Third Novel in a Set Retraces Arabian History

VARIATIONS ON NIGHT AND DAY By Abdelrahman Munif. Translated by Peter Theroux. Pantheon Books, 333pp., $24.

`VARIATIONS on Night and Day,'' the third novel in ``The Cities of Salt Trilogy'' (which includes ``The Trench'' and ``Cities of Salt''), concerns the founding of the Sultanate of Mooran, a thinly disguised version of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The characters correspond with historical figures: Khureybit is clearly based on King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia (1932), Khureybit's sons Khazael and Fanar mirror Abdulaziz's successors Saud and Faisal, and the English advisor Hamilton is like the real St. John Philby.

Tracing the shrewd, affable, but ruthless Khureybet's rise to power from his assassination of a rival clan leader to his crowning as an absolute monarch backed by Western power, the novel provides an entertaining and disturbing alternative history of the founding of modern Saudi Arabia. Avoiding both myth and cliche, it is a more complex and accurate history than much that has been labeled nonfiction.

For one thing, the novel reveals the often-ignored British role in establishing the Saud family as kings of Arabia by supplying Ibn Saud with the weapons to attack surrounding tribes and seize their land. The British government also turned a blind eye to the massacre of civilians, with the slaughters Munif describes in ``Awali'' corresponding to those historian David Howarth documents in the Hejaz (now western Saudi Arabia) in 1924.

Munif explains the British role in establishing the Saudi ruler as an absolute monarch when the traditional form of governance had been a tribal leader ruling in conjunction with various sheikhs and tribal elders. All this contradicts both the image of king Ibn Saud riding out of the desert to establish his kingdom with his sword and the cliche that authoritarianism is part of the Arab mentality.

Both the novel's structure and its content call into question how we know what we know. History, Munif says, is based on the accounts of the victors and often serves the political interests of those in power at the time it is written. The power plays, double standards, and double-dealings Munif describes in early 20th century Mooran seem an open metaphor for current world power struggles, especially in the Gulf.

In spite of the novel's relevance, many American readers may find it slow reading. Peter Theroux can translate the Arabic language, as he does very ably, but it is difficult to translate a whole cultural and historical experience. Some of the humor and tension are lost if the reader doesn't know anything about the history of the Gulf.

Other problems may be flaws or simply differences in form. Munif's habit of suddenly introducing minor characters can be confusing, and the novel offers little of the sensory detail that is so much a part of Western realistic fiction. One can finish the novel, for instance, without being able to visualize either the characters or their surroundings.

Yet we know how these characters think and feel, and none is reduced to stereotype or caricature. Khureybit and his men are as politically sophisticated (and as callous) as the British, but also more subtle. The sultan himself, for all his cruelty, emerges as a complex and compelling man.

Particularly striking also is Munif's portrayal of Hamilton's cosmopolitan and insightful Aunt Margot. Unlike the rest of the characters, she is not concerned with political power, but with preserving the Middle East's ``human legacy'' of culture and history. Without that legacy, she tells Prince Fanar, ``coming generations [will have] to start all over again from zero.'' The trilogy helps to preserve that legacy.

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