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Summer Reading: Cities of Salt

September 24, 2013

One of the joys of living as an expatriate in Saudi Arabia in the 80s was the lack of officially-sanctioned artistic entertainment. No public cinema or theatre. Musical performance was very rare. So we had to create our own – behind closed doors, in compounds, schools and embassies.

Things have moved on since then – somewhat. There are still no public cinemas where Saudis can celebrate the success of Wadjda. Musical performance is still a touchy area – witness objections by conservative elements of society to the use of music at the annual Janadriya heritage festival in Riyadh.

But theatre seems to be emerging from the shadows. Earlier this week the Arab News reported on a theatre festival in my Saudi home town, Jeddah:

“The Jeddah Theater Week concluded on Saturday after presenting seven plays.

The Saudi Cultural and Art Society organized the event with the cooperation of the Ministry of Culture and Information at the Literary Cultural Club Jeddah.

The aim of the week was to promote Saudi theater, artists and Saudi production companies, producers and filmmakers from around the Kingdom.”

The article goes on to describe some of the shows. Some taboos remain in place. For example there do not seem to have been any performances involving women and men on stage together. But the approval by the Ministry of Culture of the event indicates that attitudes are changing.

“Saud Al-Shaikhi, head of the Ministry of Culture and Information’s branch in Makkah, appreciated the efforts of all the participants who worked hard to present their message and entertained the Jeddah audience. He also said there is a lot of talent among Saudi theater artists but they never got a chance to express themselves on a large platform. There are no specialized schools and institutes for them to learn more and polish their talent.

He also said that the plays were full of information about society’s problems, providing solutions and highlighting issues that begged to be tackled.

Through this festival the ministry tried to give artists and theater makers as much support as they needed to bring their talent in front of an audience, said Al-Shaikhi. This support will continue.”

For me, the most telling comment was about the final play:

“The last play ‘Hala Bara’ by Kusar Media was very much appreciated. The message of the play was that in olden days people did not have lavish lifestyles but they had feelings. Now we don’t have any feelings but a modern life, technology and luxurious living. We seem to be forgetting our values and what matters most.

The set displayed a coffee shop where people come and go. It used to be a place where people would sit together and share their feelings. Nowadays not much of that is left.”

The loss of values is a theme that comes across loud and clear in Abulrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt. A few weeks ago I reviewed the second of the Cities of Salt series, The Trench. Perversity being my middle name, I got round to the first book of the series this summer.

The Trench is a thinly disguised story based on the coming of age of a “fictional” Arabian kingdom – easily recognisable as Saudi Arabia – in the early years of the oil boom. It describes the growth of the capital city from mud-brick to marble, and the effect of the change on the ordinary people of the city, as well as on the elite and on the flood of incoming foreigners attracted by the opportunities to be carved out from the cascade of wealth.

Munif’s Cities of Salt is set in the 1930s, twenty years earlier, initially in a small desert village called Wadi al Uyoum. The villagers live a simple life little changed over centuries. They cultivate their date palms and tend to their livestock. They serve as a stopping point for the frequent caravans that make their way through the Arabian desert. There are good years and bad years, depending on the abundance of the seasonal rains. But they survive, and are content with their lives.

Everything changes with the arrival of a team of Americans who begin to survey the wadi for oil. A few months later the Americans return and, with the support of the government, proceed to raze the wadi to the ground. The villagers are forcibly relocated. Some of them make their way to Harran, the coastal village which the American oil company has chosen as its headquarters.

Very quickly three communities emerge. The Americans create a massive enclave with offices, accommodation for their expatriate workers and processing plants for the newly discovered oil resources. There is a separate, very basic, compound for the Arab workers who do the manual labour. And then there is the original village where the indigenous Arabs live.

The Arab communities share a bemused and suspicious incomprehension of the ways of the foreigners. But money is to be made, and very quickly one or two leading merchants establish themselves as commercial leaders of Harran, and the primary interface with the Americans. They cosy up with the local emir, and win his favour by dazzling him with their gifts of modern technology – a telescope, through which the emir can view the comings and goings of the American ships, a radio, which he proudly demonstrates to the local worthies, and finally a telephone.

Gradually industrialisation transforms the area – paved roads, modern buses, pipelines and plant. The old ways are replaced by the new, and those who live by ancient tradition find themselves displaced and marginalised, often with tragic consequences. The novel ends with an epic confrontation between old and new. The winner is never in doubt.

As in The Trench, Munif tells the story through the eyes of those affected by the changes. You could criticise the way in which characters come and go. Yet the focus is always on the nascent city. And in a way, the disappearance of characters is typical of an age without passports and ID cards, where people can ride off on their camels and never be seen again.

One such character is Miteb Al Hathal, the patriarch of the wadi who from the first arrival of the Americans realises that the writing is on the wall for his community and way of life. Eventually, with a stream of curses and Quranic invocations he departs for the desert. He remains a ghostly presence of the rest of the story, appearing from time to time – whether in the flesh or the imagination of the protagonists is never clear. He is the symbol of the old, an avenging angel never far from the thoughts of the people of the wadi and of the authorities who fear his revenge.

Abdulrahman Munif wrote from the standpoint of an Arab nationalist and a former Baathist. His very pointed portrayal of the greed, corruption and destruction of traditional values did not win him friends among the elite in his homeland of Saudi Arabia – to the extent that he was stripped of his citizenship and died in exile. Yet despite his pan-Arab political leanings and his career in the oil industry that triggered the destruction of traditional ways, his theme chimes strongly with the sentiments expressed in the recent play in Jeddah – technology and wealth trumping humanity and values.

Cities of Salt, like The Trench, is a sad and moving tale. As a portrayal of a clash of culture in the eyes of the “primitives” whose lives are changed by forces beyond their control, it has few equals.

As an example, here’s a passage about the arrival in Harran of a ship full of American women:

“When the huge ship dropped anchor at sundown, it astonished everyone. It was nothing like the other ships they had seen: it glittered with coloured lights that set the sea ablaze. Its immensity, as it loomed over the shore, was terrifying. Neither the citizens of Harran nor the workers, who streamed from the interior to look, had ever seen anything like it. How could such a massive thing float and move on the water?

Voices, songs and drums were heard as soon as the ship neared the shore; they came from the shore as well as the ship, as all the Americans in the compound flooded outdoors. Music blared as small boats began ferrying the passengers from the now motionless ship. There were dozens, hundreds of people, and with the men were a great many women. The women were perfumed, shining and laughing, like horses after a long race. Each was strong and clean, as if from a hot bath, and each body was uncovered except for a small piece of colored cloth. Their legs were proud and bare, and stronger than rocks. Their faces, hands breasts, bellies – everything, yes everything glistened, danced, flew. Men and women embraced on the deck of the large ship and in the small boats, but no one could believe what was happening on the shore.

It was an unforgettable sight, one that would never be seen again. The people had become a solid mass, like the body of a giant camel, all hugging and pressing against one another.

The astonished people of Harran approached imperceptibly, step by step, like sleepwalkers. They could not believe their eyes and ears. Has there ever been anything like this ship, this huge and magnificent? Where else in the world were there women like these, who resembled both milk and figs in their tanned whiteness? Was it possible that men could shamelessly walk around with women, with no fear of others? Were these their wives, or sweethearts, or something else?

The people of Harran stared, panting. Whenever they saw something particularly incredible they looked at each other and laughed. They clicked their teeth sharply and stamped their feet. The children raced ahead of them and arrived first to sit by the water, and some even dove into the water to swim towards the ship, but most of the people preferred to stay behind on the shore, where they could move around more easily. Even the women watched everything from afar, though none of them dared to come near.

This day gave Harran a birth date, recording when and how it was built, for most people have no memory of Harran before that day. Even its natives, who had lived there since the arrival of the first frightening group of Americans and watched with terror the realignment of the town’s shoreline and hills – the Harranis, born and bred there, saddened by the destruction of their houses, recalling the old sorrows of lost travellers and the dead – remembered the day the ship came better than any other day, with fear, awe and surprise. It was practically the only date they remembered. ”

The translation from the Arabic is by Peter Theroux, the late brother of the eminent travel writer Paul Theroux.

Perhaps Munif upset the authorities with his novels because he was too close to the bone. My guess is that in modern Saudi Arabia it’s OK to regret the passing of the old values and traditions just so long as no blame is attached to those responsible, most of whom are no longer with us, but some of whom are still alive.

Nonetheless, as I said in my review of The Trench, one can only hope that one day the Saudis will find it within themselves to recognise and celebrate this fine writer as one of their own. To see his work on sale at the Riyadh Book Fair in years to come would be a hopeful symbol of the spirit of open-mindedness that seems to have taken root in other areas of the Kingdom’s artistic landscape

From → Books, History, Social

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