Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

Cities of Salt is a novel about an unnamed Middle-Eastern country where desert tribesmen have their lives disrupted by the arrival of the oil industry. Think Saudi Arabia.

It’s 600 pages long and it’s only the first book in a quintet, so this is storytelling on a grand scale; I have to say I’m seriously impressed by it, and considering buying the next one.

There are two things which I think are particularly clever about the way it’s written. The first is that it has a large cast of characters while still feeling like a cohesive narrative. So you get a chapter or two about one person, and then the focus moves to someone else and the first character fades into the background, then after another couple of chapters you move onto a third person; and over the course of the book the cast of characters changes completely. in that way it’s very much the story of a place rather than a person. But it manages to do it in a way which feels very organic; it doesn’t read like a collection of separate stories.

The other thing I like is that even though the story is about the arrival of the (American) oil industry, it is told completely from the perspective of the Arab characters. So even though it is the Americans who are driving events much of the time, by digging wells and building roads and employing the locals, they are peripheral figures in the narrative. They just happen in the background, like the weather, and we only see them in glimpses. They are always behind the fence.

I guess that’s not unusual in post-colonial fiction, but it’s particularly effective here. Not that Saudi Arabia is actually a former colony, but it is similarly a country transformed by the arrival of outsiders. The initial encounter is on a small scale in a wadi in the desert, and the reaction is total bafflement; as the novel moves on, the scope opens out and the relationship between the two worlds becomes more complex and messier.

As soon as the camp was erected, the men paced off the area, put up wire fencing and short white pickets, scattered some strange substance around the tents and sprayed the earth with water that had a penetrating smell. Then they opened up their crates and unloaded large pieces of black iron, and before long a sound like rolling thunder surged out of this machine, frightening men, animals and birds. After several minutes of the rumbling, one of the Americans raised his hand and signalled to another, who extinguished the sound, but it was a long time before it stopped ringing in the ears.

When that was over, as fast as a magic trick, the people still watched everything that went on in silence and fear. When the sun began to sink in the west, it seemed that Wadi al-Uyoun was about to experience a night such as it had never known before. As soon as the animals began to bark and bray at sunset, the machine began to roar again, frightening everyone, only this time the sound was accompanied by a blinding light. Within moments scores of small but brilliant suns began to blaze, filling the whole area with a light that no one could believe or stand. The men and boys retreated and looked at the lights again to make sure they still saw them, and they looked at each other in terror. The animals who drew near retreated in fright; the camels fled, and the sheep stirred uneasily. Miteb stood not far from the place and spoke loudly enough to command attention over the fear and the machine’s noise. “Go back, people of Wadi al-Uyoun! If you don’t go back you’ll get burned and there’ll be nothing left of you.”

This marvellous incident, so crystal clear and yet impossible to believe at first, became with time a routine affair, for the men who for a certain period kept silent and watched everything in fear mixed with anticipation were soon used to it. Ibn Rashed went forward and asked Ghorab to explain how the lights and sound were produced, but in spite of a long and detailed explanation no one understood anything.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif*, translated by Peter Theroux, is my book from Jordan for the Read The World challenge.

* or, according to Wikipedia, Abdul Rahman Munif; or using the Library of Congress system, ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf. And just for the sake of completeness: عبد الرحمن منيف‎.

Apparently ‘Abdul’ is not actually a stand-alone name at allʻAbd al– means ‘servant of the’ and is part of a longer name: so Abdul Rahman means ‘Servant of the Benevolent’, Abdul Aziz is ‘Servant of the Almighty’,  and so on. Given how many names for God there are in Islam, there are loads of possible variants. So that’s something I’ve learnt today.

» At the camel market in Riyadh is © Charles Roffey and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Who Needs a Story? — Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic

Who Needs a Story? is my book from Eritrea for the Read The World challenge. Given that the country only gained independence in 1993 after a 30 year war, it’s not really surprising that the anthology is dominated by patriotic poems about the Eritrean struggle.

Unfortunately, most of them read as very generic examples of the type: you would at most have to change a few place names for them to work equally well for any national conflict of the past 100 years. Which is ironic because the entire purpose of the anthology is, pretty explicitly, to demonstrate a distinctively Eritrean literature to the world and to help a new country to take its place among the literary community of nations.

It’s possible, of course, that the original poems had more literary merit, and a more distinctively Eritrean flavour, which went missing in translation. But it’s not obvious.

However, in among the boring patriotic poems were some more interesting bits and pieces. There are some poems on other subjects: love, parenthood, salt. And one or two poets managed to find interesting thing to say about the war, or at least more interesting ways to say them. I thought this was one of the better ones, by Mohammed Mahmoud El-Sheikh (Madani):

Letter from Aliet

My dear friends,
I’ve been fighting so long here
That all the birds have died
And my gun has grown into my shoulder.
I sing for all of us denied
Our basic rights and a decent wage.
I won’t beg for freedom or stop singing.

We’re taking Barentu tonight
And meeting like a groom and bride —
Not with the usual ceremony
But with guns
Singing, bullets for kisses
And shrapnel to caress us
All over our beautiful bodies

Come to the end of brutality
By exploding on top of the enemy.

My dear friends —
No more rooms of our dreams gone up
In the smoke of self-perpetuating
Politicians pretending
They will back our cause.

We’ll make it
On our land and for our land:
Sunlight aglow in good work’s sweat,
Farmers who wed the art of peace,
The wounded under their triumphal arch
And the trigger locked
In the revolution’s palm.

» The photo ‘tanks destroyed in the war’ is © Carsten ten Brink and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The Bleeding of the Stone is a Libyan novel about Asouf, a Bedouin man living a hermit-like existence out in the desert, herding goats and occasionally guiding foreigners to see the rock paintings on the walls of the wadis.

Asouf has a spiritual relationship with the desert and particularly with an animal called the waddan, the Barbary Sheep*, that lives in the mountains. Two hunters arrive who want him to find the waddan for them, and the book intercuts the story of their interaction and flashbacks to Asouf’s earlier life.

So it’s a book about deserts, and man’s relationship with nature, and spirituality and religion, and environmentalism, and the effects of solitude.

Apart from getting slightly confused by the order of events — careless reading on my part meant I thought something was a flashback when it wasn’t, which made the ending distinctly unexpected — I enjoyed this book a lot. I read it in the garden on an appropriately hot afternoon (hot by South London standards, admittedly, not by Libyan standards), and it was short enough to read pretty much at one sitting. It was atmospheric and rather moving. I think the reference on the back cover to Al-Koni being ‘a master of magical realism’ is a bit peculiar, but I’m willing to forgive it, because I have been guilty myself of describing any novel where anything slightly peculiar happens in a vaguely exotic country as ‘magical realism’.

The Bleeding of the Stone is my book from Libya for the Read The World challenge. And, incidentally, for the Arabic Summer Reading Challenge.

» The photo is Ägypten, posted to Flickr by and © ursulazrich.

* The book’s endnotes actually translate waddan as moufflon, but as far as I can gather from Wikipedia this is not strictly accurate; the mouflon is a different species of wild sheep found in Asia. Although the French for Barbary Sheep is mouflon à manchettes (sleeved mouflon, roughly), so it may be an error via French. Incidentally, in one of those classic ironies of environmentalism, the Barbary Sheep which is portrayed in this book as threatened by hunting and is indeed now rare in North Africa, has been introduced for the purposes of hunting to Spain where it is spreading and causing environmental damage.

Thirsty River by Rodaan Al Galidi

This is the second book in a row for the Round The World challenge which I can say, without any caveats, that I straightforwardly enjoyed. So that’s good. Thirsty River is my book for Iraq, though Rodaan Al Galidi fled Iraq for the Netherlands in 1998, so it’s actually translated from Dutch.*

It’s a multi-generational family story tracing the history of Iraq from before the Saddam years to after the American invasion. One of the blurbs says “García Márquez for Colombia and Al Galidi for Iraq”, and the book is in that kind of magical realist tradition; although as with a few books I’ve read recently, I find myself wanting to refer to ‘magical realism’ even though there isn’t actually much magic in them. A book like One Hundred Years of Solitude has genuinely impossible, supernatural events in it; Thirsty River has some unlikely, striking events, but they are not generally supernatural. But there’s a similar mood, a kind of theatricality, with odd things happening to slightly odd people.

Of course there’s nothing exclusive to magical realism about exaggerated characters and slightly implausible plots; you could say the same about Dickens. And I wonder if I would even think of referring to it as ‘magical realism’ if it was set in Surrey rather than southern Iraq. But there’s still something that seems to connect these books into a sort of genre; perhaps it’s a slightly detached attitude to the central characters?

Anyway, such taxonomical considerations aside: I did enjoy it. By the end of the novel the enjoyment was of a slightly mixed kind, because Iraq’s recent history has not been all unicorns and rainbows, and the book’s characters have a pretty brutal time of it.

Here’s a little excerpt.

Hadi the Rocket was a middle-aged man. He had a thick black moustache, from which he always plucked the grey hairs with tweezers. In his chest pocket was a comb and a miror, with which he kept his moustache in shape. Hadi the Rocket came from a poor family in Boran, whose members sold ice in the summer, and coal and oil in the winter. His father had owned a cart and an old horse. After primary school, Hadi began to work with his father. He had thought at was his lot to get old sitting int he street, until he became a member of the Ba’ath party.

“God in heaven, the party on earth,” he always said when the Ba’ath party was still underground.

“The party in heaven, Mr President on earth,” he said when the Ba’ath party seized power and was the only party remaining.

“Mr President is the heaven of the fatherland, the party his ground,” was the slogan when Saddam seized power.

Sometimes Hadi the Rocket forgot  his own house, which the party had given him, his wives, which he had also received from the party, and his children and he slept in his uniform in the party’s house. Every time people became more afraid of him, he felt safer and became friendlier. Little photos of Saddam Hussein were pinned to his clothes and he wore watches bearing his image. he gave the photos to everyone, and the watches to people who were higher up in the party then himself, as if it were an offering to the gods. No one was as attached to anything as Hadi the Rocket was to the Ba’ath party; not medieval suitors to their lovers, nor knights to their swords, nor believers to their gods.

* Incidentally, full marks to Luzette Strauss, the translator, for her sparing use of endnotes: just 12 for a 300 page novel. Since I’ve been reading a lot of translated fiction over the past couple of years, distracting and unnecessary endnotes have become a real pet hate of mine.

» saddam elvis, originally uploaded to Flickr by and © rakkasan69.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Season of Migration to the North is my book from Sudan for the Read The World challenge. Originally published in 1966, ‘in 2001 it was selected by a panel of Arab writers and critics as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century’.

I didn’t really know anything about it before I started reading, and expecting it to be set entirely in Sudan, I was slightly startled by the amount of London in it. It is narrated by a man who is returning to Sudan after seven years studying in Europe; when he comes back to his home village, he meets a stranger called Mustafa who also, it turns out, spent many years in London.

It is very much a culture clash novel, exploring Mustafa’s experience, firstly in London as an outsider figure who plays up his exoticism to attract women, and then a different kind of outsider after he has returned to Sudan and is living as a farmer among people who know nothing about his background.

The London sections are not too different from what you might find in a mid-C20th English novel; I was more interested in the Sudan stuff. I do appreciate there’s an irony in reading a book about a man who trades on his exoticism and then complaining, effectively, that it’s not as exotic as I was expecting; but there it is. It is quite intriguing to read a novel about English society with the ‘exotic’ character at the centre, though — I’m sure I’ve read a few novels by British writers from early-mid C20th with Mustafa-type characters turning up on the periphery. Not that I can think of specific examples offhand.

Most important Arab novel of the century? I wouldn’t know, although as I say, it reads to me like a fairly conventional novel of the period. A good novel — extremely good in parts — but it didn’t blow me away. But then I don’t think the novel is exactly a traditional part of Arab culture, so it may have been more radical in its context.

» The two pictures — Kadugli – Dilling Provincie Kordofan and West Nuba Mountains — are both © Rita Willaert and used under a CC by-nc licence. They don’t have any very precise connection to the book but they were taken in Sudan and I liked them. There are lots more where those came from.

The Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish

The Butterfly’s Burden is a translation of three books by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died earlier this year: The Stranger’s Bed (1998), A State of Siege (2002) and Don’t Apologise for What You’ve Done (2003). It’s a parallel text edition, which always makes me feel terribly learned, but in practice is just a waste of trees since I can’t even read Arabic script.

I am writing this post without having read the whole thing, which may be an admission of defeat. I’ve been having some difficulty connecting to it. I’m not inclined to blame Darwish for that: I imagine it’s partially the basic awkwardness of reading poetry in translation which is, as they say, like eating a Mars bar with the wrapper on; partially a lack of contextual knowledge on my part; and perhaps partially down to the translation by Fady Joudah, although I’m not in a position to judge it as a translation. And of course, very likely because of my own biases as a reader.

I initially picked it up and dipped in at random, which wasn’t a success, so I sat down and read A State of Siege straight through from beginning to end, and actually I did quite get into it and enjoy it. So, heartened by that, I tried the same thing with The Stranger’s Bed, but despite a few moments where I thought I was getting somewhere, I found it a bit of a chore. There were images or passages or moments that I thought were striking or effective, but I felt that on some basic level I just wasn’t getting it; the whole wasn’t cohering into more than the sum of the parts, and I found it all a bit frustrating.

I will make an attempt on Don’t Apologise for What You’ve Done as well, but whether or not I finish it I’m still going to claim Darwish as my writer from Palestine for the Read The World challenge, because I read two of the three books, and I think that’s good enough.

For an extract I’m going to pick something from A State of Siege, since that was the book I enjoyed most; in a sense, though, it’s a more difficult piece to pick extracts from because it isn’t divided into separate poems. Instead, it’s a thirty-page poem built up of short lyrical fragments, separated on the page by a little typographical squiggle. They work together cumulatively, and the poem has a kind of reflective tone; they could be the journal entries of a slightly gnomic diarist, or the contents of a notebook. The poem was written during the Second Intifada, and the conflict is the central subject, but the poem circles around it, sometimes explicitly talking about politics and violence, sometimes about poetry or love.

The mother said:
I did not see him walking in his blood
I did not see the purple flower on his foot
he was leaning against the wall
and in his hand
a cup of hot chamomile
he was thinking of his tomorrow …

The mother said: In the beginning of the matter I didn’t
comprehend the matter. they said: He just got married
a little while ago. So I let out my zaghareed, then danced and sang
until the last fraction of the night, when
the sleepless were gone and only baskets of purple flowers
remained around me. Then I asked: Where are the newlyweds?
Someone said: There, above the sky, two angels
are consummating their marriage … So I let out my zaghareed,
then danced and sang until I was struck
with a stroke.
When then, my beloved, will this honeymoon end?

This siege will extend until
the besieger feels, like the besieged,
that boredom
is a human trait

O you sleepless! have you not tired
from watching the light in our salt?
And from the incandescence of roses in our wounds
have you not tired, O sleepless?

We stand here. Sit here. Remain here. Immortal here.
And we have only one goal:
to be. Then we’ll disagree over everything:
over the design of the national flag
(you would do well my living people
if you choose the symbol of the simpleton donkey)
and we’ll disagree over the new anthem
(you would do well if you choose a song about the marriage of doves)
and we’ll disagree over women’s duties
(you would do well if you choose a woman to preside over security)
we’ll disagree over the percentage, the private and the public,
we’ll disagree over everything. And we’ll have one goal:
to be …
After that one finds room to choose other goals

» The photograph is of Mahmoud Darwish’s funeral in Ramallah and is © activestills.org.

The Hostage by Zayd Mutee‘ Dammaj

This Yemeni novel, in what I assume is a coincidental parallel to Orwell, was written in 1984 but set in 1948; it’s about a boy who has been taken hostage by the Imam to ensure his father’s political obedience and is sent to work as a duwaydar in the Governor’s palace. A duwaydar was a personal servant, a pre-pubescent boy who filled the role that would once have been given to a eunuch: being able to work in the women’s areas of the palace without any risk to their chastity.

However, the women of the palace do in fact seek out the boys in search of sexual gratification; this is a novel about loss of innocence, about people who are trapped (the women as well as the hostage), about a somewhat toxic intersection of emotional, sexual and power relationships. It is also, I think, a political novel in its portrayal of the Imams’ rule as decadent and arbitrary. And in the background political events are rumbling, although they only appear as echoes within the tightly circumscribed world of the novel.

I find it quite difficult to pick passages to quote for these posts — something which more or less stands alone and gives some idea of what the book is like. But anyway. Here, our hero has just smoked his first cigarette.

It left me floating in a daze, and all I could remember next morning was that my friend hadn’t stayed therewith me, because two women, neither of them Zahra, had taken him and sat on the palace steps, kissing him and squeezing further pleasures out of him. When he came back, I remember, he slammed the door violently behind him, then sank down to sleep more deeply than I’d ever seen him sleep before.

How difficult it was to wake up in this city, so different from the fortress in the mountains, with its fresh, invigorating air! In the city, you always seemed to wake with the feeling that you’d been beaten black and blue, with your body swollen like a drum or the stump of a palm tree and your eyes drooping. From the very beginning there was a lingering feeling of nausea and depression, and you didn’t usually feel the least desire for breakfast or coffee. All you wanted was cool water, and that was only to be found, if at all, in the soldiers’ jugs.

The Hostage is my book from Yemen for the Read The World challenge.

» Note on the author’s name: there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on how to transcribe Arabic words, and I’ve seen it written in various different ways [Zayd or Zaid, Muttee, Mutee or Muti]. Zayd Mutee‘ Dammaj is the spelling used in this edition; the author’s page in the Library of Congress catalogue is under Zayd Muṭīʻ Dammāj.

The picture is ‘the view of the village from a vindow of the Imam’s palace in Wadi Dhar’ and is © Franco Pecchio but used under a CC attribution licence.

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