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.

Review: African Titanics, by Abu Bakr Khaal (2008 / 2014)

~ African Titanics ( تيتانيكات أفريقية, Tiitaaniikaat afriqiyya; 2008), by Abu Bakr Khaal. Translated from Arabic by Charis Bredin (Darf Publishers, 2014). ~

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It’s difficult for me to put out an unequivocal judgment on African Titanics. On the one hand, it’s a pretty singular book: a dense, intense, often poetic narrative of an illegal migrant’s adventures, en route from Africa to Europe; a topic which arousing more and more social political interest with every overcrowded “Titanic” (as Titanics’ protagonist, like Khaal himself an emigrant from Eritrea, calls them) rescued in the Mediterranean. Still, its terseness didn’t really allow the ideas to be developed as fully as I might have wished. That there is a voice speaking on the subject is itself important; and Khaal’s is a singular, and very memorable, contribution – though probably not the definitive one (see below though for why I think this might ultimately be a good thing).

The core of Titanics is composed from episodes taken from the experience of the narrator – the Eritrean Abdar – and other migrants as they cross the expanses of north-eastern Africa on their way to the promised land of Europe. This final goal is never questioned; we’re made to feel as if all the migrants are on some sort of quest, drawn into a larger, almost mythic narrative that sets countless trials and obstacles in their path. There are hellish desert journeys, in jeeps pursued by bandits, with not enough food and water; a thriller-like border crossing during a storm in Tunisia; holding on for dear life in a leaking fishing boat in the Mediterranean. People die, often in gruesome ways, and the narrator gives us just enough background on each to make the loss have an impact. Abdar himself never even makes it to the final, “Titanic” stage of the journey; after deportations in North Africa he returns, ostensibly, back to Eritrea, richer at the very least for the experience and – more importantly, for the novel’s themes and structure – the stories passed on to him by his various journey-mates and that are recounted in the book, often at some length.

A perverse version of the Hero’s Journey, perhaps. But towards the second part of the book, the path of the “hero” – the narrator, really, if we go by the supposed structure – comes to be drowned (as it were) by all the other narrations. There are so many tragic, and colorful, stories to tell that Abdar’s own experience simply can’t compare. By the end of the novel he retreats into the background, and no longer functions as a compelling character.

Part of this is of course the point: no single person can bear the weight of all the particular, personal stories of tragedy that trans-Saharan ‘refugee flight’ produces every day (and has been producing for decades). All we can manage is fragments, perhaps, as Titanics offers up, in its role as a “many-sided memorial” (as ArabLit in English put it) to all the unsung crossing heroes. There is a chance here for a deeper commentary on shared narratives, perhaps even the disappearance of “authorship” in such conditions; but Titanics’ conclusion isn’t managed with quite enough skill to effect that. I was left with the impression that, given a few more pages, there could have been a better chance for the narrator (who- or whatever he ultimately is) to be situated with respect to other stories. As it is, the ending just feels abrupt – as if Abdar was only being given a ‘formal’ conclusion to his storyline, without tying up the other threads.

Titanics is certainly not a neat novel. But it is gripping, often beautiful, deals with a burning sociopolitical issue, and packages it all in a literary format which does justice to a subjectivity in desperate need of a louder voice. There are passages where Khaal manages a properly mythical feeling to the experience, with powerful imagery and metaphor on par with that of the finest literary craftsmen. It tells us, and confidently so, that migration gives stories worth telling – which might make for great literature, too.

The danger here would be to start seeing Khaal’s work as the definitive “illegal migrant” experience. But the novel itself defies this sort of appropriation – not least because of its slippage between segments of explicit realism (Abdar’s narrative, basically: the desert journeys, border crossings, illicit stays in refugee ‘hostels’ and so on) and the parallel tales from other characters: experiences recounted in the same manner as Abdar’s, but also poetry and folk-tale-like narratives that refuse to be grounded in one particular context. One only wishes it could all have been tied up together a little tighter in the end.

Verdict: recommended.

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Review: The Bride of Amman, by Fadi Zaghmout (2012 / 2015)

The Bride of Amman (2012), by Fadi Zaghmout. Translated from Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Signal 8, 2015). ~

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(Disclaimer: This review is based on an ARC of the forthcoming translation, kindly provided by the publisher, though I had previously read the novel in the Arabic original as well. For my review of Zaghmout’s recently published second novel [on Arabic Literature (in English)], see here: LINK)

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Fadi Zaghmout’s The Bride of Amman (‘Arūs ‘ammān; Arabic original 2012, English translation by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp 2015) follows the personal trajectories of five young Jordanians – all of whom struggle with the mismatch between their own relationships and sexual preferences, and those imposed as an ideal model by the society around them. It demonstrates, through an intense, straightforward narrative, the struggles and paradoxes that come from trying to fulfill normative sexual and gender roles. For what it might lack in literary artistry, the novel makes up for with its themes, by touching upon issues that are acknowledged though rarely debated in the prevailing public discourse in Jordan (and perhaps the Arab Middle East more generally). For that reason alone, it deserves attention – though its narrow thematic focus and plain expository style might not be for everyone.

Bride follows five different characters – the university students Leila, Rana, and Hayat, Leila’s sister Selma, and the (wealthy) Iraqi immigrant Ali – as they deal with issues of love, sex, and marriage during their lives in Amman, Jordan. All the characters are in their twenties – finishing their university studies, or just embarking on their professional and individual life paths after it. For all of them, the normative form of this path involves marriage; this they all achieve, by the end of the novel, though perhaps not in the way they initially expected (and with some very traumatic experiences along the way). Premarital sex, family sexual abuse, and non-heteronormative sexual preferences all enter into the mix, as factors detracting from the ideal image promoted by familial, social, and broader cultural expectations – especially (though not exclusively) on women.

These are all issues highly resonant with young Jordanians today, and it is easy to see how this might have contributed to the novel’s popularity. They also form the core of struggles against gender and sexual discrimination, something which Zaghmout (also an active blogger and activist) is himself deeply involved in.

The novel’s focus is rather narrow, centered on gender norms and relationship taboos. Zaghmout does not touch at all on economic, political, or other social issues. This is not necessarily a weakness – though with so much hinging on a single theme, there is always the risk of essentializing the Jordanian social context as one marked only by what are considered to be (by the author, as well as the novel’s characters) oppressive gender norms, and idealizing other contexts where this might not be the case. Zaghmout’s characters do, in fact, make judgments like this; and, knowing their stories, this is perfectly understandable – which also make such pronouncements sound less like authorial tracts than they might have under the pen of a less crafty writer.

While Zaghmout’s personal convictions certainly shine through – in choice of characters and narratives if nothing else – the novel does not offer any easy solutions to the issues it identifies. Though ‘happy,’ in an absolute or utilitarian sense, the novel’s ending is far from neat – which reflects the ‘messiness’ of real life experiences that Zaghmout’s characters speak towards, and contribute to the novel’s sense of societal realism.

The narrative feels fragmented at times, told as it is from five different viewpoints, and also reflects the novel’s genesis via series of blog posts. The language is straightforward, the style accessible; sometimes almost too much so – characters often make their thoughts or convictions completely explicit, leaving little room for reflection or ambiguity. Given the Arabic context of the original, though, this can be seen as at least in part a strategic choice on the writer’s part, orienting the novel away from wordy literary traditions (which are often obscurely formal / classical in their form and choice of vocabulary), and more towards a transparent style aimed also at a public that does not normally engage with ‘high literature.’ Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s translation is excellent; it inevitably loses some of the flavour of the original – most notably, the dialogue, written in distinctly Jordanian / Levantine colloquial Arabic whose particularities are impossible to replicate in English – thought it more than makes up for it in other respects. It’s smooth and idiomatic, and perfectly digestible as an English text.

The novel’s array of voices – four of which are female – could perhaps be turned to better use, and made more distinct in literary / narrative terms than only through their plot trajectories. (There are traces of distinct personalities – Leila’s self-centeredness, Hayat’s introversion – but they are more sketched outlines than proper impressions; character descriptions are for the most part stated explicitly, rather than shown.) Some of the characters also feel like a catalogue of ‘validated’ social identities in Jordanian – there are a number of Christian characters, a Circassian character, a wealthy Iraqi refugee – all of which are social groups that in political and economic terms in Jordan are relatively secure. Again, such issues fall outside of Zaghmout’s purview – though their absence, in a way, also reinforces the novel’s central theme: even young, wealthy Jordanians, of relatively good social standing, cannot escape the pressure of ideal gender relations, and dire consequences when such norms are not fulfilled.

In the end, though, the protagonists’ individuality shines through. it is via their own strength and inventiveness – as well as a handful of supportive others – they are able to endure. At its heart, Bride is a story of individuals battling for dignity, freedom, and respect, a way not to let their lives and convictions be choked under the judgments of others. In that, it should be seen as a novel specific to the Jordanian context, or more generally that of the Arab Middle East; and it speaks in particular to a generation that is more and more eager to discuss such issues – primarily, rights to gender equality and sexual freedom – as they struggle with them in their daily lives.

Bride is, in the end, a rather straightforward read – though not always a comfortable, or comforting, one. It provides a realistic portrayal of the problems and obstacle young people in Jordan face today when it comes to negotiating their social and sexual identities. Gender relations and the position of women are its primary concerns, and it does not stray far from them either narratively or thematically. Still, these are subjects worthy of discussion, and especially relevant for younger generations of Jordanians and Arabs to whom (and for whom) Zaghmout aims to speak.

Verdict: recommended.

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