New critique of Munif’s Cities of Salt

I had the good fortune to receive a copy of a rare and arresting critique of Abdelrahman Munif’s classic Cities of Salt novels. It is by Elias Nasrallah, a London-based Palestinian writer, and just came out in Arabic last year under the title السعودية والتأريخ البديل: قراءة نقدية لخماسية عبد الرحمن منيف  (Saudi Arabia and the Fiction of Alternative History: A Critical Reading of Abdelrahman Munif’s Five-part Cycle). Munif’s cycle of five novels quickly came to be considered literary milestone for its pioneering, exhaustive and very direct depiction of the creation of the 20th century Arab petrodollar state. It was very clearly the history of Saudi Arabia with the names simply changed to maintain the fiction – Abdelaziz bin Saud is Khureibet, King Saud is Khaz’al, Faisal is Fanar, the kingdom is named the Hudeibi Sultanate, etc.. Critics of Arab nationalist, leftist and Islamist persuasion loved it for exposing the enigmatic and rather outrageous political entity that Saudi Arabia is and which all ideological trends in the Arab world love to hate. But Nasrallah is the first to hold up to real scrutiny Munif’s version of the famous rags-to-riches story of a nation ruled by a monopolistic dynasty and a school of fanatical Sunni religious scholars, protected and cradled by British imperialism before the baton was passed on to the Americans once the black stuff was found in monstrous quantities under the desert sand (of the Shi’ite zones in the east, no less). Since Munif is relating the history of Saudi Arabia, where does his story veer from the facts as known, where does he use literary licence and what purpose might it be intended to serve?The result is remarkable: Munif, Nasrallah argues, deliberately played down the role of Arab nationalist and leftists among both the Saudi population and the Arab foreigners working in the oil industry in the 1950s and 60s in order to exaggerate the role of the Salafi movement that Abdelaziz first clashed with in 1929-30. Nasrallah produces extensive evidence of Munif portraying the Salafi movement from that point onwards in a positive light in a narrative that tries to establish one central dynamic in the state’s development: tension between a conservative, devout population and rapacious, hypocritical rulers who are not Islamic in their personal lives and who bring the infidel into society whose ways start a moral rot for the sake of Saudi dynastic gain. Not that such criticisms of the Saudi family are not valid. But Munif – no Islamist himself – has been moved to place this emphasis on the Salafi movement, Nasrallah surmises, because he has concluded it is the only force capable of mobilising the people to rise up against Al Saud. He writes: “It has been established historically that the labour movement in the Eastern Province had an Arab nationalist character, but there is no trace of this in Munif’s novel at all. On the contrary, with him one can find a deliberate attempt to distort this Arab nationalist character and add a religious one, indeed a Salafi extremist one that is inimical to Arab nationalism.” (Damascus: Dar al-Mada, 2010; p.67)  It seems to me that Munif’s deviations would seem all the more acute in light of recent research highlighting the nationalist and leftist political mobilization in the 1950s and 60s. I am thinking of Robert Vitalis’ America’s Kingdom.

He makes a telling observation of the use of verse from Iraqi poet Mohammed Mehdi al-Jawarihi, who had a role in the popular mobilisation against the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, whic was violently wrenched from power in 1958. In the last of five novels, Badiyat al-Zulumat (Desert of Darkness), one character named Omar Zeidan issues a kind of curse on the rulers after his son becomes one of thousands arrested by police for suspected subversive political activities. The language in Arabic is obviously poetic and suggests the speaker will have the power of the devil to ruin the lives of Al Saud. He says: “I will be their end. Yes indeed. I will be their end. I will enter their homes. Yes indeed. I will enter their homes and tempt their newly-born and the servants to insult them. Yes, by God and by my religion. I will enter their homes and tempt the newly-born and the servants to insult them. I will tempt the newly-born and the servants to insult them, Iwill curse the parents of their parents.” Such examples illustrate that Munif was not simply depicting the changes wrought on small communities in the Peninsula, he intended Cities of Salt as a pamphlet in the fight to bring down Al Saud. But it was the Salafi movement that in his view was capable of doing this.

It is interesting to note that Munif wrote in the 1980s when the Salafi trend had regenerated and was very much in the ascendent. Juhaiman’s revolt in 1979, when he and his followers occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks, was inspired by the ideal of the Ikhwan who were crushed in 1930. At the same time, in the 1970s when the Muslim Brotherhood was free to operate in Egypt after Nasser’s persecution and many of its cadres worked in Saudi Arabia, a neo-Salafi movement emerged in Saudi Arabia of Wahhabi preachers and religious scholars inspired by the political activism of the Brotherhood. The traditional division of labour between king and cleric did not appeal to them: they sought a say in political decision-making itself. The emergence simultaneously of traditional Salafi jihadism and a Saudi political Islam terrified Al Saud. My guess is Munif realized this and it inspired him (as political Islam of course inspired many a secular intellectual from the 1980s to this day). I’m looking forward to Nasrallah’s conclusions when I get to the end of the book.

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