Abdul Rahman Munif’s quintet Cities of Salt sketches an image of the ecological destruction triggered by America’s oil-driven interference in the gulf region, which consequently became a triggering factor for the emergence of Islamic authoritarianism and political conflicts. The events of Cities of Salt start around the 1930s in the undisturbed environment of the oasis of Wadi al-Uyoun, destined to be devastated by the emergent oil industry, where Munif creates a parallel image of homogenous society which is also to be divided by a chasm that separates the beneficiaries from the uprooted masses. This article focuses on Munif’s depiction of the built environment which brings the two images of environment and society together. The vernacular architecture of Wadi al-Uyoun homes, built from its natural materials and by the collective efforts of its people, is also destroyed and replaced by constructions that neither belong to Wadi al-Uyoun’s natural environment nor reflect the identity of its people.
Munif connects creatively two parallel shifts: the shift from an almost egalitarian community into a capitalist one and the shift from a spiritual Islamic society into a radically authoritarian Islamic state. This article aims at illustrating the enforced degradation of the inherited architectural identity and the demolition of the original urban fabric that reflected the ecological harmony for the sake of distorted architectural identity and imposed urban plans that reflect the new capitalist and authoritarian nature of the Gulf States.
The life of oil in the Persian Gulf is associated with slow environmental erosion that can go unnoticed as it blurs the boundaries of time and space. Such ‘attritional catastrophes’ are marked by displacement: temporal, geographical, rhetorical, and technological displacements that mask violence and underestimate its previous and future consequences that humans and the environment suffer. Such displacements, according to Rob Nixon, “smooth the way for amnesia, as places are rendered irretrievable to those who once inhabited them, places that ordinarily pass unmourned in the corporate media” (Slow Violence 7). In Cities of Salt, through the image he draws of Wadi Al Uyoun, Abd El Rahman Munif attempts to bring back to memory those lost cities wrapped in amnesia, not in a nostalgic sense as much as to connect past catastrophes to an even more catastrophic future that is trapped between oil’s receding tides and the advancing tides of environmental changes, where the cities of salt would dissolve in the waters of the tide and vanish into amnesia.
Yet, his choice of apocalyptic idiom, “when the waters come in,” shouldn’t lead to seeing the whole discourse as a survivalist or radical discourse. To analyze the discourse that confronts what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” one needs to look at Cities of Salt from different perspectives and connect it to many discourses. The apocalyptic idiom in Cities of Salt can be seen as the “figurative shape” that Munif as a novelist chooses to deliver his warning cry against the formless threats that he, as a petroleum engineer and insider from the petroleum industry, predicts. This article looks at Cities of Salt through both the fictional and nonfictional works of Munif, and follows his prophetic cry against the slow violence inflicted on the physical environment and the associated degradation of the spiritual environment that eventually led to the emergence of Islamic Radicalism. Rob Nixon’s approach to confronting slow violence would explain the difference between the iconic symbols and spectral protagonists in Munif’s narratives and the rational analysis in his nonfictional work as a representational necessity. Nixon says:
To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats whose fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects. To intervene representationally entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency. (Slow Violence 10)
Cities of Salt is usually looked at from the perspective of post colonialist literature, which is a valid perspective; however, limiting the work to the relations between the colonizers and the colonized would limit the analysis of the discourse between the colonizer’s Promethean discourse and the colonized’s survivalist discourse (Dryzek 37-53). Furthermore, it would veil the intricate relations between the political, social, cultural and environmental aspects in the narrative on the one hand, and the spiritual degradation that manifests in Islamic Radicalism on the other. First of all, the nature of the colonizer—or of the capitalist, to be more accurate—in the context of oil’s new imperialism in the Persian Gulf region is misleadingly presented as a “spirit of goodwill and generosity toward the Saudi Arabs as people” (Slow Violence 100). Nixon points to works like Wallace Stegner’s Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil, commissioned by the Arabian American Oil company in 1955 as part of an effort “to counter Nasserite denunciations of the House of Saud for capitulating to imperialism and betraying pan-Arabism” (Slow Violence 100), as an example of this misleading presentation.
Nixon considers Stegner’s book as an attempt “to distance his paymasters from any intimation of imperial malpractice” and to emphasize the company’s so called “frequent” altruism or, as Stegner puts it, “its concern with the total well-being of its employees, both American and Arab,” which is meant to distance the Americans from the image of the colonizer while portraying any opponent as a hostile propagandist who is “maligning the well-intentioned, uplifting role that American companies had played in the region” (Slow Violence 100). In other words, the American propaganda is set to label any opponent as ‘an enemy of the people.’
No wonder Munif is labeled as an ‘enemy’ by the Saudi authorities that withdrew his Saudi nationality to let him face an exile similar to that threatening Dr. Thomas Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People. One can draw many connections between Munif and Dr. Stockmann; both are insiders from industries they believe would enhance progress whose optimism is turned into despair at seeing the valuable resources that would boost such progress squandered in the hands of corrupt rulers.
Munif faced two challenges. Firstly, he was a postcolonial novelist writing in imperial times who had to recognize “at least implicitly, that failures in the forms of memory are inseparable from failures of political foresight” as Nixon puts it (Slow Violence 100). Secondly, he had to make the people see the face of the colonizer veiled behind its ‘goodwill’ and its connection with the ruling class and religious authority. In an interview, Munif expressed clearly his pain in face of the squandered opportunities and his pessimism about the future:
The tragedy is not in our having the oil, but in the way we use the wealth it has created and in the future awaiting us after it has run out. Trees were cut down, people uprooted from their land, the earth dug up and oil finally pumped out only to turn people into a crowd of open mouths waiting for charity or a crowd of arms fighting over a piece of bread and building an illusory future. […] Oil could have been a road to the future, but what actually happened is nothing like that. As a result, we shall again have to face a sense of loss and estrangement, this time in complete poverty. (El- Enany 220)
Rob Nixon presents an insightful explanation of how “oil becomes damnation” in underdeveloped countries. He says, “If ‘fossil fuel’ resonates with a sense of time borrowed against an exhaustible past and an exhaustible future, ‘Resource curse’ holds in taut suspense notions of fortune and misfortune” (Slow Violence 69). The ironic phrase “resource curse,” in a generic sense, resonates with Munif’s “oil damnation,” as both combine “utilitarian and numinous perspectives on Earth, suggesting the vulnerability of the world of solid, useful goods to spiritual force fields–the curses and blessings that can have profoundly material effects” (Slow Violence 69). Nixon connects Munif’s narratives to the term “resource curse”:
Although he wrote Cities of Salt before the term “resource curse” had been coined, Munif has bequeathed us the most expansive novelistic account of the Persian Gulf’s early oil conflicts that would bring the resource curse in train. Cities of Salt tracks how a nascent transnational oil culture created the foundations for the resource curse, deepening the divide between a narrow class that would become astronomically rich and the uprooted, immiserated masses (from inside and increasingly from beyond the Persian Gulf). (Slow Violence 75)
Thus “oil damnation” compresses the same huge, fraught questions that “resource curse” compresses about ownership. First, “what does it mean to be possessed or dispossessed, politically, economically, and spiritually?” Second, “what are the repercussions of having mineral belongings that literally undermine a community’s or society’s capacity to belong?” And finally, “what forces turn belongings — those goods, in a material and an ethical sense — into evil powers that alienate people from the very elements that have sustained them, environmentally and culturally, as all that seemed solid melts into liquid tailings, oil spills, and plumes of toxic air?” (Slow Violence 69-70). Nixon presents an in-depth analysis in an attempt to answer the first question about being possessed or dispossessed:
From Saudi Arabia to Zaire, from Indonesia to Iran, the Western powers typically supported oligarchs, dictators, and military regimes that cooperated with the skewed terms of resource extraction. The Western powers often machinated to topple rulers who objected to these skewed terms. Moreover, Western multinationals typically exerted a disproportionate influence over the terms of extraction with their third world state partners, inhibiting democratic dispensations from developing while exploiting an environmental, health, and labor climate far more lax than the legislative controls corporations were subject to back home. Hence, international law enabled a single multinational to cultivate divergent standards of operation in the global North and South, a double standard that grew out of — and exacerbated — the historical, structural inequities for which the resource curse has become shorthand. (Slow Violence 71)
Nixon implies that Munif, who was born on the same day in 1933 that the Saudis signed the Gulf’s first concession agreement with an American corporation, the California Arabian Standard Oil Company, was “summoned to his subject by the stars,” his major subject being the rise of the Gulf State petro-despots as well as “the role that American oil gluttony has played in sustaining them.” These two subjects explain the sweeping “sense of growing disillusionment among ordinary Muslims, whose lands and lives have been trampled by the petroleum behemoth” in Munif’s novels (“The Hidden” 2).
The two subjects Nixon defines are major and crucial reasons behind the “growing disillusionment” which consequently invades and distorts the spiritual environment and provide fertile grounds for radicalism. Yet the fundamental aspect in the formation of Islamic radicalism that would present the third side of that trilogy is the Wahhabis’ distorted version of Islam, which is not a result of the two previous subjects, but a subject born with them, as Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabi’s school, had been the religious ally of the House of Al Saud from the very beginning of their reign (Janin and Kahlmeyer 92; Shahi 47-50). In other words, Wahhabis’ Islam, which is essentially a political version of Islam, is a part of the crisis Munif points to as he says, “Our crisis is a trilogy: oil, political Islam, and dictatorship” (Habash). Without taking Wahhabis’ Islam into consideration as a root cause of radicalism that is entwined with the rule of the Al Saud (Al- Rasheed, History 16), rather than looking at it as a result of their policies, the answer to the first question will remain incomplete, and so will the answers to the second and third questions.
Michael J. Watts’s description of the emergence of the petro-capitalist society in Nigeria, similar to that in Munif’s narrative, in which “a key resource (petroleum) and a logic of extraction figure centrally in the making and breaking of community” (Watts 195), might answer the second question. Watts says that Nigeria sees its community “through and with oil — the communities are ‘naturalized’ in relation to the effects, social, environmental, political, of oil exploration and production — but produces forms of rule and identity that are often fragmented, unruly, and violent” (195). This violent form of rule is evident in the aggression against authors who write against the collusion between petro-despots and the new oil imperialists; the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed for his activism against the Nigerian petro-despots and their masters; the Indonesian intellectual George Aditjondro, who wrote heroically about his country’s oil-driven authoritarianism, was forced into exile; and Munif was also forced into exile after the Saudis revoked his citizenship. Saro-Wiwa shared Munif’s determination to expose the violent mutilation of his country’s oil-oriented society. His prison memoir, A Month and a Day, shares much with Cities of Salt. He was executed on trumped-up charges of murder fabricated by Nigeria’s Abacha regime, becoming Africa’s most prominent environmental martyr in 1995. Through his writings he exposed the complicity between transnational petroleum companies and the brutal repressions inflicted on local populations by undemocratic, unpopular, oil empowered regimes that he calls “genocide by environmental means.” Nixon points to a revealing incident one year before Saro-Wiwa was executed, when the Nigerian government issued a memorandum: “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence” (“The Hidden Lives” 3).
The opposing movements that repeatedly emerge within the oil-created communities are no less violent. Groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Qaeda, which emerged from within the Jihadists sent to Afghanistan with the funds of the Al Saud and the United States and the blessings of Wahhabi Sheikhs (Carter 215-45; Tomsen 367-91), are models of those violent radical opposition movements which draw their religious authority from Wahhabi’s so-called ‘Islam’ in an ironic coincidence where both the tyrants and their opponents draw their authority from the same source fabricated by the religious allies of Al Saud (Brown and Rassler 59-129). Nixon, in spite of not mentioning Wahhabi Islam with regard to the subjects that called Munif to his life’s work, is able to describe clearly how Munif connects political Islam to his two subjects:
He foresaw how American policies —ranging from connivance through complicity to direct threats, assassinations, and the deliberate fomenting of unrest — increased the probability that uncontrollable blowback would ensue. Munif voiced outrage at the way, during the cold war’s final decade, “the people behind fundamentalism’s current hard line were recruited as youths, then nurtured in Afghanistan, and ultimately sent on to Bosnia, all with the enthusiastic support of the United States and Saudi Arabia”. The jihad was not some atavistic, medieval eruption, but was in large measure the child of modernity in the form of the Soviet-U.S. rivalry, of which control over petroleum reserves was a critical dimension. (Slow Violence 98)
Munif’s narrative in Cities of Salt, unlike his nonfiction writings that equally condemn every side of “the trilogy of oil, political Islam, and dictatorship,” doesn’t point directly to political Islam. However, following the engagement of Islamic tradition in his narrative reveals the turn toward aggressive interpretations of the Quran that is entwined with the other radicalizing forces that shape petrocapitalist society.
Thus, the answer to the third question is revealed through close reading of the narrative. Munif’s figural connection between the people of Wadi and their environment recurs in many events, but the significance of the way he connects the palm trees to the people of Wadi lies in the spiritual symbolism of the palm trees as well as the metaphoric meanings the uprooting implies. Munif writes:
That tree, the fourth on the left, is just your age, boy. You grow every day, and it grows with you. Tomorrow you will plant a tree for your son, and he’ll plant a tree for his son, and Wadi will get greener every day. People will keep coming to drink the water and hope never to die, and when they sit in the shade of the tree they’ll say, “May God show mercy to whoever planted the trees and the green plants.” (Cities 48)
Palm tree, ‘Nakhlah’ in Arabic, means ‘what remains on the sieve after sieving.’ In Islamic tradition, it is said that palm trees are created from the particles of clay remaining in the sieve after God sieved the particles from which Adam was created. Hence, the connection of palm tree and Arabs is a connection of body and soul, and the death of the body means the death of the soul. Munif’s narrative points an accusing finger at the Americans whose violent uprooting of the trees triggered a violent reaction and disturbed the spirit of Wadi al-Uyoun. He writes:
They [the Americans] poured out like a band of devils. In a flash they headed for the machines with a speed and excitement that finally signaled that the end has come. . . .
This was the final, insane, accursed proclamation that everything had come to an end For anyone who remembers those long–ago days, when a place called Wadi al-Uyoun used to exist, and a man named Miteb al- Hathal, and a brook, and trees. . . . The trees shook violently and groaned before falling, cried for help, wailed, panicked, called out in helpless pain and then fell entreatingly to the ground, as if trying to snuggle into the earth to grow and spring forth alive again. (Cities 105-106)
One can recognize the contrast between the peaceful prayers Miteb Al Hathal delivers, “May God show mercy to whoever planted the trees and the green plants,” on the one hand and the angry damnation of the Americans who “poured out like a band of devils” on the other. Such contrast between mercy and damnation is intrinsically connected to the contrast between the sustainable approach of planting trees, and the promethean approach of uprooting trees and exploiting nature (Dryzek, 53-132).
“American Shaalan” is an image of the Wadi’s socioenvironmental shift. Shaalan “planted himself in Wadi Al-Uyoun not like the palm trees that had filled the wadi in times gone by” (Cities 134) nor the specific tree Meteb planted when his son was born, but “like one of the iron columns that now stood everywhere, and within a short time he changed very much indeed” (134). Thus, Munif’s question becomes inevitable: “How is it possible for people and places to change so entirely that they lose any connection with what they used to be? Can a man adapt to new things and new places without losing a part of himself?” (134).
Nixon recalls the resemblance between Munif’s novels and French economist Jacques Attali’s ideas that Nixon summarized as follows: “ours is a world increasingly divided into rich and poor nomads, into wandering elite that travels expansively and a disenfranchised poor whose movements are propelled by misery in a quest for basic goods and rights beyond their grasp” (Attali 7). The ever-widening gap between the “mobile rich” and “wretched, disenfranchised nomads” is most noticeable in the Gulf States, where the absence of social justice engenders political instability among people bound by desperation, oil, political Islam, and American and European needs.
Munif, who proudly acknowledges his nomadic nature, saying in an interview “Even when one puts on a tie, one is still a Bedouin, a nomad in the heart” (Munif, Interviewed by Ahmed Al Zein; my trans.), is perfectly situated as a witness to displacement, as a child of the Arab diaspora, born in Jordan to an Iraqi mother and a Saudi trader who traveled widely through the region. Munif himself led an unusual nomadic life, residing in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yugoslavia, and France. He earned his Ph.D. in oil economics from Belgrade University, edited the Baghdad Journal of Oil and Development, and worked in the Syrian oil ministry. Munif’s nomadic life compelled Nixon to see him in Bertolt Brecht’s self-portrait of “a man given to changing his country as often as his shoes.” (Brecht 177). Being a nomad himself and an insider of the oil industry at the same time, Munif imaginatively portrayed the environmental, political, and cultural movement of history while linking “oil’s hybrid lives as a commodity” to “the oil-induced movements of human populations across oceans and across deserts.” In an interview, Munif said: “I do not like to freeze a moment or a place; writing has its own colors and movements, aspects that allow the writer to move in a wide scope. If I created a scene and fixed it for a moment, after a while I feel that I want to go back and make it move. Places are like people; they have a temporal dimension, they age and change” (Interview by Ahmed Al Zein; my trans.). The spiritual powers are never absent in his nomadic moving plot, yet he is able to show how these powers can metamorphose into violent power under repression or environmental aggression alike.
Munif’s involuntary exile and voluntary wandering are inseparable from being an oil industry insider who knew from the inside “what it meant to be dispossessed.” Thus, his empathy for the uprooted always recalls the catastrophic trilogy of oil, political Islam, and dictatorship. Yet he distinguishes between nomadic Bedouin culture that had been carved on the land through movement, “a belonging-in-motion shaped to an arid world” as Nixon puts it (Slow Violence 76), and rootlessness that is nomadism’s opposite, which is inflicted on the Bedouins who are uprooted from their lands and increasingly urbanized, repressed and exploited by a corrupt ruling class. Munif’s Cities records the growing hostility of the estranged workers in their enforced homelessness, which later in the novel will be the ground where radical Islam emerges. Munif unveils the humiliation the workers suffer and creatively entwines it with the alienated sun, dust, and flies. He says:
The shift ended, and all the men drifted home to the two sectors like streams coursing down a slope, one broad and one small, the Americans to their camp and the Arabs to theirs, the Americans to their swimming pool, where their racket could be heard in the nearby barracks behind the barbed wire. When silence fell, the workers guessed that the Americans had gone into their air-conditioned rooms whose thick curtains shut everything out: sunlight, dust, flies, and Arabs. (Cities 391)
The last paragraph resonates with Munif’s remarks on the double standards of Washington’s cold warriors, which he found nauseating: “They talked of democracy and human rights in the USSR, Eastern Europe and Cuba, but when they reached the Mediterranean coasts, they forgot about democracy. All they thought about was oi1” (qtd. in Nixon, Slow Violence 98). When a bomb blast in Saudi Arabia killed nineteen Americans at Dhahran (from which Munif derives the name of his fictional Harran), Munif condemned the attack, but not without a warning that America needs “to treat the causes of despair, not merely the symptoms.” Munif feared “worse was to come: more violent hijackings of Islam with even more catastrophic consequences” unless the United States stopped protecting regimes and individuals unworthy of protection, unless it supported those who sought to bring economic optimism to the alienated, unless it adopted “a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and unless it closed the military bases in Saudi Arabia that Muslims viewed as symbols of a collective humiliation” (Slow Violence 98).
The third population uprooted by the oil encounter that Munif’s narrative offers an image of and to whose growing discontent he gives voice are the crowds of migrant workers drawn to the Gulf from poorer Islamic and semi-Islamic nations like Bangladesh, Malaysia, Egypt, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Yemen. The novel, indirectly and through one character, Akoup, recalls those uprooted workers (Nixon, “The Hidden Lives” 2). When one recalls Munif’s remarks in an interview in which he says “I do not give real names to the places in my novels, to let them speak to the collective readership in the Arab World” (Interview by Amer Al Smadi), one can see that he not only speaks to the collective readership in the Arab World, but he also speaks on behalf of a wider scope of oppressed workers in the Gulf whose origins go beyond the Middle East. However, one would also think of those humiliated humans as an easy target to the brain washing of radicalism. It is an unhidden fact that those workers, mostly without bad intentions, spread the ideas of Wahhabi Islam in their homelands.
Munif’s views on the United States’ double standards regarding human rights resonate with the situation he created around the accidental death of Mizban (a worker) and the murder of Mufaddi al-Jeddan that ignite the workers’ anger. Mufaddi al-Jeddan’s last screams are “People of Harran, money has corrupted many before you. It has corrupted nations and kingdoms. Money enslaves, it subjugates, but it never brings happiness” (Cities 553). These screams direct the workers against forces driven by money in the new economy. As the revolt escalates, Munif describes the masses in Harran as one: “The masses of people moved as one man” (613). Their anger quickly turns into a huge threat: “Within moments the people became like a flame, or a tempestuous wind. They feared nothing and cared for no consequences. . . . The people were charging, a human flood, swarming forward like locusts” (615).
Munif iconizes Mufaddi when he writes: “The people of Harran were to remember Mufaddi al-Jeddan, and this particular day, for many, many years to come” (576). As an expected result of the alienation of the workers, Mufaddi is seen as a symbol of their struggle. After the funeral, “a strong, overwhelming grief stormed the quiet houses, leaving no home or heart unpenetrated. People suddenly realized that they were more grief-stricken than they had imagined, and they enumerated the many, many reasons why” (575). That grief soon turns into illusions that make the people see the phantom of Mufaddi al-Jeddan as a warrior with clothes full of holes made by bullets. One wonders if that phantom implies any metaphoric connection to the new ideology of suicidal attacks undertaken by the oppressed ones who have nothing to lose. Of the spectral characters Munif creates in his narrative, only Mufaddi is portrayed in this way:
Those who arrived at the compound late said that they had seen from afar a man on a white camel pursing [sic] the soldiers and firing at them and attacking the main gate of the compound, and many of them said that the man was Miteb al-Hathal. Still others swore with absolute certainty that they saw a phantom shaped like a man flying above their heads, and it looked exactly like Mufaddi al-Jeddan. They said that the soldiers who fired their rifles were frightened to the point of utter terror and that most of their bullets were fired at the phantom, at Mufaddi al-Jeddan. They reported that the man’s clothing was full of holes made by the bullets. (Cities 616)
After the destruction of the wadi, Miteb mounts his white Omani she-camel and vanishes for the last time into the hills, in a suggestive metaphor of the end of generations who fight against the oppressor, without allowing his enemy to control him, just like his father Jazi Al-Hathal who fought the Turks. In doing so, Jazi became the first specter in Munif’s chain of specters. Munif describes him thusly in the very beginning of the novel:
People still remembered Jazi al-Hathal and what he had done to the Turks forty or fifty years before, making their occupation of Wadi al-Uyoun an unbearable hell. He would lie low for so long that he was thought to have died or been killed, and was almost forgotten by everyone, including the Turks themselves. Then he’d burst onto the scene, killing, burning, and destroying, only to escape back into the desert with what he seized, staying there long enough to be forgotten again; then he’d be back, making the wadi a veritable hell. (10)
The murder of Mufaddi al-Jeddan is a pivotal point in Munif’s Cities of Salt since it is followed by the final departure of Miteb Al-Hathal, but also by the rise of Ibn Naffeh who becomes a religious leader when he decides to bury the Christian Akoub in the Muslims’ cemetery. To make a decision in a situation where no religious text can be applied is the core of Sharia, on which Islamic jurisprudence is founded and from which all the radical movements draw their authority. Munif marks the Harranis’ return to religion, not that spiritual religion that enhances the harmony between man and nature they left in Wadi El Uyoun, but a religion which is implemented as an ideological mechanism of their resistance. What Ibn Naffeh presents when he “[chooses] his texts for the Koran carefully,” is a political interpretation of the Quran that paves the way for the creation of an Islamic nationalist discourse (604).
The catastrophic aspect of this Islamic nationalist discourse lies in its founding on the distorted radical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which was created as a manmade religion to serve the petro-despots in the Persian Gulf and their American masters. Wahhabi Islam serves these despots and their masters’ interests in many ways. First, it declares any opponent an infidel, which justifies the war against any group with different beliefs. Second, it opposes most of the cultural aspects inherited and developed in the Arabic culture, from music to cinema to sculpture, which provide the oil lords with the required image of Middle Eastern people as uncivilized nations, as if that image justified the exploitation of their resources; Third, their radical views toward women and minorities prevent the society from reaching its full potential, thus further emphasizing the image of a barbaric nation.
While Cities of Salt ends with the rise of a new, distorted Islamic discourse that can only be seen as an incarnation of Wahhabi’s discourse, The Trench, the second novel in Munif’s trilogy, which derives its title from a Qur’anic verse, severely criticizes the new religion of the petro-despots. The word “Trench” is the translation of the Arabic word ‘أخدود – Ukhdoud,’ which alludes to the Qur’anic verses in which a king from Yemen and his men pushed the believers into a ditch of fire: “Self-destroyed were the owners of the trench, of the fuel-fed fire, when they sat by it, and were themselves the witnesses of what they did” (The Qur’an, Al Borooj 85.4). Munif saw the fabricated religion of the petro-despots as a sort of treason leading to self-destruction. Nixon interprets Munif’s motif as follows:
This new religion, which incinerates all before it, is the creed of petro-despotism, marked by uncontrollable rapacity, corruption, brutality, and hypocrisy. The motif of the fuel-fed fire can thus be read as linking conspicuous consumption with its invisible twin, the inconspicuous consumption of irreplaceable oil time as, without hindsight or foresight, the petro-despotic state plunges headlong into the pit of collective self-destruction. (Slow Violence 99)
Munif was frustrated by the lost ground of the Gulf States, the geological, historical, and political lost ground, as well as by the resources frittered away. He was agonized by their betrayal of both past and future generations but now one can see that the catastrophe that Munif foretold is looming far beyond the Persian Gulf grounds, to disturb the whole region, or maybe the whole globe.
1. I chose to approach Munif’s work from the perspective of environmentalism and slow violence rather than post-colonialism for several reasons. First, approaching the work from the perspective of post-colonialism would obscure two sides of the crisis, which Munif sees as “a trilogy: oil, political Islam, and dictatorship” (qtd. in Habash), namely dictatorship and political Islam; both existed before the discovery of oil, the third side of the crisis, and the arrival of the Americans to exploit the new resource. Thus, the Americans made use of the already existing dictatorships, and eventually the associated political Islam, as I will show, but they did not create them. In that sense, I see the Americans as capitalists who allied with the already extant dictatorships to serve their interests. Thus their interference in the region’s affairs should be examined directly from the perspectives of capitalism, imperialism, or neo-liberalism, but not through post-colonialist theory, to which the geographic and historical events Munif is concerned with do not belong. Neil Lazarus’s words in his essay What Postcolonial Theory Doesn’t Say clarify my point, especially when he writes that “masterworks such as Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, Carlos Fuentes’s The Years with Laura Díaz and Earl Lovelace’s Salt, which, as vastly different from one another in form, tone and ideology as they are in location (an unnamed state in the Persian Gulf, Mexico and Trinidad, respectively), are nevertheless all directed to the longue durée of a specifically capitalist imperialism” (12). Secondly, one can recall incidents of violence against the environment that triggered immediate and slow violence on the social level which were undertaken by regimes opposed to colonialism and capitalism alike. The building of the High Dam in Egypt under the rule of Gamal Abd El Nasser is an example that shows how controversial the application of post-colonialist theory to environmental slow violence ca be.
2. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab and Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the Saudi Kingdom, had a pact in which they agreed that they would bring the Arabs of the peninsula back to the “true” principles of Islam “as they saw it”. According to Madawi al-Rasheed in her book A History of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud promised to protect Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, telling the latter: “This oasis is yours, do not fear your enemies. By the name of God, if all Nejd was summoned to throw you out, we will never agree to expel you” (16). In return, Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab replied: “You are the settlement’s chief and wise man. I want you to grant me an oath that you will perform jihad (Struggle to spread Islam) against the unbelievers. In return you will be imam, leader of the Muslim community and I will be leader in religious matters” (16). The words al-Rasheed quoted show clearly the political nature of this alliance that is veiled by religious rhetoric. Furthermore, it shows the early implementation of the concept of Jihad that eventually became the umbrella under which all sorts of violence against political and ideological opponents are justified. Al-Rasheed’s essay in Dying for Faith: Religiously Motivated Violence in the Contemporary World provides more insights into this subject.
3. Steve Coll’s book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, gives a documented history on this subject for interested readers.
4. “Honor your aunt, the Palm tree, for it is created from the clay that remained after the creation of your father Adam. Not a tree of the trees is more honored by God than the tree under which Maryam the daughter of Imran gave birth to Jesus” is a famous hadith that is attributed to Prophet Mohamed (Al-Albani 427; my trans.). In spite of the fact that the hadith is classified as weak, which means that its attribution to the prophet cannot be verified, its influence on the collective consciousness of Arabs, especially in the Gulf, is still evident. At least three articles by different authors appeared under the title “Honor Your Aunt, the Palm Tree” in three newspapers that are published in the Gulf and all of them quoted the mentioned Hadith. The first was published in the Saudi newspaper Al Riadh, 23 Oct 2008, by Aly Al Quhais; the second by Dr. Nidhal Al Jazae’ry for the Al Noor Center for Social Studies in Iraq, 15 August 2010; and the third was published in the Bahraini newspaper Al Ayam, 3 March 2016, by Ahmed Zaman.
5. Humanizing the palm tree is a literary tradition that started before Islam and continues in contemporary poetry. Using the palm tree in a metaphoric indication to humans is also a common tradition. Nizar Qabbani’s eulogy for his Iraqi wife Balqis al-Rawi, who was killed in the bombing of Iraqi embassy Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in December 1981, creatively revived this tradition in A Poem For Balqis (1982):
She was the most beautiful queen in the history of Babylon
She was the longest palm tree in the land of Iraq
Balqis … O my agony…
And the agony of the poem when fingers touch.
(Qabbani Vol. 4, Book 18; my trans.)
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