A Nation Built on Sand

Fictional Mooran: where Persian Gulf wealth, royal rule strike out

THE dust has settled from the Gulf war. Soldiers have returned home with war stories and "Arabists" still take to the airwaves with geostrategic analyses. Thus Americans finally think they know the enemy. But how little they have learned about their allies! How is it that the same emirs, sultans, and kings whose dominion Americans fought to uphold less than a year ago remain unknown today?So perhaps Americans should be thankful that fiction, by filling in gaps and fleshing out details, can go where journalism cannot. Indeed, a novel if it wishes can take us into the sultan's bedchamber. And it is there, among other locales in the fictitious desert sultanate of Mooran, that a newly translated novel by Abdelrahman Munif does in fact lead. "The Trench" is Munif's second installment in his multivolume opus entitled "Cities of Salt," which chronicles the birth and decay of wealth and royal rule in the Persian Gulf. The same crude oil that in the first volume spewed wastefully to the unconcern of nomads has now been converted into petrodollars, financing the countless palaces and limousines of these newly settled tribesmen. At the center of the story is Subhi Mahmilji, a Lebanese doctor living in the sultanate's backwater oil district, whose star is rising rapidly. His oft-marrying patron, Prince Khazael, whom he supplies with special tonics each wedding night, ascends suddenly to the throne. As the new sultan's only confidant with knowledge of the wider world, the doctor is called to Mooran to act as his personal adviser. In a few years, Subhi oversees the building of a new state, in all its commercial and bureaucratic intricacies, with Mooran as its air-conditioned capital. Affairs, however, are still conducted in the tribal manner, alliances and appointments still made through marriage and personal obligation. Subhi promotes prots to high places to act as his eyes and ears. He calls friends and relatives to partake of the easy money. Corruption, influence peddling, and political intrigue become the order of the day. The skyrocketing price of real estate, of which Subhi is the chief beneficiary, is only the most extreme of the many lunacies to overwhelm traditional values. While, before the oil boom, business practice had resembled a chess match between partners, with every deal ending in some predictable profit or loss, now fortunes were to be made without any logic at all. Empty expanses of desert, previously not even considered private property, now fetched millions. The lucky few rose to the top while most stood still. In contrast to Subhi and his circle of mercantile interlopers, the locals who habituated Zaidan's coffeehouse were among those left behind. What did Mooran need with blacksmiths when everyone drove cars? When the old souk was razed so that a new palace could be built, tradesmen did not bother to reopen their stalls. The sultan's office of Gifts and Grants would keep his people from being poor. There was a reason beyond simple benevolence for this royal largesse. As the sultan explained, "if the people keep busy playing with money they'll forget everything else - that's what we want. Let them run around and get tired out - when night comes they'll drop like rocks and sprawl out and sleep." In addition to these contrasting social portraits, readers are treated to a rarity from the pen of a male Arab writer, a detailed look into the lives of Arab women. Among the most striking is Subhi's uninhibited wife, Widad, an insatiable seductress of her husband's associates with eyes for the sultan himself and the Levantine merchant Um Hosny, who parlays an invitation to the sultan's harem into a lucrative contract to supply it with henna. Besides the uncommon variety of personality types, the book is plotted in an unusual manner. Discrete groups of characters are followed for several chapters and then dropped without revisiting them. Because Munif balances the quite distant universes of men and women, and rich and poor, these bifurcations are not altogether unreasonable. And the following volumes in the series might well tie these strings more tightly together. But if the plot itself does not provide a unity of experience, the novel's exposition of social and political backdrop does. And Munif makes that experience seem decidedly sinister. "Mooran was part of the wide earth, full of hunger and oppression, boiling with frustration, burning for something other than what it was told and what it heard; and like the muezzin whose voice splits the dawn twilight to announce the start of another day, the voices of the frustrated and hungry echoing also in Mooran ... wh ere people ceased their mad race and let their memories catch up with them. Once again their fears returned; they wondered and waited." The little jewel box world of Mooran, polished so carefully by Subhi, is soon found to be built on blowing sands. All his custom-tailored intrigues begin to collapse once outsiders decide to seize the oil. As his American-educated, arms-trading son tells him, Mooran's fate is in the hands of the superpowers, not the palace schemers. By book's end, Subhi's direct telephone line to the sultan has gone dead and both are sent packing by a mutinous prince. The fact that "The Trench" is written as a roman a clef about Saudi Arabia should not deter readers from enjoying it as pure fiction. But those familiar with the names behind the veils might be curious to know that Subhi is a composite of King Abdul Aziz's personal physicians, Rashad Pharaon and Muhammad Khashoggi, whose profligate sons are no strangers to today's tabloids. Such are United States allies in the Persian Gulf!

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