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Selling the Camels, Bulldozing the Oasis : CITIES OF SALT by Abdelrahman Munif; translated by Peter Theroux (Random House: $12.95; 526 pp.)

May 29, 1988|David Lamb | Lamb, The Times' former Cairo bureau chief, is the author of "The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage." and

One day about 50 years ago, three Americans appeared unexpectedly in a desert oasis of a Persian Gulf kingdom where life had been unchanged for generations. Few outsiders, other than traders in camel caravans, had ever ventured to Wadi al-Uyoun, and the Arabs there were startled by these foreigners who had "odd habits and smelled peculiar," who poked the worthless ground with strange instruments, asked endless questions and scribbled continuously in notebooks.

Their presence stirred a fearfulness in the God-fearing people of al-Uyoun, but the emir dismissed their concerns, saying the government knew about the Americans' mission, which was none of the people's business. "By God," replied Miteb al-Hathal, one of the oasis's inhabitants, "they'll turn the whole wadi upside down on our heads if we let them."

His words were prophetic, for although the people in this unnamed Gulf country had resisted the occupation of the Turks 50 years earlier, they were about to meet a far more powerful force, one that would change the course of Middle East history. The era of oil exploration and production had begun and forever more tradition and progress would be in constant conflict.

This is the setting for "Cities of Salt," a timely and intelligent novel by Abdelrahman Munif, a Jordanian novelist who lives in Paris and holds a Ph.D. in oil economics. The book--banned in Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries--was originally published in Beirut in 1984 and was acclaimed as a major work of contemporary Arabic literature. It was translated, with grace and clarity, from Arabic to English by Peter Theroux, an American author who has lived in Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Munif takes us to the heart of desert Arab culture in this work of political fiction. He captures the confusion and, in the end, the sadness wrought by sudden change, by greed and by two peoples who understand too little of each other. His message is one that is perhaps even more valid in the 1980s than the 1930s: Common Arabs have been served well neither by outsiders nor their own leaders.

The wadi that Miteb al-Hathal and his neighbors had cherished for so long eventually is destroyed by bulldozers and heavy machinery as American engineers transform the oasis into an oil field. Hathal rides off alone--"This is the last of your happiness," he warns his people at one point--and is encountered again only as an apparition of doom. The people, too, are forced from their homes, packing all their belongings on camels and moving across the desert on a journey "full of quiet sorrow" to find a new wadi.

Along the shores of the Gulf, the journey (but not the diaspora) ends at a place called Harran. It is a bleak wasteland where oil money will produce two cities side by side, one for the American expatriates and their elite Arab counterparts, the other for the poor, displaced Arab laborers. Munif writes convincingly about the two cultures that clash there, and the scenes he describes stirred memories for me of the marble and glass cities that I saw spring out of the desert's emptiness during the four years I lived in the Middle East earlier this decade.

Almost overnight, Harran becomes a supercity, overwhelming the desert. Ports are dug, roads are carved, a pipeline laid. The emir, thanks to his American friends, commissions the construction of a home as fine as the ones the Americans themselves live in. Seeing his new home for the first time, he slaps its walls with his palms to confirm its sturdiness, in the same way we kick the tires of a used car we are inspecting. The Bedouin laborers, earning more money than they ever dreamed possible, are told to sell their camels, which they do reluctantly. The last link to the freedom they knew as desert wanderers is gone. Some clever men, such as Ibn Rashed, grow rich by forging partnerships, sometimes with the Americans, sometimes with other Arabs. But no one is very happy, and the reader suspects that money and the oil company have become forces as powerful as God.

Munif describes his characters in terms that are both tragic and humorous. There is Adbu Muhammad, the baker, falling in love with an American woman he has seen from afar and plastering the walls of his shop with magazine pictures of Western women. There is the emir, stretched out on the floor, viewing the world with a new device called a telescope that a traveler has given him. Later he receives a radio and all Harran marvels. "God willing," says a man in the coffee shop, "within a month we'll have a radio, and we'll hear the songs reaching the sky!"

"Cities of Salt" reminds us how rich the Arab world is in literature and how little of it we know. Munif's novel suffers because the events are often more interesting than the characters and because characters that the reader does care about play a prominent role too briefly, then disappear, never to be heard from again. But Munif still entertains us and informs us and in the process tells us a great deal about how painful the oil era has been to Arab societies.

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