Narrative Techniques and Modes of Writing in ‘Abdul Rah man Munf’s Mudun al-milh: al-tih
In several places in his book Al-Katib wa-al-manfa (The Writer and Exile), Abdul Rahman Munif asserts his preoccupation with producing a national tradition of the novel. 1 Such a preoccupation involves a great deal of experimentation2 with new narrative techniques and modes of writing inspired by the author’s concern with drawing on the native literary heritage as well as his characteristic interest in basing his narrative on dramatizing national human concerns in a specific historical period. Munif’s firm belief that the Arabic novel should be a unique literary product whose composition and shape are determined by its cultural milieu coincides with Q. D. Leavis’s views on the distinctive character of the English novel. In an article entitled ‘The Englishness of the English Novel’, Leavis argues:
But if we look at the novel as it has been established in other countries as well as look at other countries which have failed to produce a national tradition of the novel at all we must realize that our English novel is a unique product. This is because it is the largely accidental result of our luck at having had in the last two and a half centuries a succession of gifted creative writers, born in different times and places and stations, who saw prose fiction as a suitable medium for expressing their human concerns; as well as the less accidental fact that their concerns were directed by our changing social political and economic history … Therefore, the novel is the art most influenced by national life in all its minute particulars. 3
For Munif, as for Leavis, the novel is conceived as a vehicle for expressing the novelist’s national ‘human concerns’ in the light of which the aesthetics of the novel are to a large extent determined. If we agree with this view, we may then conclude that the more the novelist commits himself to reflecting nationally determined human concerns, the more he will be able to produce a unique novel. This is exactly what Munif sets out to do in Mudun al-milh al-tih (Cities of Salt: The Wilderness).
Munif’s major human concern in Mudun al-milh is to portray the historical process of social change in the Arabian Gulf following the discovery of oil and the arrival of the Americans to the area. The historical period which the novel sets out to describe extends from the thirties of this century up to the late seventies, a period marked by transition and sweeping social change.
It is interesting to note here that traditionally the novel has always concerned itself with recording social change. Michel Butor, for instance, maintains that interest in social change is one of the fundamental defining characteristics of the European classical novel:
The rise of an individual is one of the main themes of the classical novel, but it is impossible to describe this without at the same time describing the architecture of a social group, or more exactly without transforming the picture that this social group has of its own organization which sooner or later transforms that structure itself. The novel is the expression of a changing society; it soon becomes the expression of a society that is conscious of change. 4
Roger Allen, in his turn, observes: ‘the novel is a literary genre which throughout its history has taken as one of its primary topics the nature of modernity and the process of change’. 5
By placing the process of social change at the centre of his narrative, Munif seems to be keen to relate his novel to the international novel tradition, yet through his emphasis on the specificity of the social experience in the Gulf area, highlighting the inner realities of the processes of social change at work among the local community and the tensions these have set up in the collective consciousness, Munif succeeds in giving his novel an authentic local colour in terms of its content and form, benefiting of course from native literary heritage and traditions. Munif’s theoretical views on the development of a distinct Arabic novel may illustrate the point I am trying to make: ‘The pursuit of producing an Arabic novel’, Munif argues, ‘involves drawing on local literary heritage as well as making use of the international literary traditions’. 6
It is in this sense that in his introduction to the English translation Halm Barakat’s novel ‘Awdat al-tair ila l-bahr , translated as Days of Dust, Edward Said points out that in spite of the novelists’ ‘original imaginations’ they are all considered as ‘heirs of an aesthetic past’. 7
Our attention is drawn to the sweeping force of change in the early parts of the novel. Describing the drastic change that has come over Wadi l-‘Uyun (the first location in which the action is set) in the aftermath of the discovery of oil and the arrival of the Americans on the scene, the narrator observes: ‘Within days everything in the Wadi changed — man, animals and nature’. 8 One receives the impression that change is presented as if it were a kind of ‘Big Bang’ triggering off a process of change which involves all aspects of life at Wadi l-‘Uyun: ‘People and places and life had, until that moment, existed uneasily in sad, serene silence, as if nothing would ever change, but a loud shout rang out in the camp, and with this sudden shout, which alerted Mit‘ab al-Hadhdhal, life began to change’. 9 Change is even presented as a destructive force symbolized by the cutting of trees and encroachment upon nature as search for oil gets under way. Emphasis on change is kept up when the action shifts to Harran, the second location in which the main bulk of action takes place: ‘This was how Harran’s nights passed, but Harran, which changed every day, and was new each day, never knew any two of its nights to resemble each other; there was always something new.’ 10
By way of heightening our awareness of the extent of change, the central issue throughout the novel, Munif uses the device of travelling where one of the characters travels and after the lapse of a period of time he returns home and volunteers to record his own observations on the sweeping process of change which has come over the place. This is how Fawwaz al-Hadhdhal registers his observations on the state of affairs at Wadi l-‘Uyun when he returns to it from al-Hadra, a nearby village where the family of Mit‘ab al-Hadhdhal settles after they have been forced to leave Wadi l-‘Uyun, as it has ceased to be:
When they reached Wadi l-‘Uyun, it seemed to Fawwaz a place he had never seen before. There was no trace of the wadi he had left behind; none of the old things remained. Even the fresh breezes that used to blow at this time of year had become hot and searing in daytime, and a bitter cold penetrated his bones late night. The men who had gathered there, he did not know from where, in their tents and wooden houses were a bizarre mixture of humanity; they have no resemblance to anything a man would recognize. 11
This pattern is repeated in connection with Harran where two travellers (Muhammad al-Sayf and ‘Abdallah al-Sa‘d), who make their way back to Harran after four years of absence in Iraq, express their astonishment at the enormous extent of change which has come over the city.
Mudun al-milh is concerned not only with recording the fact and nature of social change, it also registers and explores how it happened noting its effects on individual lives, on patterns of living, on communities. Munif’s keen alertness to pressures that the social change puts on the individual and to how those pressures combine to bring about confusion, alienation and psychological disorientation is vividly dramatized in his portrayal of the personality of Mit‘ab al-Hadhdhal, one of the central characters in the novel.
Like Okonkow, the hero of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958), Mit‘ab cannot bring himself to accept the presence of foreigners in his country. His rejection of the presence of the Americans in Wadi l-‘Uyun stems from his awareness that they represent an enormous threat to traditional ways of living and cultural heritage. Initially, Mit‘ab views the Americans with fear and suspicion which foment his growing antagonism towards them, so much so that he mounts a campaign to promote communal resentment to their presence in Wadi l-‘Uyu n. Yet Munif seems reluctant to give Mit‘ab’s struggle against the Americans a political dimension as is the case, for instance, in al-Tayyib Salih’s Mawsim al-Hijra ila l-Shamal (1966) in which Mustafa Sa‘id becomes involved in an overt political struggle against the British. He is rather more concerned with translating elements of social and economic change into human fates, into an altered psychology. Mit‘ab’s failure to rally support, as it were, for his antagonistic stance towards the Americans contributes to the development of his acute sense of frustration and eventually his alienation from the mainstream of his community. Mit‘ab’s sense of alienation manifests itself initially in his tendency to withdraw into the isolated mount of Zahra to take stock of the alarmingly rapid, all-embracing process of change at Wadi l-Uyun, but it is only when he mysteriously disappears from the scene of action altogether that we realize the full extent of his alienation and suffering. The intensity of Mit‘ab’s suffering brings to mind Alberto Moravia’s words that: ‘There is no greater suffering for man than to feel his cultural foundations giving way beneath his feet’. 12
Again the effacement of the hero in the first part of Mudun al-milh invites comparison with the disappearance of Okonkow for seven years in exile in Things Fall Apart. In both novels, as I have just pointed out, the two heroes resist the process of change brought about by the intrusion of a foreign culture upon local culture, and their negation symbolizes the inevitability of change as it is conceived by Achebe and Munif. In response to a question by an interviewer about the mystery of the sudden disappearance of Mit‘ab in the early parts of the novel, Munif points out that his hero represents a disappearing way of life. 13
It is in terms of Munif’s ideological vision of the inevitability of change that Sha‘lan, Mitab’s third son, assumes the responsibility of establishing a new tribe after the disappearance of his father.
Because he stayed in Wadi l-‘Uyun, a wadi that bore no resemblance to the one that had been there before, except in name, he was compelled, in the absence of his father, to establish a new tribe to replace the old one. And because each of the two worked in his own way, the new tribe Sha‘lan founded, which flourished and of which traces still remain today, also began in Wadi l-Uyun but spread far afield and worked somewhat differently. 14
Shalan’s main qualification for playing this significant role is his flexibility, his ability to adapt to new modes of living and the rapid process of change. In all this Shalan stands in sharp contrast with his father. His flexibility and adaptability to change manifest themselves in his willingness to work for the oil company hardly hampered by his father’s conservatism and rejectionist attitude. In this Shalan seems to represent a class of people as they are identified by R. Patia:
In eastern Saudi Arabia, for instance, where the Arabian American Oil Company offers excellent working conditions to the still largely nomadic population of the peninsula, the tribesmen until recently utterly contemptuous of all manual labour with the exception of the only noble task of breeding camels, ” ock in increasing numbers to the company’s recruiting stations without suffering loss of prestige. 15
While Shalan embodies this new trend of liberalism, his father stands firm against all forms of change which justifies his physical effacement on ideological grounds. From an aesthetic point of view, the negation of Mit‘ab in the first parts of Mudun al-milh comes within the framework of Munif’s attempt at producing a distinct Arabic novel in which the community or communal consciousness rather than the individual plays the role of the hero. Munif’s first attempt at producing a novel in which the principal character is the community as a whole can be found in his novel Al-Nihayat (1977), translated into English as Endings. In this novel, ‘Assaf, who is meant to play the leading role, is eclipsed by the narrative’s main concern with describing the fortunes of a whole community as they strive to survive in the face of severe droughts. 16 One even receives the feeling that the central role assigned to ‘Assaf is the product of the people’s quest for a collective hero through whom they can cope with the harshness and cruelty of life in the desert. On the basis of this, one is tempted to suggest that Al-Nihayat is not so much concerned with presenting a hero as an artistic necessity as it is interested in describing the process of creating a collective hero as a life necessity during hard times. Hence, even after his death, halfway through the narrative ‘Assaf retains an essential role as part of the collective memory of the whole community from which they derive a great deal of inspiration and guidance.
Munif’s tendency, in the early stages of his literary career, to dispense with the traditional hero, replacing him with the community as a whole is , it has already been suggested, carried on into Mudun al-milh . Charles R. Larson’s remarks in a context related to the novel in the Third World in general may illustrate Munif’s undertaking:
It is important to note at the outset that the very ‘form’ of the novel from cultures within the Third World has often been strongly influenced by those cultures themselves, resulting in something contrary to our concept of the novel in the West. The ‘situational’ novel is the most obvious example of this — ideally defined as a narrative in which the central character’s importance is replaced by a collective group of people undergoing commonly shared experience. 17
Larson’s remarks describe with great precision the narrative conduct in Mudun al-milh in which the ‘shared common experience’ is of course social change, which finds concrete dramatic embodiment in the lives of a number of main characters who form a kind of a collective group sharing the focus of the narrative throughout the novel. Mit ab strikes us as the most impressive figure of the whole group. ‘In spite of his physical disappearance, Mitab retains his presence as a kind of a legendary figure embodying the hopes and the dreams of the Arabs, whereas for the Americans and their Arab allies, Mitab has become a ‘spectre’ that haunts their camps, filling them with anxiety and fear. Mitab’s role as a folk hero is underlined in a direct authorial comment:
Fear gripped the wadi. The men grew more rash and nervous, and Mitab was considered indispensable — if he absented himself from the wadi a single day to sleep in Zahra the people missed him acutely; only he was capable of saying everything, of expressing their innermost thoughts. 18
Insofar as Mitab figures as a kind of a folkloric legend comparison can be made between Mudun al-milh and Najib Mahfuz’s novel Malhamat al-Harafish (1977). Just as Mitab’s physical disappearance in Munif’s novel marks the beginning of his assumption of the role of a legendary hero, so the mysterious disappearance of ‘Ashural-Naji halfway through Malhamat al-Harafish makes of him a fantastic figure onto whom the riff-raff project their aspirations and dreams. In both of the two novels the hero’s assumption of the role of a national saviour seems to be inspired by the mechanism of Arabic sira literature or the popular folk tale (e.g. ‘Antar, Baybars, Bani Hilal, etc.) in which collective communal hopes and dreams are fastened on a legendary hero. In his study of the impact of national literary heritage on the composition of the Arabic novel in Egypt, ‘Abd al-Rahman Mabruk points out that it is a common practice on the part of Arab novelists, interested in the development the novel as an Arabic literary art, to create legendary heroes modelled on the type of folktale hero we encounter in Arabic popular folk literature. 19 Mabruk cites Faruq Khurshid’s ‘Ali Zaybaq (1967) and Farid Abu Hadid’s Abul-Fawaris ‘Antar Ibn Shadda¯d (1947) as two typical examples in which the hero is cast as a legendary figure derived from native cultural heritage.
By being cast to play the role of a legendary folkloric hero (that is as part of Munif’s strategy to experiment with new techniques of writing), Mitab suggests himself to be an heir of Jazi al-Hadhdhal, his great grandfather who, in the typical manner of the folktale hero, is presented in the first chapter of the novel as a national hero who fought against the Turks:
People still remembered Jazi al-Hadhdhal and what he had done to the Turks forty or fifty years before, making their occupation of Wadi al- ‘Uyun an unbearable hell, he would lie low for so long that he was thought to have died or been killed, and was almost forgotten by everyone, including the Turks themselves. Then he’d burst onto the scene, killing, burning and destroying, only to escape back into the desert with what he had seized, staying there long enough to be forgotten again; then he’d be back, making the wadi a veritable hell. 20
Obviously, Mit‘ab’s role in his struggle against the Americans is modelled on Jazi al-Hadhdhal’s fight against the Turks. Mudun al-milh even concludes with a similar note to that presented in the final part of the quotation that one day Mitab will return to expel the Americans and restore sanctity to native cultural traditions and heritage. Once Mitab has physically disappeared, Ibn Rashid occupies centre stage to play the role assigned to him in the ‘panoramic picture’21 which the novel, as Munif himself has pointed out, sets out to portray. In light of this basic intention of his novel, Munif likens the numerous central characters who occupy the spotlight in succession in the narrative to the participants in a ‘relay-race’22 each of whom is assigned a task to perform. To use Munif’s metaphor, if the task given to Mitab in the relay-race consists mainly in his embodiment of the radical rejectionist response to change and cultural invasion, Ibn Rashed represents a class of people who ally themselves with the Americans and work side by side with the authorities of the province to further their personal self-interest hardly paying any attention to violation of traditional values or the disintegration of cultural heritage. Little wonder then that Ibn Rashid and Mitab become involved in a fierce struggle symbolizing communal dissension brought about by the rapid process of change.
However, Ibn Rashid’s fierce rival with whom he engages in a deadly conflict is Dabbasi. Up to a point, Dabbasi shares Ibn Rashid’s tendency to act from expediency to the end of improving his lot, but he lacks Ibn Rashid’s shrewdness and machiavellianism. Yet, the basic difference between the two characters is that, unlike Ibn Rashid who has no misgivings whatsoever about the presence of the Americans, Dabbasi makes no secret of his fears concerning the threat posed by the Americans to local traditions and cultural heritage. This emerges in a speech in which Dabbasi expresses his harsh attack against Ibn Rashid: ‘The old Harran you knew is gone. It has been obliterated nothing is left of it but the mosque and the cemetery, and maybe tomorrow or the next day Ibn Rashid or someone else will come and build a cinema in its place. They may build a whorehouse over the graveyard.’ 23 In expressing these views Dabbasi draws closer to Mitab.
However, Dabbasi’s duality is symbolized by his division between Arab Harran and American Harran. ‘By the time the first week had come to an end — full, as usual, of upsets and changes in their lives — Dabbasi had pretty firmly established himself between the two Harrans.’ 24 To a certain measure Dabbasi’s internal division generates from his concern for the threat posed to Islamic principles by the American culture.
Reaction to change and to the presence of the Americans on religious grounds in its extreme form is reserved for Ibn Nafih, an outspoken enemy of the Americans and a strong opponent of all forms of change that may threaten established traditional values and religious principles. On one occasion, Ibn Nafih, addressing himself to the emir, gives vent to his anger at the deteriorating state of affairs:
When the townspeople of Harran went to visit the emir, Ibn Nafih was outspoken and angry. He said that the Americans had come to turn the people away from Islam, that they practiced sorcery and that if they were allowed to stay they would lay Harran waste: there would be catastrophes. 25
Ibn Nafih’s outspokenness brings him into trouble with the local authorities, but, unlike the active rebel Mitab, he is a passive rejectionist.
Mitab’s spirit of rebellion is reincarnated in Mufaddi al-Jadan. Like Mitab, Mufaddi is dead set against the American presence and the new modes of living. This provoked the narrator to observe: ‘Harran changed every day but Mufaddi never changed.’ 26 Mufaddi even suggests himself to be an heir to Mitab as he takes it upon himself to keep up the struggle initiated by Mitab against change. Yet Mufaddi lacks the romantic halo which Munif bestows on Mitab. Mufaddi’s rigidity and primitive medical practices make of him a target of Munif’s satire, a fact conforming the author’s endorsement of the inevitability of change and the necessity of adaptation to new modes of living.
In addition to the already-mentioned main characters, Mudun al-milh introduces us to a host of minor characters whose private lives are also influenced by the process of change, but they do not embody well-defined reactions as is the case with the main characters whose lives, as we have seen, are meant to embody specific reactions to the changing state of affairs in the historical period in which the action is set.
An exception to this is perhaps the case of Shalan, who is not a main character yet, as I have just pointed out, he is cast to embody the ability to adapt to change. In addition, Shalan serves as a medium for the author’s exploration and dramatization of the psychological and social problems attendant upon exposure and adaptation to a new mode of living and alien cultural values. An obvious manifestation of this is Sha lan’s internal conflict. His division from within is such that he assumes two names. ‘Here is how the narrator sums up Shalan’s moral predicament:
Shalan planted himself in Wadi l-‘Uyun not like the palm trees that had filled the wadi in times gone by but like one of the iron columns that now stood everywhere, and within a short time he changed very much indeed. Even his name changed in this new era: he was ‘Company Shalan’ or ‘American Shalan’ instead of Shalan bin Mitab al-Hadhdhal, to distinguish him from Sha lan Abu Tabkh who was contracted to supply food to Wad al-‘Uyun and Shalan al-‘Aouer who guarded the rear gate of the camp. Shalan bin Mitab learned English better and much more quickly than the others. For a long time they laughed at his new names, considering them a sort of joke that would end just as it had begun, but as the days passed and Shalan stayed with the company, moving from one place to another, from one department to another, the name Mitab al-Hadhdhal virtually disappeared except in official records, and the new name took its place. The new name surprised people who heard it for the first time, and sometimes it even bothered Shalan himself and Mitab al-Hadhdhal’s other children and relatives, but he soon got used to it and so did the others, except when it was used to provoke or make fun of him. 27
Here Shalan is obviously used as an agent through whom Munif expressed his philosophical views about the consequences of sudden change.
The story of each of the characters to whom I have already referred can be read as a separate entity; but given the main intention of the Arabian Gulf area, Munif uses a distinctive technique in which the emphasis is not placed on the parts but rather upon a whole text rendered coherent through a dynamic interaction with and among its parts. Analogically, Mudun al-milh is a gestalt, an organized whole which is constructed on the principle of a repeated motif, that is the recording of diverse reactions to the process of social change.
This is what constitutes, in the terminology of E.M. Forster, the ‘rhythm’ of Mudun al-milh : rhythm effected not only through repetition of motifs, such as occur in a piece of music, but also through a dynamic relationship such as that which exists between the movements and the symphony, between the parts and the whole.
This type of technique is already in evidence in Al-Nihayat in which the 14 inset stories at the end of the novel interact with the main story of ‘Assaf sharing with it its thematic concern with hunting, animals, birds, and the teaching of moral lessons. 28 For
instance, the First Story deals mainly with hunting animals; the Second Story concerns itself with hunting birds; whereas the Thirteenth Story told by the local Bey has the same moral lesson of needless destruction which is of course the main lesson we draw from ‘Assaf’s unnecessary death.
It may not be wide of the mark to note that, in constructing his novels in this way, Munif has been inspired by the Arabian Nights in which the frame story interacts with õ the individual tales and the result is an organic whole based on skilful bonding of a string of short tales into one longer tale. In an interview Munif cites the Arabian Nights 29 as one of the most important works on which he draws in his attempt to develop a unique Arabic novel tradition.
Similar structural techniques are employed by Mahfuz in Malhamat al-Harafish which consists of ten tales subtly related and interacted forming an organic whole. In a more sophisticated manner the same technique is repeated in Mahfuz’s novel which has the suggestive title of Layali Alf Layla wa-layla (1982). Mahfuz’s and Munif’s obvious attempts at drawing on cultural heritage to construct their novels should, as I have just hinted, be interpreted in the context of Arab novelists’ keenness to produce distinct Arabic novels.
Munif’s extensive use of proverbs, songs, anecdotes and tales throughout the novel õ serves the same function of localizing his narrative. However, it is mainly through setting his novel in the desert that Munif has noticeably succeeded in giving his novel a local colour which substantially contributes to his production of a unique Arabic novel.
Commentators argue that it is mainly by virtue of using the desert as the main setting of action in Arabic novels that the Arabic novel has acquired its definitive character. In his book Al-riwaya al-‘arabiyya wa-l-sahra’ (The Arabic Novel and the Desert), Salah Salih writes:
By setting the action of their novels in the desert, Arab novelists have realized a long-cherished wish; that is, the creation of an Arabic novel which possesses its distinctive character. This has proved to be the easiest way and the most suitable medium to produce a distinctive Arabic novel, which continually seeks to sever its remaining ties with the Western novel which served as a model for early Arab novelists in terms of form and content. 30
Similar views are held by Roger Allen who, with specific reference to Munif’s Al-Nihayat, argues that this novel owes it s distinctive Arabic character to being entirely set in th e desert:
The emphasis on the desert, intense heat, the dangers of travel, the search for food, all these features and others set this novel apart from others written in Arabic. Novels written by Arab authors have tended to a large degree to take as their subjects the city and its inhabitants and particularly the bourgeoisie, thus emulating at least the initial stages in the development of most of the Western novel traditions. There have, of course, also been novels which deal with life in the countryside, from the very early Zaynab of Haykal to ‘Abd al-Hakim Qasim’s Ayyam al-insan al-saba; there have also been novels, parts of which have been set in the desert, Ghassan Kanafani’s Rijal fi al-shams for one. 31
Munif himself goes so far as to compare the significance of the desert in contributing to the production of peculiar Arabic fiction to the important role played by the sea in giving the European novel some of its distinguishing characteristics. 32 Reflecting on his artistic attraction to the desert when he first started to write, Munif further adds:
At an early stage in my literary career, I tried to get close to the desert. This was initially undertaken in Al-Nihayat. Once I had discovered the great potentialities of the desert, I never wavered to delve deeply into its world. I spent several years preparing myself for embarking on such a journey. When I had taken the first step, I came to realize that this place (the desert) was bound to lend the Arabic novel one of its distinctive features. 33
The consequences of Munif’s decision to delve deeper into the world of the desert are well reflected in Mudun al-milh in which the entire action is set in the desert (even Wadi al- Uyun, which is first presented as an oasis in the middle of the desert, has become part of the desert once its trees have been cut in the course of the search for oil). The desert’s potentialities are further explored mainly for the sake of producing a unique Arabic novel. As is the case in Al-Nihayat, in Mudun al-milh the desert is not presented as a mere geographical expression but rather as a place which has its own cultural entity and peculiar phenomena. But if in Al-Nihayat the desert serves as a main source of anthropological detail 34 and a suitable setting for dramatizing man’s helplessness and struggle for survival under harsh conditions, in Mudun al-milh the desert has more intricate and multiple functions.
To begin with, the mysterious in! nite world of the desert in Mudun al-milh serves as an effective medium for creating the myths and superstition associated with the personalities of Mitab, Mufaddi, and even Khosh. Mitab’s role as a legendary saviour gives rise to frequent invocations of his phantom (that is, after his disappearance), especially in trying circumstances which render his presence badly needed. A conspicuous example of this is Mitab’s frequently recurring, nocturnal fantastic appearances as the construction of the oil pipeline (which symbolizes the Americans permanent presence in the area) nears its completion. Mitab’s mythical presence and his alleged nocturnal phantom-like appearances are lent an air of plausibility and made most dramatically effective mainly by virtue of Munif’s setting of his novel in the desert.
The same can be said of Mufaddi whose character has gained in stature after his death to the extent that, like Mitab, he has assumed the proportions of a hero of mythical significance, especially in the context of the confrontation between Arabic culture and American culture. On a particular occasion the workers seem to be confused whether it is the phantom of Mitab or that of Mufaddi which has made its appearance in the vicinity of the oil company’s compound, an appearance which coincides with the demonstrations held by the workers as they step up their struggle against their American employers.
Those who arrived at the compound late said that they had seen from afar a man on a white camel pursuing the soldiers and firing at them and attacking the main gate of the compound, and many of them said that the man was Mit ab al-Hadhdhal. Still others swore with absolute certainty that they saw a ‘phantom shaped like a man flying above their heads, and it looked exactly like Mufaddi al-Jadan. They said that the soldiers who fired their rifles were frightened to the point of utter terror and that most of their bullets were ! red at the phantom, at Mufaddi al-Jadan. They reported that the man’s was full of holes made by the bullets. 35
Munf’s attempt at creating supernatural mythical machinery generating from the õ world of the desert reminds us of Salah Salih’s observation that: ‘The Arabian desert has given birth to indigenous legends and myths, exactly in the same way that other geographical places in the world such as China, India, and ancient Greece have done.’ 36
As a result of incorporating mythical, legendary and superstitious elements into his narrative, which is mainly grounded in historical reality, Munif, I would argue, has succeeded in widening the scope of realism as an established made of representation, especially in the European novel. In other words, Munif sets out to graft new elements upon an old traditional mode of writing and the result is, in the words of G.G. Darah, the creation of a form of ‘marvellous realism’ whereby he distances himself more and 37 more from the European model of the realistic or the historical novel. It is perhaps on this account that Munif has pointed out that his novel is not neatly written in the tradition of the ‘realistic or the historical novel’. 38
Munf’s awareness of the great potentialities of the desert to enable the writer to õ transcend the normal world of reality is hinted at in what he has to say in Al-Nihayat: ‘The desert, on the other hand, the mysterious, cruel, savage desert with all its surprises, transcends the normal laws of nature simply in order to corroborate them.’ 39
The use of the desert in Mudun al-milh contributes to the localizing of the narrative from a totally different perspective: namely, the method of narration. Throughout the novel the narrator uses simple, uncomplicated language which harmonizes with the simplicity and primitiveness of the people in the desert. This indigenous folktale quality of the method of narration in Mudun al-milh is also reflected in Munif’s creation of a bard-like narrator (such as we encounter in Arabic folk literature) who throughout the novel seems to address himself not to a reader or readers, but to a group of participant-listeners who occasionally take part in narrating segments of the narrative or make some comments on certain events.
The final main function of the desert in Mudun al-milh relates to the theme of culture conflict which lies at the heart of the narrative. For the Americans the desert is presented as inhospitable environment which is meant to heighten our awareness of their alien presence on Arab land. The failure of the Americans to cope with the cruelty and the harshness of life in the desert (especially the heat and wild animals) is a constant theme in the final sections of the novel.
Munif’s emphasis on the culture conflict which intensifies towards the end of the novel falls into the same category of strategies utilized by the author to emphasize the indigenous flavour of his narrative. His practice in this respect parallels the tendency of the practitioners of the Arabic Bildungsroman in which the encounter between the East and the West replaces class conflict in the traditional European Bildungsroman. In an article entitled ‘The Arabic Bildungsroman: a generic appraisal’, I have dealt with six. Arabic Bildungsromans in which the encounter between the East and the West figures as the main characteristic feature which distinguishes the Arabic Bildungsroman from its European counterparts. 40 Typically, in the Arabic Bildungsroman the arena for the conflict is a European western capital city, whereas in Mudun al-milh the conflict is transferred to the Arab world.
It is in terms of the theme of culture con” ict that we should interpret the strike and the demonstrations held by the workers of the oil company in the final parts of Mudun al-milh On the superficial level, the riots and disturbances launched by the workers may resemble class conflict in the European tradition, but close analysis will reveal that the root cause of the workers revolt is culture conflict. It is little wonder then that references to Mitab’s imminent return become more frequent during the period in which strikes and demonstrations take place. The frequent references to Mitab and the invocation of his image whenever culture conflict rises and the fortunes of the workers take a sharp downward course recalls to mind the increasing frequency of the invocation of the spirit of ‘Ashur al-Naji as the fortunes of the riff-raff tend to deteriorate. 41 In both the two novels Mudun al-milh and Malhamat al-Harafish this state of affairs relates closely to each of the two heroes’ assumption of the role of a national saviour which is, it has been already suggested, inspired by the narrative conduct in Arabic Sira literature.
As Mudun al-milh concludes we are left with the strong impression that Mitab is hiding in the desert (a point we have touched on slightly above in discussing the nature of his role in the novel) preparing himself to fulfil his mission as saviour. This folk literature aspect with which the novel ends parallels the folk-literature-inspired story of Jazial-Hadhdhal recounted in the first chapter of the novel. These two aspects of folk literature with which the novel begins and concludes serve as an index of Munif’s artistic commitment to produce an Arabic novel inspired by, and deeply rooted in, Arabic cultural heritage.
Find more essay examples.