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A Book Remembered

Cities of Salt

Wednesday 23 January 2019, by Shireen Zaidi

Cities of Salt, was first published in Beirut in 1984. Translated from Arabic by Peter Theroux. Published by Vintage International, New York.

‘By god, Your Excellency, we were as happy as we could be before those devils came along’, said Miteb. ‘But from the first day they came to our village, life has been camel piss. Every day it gets worse.’

The emir answered him sharply. ‘Listen, Ibn Hathal, I am speaking to you and all others, and let him who is present convey it to him who is absent. We have only one medicine for trouble-makers: that.’

He pointed to the sword hanging against the wall and shook his finger in warning. ‘What do you say, Ibn Hathal?’

Miteb al-Hathal laughed briefly as if wanting to show he was not finished yet. A heavy silence echoed through the room.

‘Hah... so what do you say, Ibn Hathatl?’

‘You are the government, you have the soldiers and the guns, and you’ll get what you want, maybe even tomorrow. After the Christians fetch the gold for you from under the ground you’ll be even stronger. But you know, Your Excellency, that the Americans aren’t doing it for God.’

Al-tih (Cities of salt, 1984) is the first of the quintet written by Abdelrahman Munif (1933-2004), considered one of the most important Arabic novelists of the 20th century. As the title suggests it is a story told of a civilization that had lived for ages unbroken and untrammelled by foreign invasions and upheavals only to be washed away within no time, like salt by water.

The bonds of kinship, clan, village and religion had sustained the people of the region for centuries. All this we see being torn apart. The social fabric of a country completely destroyed. Munif takes us through the heart ache, agony, confusion and lack of dignity, as witnessed by the people undergoing it and a total lack of understanding, care or sympathy by the perpetrators of this change. NO one wants to explain; probably no one even understands the changes taking place. The emir, the ‘government’ just like the other local populace are hurled into the whirlwind of these destructive forces, unable to either understand or halt them.

Munif has a masterpiece in how he has captured the cries of bewilderment, agony , helplessness, the growing resentment and final realization of their worth and strength , as the workers move on from being a scraggly bunch of scared , powerless people to an organised group of strikers against the American company that employs them.

The story reads like something out of an ancient Arabic fairy tale. At least that is how the story begins. You feel you have entered the world of a Thousand and One Nights. Wadi al –Uyoun, does not seem to belong to a real world. It seems like you have entered a magical oasis, with its equally mythical people.

‘Wadi Al- Uyoun: an outpouring of green amid the harsh ,obdurate desert, as if it had burst from within the earth or fallen from the sky. It was one of those rare cases of nature expressing its genius and wilfulness, in defiance of any explanation.’ The people had been living there for generations. Caravans stop at the wadi for its sweet water and the generosity of its residents, especially if the rains have been good and the future looks green and bright. The caravans are a source of merchandise but equally importantly of news from around the towns and cities that they have travelled through. The travellers are welcomed, fed and then stories are told and exchanged. Some young men are ready to leave and explore while others have returned after years to their family.

The desert oasis of Wadi al- Uyoun is disrupted by the arrival of western oilmen in an image similar to that of the disrupted village of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. As Achebe described the effects on a traditional African village of the arrival of powerful missionaries, so Munif chronicles the economic, social and psychological effects of the promise of immeasurable wealth drawn from the deserts of nomad and oasis communities.

The peace and tranquillity of Wadi al –Uyoun is broken suddenly by the arrival of three Americans. They come and camp near the brook. They do not bother or are concerned about the people. They have come on a discovery of oil. The curiosity and the life of the people of the wadi do not bother them. They leave only to return with more men. Soon they are back with machines that roar and make the earth tremble.

Miteb al-Hathal is suspicious of them and wants them out of the valley. Ibn Rashed argues that they will come anyway and make everyone rich. He becomes a different man when he is with the Americans, forgetting the incisive proverb ridden speech of the Bedouin, rubbing his hands together in gestures of servility, overdoing everything and laughing like a ‘hyena’. ‘It’s the only way they can understand us,’ he explains to Miteb.

Very soon the wadi is cleared. Bulldozers are attacking the orchards ‘like ravenous wolves, tearing up the trees, levelled all the orchards between the brook and the fields’. ‘The trees shook violently and groaned before falling, cried for help, wailed, panicked, called out in helpless pain and then fell entreatingly to the ground, as if trying to snuggle into the earth to grow and spring forth alive again.

The butchery of Wadi Al – Uyoun has begun, and the people are left ‘like windblown scarecrows made of rags and palm branches’. The trees uprooted and the people asked to pack and leave within days with the promise of compensation.

The old and mentally unstable Umm Kharif who has lost her mind through grief of waiting for her son to return, is teased by the children of the valley, and even the elders laugh at her. On the morning of the departure day however, no one can wake up umm Kharif. They realise she is dead and a gloom sets in on the wadi like never felt before.

But once the order to leave is given, Miteb gets on his white camel and gallops away, no one knows to where. He becomes the substance of legends. People spot him on his white camel whenever there are any signs of resistance to the Americans. He is feared by the Americans and barricades and security is enhanced to prevent him from sabotaging pipe lines. Ibn Rashid’s death finally in a different town and different circumstances is also related to his fear of the return and revenge of Miteb al- Khatal.

While Miteb becomes the legend of resistance, the story moves from Wadi Al Uyoun to the grey and humid seaside town of Harran. Fawaz, one of the sons of Miteb is recruited by Ibn Rashid to work on the vast project that is being undertaken by the Americans.

Here in Harran, Munif details the changes taking place. The story is told straight from the heart and soul of the workers and the people who make up the city. Men from distant and unknown villages leave their families and are recruited to work in this ever expanding enterprise. The Americans have arrived with their giant machines. The machines need workers. From living amidst families and traditions they are now in an all male labour camp.

The people of Harran are displaced in a repeat of the Wadi Al Uyoun. Leave your land and houses and get compensation, resist and get thrown out anyway.

The ensuing change in Harran, the transformation and the tearing apart of the old Arab society is detailed both with pathos and hard hitting satire and black humour by Munif. Family, kinship, clans, tribes, morals, values and simple human dignity are all under attack and the people helpless, bewildered and angry.

The heat and the humidity, the cruel desert wind, a description of the town that only someone who has lived through it can do. ‘Harran was ‘Hell itself in summer: the wind died and the sky hung low like a leaden dome. The air was saturated with humidity. Men were overcome by apathy and exhaustion, each limb of their bodies felt disconnected from the others, as if randomly assembled without flesh to bind them together.’

In this town come initially a small group of workers who are slowly taught and organised to do the work. They carry and work with steel and metal in the heat, afraid and depressed with the state of affairs. They refuse to go near the sea. They had never seen the sea before. More and more workers keep arriving. Soon there is the American Harran and the Arab Harran: Here not merely two cultures but two ages meet and stand apart. The workers see and resent the clean and spacious American quarters, with their swimming pools and comfortable houses that they had built and do not understand why they are not allowed inside.

The workers are given barracks to live in that heat up and become unbearable in the desert heat. They spend the nights out in the open when the desert cools at night.

The town of Harran also grows with the new traders and businessmen finding the business lucrative. Shops and bakeries are opened. The market is expanding. People have come from outside the town and begun to build houses. It does not seem to matter anymore where you were born and where your family and you belonged.

The Emir, Khaled al-Mishari was middle aged, heavyset and dark skinned- almost black. ‘His mission in Harran was to make the town as peaceful as a graveyard’.

People ingratiate themselves to the emir to cull favours. The trader from Persia Hassan Rezaie arrived with pomp and splendour, and although not a soul in Harran knew him, he visited the prince the moment he disembarked. He brought the emir a telescope. Munif is at his best in his description of the joy which this toy brings to the Emir. He forgets about his duties. He only looks through this telescope. And Munif delights you with the description of the emir enjoying the spectacle of the American women on a ship that is docked at the sea. ‘The women who made him feel as if he were about to explode and dissolve in space. He shouted like a wounded man’. ‘Allah, Allah... she’s as shapely as a filly, she gleams and glistens, she shines, I’m on fire; my patience is gone’...

One night, in Munif’s most extraordinary description, a great ship arrives off the coast, covered in light and blaring out music. The weather is sultry. Its deck is crowded with men and women, bare and hugging and dancing to the music, laughing and shouting. The Arab workers sit watching on the beach, silent, panting, bitter and confused, both aroused and denied. They watch and leave in silence. The depression among the men is so heavy it is palpable in the hot humid night. The next day many do not go to work and no one says anything.

Like many other new arrivals to Harran, Dabbasi too has come with the growth of the town. He has ingratiated himself with the emir well. To become one of the people he decides to marry a Harrani girl. The feast he throws has never been witnessed before in the town. The Americans are invited, and at the dinner each of the special guests are served with a sheep head on his plate! The people of the town talk for days about the feast, the food and the dancing and how the Americans spoilt it by not being able to dance to their beat and rhythm.

The doctor who has moved in and established his clinic and who only treats those who have the money, moves in and make the town his own. Old loyalties and people are losing out. Ibn Naffeh who had so far treated the people with his herbs and irons is now ridiculed and then treated with cruelty. Ibn Rashid, the initially confident and ambitious recruiting agent also realises that he is not able to give up his values and the ensuing guilt, fear and confusion kills him.

Munif takes you through with all these changes with the very people suffering it. At the same time the process of ‘development’ is going on. The roads are being built to connect the towns, pipelines are being laid and in all this the use and exploitation of the workers by the Company is brilliantly brought out.

In the end we witness the eruption of a workers strike and the emir losing his mind, happily playing with his telephone while he is being driven away to another town for treatment. And in all this turmoil the people are sure they have seen Miteb al- Hathal on his white camel.

Edward Said described Cities of Salt as the “only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, American and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country”. Munif began writing in the 1970s and quickly became known for his scathing parodies of Middle Eastern elites, especially those of Saudi Arabia, a country which banned many of his books and stripped him of his Saudi citizenship.

Shireen Zaidi, lives and works in Dubai.