Culture clash in a dusty oasis...oil wealth vs. Western values. With Arabic cadence

Cities of Salt, by Abdelrahman Munif. New York: Random House. 627 pp. $18.95. THE coming of United States Navy warships to the Gulf in the 1980s would be a logical conclusion to Abdelrahman Munif's projected trilogy about the impact of oil and Western culture on a fictional emirate.

``Cities of Salt,'' the first volume of what promises to be a sweeping historical and sociological panorama of the Gulf, opens with the quiet days and lives after World War I in the remote oasis Wadi al-Uyoun, which sits peacefully above massive oil fields. It closes 20 years later at the end of a violent labor strike in the newly built pipeline terminus of Harran.

Along the way Munif employs an impressive array of novelistic devices - symbolic births and deaths, the introduction of new characters, and the mounting suspense of a hero's much-delayed return - to maintain a heady momentum for more than 600 pages.

But even before turning to the opening chapter, one cannot help but appreciate the book's elegant artwork, from its maroon and indigo dust jacket and the embossed palm tree on its cover to the Art Nouveau design on the title page. Its squat handbook proportions also help this hefty novel to rest comfortably in the palm hour after hour.

A novel with the scope and detail of ``Cities of Salt'' could be written only by someone with a background like Munif's. He came of age in the Middle East while the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) was strengthening its octopus-like hold on the region's reserves, earned a doctorate in oil economics, and worked many years in that field. Munif brings a strong personal perspective and deep historical knowledge to his subject. He sees the interactions between Arabs and Americans over the Gulf's oil as uneasy from the outset. The geologists' loud machines that broke the wadi's inner peace, the Aramco Arabists' invasive questions asked for labor recruitment purposes, and the open display of their wives form the tribal Arabs' first impressions of the Americans. The forced sale of the Arabs' camels, the tight shirt and trousers dress code imposed on all workers, and the building of a prison and ostentatious palace deepen the impending culture clash.

Some characters are drawn too bluntly - they stand plainly for either ``good'' traditionalism or ``bad'' modernization - but each has a uniquely comic or tragic fate. The gadget-crazy emir uses a telescope to scan the American compound's swimming pool for women in bathing suits, while permitting social unrest to build among his own subjects. When rioting finally breaks out, he is last seen shouting into a disconnected telephone as he is being driven from the city.

Tribal doctor Mufaddi al-Jeddan is humiliated and slandered by the emir's private physician, Dr. Subhi, but after winning back the community's respect with traditional remedies for cases Subhi can't cure, Mufaddi is murdered by unknown assailants.

Translator Peter Theroux has transformed what must have been a crazy quilt of literary and colloquial Arabic. His prose is smooth and evocative, balancing the Arabic's layered repetitions and a long novel's linear plot. In reading Arabic literature one can quickly tire of the continuous restatements of fact and redundancies of vocabulary. Theroux keeps alive the spirit of the original even while piling up synonyms where one word would normally serve.

He also maintains Munif's use of different forms of address for the same person in direct discourse. This at first tends to be confusing, but it demonstrates the author's subtle portrayal of tribal society. How one Arab calls a friend Abu Othman, father of Othman, while another calls the same man Ibn Naffeh, son of Naffeh - reveals both the nature of the man's personal relationship and his public standing.

Hovering over the last four-fifths of the novel is Miteb al-Hathal, patriarch of a Bedouin family in Wadi al-Uyoun. He is the first to see danger and raise his voice when the Americans arrive. Miteb is last seen riding from the wadi just before its inhabitants are to be relocated to make way for the oil wells.

Several times over the next 500 pages, however, he returns, or, apparition-like, is said to have returned by his fellow tribesmen, riding a white horse and inspecting the changes wrought by the Americans.

Other times Miteb is accused of exacerbating a dispute over compensation for the death of a workman. He makes a symbolic return at the book's close, when his youngest son, Mugbel, whose birth opened the book but who has not been heard from since, joins the strikers.

Presumably Miteb will return definitively in the next volume of the continuing chronicle of Harran's transition from dusty oil port to teeming city-state.

Louis Werner is a free-lance book reviewer.

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