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Abdelrahman Munif

Abdelrahman Munif received a law degree from the Sorbonne and a PhD in oil economics from the University of Belgrade's Faculty of Economics and authored a total of fifteen novels, many of which have been translated into English.

Blurbs

"The only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans, and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country.”

– The Publisher

"Alternatively amused and bewildered by the Americans and their technological novelties, the Arabs sense in their accommodation to modernity the betrayal of their own traditions. Highly recommended.”

– Library Journal

"Despite the Lawrence of Arabia setting, Munif writes from a unique vantage point; English-language readers have been given few opportunities before now to look at this situation through native eyes.”

– Publishers Weekly

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Featured Book

Cities of Salt

Bedouin Salt

12/04/13

Books with more than six-hundred pages have always scared me worse than monsters under my bed. Gnashing teeth and claws always seemed less dangerous. On one hand, long books have room for development of feelings, of movement, they can approach the velocity of epiphany and return — but they also have room for digression, for boredom, for too much inclusion of too little important stuff.  I dread the long novel for these reasons.

Yet there comes a time when walking through a secondhand bookstore when fate lunges forward and a book literally lands on your head. Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt struck me.  Its book cover was dark colored, its main design looked like more of a smudge rather than a thought out or stylized drawing, and it exceeded six-hundred pages — but I ended up buying it anyway.

It began as some kind of folk tale of Bedouin in the desert of Saudi Arabia, yet somewhere in the shifting of characters emerging and disappearing, mirage like, Cities of Salt lays down an entire history of a people and a region coming into contact with Western Modernization. How is it that for so many pages I remain held in rapture?

For a novel imbued with modernity coming to a region, particularly with oil politics, it doesn’t let on about it.  Rather, the narrator behind the storytelling is never revealed, it haunts the reader’s mind to think of where this real feeling and overwhelming voice fits into the tale.  It lulls the reader into the world of those thousand or so Arabian night tales — the politics being present, but happening as part of a larger telling.

Salt is an old seasoning, one we turn to for its power to amplify sweetness or contrast sourness. It has been integral to the way of food preservation, and is needed by the human body for adequate fluid regulation.

But sowing salt into the earth kills it. The edenic scene rich with water and life where this story begins is not the same prosperous industrialized city with which it ends.

In terms of novels and storytelling about oil and oil culture, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie There Will Be Blood comes to mind, as well as its inspiration Upton Sinclair’s Oil!. These oil epochs shed light on the happenings in the United States in driven narrative form, yet Cities of Salt take the perspectives of a mass of people as threads of different lives woven together in loose knit fashion give the shape of what has passed.

It is not a single kind of protagonist which drives this story — actually, on close inspection Cities of Salt may not have a protagonist at all — as this unwinding and unspooling detail of change by modernity’s implementation and construction in the Arabian Peninsula falls into place.  This story is very much invested in the politics and culture surrounding the advent of oil, and the coming of foreigners to collect it.

The people begin to believe that the depths of the earth are better than its face, when oil is worth more than life giving water. The people give up their old selves in the coming age.  Beginning in the desert oasis of Wadi al-Uyoun, the family of Miteb al-Hathal cracks the porcelain perfection of gold and oil, and scatters the remains as Miteb rides away into legend and myth.

The Wadi is destroyed and disappears forever.

It is not a single kind of antagonist which drives this story, because the unbraiding plot powerfully captures the spirit of the people—their flaws and evils being integral parts of who they are.  Modernity is not the enemy here, it is rather a vehicle of change.

Days pass slowly, the heat grows, and the people caravan to Harran, the new industrialized city for work and for trade.  But it isn’t the same as the same as the Wadi, and the people know it.  There are two parts to Harran, American Harran and Arab Harran, each constructed with its own problems.  The story takes flight there and catalogues the series of misfires and abuses on both sides of Harran, until the sandstorm rises, and the tempest arrives.

Conflict rises and falls, people rise and fall—no clear rising action gives way to climax — yet, there is a feeling of inevitability in the tempest. All that remains is the sand of the desert and the crystalline structures of cities, fashioned of salt.

Abdelrahman Munif was of Saudi Arabian heritage, and spent the majority of his professional career within the but his Saudi citizenship was revoked for political reasons — brought to a front in his writing as it critiques the way in which modernity came to the region.  Hypnotically, I became the little kid listening to this story unfold from the narrator’s lips, waiting to see how it ended.  What is certain is that the changing world of globalization and multicultural exchange confirms that the vistas of a thousand Arabian nights had to meet modernity at some point, but Munif’s novel carefully analyzes how they may have met under different circumstances with different ends.

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