When the oilmen came to the wadi

Joyce Appleby is the author of "Thomas Jefferson" and is a professor emeritus at UCLA and past president of the American Historical Assn.

As Americans grapple with the war on terrorism, the Arab world keeps a wary watch. Americans have invaded the lands of the Middle East before -- often. Not with Humvees and Black Hawks, but rather with bulldozers and derricks.

Although it received considerable acclaim when it was published in 1987, "Cities of Salt" deserves to be more widely known. It captures with treacherous fidelity one of those many incursions as it follows the shock waves coursing through a cluster of oasis towns in the Arabian Peninsula after an American oil company arrives in the 1930s with money, jobs and personal habits of unbelievable barbarity. Unbelievable, that is, to the faithful Muslims whose lives conform more to the 7th century mores of Muhammad than the tempos of the 20th.

The protagonist of Abdelrahman Munif's novel, the first in a trilogy, is not a person but a way of life for the oasis families who earlier counted their blessings by the rainfall and painfully yielded up their sons to the passing caravans in bad years. Like the sand dunes, lightly settled on the land, these communities were both ancient and fragile. They survived whatever nature dealt them, but American artifice undoes them. Totally losing their moorings, the Bedouins become rootless men in their own land. All that is left to them are the injunctions and imperatives learned from the Koran.

Munif leads his readers right into the heads of the Bedouin men watching all that is familiar to them be erased under the brutal imperialism of Western machinery. (Women are almost totally absent from the novel except as symbols of Western decadence.) Himself an oil economist, Munif was born in Amman to a Saudi Arabian trading family; studied in Baghdad, Cairo and Belgrade; worked in Syria and Iraq as he edited the journal Oil & Development; and lived a life devoted to literature in Paris before he returned to Damascus in 1998. His books are banned in many Arab countries, no doubt because of their exposure of the emirs who blithely allowed foreigners to come and drill for oil with nary a thought for the consequences to their people.

The most willing reader needs time to penetrate the darkness of another world view, to feel the sensibilities from the taboos of others, to accept the humanity of people at first almost repulsive in their differences. Munif knows this and depicts the reactions of his Muslim peasants to their first encounter with modernity in tapestry-like layers. With patience he miraculously transforms the objects of our curiosity into the subjects of our appreciation.

It is understandable, but astonishing upon reflection, that the men who carried Western culture to the closed worlds of such Bedouin villages were not clergymen or educators trained in the ways of intercultural exchanges but rather production bosses, wildcat speculators and roughnecks from America's oil fields. We do not glimpse their responses to what they find in the remote Arabian Peninsula. Instead we see our fellow countrymen through the eyes of the Bedouins recruited by their more savvy compatriots to raze their own villages and dig ditches for the new arrivals. Secure in the knowledge that they were raising the standard of living of the Arab workers, the American oilmen gave little thought to their effect on the hewers of wood and carriers of water whom their Muslim agents delivered in batches each week.

Two communities rapidly emerge after the invasion: the controlled-entry American oil company compound and the new Arab settlement crowded with squatters' huts, petty entrepreneurial establishments and scarcely habitable workers' dormitories. For the one, the other is a matter of no consequence: out of sight, out of mind. For the other, the American colony with its swimming pools and air-conditioned buildings is a magnet for the eyes.

The defining moment in the Arabs' incomprehension of American ways comes with the arrival of a ship loaded with women, offering a few days of "R and R" to the oil company's American employees. From behind their fences, the company's Muslim employees watch boatloads of scantily clad women moving to shore. They sashay, drink, laugh and embrace their newfound companions. Fired by lust and yet repelled by all that naked flesh, the Muslims cannot peel themselves away.

For weeks thereafter, the women appear in their dreams at night and their daytime fantasies. Too vivid to be banished from thought, the searing sight of the white bodies of men and women locked in lascivious embraces becomes the marker for everything that is repugnant in their detested employers. Munif thus reminds us that, for most of the world's other people, Westerners first made themselves known as both powerful and evil, a blow to their belief in a moral universe.

"Cities of Salt" is a novel in the modern, Western form, yet Munif veers from writerly conventions. He creates and tracks characters from the oasis communities only to let them disappear like a caravan in a sandstorm. Death, despair and depression plague the men who flock to the oil drillers, but it is the general psychological miasma that dominates, not any particular character's pain.

"Cities of Salt" derives its insidious effect from being at the same time a part and apart from the modern perspective, a hybrid conspicuous in the Middle East today. Yet it would be a big mistake to leave the impression that one ought to read "Cities of Salt" solely because of current events. The imperative here springs from the scarcity of truly great novels. "Cities of Salt" mixes the shock of recognition with the pain of discovery that comes from yielding to values utterly unfamiliar and often distasteful. Its treachery lies in inducing strong doubts about the modern enterprise.


From 'Cities of Salt'

Within days everything in the wadi changed -- men, animals and nature -- for no sooner had the American, his friends and their companions been settled in than a large number of other people arrived. No one had ever dreamed such people existed: one was short and obese with red hair and another was tall enough to pick dates from the trees. Yet another was as black as night, and there were more -- blond and redheaded. They had blue eyes and bodies fat as slaughtered sheep, and their faces inspired curiosity and fear. They came on camelback and horseback, dragging behind them numberless crates and bundles and pitched tents a short distance from the brook. It happened as quickly as in a dream.

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