The Many Characters of Abdul Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt: Understanding a Chorus as Culture
“When they said nothing, he went on. “I told you all before. The Americans are the source of the illness and the root of the problem.”” (626)
-Ibn Naffeh in Cities of Salt
“One of the striking aspects of the new American social-science attention to the Orient is its singular avoidance of literature. You can read through reams of expert writing on the modern Near East and never encounter a single reference to literature” (291).
-Edward Said, Orientalism
Methods: Ibn Naffeh’s words end of Abdul Rahman Munif’s 1984 novel Cities of Salt and capture the intensity of loathing expressed by a multitude of characters. In a novel which contains no evident central protagonist, I suggest that instead of viewing the novel as without, view the novel as possessing a great many protagonists, all of whom come together to give an understanding of Saudi Arab culture. So, I advocate not for the lack of one protagonist, but the presence of many. Interpreting the many feelings and actions in Cities of Salt employs Edward Said’s idea of contrapuntal argument. As Said remarks in Culture and Imperialism, “[b]y looking at the different metropolitan experiences contrapuntally [in counterpoint (music), or as independent melodic lines], as making up a set of what I call intertwined and overlapping stories, I shall try and an alternative to politics of blame and to even more destructive politics of confrontation and hostility. A more interesting type of secular interpretation can emerge, altogether more rewarding than the denunciations of the past, the expressions of regret for its having ended, or––even more wasteful because violent and far too easy and attractive––the hostility between Western and non- Western cultures that leads to crises. The world is too small and interdependent to let thesehappen passively” (18-9). Said’s framework affects an appreciation of each individual character that Munif develops. These characters come together to give a varied, substantial view of Saudi custom and culture and how the oil industry has impacted Saudi society, but each stand on their own as agents of Saudi culture. Munif, himself, lived outside of Saudi, and was stripped of his citizenship. What motivated Munif to create this work draws attention to his place as a literary representative of Saudi Arabia.
Issa J. Boullata in his article “Social Change in Munif’s Cities of Salt” sees the protagonist as society noting, “it can be said that society as a whole is the protagonist of this novel, social change being the evolving process which shows how society deals with the antagonistic forces encountered in life” (213). While I recognize Boullata’s wish to unify the many characters in Cities of Salt, a differentiation between these personas, which harmonize at times and stand apart from one another at others, displays Saudi Arabs from many angles. Seperately, Ilana Xinos\’ article “Petro-Capitalism, Petrofiction, and Islamic Discourse:
The Formation of an Imagined Community in Cities of Salt” points towards a different protagonist, namely the working class: “the united Harrani working-class is a unified protagonist” (6).
This, to my mind, reduces the input that those members of the middle and upper classes have in forming the chorus of protagonists within this novel. It is a variety of voices, each shifting pitch and changing key, which shows not the protagonist of Munif’s work, but the protagonists. The plurality of this is important for understanding the variety and intensity of voices in this novel, which overlap or do not, having different backgrounds, feelings and motivations. Thus, Said’s idea of contrapuntal argument does not unify, instead it productively evaluates each character individually and with relation to the group32.
First a look at two locations must be considered, first that of the small oasis of Wadi al- Uyoun and second that of city of Harran33. The positions of the locations underpin the shifts in power dynamic, environment, industry and culture that take place throughout the novel. How Munif constructs these places as characters directly influences his approach to the humans inhabiting each, those who have been there for generations and those who have just arrived. The environmental changes in these cities establish the realities of the oil trade, how cities grow, others are destroyed and people are displaced for black gold.
Published in 1984 in Arabic, the first English printing would come about in 1987. How the translation affects a reader understands will be vital to truly knowing if Peter Theroux’s translation presents a piece to English reader’s that communicates the intentions of the Arabic novel. Theroux, having traveled throughout much of the Middle East, presents a thoughtful text. Because the novel is banned in Saudi Arabia, this English edition remains a stable source of Munif work. As it is not sold within the kingdom, Theroux’s translation serves to reach a wider audience, not just English readers, but those who are free to buy, read and discuss the work outside of the kingdom.
Munif frames Wadi al-Uyoun at the onset of the novel, “[i]t was nothing like its surroundings, or rather had no connection with them, dazzling you with curiosity and wonder:
how had water and greenery burst out in a place like this?” (1). The wadi is a place of sanctuary from the harsh desert conditions of the surrounding desert. What plants and water make up the wadi allow for travelers and residents to truly survive in the climate of the Arabian Peninsula, “[w]hen caravans came, enveloped in clouds of dust and weakened by hunger and thirst, yet redoubling their efforts, in the last stage of the journey, to reach Wadi al-Uyoun as quickly as possible, they were overtaken by an almost frivolous enthusiasm” (1-2).
As a place of bounty and rest, Wadi al-Uyoun brings forth the initial characters that make of the choir of Arabian characters throughout Munif’s work. The unique and outstanding conditions in place in the wadi, potable water, vegetation for animals, amicable citizens, trade, allow for Munif to employ this location as a kind of nostalgic introduction. Instead of immediately detailing harsh desert conditions, the impending environmental impacts of the oil industry, the razing of villages and the onset of industrialization on the Arabian Peninsula, Munif begins with a place a safety. Indeed, as those who have visited the Arabian Peninsula can attest, the cool air coming off of date palms, the small creeks and wildlife present in such an oasis are a welcome and agreeable break from the dry desert winds and arid landscapes throughout the country.
In al-Ahsa, which is known as one of the world’s largest Oases, the cool breeze generated by a date farm or family residence would act as a reminder to the cooling power of these biological microcosms. Munif’s strategy is successful. Instead of the harsh, difficult climate that might be shown (both in a political and ecological sense) to readers outside of the peninsula, he constructs a positive location to begin the journey into the desert.
Cities of Salt develops a kind of attachment to the pastoral life that goes on in the wadi. It is a simple place between trade posts, not a big city or an empty vista, it is not an arid, parched place as the novel’s title implies. It is in this wadi that Munif introduces the first member of his chorus, an ensemble that, in its many forms acts as a condemnation of the oil industry and the Saudi monarchs supporting that industry.
Miteb al-Hathal, a resident of Wadi al-Uyoun, is set apart; “[t]here was a special relationship, a rare passion between Miteb al-Hathal and Wadi al-Uyoun” (3). The eventual presence of Americans in the wadi begins to elevate Miteb from his status as a resident, to amore folkloric position. Miteb’s stance opposing the presence of the Americans in Wadi al- Uyoun sets him apart. “How do you expect us to let the infidels take a hundred and one buckets of water from the wells every day and throw it on the ground, and not say a word about it,” asks Miteb of an Emir (88). His position as a dissenting character against the presence of Americans in Wadi al-Uyoun propels him to an important place in the novel, as a symbol for those who feel the weight of oppression or resist the temptations of monetary gain in the of Americans.
The oil men eventually destroy the wadi, having determined it was worth more as a resource than as a break from the harsh desert terrain; “[a]fter destroying the first grove of trees, the tractors turned to the next with the same bestial voracity and uprooted them. The trees shook violently and groaned before falling, cried for help, wailed, panicked, called out helpless pain and then fell entreatingly to the ground, as if trying to snuggle into the earth to grow and spring forth alive again ” (106). Briefly, Munif allows the destroyed environment of the wadi to sing, weaving in a melody of ecological destruction, becoming a barren city of salt.
After the collapse of life in Wadi al-Uyoun, and Miteb departs from his home and family, “[a]t some point, no one knows exactly when, as the men ran out and got to work, as fathers called their sons to help them gather pieces of wood, Miteb al-Hathal withdrew quietly and left the hill, heading in the direction of Mount Zahra” (107). This disappearance marks the beginning of his status as folk symbol34.
He later appears to travelers and his son in a momentous fashion during a rain storm by a creek, “[h]e seemed enormously tall and rather white skinned… His physical form was so clearly discernible and so extremely powerful that he appeared to be closer than the opposite bank, as if he were directly over the water” (152). Here, Miteb’s expressions change from critical to prophetic. “This is the last of your happiness,” he tells the travelers (152). Aside from the biblicalimagery of Miteb hovering over the water, the reader also understands that a physical change has occurred. Instead of the father and resident of the wadi he had once been, he is transformed into someone “enormously tall” and “extremely powerful.”
Miteb’s is then permanently shifted into symbol. When appearing to the travelers, his son Fawaz hears his last words spoken, but he haunts Arabs and Americans who are in search of oil and profit. Much later, after having moved between many characters and places in the novel, Munif returns to the idea of Miteb. After an attack on an Arab and American camp building a pipeline between Wadi al-Uyoun and Harran, Munif writes, “[w]ith the light of dawn they all surveyed the scene, and the questions began: Who did this? Why had he done it? All of the cryptic whispers and queries had but one answer: Miteb al-Hathal” (511). Having last been seen by his son Fawaz and some travelers in the rain storm many months earlier, Miteb’s ghost or the idea of Miteb himself still greatly troubles those who seek to gain profit from the oil under Wadi al-Uyoun and Harran. “No worker said it outright or pronounced his name, but his specter filled the whole desert” (511). Miteb’s archetypal position as resistance figure embeds him in the folklore of the inhabitants of the wadi and Harran, the cities of salt.
Looking more deeply at Miteb’s distain of the Americans and their work in Arabia makes clear how his “specter” remains to haunt the desert years later; “We should have done something a long time ago,” he cries, “when they [the Americans] first came. I knew they would return. I knew they would do things men and jinn never dreamed of. They came. I saw them myself. In the wink of an eye they unleashed hundreds of demons and devils. These devils catch fire and roar night and day like a flour mill that turns and turns without tiring and without anyone turning it on. What will happen in this world? How can we kill them before they kill us?” (71)
As such, Munif uses Miteb and the idea of Miteb to give voice to a kind of dissidence that has its roots in the traditions of Wadi al-Uyoun. After industrialization, the displacement of the population of the wadi and the tearing apart of culture and tradition, Miteb represents a deeply rooted memory. Munif’s first chorus member sings out hauntingly. Harmonizing with Miteb’s call to traditions and customs, Umm Khosh enters Munif’s narrative in the wadi as well. Umm Khosh, a widow, whose son has been absent from the wadi for years, holds a special position in the society that held its day to day in Wadi al-Uyoun. She presents another reflection on the traditions that stopped in the wadi when Americans appeared to industrialize the area for its oil. When being told to evacuate Wadi al-Uyoun as it is being destroyed, Umm Khosh is the only person who defies the order, “[d]espite the rage, sorrow, humiliation and scores of other emotions that filled the people of the wadi, Umm Khosh was the only person who refused to follow the orders and ignored the entire proceedings” (111).
Umm Khosh holds strong, refusing to head into diaspora to the point that her neighbors in the wadi realize she will be arrested if they do not gather her things for her. “After they gathered her belongings in a small pile and put it with their own things, some of them had donated a few items and then tied up the bundle. Its meagerness and incongruity inspired laughter and pity at the same time: old clothes, mismatched tins pots and plates, pieces of wood, some ropes and a curved-headed bamboo cane” (111). Those around Umm Khosh support her in an attempt to prevent her arrest, understanding her emotions and feelings. These community members look out for her, even in the face of her rebellion and simultaneously respect her agency in not moving her possessions herself.
Yet she does not endure the displacement that her neighbors do after everyone is ordered to evacuate the wadi: “”God, Almighty God, may He be praised, has given her rest. She is dead,”” says Abdallah al-Masoud, a fellow wadi resident being forced to leave his home, on the day of their departure (117). Umm Khosh’s death, the act of giving her rest from the world that surrounded her, fractures the community that was once the wadi, they will not be able to unite around each other, maintain bonds of friendship or support in the diaspora into which they are forced.
Umm Khosh’s last act of resistance occurs in the distribution of her possessions: “No one wanted to touch her belongings, so the wind scattered the and the sand buried all that she had left behind” (117). The residents of Wadi al-Uyoun cannot carry her possessions on; they cannot own anything that belonged to the woman who brought them together now that they are fractured. Furthermore, Umm Khosh’s possessions, in being buried in the sand, become of the earth. She cannot be removed from the wadi, instead in her act of rebellion has become a part of it. However the Americans choose to exploit Wadi al-Uyoun for resources, they are still reliant upon Umm Khosh who has been buried amongst the sands, never to be removed. Munif makes an ecological statement, suggesting that this Arab woman is unmistakably tied to the earth that the oil men exploit.
Umm Khosh’s final act of defiance defines for the reader a kind of feminine agency that undermines discursive depictions of the Arab woman as submissive to men, she does not have a husband, son or uncle to be subservient to, instead she acts on her own, refusing to move when authorities “require” her to do so. In this sense, Umm Khosh subverts the preconceived judgments that someone within an American canon who make35. As Said writes in the introduction to his seminal work Orientalism, “[t]here is nothing mysterious or natural aboutauthority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces”(19-20).
Umm Khosh weakens these “canons of taste and value” and indeed the perceptions and judgments that result from their existence. She is inseparable from the history and knowledge of Wadi al-Uyoun, one cannot think about the landscape, people, oil, industry or culture of that specific landscape without thinking, in fact knowing, that she is deeply entangled with Wadi al- Uyoun’s existence. Instead of being cast aside as a widow, woman or old person, her death is not ignored or glossed over but recognized as an indivisible part of the knowledge about Wadi al- Uyoun.
The disappearance and specter of Miteb, as well as the death and absorption into the earth of Umm Khosh, set a tone of remembrance within the novel. That is, these two voices in Munif’s chorus harken to the past, constructing independent melodies that represent a time before the imperialism of American oil seekers and the industrial complications that came with them, the destruction of environments, the displacement of communities, the loss of local traditions and the expansion of capitalist structures. As the chorus builds though, another diverse song develops.
The final, character to consider from Wadi al-Uyoun is Ibn Rashed. He stands on different footing than Miteb al-Hathal or Umm Khosh. Ibn Rashed acts to support the Americans in their pursuits, a stance that brings him influence, but also facilitates for his downfall. He also bridges the gap between the two definitive character cities in the novel, Wadi al-Uyoun and Harran.
The early American presence in Wadi al-Uyoun is itself on Ibn Rashed’s property. In fact, upon learning of the Americans presence in the Arabian backwater, Miteb al-Hathal announces, “”God knows how late we\’ll be. We might sleep at Ibn Rashed’s,”” noting in his rush to see the Americans they\’re presence as Ibn Rashed’s guests (27).
Ibn Rashed’s lust for the capital gains that the American oil men offer takes him from the destroyed Wadi al-Uyoun to the coastal city of Harran. There, as the Americans set about developing the center of their oil industry, Ibn Rashed acts as liaison between the Arab and American camps. “Ibn Rashed often went on long visits to American Harran and sometimes he spent the whole evening or brought Americans back to his home to spend the evening there”(252).
Harran itself “had little contact with the world, but it remained strange and volatile though the town had but two or three roads for the rare, brief journeys necessary to secure her few requirements” (195). Far away from the trade routes that cross the peninsula, Harran lies on the coast. This allows for the rise of American influence in the city, as supported by figures like Ibn Rashed.
As a bridge between the nostalgic memories of Wadi al-Uyoun and the emerging industrial center of Harran, Munif places Ibn Rashed at the center. Appearing in different capacities throughout the novel, Ibn Rashed unites the ideas of cast aside traditions and emerging industry. The focus with Ibn Rashed moves then away from folkloric symbol (as with Miteb al- Hathal) or inseparable part of the earth itself (as with Umm Khosh) to a character that experiences a kind of hybridity between an understanding of what was destroyed and that which destroyed it. Even as an inhabitant of the wadi, he remarks that “the government deals justly withpeople––but it knows how to use force as well” (77). This comment is indicative of his position, soothing the residents of the wadi, while warning them simultaneously. The geography of Ibn Rashed’s movements from the wadi to Harran marks a willingness to interact with and profit from the imperial forces that made a myth figure of Miteb and killed
Umm Khosh. Rather than becoming an idea or element of memory, Ibn Rashed makes tangible movements to ensure his presence amongst the Americans (whether at first home in Wadi al- Uyoun or in his second home in Harran), which suggests his material advancement. He does not fret at the destruction of Wadi al-Uyoun. His displacement does not seem to affect him, on the surface, only that he must move in order to continue his connections with the Americans. This flexibility and willful movement adds a third melodic line to the chorus, one that is able to bridge between movements and adjusts to key changes easily.
A character from Harran that complicates the melody of Arab voices is that of Abdu Muhammad, a baker who adds a sexual tension to this metaphorical opera. As Harran develops into a city and port, many businesses grow with the expanding population of workers, families, Americans and job seekers. Abdu’s functional role becomes complicated by his obsession with”pictures he had torn out of the foreign magazines other workers brought from American Harran”(241). These portraits often distract him from his daily work.
Abdu views these pictures with the memory of a woman he met who had arrived on”Satan’s ship,” a cruise liner full of women brought to Harran to entertain the American men:
“”She was on the ship that came to Harran that day… As soon as she landed she looked at me. She left all the rest of them and looked at me. She did not leave me,”” he explains (249). His emotions become muddled due to this interaction.
This sexual experience places Abdu in a liminal space. He wishes to be reminded of his encounter with the pictures from American magazines, what amounts to a taboo amongst the Arabs in Haran, but at the same time cannot articulate his passion or feelings. The deep emotions that he feels eventually become his undoing, as another ship arrives in Harran with women for the Americans. “That day, at about sundown or a little after, a widely believed rumor spread, to the effect that Abdu Muhammed had drowned in the sea” (400). The story then shifts to what really happened to Abdu, “[b]ut nothing in Harran was constant, and later that night, one hour before dawn, the men coming out of Abu As\’ad’s coffee house saw Abdu on the beach, not far from the coffeehouse… Abdu was thinner and more haggard than usual for the next few days and his hands shook badly. He was hardly able to put the loaves in the oven and take them out again, and he spoke to no one and did not look anyone in the face” (401). His shame grows as his obsession does.
Abdu’s sexual othering bring another progression into Munif’s chorus, one that does not confine to the standards or traditions present in Miteb and Umm Khosh’s wadi or into Ibn Rashed’s hybrid capitalistic pursuits in the wadi and Harran. Instead, his encounter with the sexual practices of the Americans thrusts him into a queer space36 that marginalizes his place in Arab Harran. Further, his emotional state lies in shambles after two visits of the ship of women, he cannot recover and maintain a position in Arab Harranian society. Instead, he becomes weak and “haggard,” clearly succumbing to the sexual and colonial powers intertwined in his experience with the Americans.
Munif constructs characters not only rebelling against the American force (as with Miteb), undermining it (as with Umm Khosh) or participating within it (as with Ibn Rashed), but we also see someone operating with a cultural stance, one that is often tabooed and notdiscussed. As his emotions deteriorate and his business suffers, Abdu Muhammed adds a voice of sadness and confusion to the melodies in the novel, specifically one that does not look to past traditions, but to individual experience. Rather than possessing the unassuming position of baker, Abdu’s stance as Arab Harran resident and sexually affected hybrid give a unique tone to his voice, displaying how deep the invasion of Harran, indeed eastern Arabia, is by the American oil men.
The Emir, the Arab political power present in Harran, shows a similar kind of fascination as Abdu, but technological obsession that is orchestrated intentionally by Americans and foreigners. The Emir of Harran becomes preoccupied with technologies. Instead of caring for his citizens and understanding how they are treated by the American oil company, he fawns over his telescope and radio. While the Arab workers face terrible conditions in the barracks provided them by the oil company37, the Emir acts like a child in the presence of the new radio he has been given: “[t]he Emir’s words seemed obscure and meaningless. He addressed his deputy. “The spyglass shows you a hair from a long distance. The yellow steal crate runs like gazelle and doesn\’t get tired. This box talks, sings and prays” (435).
With this Munif layers multiple dissonant lines to his ensemble. The Emir and his ignorance of the workers\’ conditions bring forth multiple voices. First, the Emir’s fascination with technology indicates his blindness and irresponsibility, a ruler who could help his citizenry, but does not. He is not infatuated with the capital gains that Ibn Rashed seeks, instead he is envious of the technologies that Americans and those from outside Harran possess, he becomes subject to their whim by dwelling on the material objects given to him, a telescope, radio and car, his new toys.
With this, behind the Emir’s carelessness towards his people, the voices of those Arab men working for the American oil company ring out. They do not have adequate housing, and potentially are far from their families (as Harran was initially a seldom visited, out of the way small town). Their difficulty in not being treated fairly as workers envelops their tones in a kind of hopelessness, of not being able to argue for their rights because of a deaf ruler and ruthless company.
In this phase of the melody, it is important to again visit Ibn Rashed’s voice, as he initially supported the work of the Americans and welcomed them into his home in the search for profit. Yet, things fall apart for Ibn Rashed and he is cast aside by the capitalistic Harran he helped build, “Ibn Rashed himself, after all that had happened, and all the talk and apprehension he had caused, was all but forgotten, or at least he was not on their minds in quite the same way he had been before” (395). He fades from the attention of the Americans and Arabs he once sought power from. “The isolation he had imposed on himself, and the melancholy that compelled him to for days without seeing anyone or being seen, this isolation removed him completely” (395). Instead of the self-assured, business like Ibn Rashed that moved with ease from the wadi to Harran, he becomes frail, and as his success failed, so does his health.
Ibn Rashed’s death facilitates the silencing of his hybrid melody; indeed it changes how the other voices of this chorus harmonize with each other. “Ibn Rashed’s death in the late summer, and the way it happened, aroused a great deal of bitterness and soul searching. In spite of the hatred many people felt toward him because of his coarseness and greed, and despite the envy he inspired in the hearts of men who talked about him, they all felt that he had been unduly wronged, and that this injustice had destroyed him” (413).
The public perception of Ibn Rashed’s demise provides insight into the communal nature of the voices that appear in Munif’s novel, each individual contributing to the composition in its own way. When Ibn Rashed’s melody changes to indicate his downfall, the voices of the community around him respond, those in Harran react to his demise, and try to understand what it means for them. The critical aspect of this shift show a community of voices trying to come to terms with the conditions and structures that surround them, what made Ibn Rashed want to work with the Americans? How did his decisions affect those Arabs around him (Miteb, Umm Khosh, Abdu Muhammed among them)? To what extent is it appropriate to recognize someone who profits from the oil men (the Emir included) or treats those Arabs around him with cruelty (as the Americans themselves do)? Munif leaves these questions unanswered, allowing the characters of Cities of Salt to make their own assertions.
Even with his greed, Ibn Rashed still belonged to Wadi al-Uyoun and Harran. The balance with which Harran must accept this kind of character as a person with both an understanding of the traditions of the Arab Bedouins and the capitalistic urges of the American oil men places illuminates the rising tension in the port city. How the community interacts with their own members who support the colonizing behaviors of the newly arrived Americans muddles the lines between who supports and detracts from their culture.
The death of another Harranian figure also alters the call and response melody taking place in the city, while adding its own in a traditional way. Muffadi al-Jeddan, a traditional healer in Harran enters Munif’s world as a man who cannot change: “Harran changed every day, but Muffadi never changed. The Bedouin who came from the desert by way of Ujra always went straight to him if they were ailing” (549). The result of Muffadi’s persistence as a healer makes him a target for those who are developing Harran, especially Dr. Subhi, a medical doctoreducated in Europe who comes to Harran to practice. Dr. Subhi’s goals are clearly profit, “he received a gift from the prince: a green automobile. This was as good as killing Mufaddi al- Jeddan” (554). The disconnect between European and American medical practices and Mufaddi’s traditional healing methods increased the distance between those who appreciated and maintained Arab traditions and those who supported a newer American style of life.
Mufaddi soon becomes the target of the police and is severely beaten. “Even a youth in the prime of life could not have withstood the beating kicking and insults he [Mufaddi] endured”(561). Yet, Muffadi articulates his stance on those who treat him unjustly: “[r]uin comes to all oppressors––take heed, you bastards, ruin will come after you, by God, God damn your fathers,” he yells (561). How Muffadi is still able to voice his position amidst such violence shows the rugged nature of the community that he inhabits. He throws his melody into the chorus as a member of the traditional society, and as defiant to the Americans and their ways, but only after being harassed so severely. He does not immediately dispute the ideology of the oil men, instead he realizes over time their corruption and greed.
The climax of Muffadi position in the chorus of voices comes after Muffadi is fatally injured by an unknown attacker. Simultaneously with his death, “a great number of people in the market and the workers\’ camp, in addition to one of the fishermen, said they felt a trembling come over them” (574). His death reverberates throughout all of Harran and is felt physically by Harranis. This death changes the tone of Munif’s singers once more, with a focus on the grief and despair that the community felt in the wake of Muffadi’s murder. “Harran’s sleep that night was intermittent and fraught with nightmares. Mothers were surprised that their children woke constantly, while adults felt thirsty and asked for water, though on other occasions they usually fetched it themselves.
Babies cried all night, as the afraid or in pain” (579). This collapse in the community goes beyond the tipping point, within days of Muffadi’s death the Arab oil workers for the American company strike and the entirety of Harran waits for the conflict to explode:
“Soon all of the townspeople and everyone who had been in the markets were out. The coffeehouse emptied when the marchers came by, and the air rang with the cheers and applause of all those who stood up and joined them. Within minutes they were all in the mosque” (587). Muffadi’s death pushes the town over the edge, a myriad of the voices collectively become defiant and take a stand against the Americans and those Arab that support them. The novel seems hectic as character flow in and out of the narrative, generating the multitude of voices that drive the many melodies. The tensions that build, the goals that are achieved and thwarted all arise in the chorus that takes place between the cities of Wadi al-Uyoun and Harran. These spaces are filled with the voices of the many, displaced peoples, lower class workers, middle class entrepreneurs, royalty, freedom fighters, sexual deviants, traditional healers and cultural elders.
The voice of Ibn Naffeh differs. Listening to Ibn Naffeh provides a warning for those dealing with the newly experienced American ways. Indeed, Ibn Naffeh’s quote begins this chapter; his skepticism about the Americans stands out as wise and thoughtful. As his comments rings out, “[t]he Americans are the source of the illness and the root of the problem,” it becomes clear that his voice is authoritative and strong (626). Ibn Naffeh holds strong to his beliefs and stance, having seen the creation of the port city of Harran, the demise of Abdu Muhammed, the material lust of the Emir, the fall of Ibn Rashed, the murder of Muffadi, and the strike of the workers.
His words conclude the chorus that Munif creates, and it is not a purely negative statement. His words are advice to consider while moving forward. If the Americans truly are the source of the issues, how then are the citizens of Harran to move forward? His words conclude the novel, “”hope for the best. No one can read the future,”” he says (627). Indeed, the citizens of Harran and the chorus of voices that Munif composed between Harran and Wadi al-Uyoun cannot see what comes next. The strength in these concluding words to the melody is that they show possibility for movement and change.
Ibn Naffeh, in his awareness of the wrong doings of the Americans, is able to frame the movement of the chorus forward, not all is lost, the singers will continue their call. The people have retained culture, despite being displaced and built upon. Still people seek capital and profit, while others demand rights and push for the elevation of the Arabs.
The complicated chorus that is Cities of Salt stands as a tome of many identities. Whether those identities express themselves as traditional, connected with the earth, capitalistic, sexual, innocent, blind or otherwise, still the make up the voices that are heard on the desert winds. Looking to Cities of Salt for an understanding of Saudi Arab voices brings about the pastoral, the traditional, the rebellious, the defiant, the intelligent and much more in terms character development and expression. The lack of one single protagonist enables this, the many protagonists weave together melodies of expressions and statements of identity and culture. Said’s quote, used as epigraph for this chapter, then becomes even more poignant. Munif work points out how an Arab novel can illuminate how our obsession with oil can affect culture, the environment, tradition and custom.
Burke’s framework clarifies Munif motives:
Act: a work of literary fiction describing the rise of the oil industry in a fictitious Arab land, easily seen as Saudi Arabia, which would be banned in that kingdom and translated into English for further publication. Scene: a publisher of international literary texts, as well as seminal works from many writers, Vintage Publishing.
Agent: a writer displaced from his native land, whose citizenship in Saudi would eventually be
stripped, as well as the translator of his Arabic work.
Agency: writing the tales of many Arab characters, from many points of view, traditional, hybrid, rich, poor and weaving them together to create an expression of Saudi culture.
Purpose: to relate the complicated cultures, customs and traditions that are present in Saudi and that have been affected by the oil industry and the Saudi monarchy.
Munif was motivated to create this work of literary fiction to create a dynamic, fluid view of Saudi Arab culture. Set forth in this work are a multitude of criticisms, pointing out the greed and corruption that Americans and the Saudi government perpetuate in their drilling for oil. Munif’s motivation, which is filtered through Theroux’s translation, has two parts, 1) to give voice to the many characters he constructs, specifically Saudi voice and to have this be present in a literary tradition as an example of that and 2) to subvert a pacified stance towards the oil industry and the Saudi government. Munif works to counter the biases that placate those who question the oil industry. Cities of Salt dramatically redraws the lines between people, as Geertz would label it. Munif’s characters are able to hold to their traditions and not be blinded or blinded and not aware of socially relevant issues, adapting to their new surrounding not fundamentally and morally greedy as the Americans, or willing to join the ranks of the Americans, eventually falling in their new powers. The complicated sounds of the many different people in Munif’s work resonate on the desert winds between the cities of salt.