Petro-capitalism, petrofiction, and Islamic discourse: the formation of an imagined community in Cities of Salt.

AuthorXinos, Ilana
PositionBook review

ABDELRAHMAN MUNIF'S CITIES OF SALT is an Arabic novel about the discovery of and subsequent drilling for oil in a Persian Gulf community in the 1930s. The novel was published in Lebanon in 1984, and in 1987 it was translated into English by Peter Theroux and published in America. Munif, an oil industry expert turned novelist, was born in Jordan, earned his Ph.D. in oil economics at the University of Belgrade, and was a Saudi Arabian citizen until his novels were banned in Saudi Arabia "for their excoriating satires of the peninsula's oil elite." (1) When his books were banned, Munif's Saudi citizenship was revoked, and he was exiled from Saudi Arabia.

Cities of Salt is the first novel in a quintet, and is one of very few novels to date that focuses on the oil industry. The novel, in which the arrival of an American oil company into a Persian Gulf community initiates a cultural encounter between Occident and Orient, seems at first glance ripe for a postcolonial reading. Issa J. Boullata even argues that the novelistic form of Cities of Salt is inherently postcolonial because it adapts and adopts Western forms in order to disengage itself from the West. Boullata places Cities of Salt into a category with "recent Arabic novels that speak in the voice of Arab culture, using its narrative techniques and heeding its needs and its environment, in the interest of establishing Arab authenticity and disengaging from Western influences." (2) Because of its disengagement from the West, Boullata argues "we should read it as a novel in its own right, and not impose Western criteria upon it or approach it with preconceived expectations." (3)

Whether or not Cities of Salt's novelistic form is a self-conscious disavowal of traditional Western novelistic form (making the novel's form itself postcolonial) is still up for debate. Either way, the central issues that the novel raises do not focus on its cultural encounter, but focus instead on issues of class, making a postcolonial reading of this work reductive. The novel's form, rather than the issues it raises, is what has concerned recent critics. The primary characteristic of Cities of Salt's atypical novelistic form, the fact that it does not have a conventional protagonist, has elicited several critical debates. Unpacking these debates leads to a re-reading of this work and to some speculation about how a novel can not only affect how we re-read history, but how we can discover how ideologies that take root in these histories develop into current global issues.

While there is no individual protagonist in this novel, Munif privileges the experiences of the lower classes in Cities of Salt, and because the conflicts and struggles of this community of working-class Arabs are what propels the novel's plot forward, we can identify the novel's protagonist as the community of working-class Arabs. Because of the introduction of a modern capitalist society, and the negative effects of petro-capitalism that result from the oil encounter, class consciousness emerges, which marks the beginning of a typical antagonistic Marxist class struggle (4).


Munif's quintet is the subject of Amitav Ghosh's essay "Petrofiction: The Novel and the Oil Encounter." Ghosh coins the term "petrofiction" to classify literature about the oil industry, and likens petrofiction to literature about the spice trade. (5) Ghosh remarks, "If the Spice Trade has any twentieth-century equivalent, it can only be the oil industry." (6) Ghosh points out though, that a major difference between the Spice Trade and the Oil Industry is the production of literature: "Within a few decades of the discovery of the sea route to India, the Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes, had produced the Lusiads, the epic poem that chronicled Vasco da Gama's voyage and in effect conjured Portugal into literary nationhood. The Oil Encounter on the other hand, has produced scarcely a single work of note." (7) Ghosh speculates that the reason behind the lack of petrofiction is the history of oil, which is embarrassing to all parties involved. Ghosh also notes that the places where oil encounters happened were inhabited mainly by oral cultures, and were "those parts of the Middle East that have been the most marginal in the development of modern Arab culture and literature--on the outermost peripheries of such literary centers as Cairo and Beirut." (8)

Political and geographical reasons aside, Ghosh emphasizes that formal problems are the main reasons why the oil encounter remains an untapped literary project. He claims that the multilingual nature of the oil encounter is at odds with novelistic form, which more comfortably operates within a "monolingual speech community," or nation-states. (9) Ghosh also believes that the novel operates more comfortably "in a 'sense of place,' reveling in its unique power to evoke mood and atmosphere." (10) If we accept Ghosh's theoretical stance, however, we are forced to admit that neither the pre-Oil culture of the novel, nor the post-Oil culture of the novel fits within his paradigm. Rob Nixon describes the pre-Oil nomadic culture of the Bedouins in the novel as "a form of belonging in motion shaped to an arid world," and claims, "severance from their nomadic heritage becomes a mark of their new, oil-inflicted homelessness." (11) Similarly, Ghosh explains, "the experiences associated with oil are lived out within a space that is no place and international." (12) Yet neither Ghosh nor Nixon consider that oil changes Bedouin culture because it forces the Bedouin to ground themselves in a place--Harran. The working-class Arabs who settle in Harran form a new home and community as a consequence of petro-capitalism. It is in this way that Munif clearly depicts the places of oil.

Taking this into account would strengthen Boullata's assertion that Munif combines Western novelistic traditions and Arab narrative traditions to convey social change. Boullata claims that Munif's novels mark "a new beginning in modern Arabic fiction," which he makes in response to novelist John Updike's critique of the novel. (13) Updike claims that Munif's novel relinquishes some of its novelistic character because it does not have a typical protagonist, and therefore is nearly bereft of "that sense of individual moral adventure--of that evolving individual in varied and roughly equal battle with a world of circumstance--which, since Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe, has distinguished the novel from the fable and the chronicle." (14) Instead of concerning itself with one solitary hero, or protagonist, Updike writes "Cities of Salt is concerned, instead, with men in the aggregate," which is true enough, given that...

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