The encroachments made on the desert space by such forms of structure as barracks, shops, and houses are irresistible. No matter how far “Arab Harran…retreated…in an attempt to distance itself and flee its fate,” we read in Chapter 59, it “could not resist for long” (395). The city soon became a place for hurriedly assembled structures, hurled asymmetrically over the old plot, and “scattered like boils on an arm or patches on an old broad garment” (395). Ready-built shops became such a vogue amid petty investors, outsiders who have come from all parts of the world, that “they appeared everywhere: in the central market, by the mosque and outside the workers’ camp” (396), growing side by side with houses built of similar materials. These emerged everywhere, without attention to the geography of the city, from the markets out to the hilltops, and from there to the seaside.
As I have said earlier, two different attitudes to Arabia can be seen here: the first depicts the desert as an infinite source of material wealth available for everyone, especially for entrepreneurs; the second sees the desert as a space for spiritual wealth beyond measure. Apparently, Munif is in support of the latter, as he engages with the place in such a way that his descriptions sometimes verge on magical realism. When he describes Wadi al-’Uyoun, for example, he speaks of its pristine beauty as unequaled; his celebration of the place is all the more significant precisely because of its location in the desert: “Wadi al-’Uyoun was a phenomenon, something of a miracle, unbelievable to those who saw it for the first time and unforgettable forever after” (2). In Rawdhat al-Mashta—an imaginary name for a warm region in Arabia to which the Bedu can turn in winter, where Mit‘ib al-Hadhaal mysteriously appears to his son later in the novel, “The weather went mad…. The wadis filled up with torrents of rainwater,” and the people of Rawdhat al-Mashta “were seeing something they had not seen before” (150-151).
Could they ever forget those sparkling, festive hours? Could those sudden, strange, supplicating voices, like hymns rising in a roar from the wadi’s mouth, from the mouths of the waterskins that opened from the sky, ever be effaced? The voices they heard…, this melody like the sound of the wind, were they human voices or heavenly ones emanating from the sky or from the depths of the water? (151)
And when the desert itself as an existence is celebrated, irrespective of its green oases, Munif is at his most spiritual: “In the depth of the desert, where a man finds himself surrounded by endless silence and nature [is] still in its primeval stages, there is no sense of events taking place; the making of a new man was an arduous task that demanded calm and silence” (427).
Orientalist discourse, as Edward Said argues, is projectionist by nature and thrives on othering non-westerners to the advantage of creating epistemological dichotomies and polarities. Historicized, a picture of an Arab, dressed in traditional costume and standing by a camel, misinforms a westerner’s view of Arabs as a nation steeped in the past and so incompatible with modernity. The process of modernizing this other, then, involves removing the target of modernity from dialogue and, instead, using mediators to speak on behalf of the modernizing force. In Cities of Salt, the American oil monopoly hires non-Arabians, namely Syrians and Lebanese, to win the reluctant Bedu. The Emirs and tribal Sheikhs are easier to win, since forthcoming money means added power, whereas rejecting it aligns them with their subjects. As narrative agents in the novel, powerful Bedu can become an added burden and so, for Munif to remove human figures from centrality means the removal of potential distortion of his narrative. His is a narrative that celebrates desert ethos. As such, it is the desert that should be granted agency. In other words, in order to interrogate the desert of Arabia and thus write a text for it, human agency is marginalized and rendered instrumental only to the distortion of Arabia, not to the narrative itself. By so doing, Munif manages to counter the polarity of the orientalist discourse, in spite of its technology-aided forces, and create the right context for debunking it as reductionism. He counters reductionism by stripping orientalist discourse of its human agency and rewriting desert land.
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Thesiger, Wilfred. Arabian Sands. London: Penguin, 2007.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- *Material should not be published in another periodical before at least one year has elapsed since publication in Whispering Dialogue. *أن لا يكون النص قد تم نشره في أي صحيفة أو موقع أليكتروني على الأقل (لمدة سنة) من تاريخ النشر. *All content © 2021 Whispering Dialogue or respective authors and publishers, and may not be used elsewhere without written permission. جميع الحقوق محفوظة للناشر الرسمي لدورية (هَمْس الحِوار) Whispering Dialogue ولا يجوز إعادة النشر في أيّة دورية أخرى دون أخذ الإذن من الناشر مع الشكر الجزيل