Friday, 16 September 2016

Cities of Salt. By Abdelrahman Munif

Cities of Salt

Abdelrehman Munif
Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux 

Vintage International. First published in Arabic in 1984.

This is a brilliant epic narration of the effect of the discovery of oil in the sands of Arabia on the pre-modern tribes that lived there. The story begins in a Wadi, an oasis, where exists a bucolic and pastoral lifestyle in harmony with the changing seasons, the availability of water and the regular arrival and departure of transiting caravans. The village social hierarchies are rigidly set, as they have been for centuries, comfortable, even if inequitable. The first faint inclination that everything is about to change comes from reports of foreigners, Americans, going from place to place in the desert, making mysterious measurements. A small bunch of these men also lands up in the Wadi, but soon departs. Their departure does not entirely soothe the dark fears that some of the elders have of what is portended. Their representations to the Emir, the local representative of the sultan, are met with only soothing platitudes. Soon the Americans return, and start setting up the oil extraction facilities. In the process they destroy the social system and the ecology of the place, displace hundreds of Bedouin tribesman from their ancestral lands, and annihilate a whole way of life. They find use for the skills of some of the tribesmen, who now become their servants and recruiting agents, inducting many of their fellow-tribesmen into unskilled, poorly paid labour on what was formerly their own land. A new hierarchy arises, and those who were once at the top are now with the rest at the bottom. Some rebel, and vanish into the desert to live nomadic slightly unlawful lives. Others migrate to the nearest towns and cities as refugees of an onrushing modernity. New forms of marginal employment arise. A port city is newly built, to serve as an oil trans-shipment facility. This necessitates the construction of plush quarters for the American, complete with air conditioned club houses and swimming pools. And not far away, but on a distant point in space-time, workers quarters are built - hot, airless sheds with tin roofs and cramped beds. A town grows up to serve the port, and some Western-educated Arabs start medical, legal and other professional services, leading to another point of contention and friction between the old and the new. The Emir, meanwhile, totally neglects his responsibilities to his people. He is well and thoroughly bribed, not just with money and services, but also with modern gadgets - a radio, a telescope, a camera. The story concludes at about this point, when one by one, the hold-outs of the old civilization pass away, and their way of life ends with them.

The book tells a tale that is full of echoes from around the world and from all times, that of a new civilization, a new way of life, not necessarily a better one, replacing the old. The story fits what is happening even now, for example in the hills and forests of Orissa or in Kudankulam. An ironic version of a part of the story is seen in the present day happenings in the Arabian Gulf countries - the Arabs are the new Americans, and Indians, Pakistanis and other South Asians are cast in the role of the exploited Bedouins. 

The writing is observant and fluid, as is the translation. There is some humour, especially in the confrontations of the Emir with modernity. The emotions are generally underplayed, and the rage and the depression that probably agitated the writer are not displayed. Though the narration is quite powerful for all that, it is difficult to understand why this book, and others by this writer, are banned (as noted in the blurb) in various Arabian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.    

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