Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Third Novel in a Set Retraces Arabian History

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Third Novel in a Set Retraces Arabian History

Article excerpt

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. …

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