Abdelrahman Munif‘s trilogy,* Cities of Salt is one of those era-defining efforts of literary imagination and craft. It has been called “of immense significance,” “powerful and impressive,” and celebrated by writers, political thinkers and historians around the globe. Edward Said’s cover blurb says it is “the only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans, and local oligarchy on a Gulf country.”
The first in the trilogy, titled in English, as the series itself, Cities of Salt , is one of the most mold-breaking novels I’ve read in years, written almost as if on a continuous writer’s high of inspiration, language and history. [Reviewed here.]
The Trench  is the second in the series. The narrative moves us to a new city, Mooran, the capital of the Sultanate of Mooran, of which Harran, of the first novel, is also a part. Instead of the sweeping tale of the end of the Wadi al-Uyoun, and and the enormous, mechanized growth of Harran, we are witness to the oil-fed corruption of the Sultan, his palace and those around him.
Doctor Subhi Mahmilji, introduced in the first novel, is at the center throughout. He is rushed in from Harran at the behest of Prince Khazael, a friend of the Doctor’s and the son in line to take the throne as the old Sultan, Khureybit, is dying.
Soon, the Doctor is climbing the ladder of power, a close confidant, and indispensable man, to the new Sultan. He appoints friends to important positions, most importantly Hammad al-Mutawa as Intelligence Chief who will become head of the feared Security Agency, and as the book closes, turn on the Doctor. Relations and rivalries between the Doctor and other men, between brothers, also coming from Harran, make up strands of the story, told with marvelous efficiency:
He’s a cunning bastard. He could steal the perfume right off your face.
or, about another
He could ransom a corpse from the noose.
The men of Mooran, not part of the inner circle and who do not share in the fabulous oil wealth, are seen to gather around the coffee shop near the market to trade rumors, anger and dreams of God’s help. They too have their differences. One says of another:
He could kill a man and then walk at his funeral
The Harem, filled with wives of the Sultan is not painted with the detail it deserves, but is visible and important to the story being told. The new Sultan, Khazael, continues his father’s [Khureybit] taste for women, though with a difference.
Sultan Khazael inherited two traits from his father –impressive height and a passion for women [though] … the Sultan Khureybit wanted children and clans of descendants from women, as well as blood ties with all the tribes, to strengthen his dynasty and fight the injuries of time, but his son was different. …He wanted women only for themselves, and pleasure only for itself: he did not use his body, and the power of that body, for any other ambitions or explorations.
This remark only become fully clear with volume three [Variations on Night and Day], which — in a choice I don’t fully understand– the author places temporally prior to the events of volume two. That is, Khureybit who dies at the beginning of volume 2, builds the Sultanate in volume 3, a more honorable, if more warlike man than his son. With each choice of a wife, we hear him consider the clan connections, how enemies are turned into friends, and brought under the shelter of the growing kingdom. [Review forthcoming.]
Outside the Sultan’s palace, in a palace of their own, the Doctor’s wife, Widad adjusts to Mooran which at first “seemed a repulsive city.” And small wonder. The narrator describes it:
Mooran had the patience of a camel in the face of thirst and hunger, except when the hunger nearly wasted her, and the tyranny of thirst had exceeded any bearable limit; at such times Mooran lashed out, killing herself and others in uprisings of fever, madness and death, until balance had been restored between it and its surroundings
And tells us:
“Even after the oil had begun to flow, and the ships started arriving daily at Harran to offload tons of cargo every hour, Mooran was barely affected.”
But Widad has ambitions of her own. When we hear of her first affair, with the doctor who had taken over her husband’s practice in Beirut after he joined the hajj as a doctor, to then discover Harran, we are surprised, and even — as westerners– heartened. Even that culture can’t bury a woman’s desires! When she goes on to have affairs under the Doctor’s nose in Mooran with two of his colleagues, and shows her own Machiavellian flair, using one to arouse the jealousy, and so retain her power over the other, I for one am suspicious. The women in Munif’s novels are not close to equal standing with the men, as would reflect the culture being written about. When one of the most prominent is described with great fullness as a woman undone by her passions I see the shadow of male desire in her portrait.
When he asked her to undress for the examination, she did so and, within seconds, was trembling like a sparrow as she approached the examining table. She was frightened and intoxicated and feverish. She felt within herself a force greater than herself, untamed and defiant as the wind, and suddenly she realized that her arms were around Emad’s neck.
She agrees to help one of her later lovers, and husband’s colleague, to find a wife, so she can keep him near. When the couple returns and he is happier than she had counted on, her passion begins to rise.
“Now she felt that she had lost him; that this young girl, only nineteen years old, had stolen him from her and was trying to escape with him. How was it possible to allow this, to surrender to this naive girl? How could she withdraw and content herself with the horrible role of mother-in-law? And Rateb, who was so proud of his experience and his past, could he be satisfied with that frightened chicken of a girl and forget her, Widad? None of this struck her as remotely possible. She would leave him now, leave him for a while, giving him time to get bored with that pallid body, like a meal with no savor, with a taste like water; of course he would get tired of her, perhaps even sooner than she expected, and he would come back to her.”
Side stories of the arrival of the Doctor’s mother, who brings her unshakeable faith in buying, selling and reading coffee grounds right into the palace and the ageing Sheikah, add to the sense of time, place and custom without advancing the plot greatly. The Doctor’s only son, Ghazwan, goes to the United States to study and does not want to come back, until, hired by a San Francisco firm, he returns to seal contracts and relationships with the Sultan in deals that surely have happened throughout the Gulf states:
“We’re not concerned about the prices…what concerns us is that Mooran should have the best and strongest army anywhere…
And as to the Doctor’s and Widad’s daughter, Salma — she is at the heart of the final touches to the novel, bringing Sultanic desire, Doctoral ambition, a wicked noose of disappointment-joy to Widad, all together in a delirium answered by tanks in the streets. If more of the novel had been as tightly sprung as the last chapters I wouldn’t have a caveat to toss.
Munif’s descriptions of the desert, as in volume one, are superb:
“The car raced the sand and the wind on the endless level plain, and the hot air burned their faces to reach their fingers and toes, then swirled around to scatter the dust particles that formed billowing walls between all things, confusing vision, desires, and things until one could not be distinguished from another.”
His language and images, his tap-roots deep in the desert culture, continually startle and amaze:
“... Mooran was part of the wide earth, full of hunger and oppression, boiling with frustration, burning for something other than what it was told and what it heard; and like the muezzin whose voice splits the dawn twilight to announce the start of another day, the voices of the frustrated and hungry [echoing also in Mooran,] heard from place to place throughout the sorrowful Arab lands, echoing also in Mooran, where people ceased their mad race and let their memories catch up with them.
Yet somehow, the weave is not as tight, or satisfying as in Cities of Salt itself. My sense is that the story-teller’s high so evident in volume one, is present here only in short bursts. The compression of months and years into a few sentences and then the lengthening and dallying over particular moments doesn’t seem to work as well here. The narrative vessel is smaller: lives engaged in enriching themselves with money or pleasure in a town growing from the influx of oil wealth, but the details — as of the growing labor anger in Cities of Salt– aren’t here.
We discover the unrest in quick summaries, and narrator’s asides.
“Mooran, once sunk in indolence, introspection and apathy, began to stir itself and change: endless new style of buildings sprang up and multiplied all over, streets sliced through the city center… there were throngs of foreigners every day…jobs proliferated and overlapped, so that one hardly knew whether to go on the next day with today’s work or to move to some other job. Life, in brief, had become rootless, hard and unstable, with no one knowing what would happen next. Mooran resembles scattered intestines, or heaps of refuse on this endless desert plain.
The lives of the men in the market and the coffee house aren’t given enough narrative time or space rise into a good view through the goings-on with the Doctor, the Sultan and those around him. We get quick glimpses, but not enough. Some of the men go to see the Sultan, mid-way through the book:
“What is more spacious than the desert, sir? And it’s nearby—why can’t they leave Mooran as our fathers and grandfathers did? If these foreigners and freeloaders who just got here yesterday don’t like it, let them leave us alone, and leave Mooran as it is…
“It’s not just a question of Mooran, sire – those wicked people are trying to turn our people away from the Islamic religion, and the want to sow corruption…
So, when the tanks surround the palaces, and the world turns up-side down in the final pages, we aren’t prepared for it and don’t have the satisfaction of having watched events unfold.
The language, and Arabic colloquialisms continue to tickle us, and compel comparison to our own cultures and people:
No one thinks he has enough money but everyone thinks he has enough brains.
The Doctor thinks about Widad pleading for inclusion in a reception for the Sultan:
“A woman is like sleep – a man may resist and avoid her, but in the end he always has to give in.
The social climbing, the ecstasy or disappointment of an invitation given or denied ring true — and global. The emotions, the maneuvering and plotting could just as well be happening in the circles around the aristocratic Guermantes in Proust’s fin-de-siecle Paris. The Doctor’s fretting, his self-doubt and worry, even as he climbs in wealth and status, give us a man we might know; even ourselves.
Though The Trench [explained by the translator, Peter Theroux as not a trench of wartime, but as a ditch --a pit?-- one is likely to fall into] is not a strong for me as Cities of Salt, missing a chance to be more pointed in the disparities of wealth and the resultant growing anger, or a more Gargantuan sense of satire, it is a book I can easily recommend, particularly to those wanting to add to their understanding of a culture as important as it is distant.
I don’t know how the author or translator — who is as astoundingly capable in this volume as in the first– would feel about this, but I might suggest reading the second two books of the trilogy in reverse, order. Read Variations on Night and Day  as the second book, and The Trench as the third. I’ve had to do a lot of re-reading to get the people, the clans and the sequences of events in the proper order: first you build the Kingdom, and then you lose it.
* Although Cities of Salt is usually referred to as a Trilogy, there are apparently five novels in all, the last two not yet translated. Their titles, in an Al Ahram listing, are Cities of Salt: The Rootless and Cities of Salt: Desert of Darkness.