Cities of Salt part II

Back to Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt and London-based Palestinian writer Elias Nasrallah’s recent book with a startling rereading of what Munif was trying to say in a work that has come to be regarded as one of the greats of modern Arabic literature. I previously wrote about it here when I was first reading it. To recap: Nasrallah has committed the unholy of unholies by accosting received wisdom on the Munif cycle of novels about the founding of the Saudi oil state. In his view, Munif was not simply out to depict how oil sustained a corrupt system of government and created a corrupt society, he was knowingly presenting a distorted rendering of Saudi history in order to rouse Saudis to revolt against Al Saud under the banner of the Salafi Islamist movement, the only movement he saw as capable of undertaking the task. Nasrallah makes it clear that he finds Munif’s cycle to be a subversive work that has helped to legitimise and propagate jihadist ideology. This is of particular interest now since people across the region have taken to the streets this year to challenge their rulers. But finally, Nasrallah’s work does raise inevitable questions about whether there is a pro-Al Saud agenda lurking somewhere. 

Some more details. Nasrallah talks at length about the negative image Munif deliberately gives of foreigners working in Saudi Arabia during the eras of Abdelaziz, Saud and Faisal, from the advisors to kings to the manual labourers. He notes the contradiction in the fact that Munif describes the residents of the Wadi Uyoun oasis themselves, as with many other Saudis, as in need of looking for work abroad and that Munif was born of a Najdi father and Iraqi mother in Jordan. Only Saudis who work around the kings are forgiven for their actions. Foreign advisors to Khureibet and Khaz’al (Abdelaziz and Saud) are scorned for marrying daughters to them although so many Saudis did the same. Munif sets up one advisor Subhy al-Mahmalji as “a symbol of the worst forms of opportunism and exploitation”, Nasrallah says, for marrying his young daugher Salma to Khaz’al. The name Mahmalji hints at the procession during the hajj season when a form of carriage or mahmal was used to carry the special cloth called the kiswa which was to cover the Kaaba, the square structure inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, as if al-Mahmalji was presenting his daughter in a similar grand (and infidel, in the Wahhabi view) fashion.  

Nasrallah says that Al Saud themselves were wary of placing foreigners in the midst of Saudi citizens but rather than expose this chooses to follow the same path of provoking resentment of the foreigner. “Since the Second World War they tried to distance the people from the winds of change and liberty in the Middle East and the world, while miring them in obscurities, and they systematically promoted feelings of hate for the foreign workers, for fear of their mixing with Saudis and passing on enlightened, emancipatory ideas,” he writes. “But Munif ignores what Al Saud did and took the same path of provoking hatred for foreign workers as an easy means of inciting the Saudi reader against Al Saud for bringing these workers.” (al-Saudiyya wa bid’at al-tarikh al-badil, Damascus: Dar al-Mada, 2010; p.175) Often Munif offers views Nasrallah regards as racist of the foreigners in the voice of the narrator, removing the cover he usually has of placing such comments in the mouth of his characters. For example, in Badiyat al-Zulumat Munif writes: “Mooran appeared different this time. There was hardly any flow of foreigners to see or hear, to bring back painful memories: the days of plague, the years of locusts, the yellow winds, and everything else that reminds of death or hints at it.” (Nasrallah; p.219)

The idea that the Gulf is full of foreign opportunists among white-collar professionals from all over the world is of course extremely common. Labourers are seen in a different light in Western media, but perhaps blue-collar workers are seen as chancers in India, Pakistan and other countries that provide them too, I don’t know. At any rate, Munif has been assumed by critics and readers to be capturing the Zeitgeist when he depicts foreigners in this manner. It’s indicative that Nasrallah’s criticism that Munif is not being fair for attacking millions of people in this manner comes as a surprise to the reader, so common and accepted has this viewpoint become. But the relation between guest worker/foreign resident and Gulf Arab is a complicated one and Nasrallah is right to call Munif out for simplifying it at the very least.

Boosting Salafism

Munif does this, Nasrallah argues, because he has identified the Salafi trend in Saudi Arabia as the only force capable of mobilizing to bring down Al Saud. So if the prejudices promoted by Al Saud and some among the Salafi trend itself must be massaged in his text in the service of this cause, then Munif was prepared to do it. The Salafis themselves are not ridiculed at all for their beliefs in Cities of Salt. Wahhabism is saved ridicule. Nasrallah notes that Munif has nothing to say about the Ikhwan’s attack on the mahmal procession in 1926. Munif attacks Al Saud and the senior clerics for not living up to the strictures of Wahhabi Islam; he does not question Wahhabi Islam itself. Munif goes to considerable lengths in al-Taih to show how the residents of Wadi al-Uyoun viewed the Americans as infidels. I must say when I read the book, I took these descriptions as simply the impression the people of these small communities had of the Americans, a sign of misunderstanding. Nasrallah’s point though is that Munif intended the text as a kind of instruction book full of codes for Saudis to decipher in order to lead them to a certain conclusion about their rulers.

In this quest to boost Salafism, Munif even belittles the Saudi movement for political reform, Nasrallah argues. He makes a point of presenting an unflattering picture Abdelaziz al-Muammar, the Saudi leftist who Abdelaziz imprisoned, then Saud freed and made an ambassador, but who Faisal threw in prison for 10 years after his coup in 1964. Munif does not give the ambassador in Switzerland a name, an effort on Munif’s part to depict Muammar – and Saudi secular opposition movements in general – as weak, Nasrallah says. “He did not want to present any political element in a positive and nationalist light, except those who were part of the Salafi trend who Munif promotes as the only party capable of bringing down the system of rule in Saudi Arabia,” Nasrallah writes. (p.248) He notes that Munif only names the Salafists among the many who were imprisoned – I assume he means after Faisal took over in 1964 – in an effort to portray them as the only true opposition force.

The pilots who famously turned against Al Saud rule in 1962 are placed in a negative light because they were driven by Arab nationalist sentiments, Nasrallah says. The character Omar Zeidan tells his students of them: “Planes alone can’t do anything. You need to have people on the ground too. But what can these losers with four planes do? What if they run out of fuel or bombs? Where can they go if they have no group backing them up on the ground?” (Badiyat al-Zulumat; p.491; Nasrallah; p.249) Munif conflates some events in order to paper over historical realities that don’t fit his aim. He sets the attacks by Salafists on the Radio and Television Building in 1965 at the same time as the pilots defection and the defection of some Nasserist princes to Cairo. Hundreds of Arab nationalists and leftists were in fact detained in 1962, but Munif gives the impression that it was Salafists who landed in jail, mentioning the name of his Salafi leader Omair and his son. Munif then goes on to make a major issue out of the beheading of 18 people for the attack on the government buildings in Riyadh, and Faisal/Fanar then appears with a speech where he warns of foreign plots and promises to work on a constitution. The secularists way of challenging Al Saud is thus thoroughly ridiculed by Munif. He also suggests that the Hejazis were as Salafist in approach as the Najdis: “When there was the attempt to storm the TV building and it failed, they were extremely sad, and many of them stopped listening to the Mooran radio,” Munif’s narrator says. (Badiyat al-Zulumat, p.515; Nasrallah, p.253)

Nasrallah’s conclusion with all this is that Munif is presenting Salafi violence as the only way forward for changing things in Saudi Arabia. “From the first pages of the novels Munif begins to prepare the ground for bringing the reader to the conclusion that the system of government can only be changed through religious-based violence,” he says. (p.259) Nasrallah thinks Munif has based one character, Mut’ib al-Hathal, on Steinbeck’s Zapata and presents him as a kind of cowboy of the Wild West who glorifies violence. He gives his son a speech on the use of weapons: “If you raise a weapon, fire it. Otherwise, don’t raise it at all.” (al-Taih, p.75; Nasrallah, p.271) Hadhal disappears after the first two novels, his role in establishing the legitimacy of armed resistance on religious bases complete. Nasrallah makes the point towards the end that Munif was inspired by the Iranian revolution and thought Saudi Arabia was ripe for the same.  

He even hints positively at the siege of the Mecca in 1979, Nasrallah argues. Though the series of novels ends with Fanar/Faisal’s death, Munif throws in apparent positive references to the revolt of Juhaiman in 1979 as he has citizens of Mooran talk hopefully of the coming of the Mahdi, or Messiah – which is what Juhaiman’s movement claimed it was doing. In fact, Munif’s character Mut’ib al-Hathal is from a tribe named as al-‘Atoum, which hints at the Uteibi tribe of Juhaiman. (Nasrallah, p.266) Critics and readers who followed Munif’s novels as they came out throughout the 1980s wondered why he never produced a sixth. Nasrallah says it would have ruined the dynamic Munif established of a pure Salafi movement fighting Al Saud and untainted by foreigners – the Salafi movement had been employed by not only Saudi Arabia but the United States to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. (p.269)

Attacking Munif

Saudi rulers have long wanted to “get” Munif. You can’t find a copy of it in the country’s bookstores and Munif could forget any ideas of every returning to his homeland because of Cities of Salt. The novels made Munif the darling of the Arab literati and secular intelligentsia, ridiculing the parvenu, dynastic, rentier state in a manner that Al Saud found hard to repudiate (the late court intellectual Ghazi al-Gosaibi once derided Cities of Salt as trivial). So far reviewers are still digesting Nasrallah’s study. One review was published in al-Quds al-Arabi – no fan of Saudi Arabia – which took a neutral stance. There are several points in the study where I felt I was detecting admiration for some Saudi leaders, in particular King Faisal (Fanar). For example, Nasrallah takes up Munif’s acceptance of the official Saudi story that a disgruntled and crazed prince seeking revenge for the death of his Salafi brother during the unrest of 1965 was solely responsible for killing Faisal. This allows Munif to imply that the attack on Faisal was an act of Salafi revolt that must be emulated if Al Saud are to be brought down. But Nasrallah goes on in some detail to discuss his belief that Munif is naive in believing the official version of the death of “someone of the Faisal’s stature”. Nasrallah wants to suggest that it could have been organised by the Americans in revenge for the oil embargo during the 1973 war.  

The general tenor is critical of Al Saud. Nasrallah is attacking Munif after all for not giving Arab nationalist and leftist opposition to Al Saud their fair dues. But if he had made clear from the outset that he was some kind of fan of the Saudi polity, many would not even open the first page of this study.  There are points where Nasrallah sounds as if he is opposed in principle to the use of force to bring down Al Saud, though I don’t think he can be labelled a Saudi propagandist on that basis. In one section he looks into Munif’s life in an effort to elucidate personal motives for glorifying Najdi Salafism. This isn’t a series of novels about oil, he says, it’s about promoting al-Wahhabiyya i.e. Munif is an extremist. The “liberal” wing of Al Saud – King Abdullah, the Faisal brothers and their hangers-on, etc. – would be happy with the critique: the general tenor of their discourse since the events of 9/11 has been that the problem of Saudi Arabia is not the ruling family and its monopoly on power, it is religious fundamentalism; “help us overcome it,” they tell Western allies. Saudi domination of Arab media is such that a figure like Munif is rarely mentioned; now he can be discredited as an Islamic radical, or one of those irresponsible secular intellectuals who was prepared to go along with them.  

Whether Nasrallah’s critique has hit the mark is the key issue though. It’s a direct challenge to received wisdom. Literary critic Sabry Hafez, for example, considers that Munif is attacking political Islam and treats many of the characters who Nasrallah reads as players in the Salafist movement as entirely fictional. “Cities of Salt teems with vividly created characters, ordinary people like Mut’ab al-Hadhdhal, Mufi al-Jad’an, Shamran al-‘Utaybi, Salih al-Rashdan and Shaddad al-Mutawwi’, courageous opponents or tragic victims of the disaster it depicts, as well as containing brilliantly rendered portraits of those who in historical fact engineered and profited from this disaster,” Hafez has written. (New Left Review, Jan-Feb 2006, p22). “The novel offers a powerful account of the emergence of the Saudi security state, and the neo-colonization of Arabia that accompanied it, but is not a mere encoding of these developments. Rather it constructs a fictional universe of remarkable imaginative coherence that is a passionate cry against what Munif once called the trilogy of evils afflicting the Arab world – rentier oil, political Islam and police dictatorship – and a profound call for justice and freedom.”

Hafez appears to be wrong on two counts, though I doubt that this alters the fundamental message and impact of Munif’s work.




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