Abdelrahman Munif and the Uses of Oil

“The most fabulous geological event since the explosion of Krakatoa surely was the discovery of oceans of petroleum beneath the dark and backward Muslim realms of the Persian Gulf.” 

This portentous judgment of natural history and politics (and religion, and more, the more you reread it) came not from an evangelical pulpit or a Tory backbencher’s stemwinder. It was the opening sentence of John Updike’s review of Saudi dissident Abdelrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt in the New Yorker October 17, 1988.  As the novel’s translator, I felt let down by the emphasis on oil instead of the story. I got used to it, though—the Village Voice would entitle a later Munif review “The Price of Oil,” and still later the New Republic reviewed two of his novels under the headline “Petrofiction.” Munif would write sixteen novels, the first in 1973, and nine works of nonfiction, but his success in American publishing would come from documenting what Amitav Ghosh, writing in the New Republic, called “The Oil Encounter.”

My feeling was that Cities of Salt was no more about oil than The Godfather was about olive oil. It was a plot mechanism that allowed the author to create a Balzacian panorama cast in a society—the eastern Arabian Peninsula—that had never found its way into modern literature in any language. The harping on petroleum, however, was not the kind of thing that bothered Munif himself. Oil and politics had filled his life, and oil had been his first career; with a doctorate in oil economics, he worked as director of crude oil marketing in the Syrian Oil Company and later as editor in chief of the magazine Oil and Development in Baghdad. The political part was an uncomfortable fit to his economic expertise on fossil fuels, as Munif was a dedicated foe of monarchy and dictatorships at a time and place when despots controlled most of the Middle East’s oil.  His views cost him his Saudi citizenship, and subsequently his residence in Baghdad—he fled his Iraqi exile in the 1980s once it became clear to him that Saddam Hussein was no better than the Saudi kings. He took his family to France and decided to focus on his literary career in the suburbs of Paris. Cities of Salt was the first fruit of the new exile.

The man had met his moment. The Oil Encounter was to be woven into Arab and world literature, and not in either of the conventional capitals of the Arab literary world, Beirut or Cairo; instead, at the hands of this half-Saudi, half-Iraqi villager who grew up trading flour, dates, and salt between Jordan and Saudi Arabia and went on to high school in Amman, college in Cairo, law school in Baghdad, an oil degree in Belgrade, and then the oil day jobs.

As a writer, Munif used oil to tell Arab stories as well as the story of Anglo-American competition in Iran (as in his novel Long Distance Races). As a political thinker, it maddened him that oil wealth, instead of modernizing Arabian society, enthroned and perpetuated backward monarchies allied with primitive religious establishments as well as Western governments, and who, incidentally, stole huge amounts of that wealth. (One of Saudi Arabia’s more clueless ambassadors to Washington would blandly, if defensively, state in a 2007 interview on American television that the royal family had skimmed off only $50 billion in oil revenues out of $400 billion collected.) With his typical understated tact, Munif asked in an op-ed in London’s Guardian in 1990, “Aren’t we obliged to ask why it is assumed that more modern governments would necessarily be inimical to the interests of the West?”

As an economist, Munif had a central theme familiar to anyone who had known him for more than a few minutes. “Oil is our one and only chance to build a future, and the regimes are ruining it,” he told me over a family lunch in Damascus in 1989, in our first meeting. In the Guardian piece above, he wrote: "Oil, present by mere chance, provides the sole and final opportunity for the region to develop itself rather than depend upon others as was the case in the past and as may happen in the future if the present misuse of oil wealth continues.

He told Seattle writer Michael Upchurch in an interview for Glimmer Train in 1994: "This is really our one resource. This is our chance to use it to build a country that has something to do with these times. Unfortunately, over the last fifty years, all of this money has been spent wrongly."

Focused as he was on this simple point, Munif knew the difference between an interview, an op-ed, and a novel. No reader of Cities of Salt or the succeeding novels in the series, such as The Trench or Variations on Night and Day, would have the slightest hint the author had studied oil economics or had more than toyed with a career on the political left.

The narrative of Cities of Salt flirts with natural history, the supernatural, and comedy. The residents of an idyllic oasis get word of foreigners roaming the desert. These reported ifranj (“Franks”—just a gentle hint of the Crusades) claim they are looking for water, but this is an ominous fib to the locals—no one excels desert Arabs when it comes to discerning any sign of water. Eventually there are sightings of encamped foreign men who, like the Arabs, rise at dawn, and instead of performing prayers, go through a series of motions which the reader might recognize as jumping jacks but which to the unsettled watchers could only be demonic rituals. A dramatic encounter between angry citizens and their clueless emir resolves nothing, but paints one of Arabic literature’s most riveting scenes of tribal civics in action. Eventually, through the locals’ eyes, we experience something like science fiction, which the locals can only read as apocalyptic, as unthinkable metal machines appear and bulldoze the oasis, which in time becomes an oil field. More time brings displacement, poverty, salaried menial labor, the concept of real estate, and fabulous varieties of opportunism and tragedy.

The second volume moves the action to the royal capital city and the very different world of politics played out between asinine princes and silky Arab expatriates. The third volume is a prequel showing us the muscular jockeying for conquest and power that led to the founding of the kingdom. While the first volume might generalize the clash between a peaceful desert oasis and a multinational oil company, here we have a highly iridized “parallel history”—as Munif put it to me—of the bumpkin “royal” family that seized most of the Arabian Peninsula, its holy cities and oil fields.  

Never once do you see oil, though it flows invisibly though every page. It is scarcely mentioned in the first hundred pages of Cities of Salt. At about that point the local men have heard the emir’s confused claims that they will become rich from oil or gold or both, with their having  no idea whether the frightening foreigners will go home or stay among them; they return bewildered from the meeting with their ruler.

The words rich and gold hung in the air like smoke, and like a black banner the big question arose: Had they come to stay? … “Oil? The naphtha we find is enough to light these lamps of ours that choke you with fumes before they shed light.”

Oil, gradually and problematically shedding light, and promising disaster—within two chapters the oasis will be leveled. So begins the Encounter, with its disruptions, losses, material wealth, corruption, and distorted modernity. In a final twist of this historical spiral, beyond the events of the novels, we have the author himself, who, thanks to all these consequences and his literary and political efforts to undo them, ended up an exile. He was not displaced by an oil company but by a regime kept in place by oil, and this is not a local Arabian story at all but a universal one. (There is a saying: “Venezuela is not a Latin American country, it is an oil country.”) The most Arab of authors, Munif wrote Cities of Salt in Paris, and would patiently explain his views in London, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Damascus, without ever going home again. For him this was the real “Price of Oil.”

© 2012 by Peter Theroux. All rights reserved.