Some Reflections on Cities of Salt

A few months ago I finished Abdelrahman Munif’s Variations on Night and Day (Taqāsīm al-layl wa-l-nahār; translated from Arabic by Peter Theroux; Pantheon Books, 1993) the third volume of his “Cities of Salt” pentalogy. This is also the final volume translated into English; the first volume (Arabic al-Tīh, though published as Cities of Salt in English using the name of the series as a whole) and the second (The Trench / al-Uḳdūd) have also been translated, all by Peter Theroux, while the final two volumes – al-Munbat and Bādiyat al-Ẓulumāt – have not. The pentalogy chronicles the transformation of a fictional kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula (named Mooran, but quite clearly Saudi Arabia à clef) from a largely pre-industrial society, via political consolidation and the discovery of oil to being involved in broader geopolitical struggles, with an eye all the while on the effects such changes have on local society.

The translation isn’t stellar (perhaps more another time on this), though it mostly does the job; still, there were more than a few passages where I can’t imagine anybody could make sense of what is going on without guessing at the Arabic original from which they were translated. Now I’ve finally gotten to writing up some thoughts on the book, and the series in general – though a bit scattered I think it’s important for anyone who pretends to engage with Arabic literature of the last century or so to formulate some sort of position on Munif, given his popularity among Arabophone authors and readers if nothing else.

Here they are, then: my reflections on Cities of Salt, in no particular order.

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1) Munif is excellent at evoking a sense of context – or, rather, one particular sociocultural context: that of the Arabian peninsula in the first decades of the 20th century. This comes through in dialogue, in particular, but also in descriptive passages. Direct communication is often allusive; proverbs speak more than explicit declamations; communicative norms are very much burdened by honour, and the need not to expose oneself too much in terms of one’s sociopolitical resources – not so much saving face as steering interaction in a way that would never require face to be saved, while still making sure that all the relationships of those involved are clearly understood. It might sound quaint to praise the series for being a “realistic” literary representation – but I still think it’s a formidable achievement to (successfully) evoke the sense of a context governed by very particular norms of interaction in a novelistic form. (Some of this might be the source of the “insufficient Westernization” that famously put John Updike off the series and might have killed Munif’s chances of ever ‘making it’ as a name in English translation.)

2) Gender. Well… Maybe I’ve become over-primed to notice this kind of thing, but Munif’s female characters (in Cities, at least) are a pretty stereotypical disappointment. There are very few of them, and they all seem to be cast in very particular molds (“sexually frustrated wife,” “aging manipulator” etc.) which provide for little nuance or narratively catalytic variations in motivation. (This in contrast with male characters, who – although themselves often bland – are much more numerous, varied, and consequential.) Such narrative practice is ‘realistic’ only insofar as ‘realism’ involves a full 50% of extant social history is being erased. Not sure if we should, or could, be expecting more from a 20th century male Arab author; still something to notice, I think.

3) A major concern of the series is to show how broader geopolitical games have real, palpable, transformative effects on local lives. For this purpose, Munif sketches out a few trajectories of local characters, people whose livelihoods have been threatened or who have had to adapt – with greater or lesser success – to a context of autocratic state control beholden to rulers’ and foreign powers’ interests first and foremost and no longer as concerned with ‘local’ scales of interpersonal interaction. With the exception of the ruling royals and a few of their lackeys, these are treated via event-vignettes and cast aside fairly quickly – which gives a good sense of (male, at least) social variability in “Mooran,” but doesn’t provide much emotional or investment. (Though given the satirical undertone that pervades the writing throughout, perhaps this is the point.)

4) The narrative of the pentalogy isn’t linear, and the translation – being incomplete – suffers from it. We get glimpses into certain aspects of “Mooran’s” historical development, but thematic and even personal arcs are truncated rather abruptly. If read in full, the experience might be more satisfying; as it is, concluding a “trilogy” (as Cities is still often misrepresented in English) with a “prequel” (which is what Theroux has characterized Variations on Night and Day as) seems woefully inadequate. Munif is of course not to blame for this – marketers, publishers, and English-language reviewers much more so – but it’s very unfortunate not to have the rest at least available.

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Munif was a great writer. I’ve only read a few bits of his in Arabic – a couple of his early novels, none of which have been translated into English to my knowledge – and I couldn’t presume to judge whether he was “the greatest” as some have claimed (certainly many Arabophones I know rate him just as well as, and often higher than, the Nobel-prize-winning Mahfouz). The Cities pentalogy, though, for what it is – and for all the reservations I might have had about it and sketched out above – certainly deserves to be better appreciated outside of Arabic-speaking contexts as well. It’s a bit tragic, though maybe not surprising, that contingencies of translation and publication have made this seem like a distant goal.

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