Cities of Salt: the Myth of the Positive Energy Narrative

“How is it possible for people and places to change so entirely that they lose any connection with what they used to be? Can a man adapt to new things and new places without losing a part of himself?” (Cities of Salt 134).

Like Oil!, Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, is an example of the classic corporate ruthlessness story. A group of Americans, likely backed by the government, drill for oil in the 1930s Persian Gulf. They displace and abuse the groups of people there as well as destroy the environment. Cities of Salt begins with the Americans discovering oil in a desert oasis, called Wadi al-Uyoun. The Americans that come to the Wadi al-Uyoun are referred to with religious imagery. The people there wonder if they are jinn because they are not Muslims yet they speak Arabic, and do not appear to want the water that is found in the wadi. The emir tries to convince the people that the Americans are not jinn but rather their saviors with a more positive form of religious imagery: “Don’t be afraid. We want you to help them in every possible way. They have come from the ends of the earth to help us.”

When the Americans start drilling for oil in the wadi, the machines are described with religious imagery as well: “Lights that shone from them were like shooting stars” (98). Miteb al-Hathal, an elder in the community, is vehemently against the Americans taking up residence in the wadi. He sees the machines as a sign of the apocalypse: “Deep inside him he knew, when the thunder stopped, that the world had ended” (98). The people of Wadi al-Uyoun have similar feelings to Miteb al-Hathal as they “looked on with fearful eyes in utter silence, not knowing when the gates of Hell would open up and swallow everything.” Later in the novel, the Arabs still refer to the Americans using religious imagery. They name the pleasure cruise that arrives in Harran (I will explain more about Harran later) “King Solomon’s ship” and “Satan’s ship” because of the American’s wild displays of pleasure. The workers consistently claim that the Americans have some sort of supernatural powers: “The Americans have come between our men and their wives; they’ve made fools of us and tomorrow they’ll use their witchcraft to turn men into women and women into men! They’ll conjure us into monkeys! God damn them and the day they came here! God help us—I seek refuge in God fro Satan the accursed” (531). Munif’s use of religious imagery is reminiscent of the positive energy narratives found in religious myths. By making the Americans into devils, he is asserting, whether consciously or unconsciously, that there are no positive energy narratives anymore. There will never be another god or angel delivering life force in the form of an energy resource to a group of people suffering from sickness, death and other demons. Instead, the people will suffer at the hands of the new evil, greed.

After the Americans start drilling, the wadi ceases to be a paradise and can no longer sustain the community that lives there: “After destroying the first grove of trees, the tractors turned to the next with the same bestial voracity and uprooted them. The trees shook violently and groaned before falling, cried for help, wailed, panicked, called out in helpless pain and then fell entreatingly to the ground, as if trying to snuggle into the earth to grow and spring forth again” (106). As a result, many of the residents of the Wadi al-Uyoun follow the Americans to their new place of interest, Harran, in hopes of finding work. The Americans mock the workers in Harran because they do not know what they are doing. The workers also have to use dangerous machines that they do not know how to operate. Many of them consider leaving but as soon as they receive their first paycheck, they change their minds: “No one had ever dreamed of getting that much money, and none had ever possessed that amount before” (185). The Americans soon segregate Harran into two sections, American Harran and Arab Harran, thereby forcing the Arabic workers into the more rundown part of the city. In addition, the Americans divide the workers into castes. For example, they send the troublemakers to “Station 4,” which is notoriously dirty and difficult work, to segregate them from the other workers.

Mizban, an Arabic worker, dies as a result of poor working conditions, yet the Company refuses to pay: “The company stubbornly refused to pay any payment, because the ‘law is the law, and rules are rules.’ Their excuse was always that responsibility for the workers’ welfare had not been transferred to the company until after Mizban’s death, “and before that date the company did not recognize or assume any rights or liabilities’ (366). Mizban’s death and later, the death of Hajam, causes the workers to have their first thoughts of rebellion: “When workers talked about the armed Bedouin who were to avenge Hajam and Mizban—for they were all sure that they would come today or the next day—they lowered their voices and agreed that they would prepare a place for Ibn Hathal and his Bedouin to stay; they would be hidden in places that no one would discover, and Ibn Rashed would never find out” (384). One of the workers, Daham, starts carrying a gun around, and later fire is set to the American camp. The Americans believe that it is Miteb al-Hathal who is responsible but the novel is never clear. It is possible that a disgruntled worker is really to blame.

The Americans start work on a pipeline from Wadi al-Uyoun to Harran. They find the heat in the desert unbearable. In this instance, we see nature fighting back, since had they not destroyed the wadi, they would have had some shelter from the heat:

The Americans were in the same nervous, quarrelsome frenzy that had possessed them during the dredging of the harbor, with one difference: this time they were in the desert, in the midst of Hell itself. They were used to going back to their compound ever day, to its swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms, but here, now, they were like animals surrounded by raging fire (505).

The workers start playing pranks on the now vulnerable Americans. One worker captures a jackal and lets it loose in the American camp. He sings a afterward about nature will exact retribution on the Americans for their crimes: “O blue-eyed Americans, wherever you go/ Wherever you try to flee,/ The sun is above and the scorpions below./ The lizards mangle your balls/ And the foxes feast on your asses,/ O blue-eyed Americans, wherever you go/Where will you flee, O eyes of blue?”

When the Americans finish their pipeline they let go many of the workers and as a result a strike breaks out. The company doesn’t believe they are at fault: “We’re convinced that the matter goes beyond the firing of the twenty-three workers. The company has laid off workers in the past and there was no reaction at all. Not only that, the company subsequently rehired them, or some of them. But this time our preliminary assessments indicate the existence of other reasons, of acts of incitement that did not obtain in previous instances. We believe that these causes, these acts have nothing to do with the company.” The workers band together and feel more and more empowered as they do so:

They felt afraid, but still dared to say things they would never have said had they not been so consumed with sorrow and anger. Why did they have to live like this, while the Americans lived so differently? Why were they barred from going near an American house, even from looking at the swimming pool or standing for a moment in the shade of one of their trees? Why did they Americans shout at them, telling them to move, to leave the place immediately, expelling them like dogs? Juma never hesitated to leash out with his whip when he found the workers in “restricted areas” (595).

The company asks their Arabic security guards to put an end to the strike, without violence, at least at first, they said. However, violence is exactly what happens. First, two men are killed, but this seems to inspire the workers to charge despite the gunfire and overwhelm the company’s security force. The workers take the day and the company is forced to reinstate them: “His Highness ordered the reinstatement of all workers to the company, and the company has acceded to his wishes. His Highness also ordered for the formation of a committee to study and identify the responsibility for the recent events.” Munif ends the novel on a positive note, despite the fact that the Americans still remain in the Gulf. I tend to agree with Amitav Ghosh’s theory about the ending, that Munif wanted to give the workers the positive ending that he knew they would never receive in real life.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

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2 thoughts on “Cities of Salt: the Myth of the Positive Energy Narrative

  1. I read this book about ten years ago along with The Trench. I was just planning to reread these two books plus the third one Variations on Night and Day. More readers should know about this Saudi author. I’ll add more of my thoughts on the subject after I finish my rereading.

    • That would be great! I found your blog because of your excellent post on Cities of Salt. I haven’t gotten the chance to read the other two novels yet. I am actually working on a companion website to this blog and am looking for authors to contribute reviews and works of fiction that are related to energy. I would love for you to contribute, though I understand if you don’t want to post your work elsewhere. It would be just as great if you shared your thoughts on my future message board in addition to this blog. I’ll be sure to let you know when the website goes live.

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