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Is Saudi Arabia Ready to Forgive the Author of Cities of Salt?

August 4, 2013

What do you have to do to be stripped of your citizenship by a Middle Eastern monarchy? Well, you could be on the wrong side of a political divide, as has been the case with a number of prominent Bahrainis who are now living in exile in London.

Or you could write a number of novels lamenting the corruption of values and traditions in your society – including a novel about a fictional sultanate in the 1950s as its capital city is transformed by the arrival of oil wealth.

This was the fate of Abdulrahman Munif, a one-time oil executive turned writer whose travels took him to Iraq, Syria, Yugoslavia and Egypt. Always a Pan-Arab nationalist, his political sympathies drew him into the Baath party, and out again as he rejected the despotism of Saddam Hussain’s regime.

He, like Edward Said, the Palestinian-American author of the landmark treatise, Orientalism, blamed Western imperialism for many of the woes facing the Arab world over the past century.

The novel in question is The Trench, the second in a quintet that explores the corruption of society by oil, and of those who extracted it, exploited it and enriched themselves in the process.

The first three novels in the Cities of Salt quintet were translated by Peter Theroux, the brother of the travel writer Paul Theroux. Presumably the final two books have not interested Western publishers because of the relative lack of success of the first three. It’s a shame, because if the other two translated novels are of the same calibre as The Trench, the West is ignoring a body of literature that offers a valuable insight through the eyes of an Arab writer into the origins of the oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian peninsula.

Despite the dramatic transformation of the Gulf states since the 1950’s, it’s not difficult to recognise mindsets in The Trench that are still in evidence today.

The novel is set early in the oil boom. A small desert capital, Mooran, finds itself transformed in a few years from mud brick to marble. We look through the eyes of an opportunistic Syrian doctor who by virtue of his medical skills becomes an intimate of the Sultan – the son of the founding patriarch. The newcomer uses his political acumen and his experience of the wider world that increasingly impinges on Mooran to become the chief advisor to the monarch.

He gradually inserts family and friends into the court of the affable and easily-influenced Sultan, all the while increasing his wealth by taking a slice of new companies set up to capitalise on Mooran’s growing appetite for the fruits of the new-found oil wealth – cars, palaces, luxury goods and massive infrastructure projects. He discreetly purchases large tracts of real estate around the capital in the knowledge that land will be at a premium in the rapidly expanding city.

As time goes on, his associates become powerful in their own right. One of them, a member of a prominent local family whom he engineers into the job of setting up the country’s national security agency, eventually becomes his nemesis. Others turn into silent enemies who work against him, yet he manages to cling to his pre-eminent position as the Sultan’s advisor.

Meanwhile we meet some of the leading lights in the city’s souk, who act as a baleful chorus as the march of progress threatens and ultimately destroys their livelihood as traders and intermediaries. Not much call for selling sheep and shoeing donkeys when the streets become filled with swishy Cadillacs and the new markets are stocked with imported food. Embittered, they continue to meet at the local coffee house, where they hurl oblique curses at the ruling elite and their scheming advisors.

In the hothouse of the court, the doctor veers from despair and paranoia to moments of joyous triumph. As he gets older his perception of his own brilliance steadily inflates, and he spends increasing amounts of his time developing a grand theory of life which will amaze the world when he finally gets round to publishing it.

Meanwhile the women of the palace pursue their own agendas. Their main preoccupation is the Sultan’s insatiable appetite for new wives. By the end of the story, he is rumoured to have married at least thirty women, with deadly consequences for at least one of them. And the doctor’s wife lives a double existence of which her husband is blissfully unaware.

Munif portrays the court of Mooran as venal and intrigue-ridden – a rat’s nest of flattery, jealousy and hidden grudges. Ordinary subjects are fed official news glorifying Mooran, the Sultan and the nation’s achievements. The coffee house, however, is rife with rumours and scandalous talk.

It’s hard not to associate the story with Saudi Arabia, even if the narrative doesn’t explicitly map on to the history. The founder, his son the Sultan and the austere Crown Prince bring to mind the first three Saudi monarchs – Abdulaziz, Saud and Faisal. And the coastal city of Harran, where the doctor gained his first foothold in the sultanate, is a dead ringer for Al-Khobar, Dammam and Dhahran, the oil-producing conurbation on the East coast.

For the malcontents of the souk, the oil wealth is a curse, yet you are left with the impression that it is no less a curse for all the other protagonists. There are no truly contented characters in The Trench, even if they enjoy brief moments of joy. Nobody, not even the Sultan, is truly in control of his life. All are in thrall to external forces, especially to the Americans, who are portrayed as puppet masters manipulating events in the background.

As a Saudi national who occupied prominent positions in the Middle East oil industry, Munif was undoubtedly in a position to observe the comings and goings of the elites of his time. I have no idea how close he was to the centres of power in the 50s, but his description of the intrigue and the opaqueness of decision-making within the Arab autocracies – and not just of the monarchies – rings true even today.

In the UK, if David Cameron appoints advisors, they are subject to scrutiny and criticism both in the media and in parliament. Only recently he was accused of appointing his friends and “people like him” into key positions at the expense of talented individuals from different backgrounds.

In many Middle East states, such concerns would be greeted with incredulity. For every official advisor there is a host of shadowy figures who also exert influence through friendships, family ties and mutual dependence. Public criticism of government appointments and individuals in positions of power is frowned upon, to say the least. The lines between friendship and business are frequently blurred. And, as in The Trench, ministries serve as personal fiefdoms – often jostling for power and influence – especially when the minister is a member of the ruling family. Relationships and trust mean everything.

Even today, though many institutions have sprung up that seemingly render decision-making less opaque, in most of the absolute monarchies the process for making the critical policy decisions remains mysterious by Western standards. As a result, the rumour market continues to thrive, and no region revels in conspiracy theories more than the Middle East.

I can well understand why Munif’s writing upset the Saudis, who would prefer to portray the history of the Kingdom as one of uninterrupted progress. Yet today’s media has greater freedom to criticise than ever before, even though attacks on individuals remain out of bounds. There is an increasing debate over problems that have their origins in earlier decades – the reliance on foreign labour, failings in the education system and endemic health issues. So has Saudi Arabia – and its wealthy neighbours for that matter – come to terms with the cost to society and human values of the oil era? I suspect that the answer is yes.

But one reason for tensions in the region is that the pre-oil generation have not forgotten the relative simplicity of their younger days, and their children share their nostalgia. There are many who look back rather than forward, and yearn for a society that is fast vanishing. Religious belief apart, this is one of the roots of the conservatism that still characterises Saudi Arabia, and is the cause of much of the tension within its society.

For all that, it would be nice to think that today’s elite would find it within themselves to forgive Abdulrahman Munif, who died in 2004, for his perceived offence. Because to my mind The Trench is great literature – no less than the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who similarly fell foul of the Soviet establishment, only to be rehabilitated late in his life.

There are not so many Arab writers who have successfully reached international audiences over during past century. Of these, the Egyptian Nobel prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz is probably the best known, but the list is short. Saudi Arabia should be proud of Munif, though I suspect that not enough time has passed for his talent to be recognised and celebrated at all levels within the Kingdom.

And the non-Arab world needs to hear more authentic Arab voices, even if their messages are not always comforting. Because like it or not, the Middle East is unlikely to decline into geopolitical irrelevance any time soon.

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