Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: Abdelrahman Munif’s ‘Cities of Salt’

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a conversation between ArabLit’s editor and Layla Azmi Goushey, Associate Professor of English at St. Louis Community College, around teaching Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, translated by Peter Theroux. This conversation works a bit differently, beginning with questions and ending with a description of the course:

Do you ever use the infamous Updike review of Cities of Salt, to talk about ways of reading & not reading the book?

Layla Azmi Goushey: I use it, but I don’t want to give Updike too much attention, although I do want to present reviews of Munif’s work as representative of their time and of political, social, or scholarly viewpoints.  In a course with limited time to discuss reader perspectives and biases, I prefer to focus on the act of translation.  I bring in Peter Theroux’s essay and we also hear from Khaled Mattawa ( here and here). I draw from Stanley Fish and build my aims around his concept of Interpretive Communities and Reader Response theory: that is, the text is completed when someone reads it. This concept is complicated, of course, when the text is from translation and this is a central point that emerges during class discussions.

Updike showed his literary hand as a weak and superficial reader of the text.  When he critiques Munif as “insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel.” and that “his voice is that of a campfire explainer” he ignores the rich linguistic oral tradition of Arabic and the fluidity of Arabic story and poetry.” He ignores that he is reading a translation. My answer is of course the novel is not a Western version of a novel. The author is not from a Western cultural tradition.  This level of ignorance should be noted but not dwelled on.  I think it is good to be aware of his perspective, but I add context so as not to legitimize it as a scholarly way to read the book.  That is, it is broadly based in the knee-jerk emotional reaction of Americans to the 1980’s to the 1973 oil embargo and the 1979  Iranian hostage crisis. He wrote the review in 1988 which was only two years away from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Qatar had purchased Stinger missiles on the black market that year, ostensibly for self-defense and against the wishes of the U.S. and Israel. Obviously, there were political machinations at work behind the scenes.  In short, the review serves an agenda. It is not a scholarly, literary review. It is propaganda, and learners should note that, and then refrain from doing something similar.

The purpose of my course assignments is to help students practice building new knowledge, learn to center their knowledge acquisition through their own reading and through research of credible sources, and to be aware of their assumptions and biases before offering an informed personal opinion.  So, I don’t like to formally add other reviews to a course module because I find that we subtly begin to see the reviews as authoritative versus placing the student readers’ perspectives as central to our course.  I find that each semester, a myriad of views including wholehearted endorsement of neo-liberal/neo-colonial aims, comes out in student perspectives.  It is at that point that I bring in John Updike, Amitav Ghosh and his review that presumably launched petrofiction and petro cultural studies, and more recently Siddhartha Deb who briefly responds to Updike.  So, I use reviews in my optional resource list. As various perspectives emerge in class discussions, I respond and include links that connect to those views. At the end of the semester, students are expected to utilize these sources in their final papers and Updike’s perspective is one that is available for reference.

You talk about the novel being predictive of later Saudi-American alliances & overlaps. How do we talk about Munif now (2018), vs. how we would’ve talked about the novel in the 80s, when the translation came out?

LAG: I think it depends on who we mean by “we.” In the 1980s, Western literary scholars and critics were in a space where Updike’s orientalist, racist review was tolerated and taken seriously. Western scholarship in orientalism and postcolonialism was still in its infancy. Updike’s perspective was a small part of a larger organic process. The Saudi-U.S.  alliance, a “friendship,” a dysfunctional relationship, founded in the strategic need for petroleum has been evolving since its inception. At the time of Updike’s review, we were coming out of the 1970’s and the mainstream U.S. populace’s unsettling experience of the OPEC oil embargo followed by the Iranian hostage crisis.

I was 10 years old during the oil embargo.  I remember the long gas lines in Dallas. I remember the prices starting to creep up and my parent’s conversations about the prices. They held a bemused perspective on the gas shortage and the long lines.  They were inconvenienced, but they felt satisfied that the “Arabs were standing up for Palestine.”  Maybe that is why I have a soft spot for Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal even as friends and family say not to be too impressed by his professed pro-Arab sympathies. Sure, he pursued the embargo, but he was a dictator. Still, I think he demonstrated some genuine cultural and regional loyalty.  As for the Iranian hostage crisis, my memory of that is also different from most Americans.  I had an acquaintance in middle school who was from Iran. We were not close friends, but we had found each other because of our Middle Eastern names and we would sit together when no one else was available. I think we were both pretty lonely and trying to fit in so we maneuvered between bonding with each other and trying to bond with the White, Black, and Hispanic kids. During those years she would sit with me at lunch because I had agreed to identify her as Mexican-American if anyone asked.  Meanwhile, our 7th and 8th-grade classmates would have jingoistic, table pounding discussions during study hall about “camel jockeys” and how we should bomb the Iranians. This was a microcosm of conversations that were going on in homes across the U.S. – Jingoism, Orientalism, and Multiculturalism all in a mix.

So to answer your question, where we are now has evolved out of the 1980’s Western experience of Americans feeling vulnerable to and attacked by the oil-rich Arabian-Persian “other.” That is the climate that fostered the Updike review. Now, our evolving relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran (and other oil-producing states such as Libya and Argentina) has brought us Gulf Wars I&II and 9-11. Post-colonial studies have gained significance as a respected area of scholarly inquiry not only because of Edward Said and other Arab writers such as Munif but because of Amitav Ghosh, Gloria Anzaldua, V.S. Naipaul. Isabelle Allende, Chinua Achebe…really too many to mention.  We’ve also had a transnational individual, Barack Obama, lead the United States.  Remember, he lived in Indonesia for about three years and represents that transnational experience.  So, in short, the “we” that offers commentary on global literature has a new level of knowledge.

In 2008, when I first developed an interdisciplinary course titled Topics in Arab culture, I encountered students who were U.S. military veterans who had served in the Gulf or in Afghanistan.  They were searching for some context for what they had experienced. What has changed is that there are now more Western scholars who are informed and aware of the historical context that shapes civilizations.  The emerging post-colonial movement coupled with military deployments has led to broader awareness of others beyond Western borders. Also, we can’t forget the impact of the internet and the immediacy of knowledge we gain from the likes of Al-Jazeera and from individual bloggers who bring new political and cultural perspectives into Western knowledge spaces. Munif is now regarded as representing a vital perspective that we must understand to make sense of our relations with the Arab world, and really, the entire scope of the world.

How do you approach the novel differently when teaching online? How is teaching with Arabic literature in translation complicated when teaching online, when you can’t see the looks on the students’ faces? How else do you get a handle on their starting point, how they’re interacting with the texts, the lenses they’re bringing?

LAG: I get a handle on their starting points by asking them to tell me about their starting points. I ask about their knowledge of Arab culture, their travel experiences in the region (if any), and about any related literary or scholarly experiences. From there, I diagnose the learning needs of the class. I introduce videos and short articles for them to read during the next unit. As for how they are interacting with the text, I have a standard weekly reading response assignment that they must complete by Wednesday of each week.  Responses to classmates must be completed by Sunday of that same week. Students must summarize the reading for that week, and then write a reflective summary that includes a personal connection they made with the text. Those who are not doing the reading quickly stand out. Student perspectives are also quickly apparent, and not only do I notice their lenses, but they notice them in each other.  Online learners will begin to intentionally connect with those who do and do not share their perspectives. My netiquette rules ask learners to be positive and thank classmates for sharing new perspectives with them versus resorting to outright argument and disagreement. If nothing else, the most important skill to learn while participating in an online discussion is how to acknowledge and engage with others’ experience-based perspectives whether we agree with them or not.

In an online course, I can easily tell who has closely read and considered various perspectives toward a text.  The asynchronous discussion allows students to mull an idea for a day or two and come back and comment more than once. After doing this for a while, I can’t imagine offering a course or workshop without an online discussion component. In online discussion, students can clearly express their views and all members of the class can read their statements and respond. They can muse; they can reflect: they can post links that add richness to the discussion. In an online environment, I am able to quickly learn every class member’s response toward the text.  In an on-campus classroom without an online discussion component, there will be learners who hesitate to voice an alternative opinion.

When I first started teaching online I regarded the online delivery of information as an immense challenge, but then I learned to organize a learning path, I learned to trust the learner to articulate their needs, and I found that I must cultivate a personal connection with each person.  This might mean a quick phone or Skype-video call, and it means setting up “home pages” for students to post videos and photos about themselves. The main downside has nothing to do with my efforts to establishing a personal connection or delivering information.  Rather, it is that online access is still a privilege and not a right.  There are students at my campus who still do not own a home computer due to economic limitations although they are free to come in a use a school computer. Some are even homeless and living in temporary shelters or bouncing among the various homes of their relatives. That means there is a great need for educational institutions to offer support to online learners, so they can acquire discounted laptops and become familiar with online learning tools.  Invariably, I will be on the phone with a few students at the beginning of the course to help them reset a password or find an elusive link.  We do have a help desk for this, but I will help when possible so I can make voice or video contact with students.  This is time consuming in the first couple of weeks, but then it tapers off as learners begin to feel knowledgeable and secure in the environment.

My ideal classroom environment is hybrid.  Students post their reading responses on the discussion board and then we discuss in an on-campus class.  However, the discussions are equally rich in an exclusively online environment.  I may not be able to see the looks on student faces, but their written responses can reveal so much more.  In fact, I have repeatedly found in my on-campus classes that a student I perceived as uninterested in a topic will write informed, beautiful analysis of texts on the online discussion board.  As an introvert, I understand this.  While an on-campus class also offers students opportunities to share their thoughts in journals and analytical essays, the immediacy of the online environment, with its opportunities for building an asynchronous peer-discussion community and to post links, photos, and even video statements adds a rich layer of ideas to discussions.

I think that faculty may see limitations in online courses is more indicative of our limited opportunities for professional development in online course building.  We have to be organized and we have to understand how to scaffold a learning experience so that the student follows a path we set for them.  This does not mean we create a tunnel or siloed experience, but we must create a focused path where can pursue valuable side discussions while staying true to the learning goal.  The “downside” of online learning is that teachers are challenged to learn about online information delivery tools and develop new methods for learner engagement. It is hard to change from traditional on-campus methods, but it can be done.

Are there other upsides to teaching Arabic literature in translation through an online course? 

LAG: One major upside I have not already mentioned is that online courses truly are open to the world.  Although I teach survey courses at a community college in Missouri, I have had students who take the online course from far flung locations such as Taiwan and Palestine. Some students are active military and one was briefly deployed in Iraq during the course. There are many opportunities for a rich exchange of perspectives and views. People who could not otherwise connect do so and thrive.

The other upside is that we retain a record of the discussions during the course.  The course also becomes a time capsule that reflects perceptions toward the text during particular time periods.  For example, I transferred the text of all Cities of Salt discussions from a Summer 2013 course into one document and created a word cloud out of it.  It is not a very scientific method, but I think it is kind of nifty. As you can see, students at that time were very concerned with the representations of Americans in Cities of Salt. They were wrestling with the behavior and actions of Americans as depicted in the novel.  If you look at the other numbers, though, most of the discussions mentioned the city of Harran, the wadi, a few main characters and the workers in the novel which communicates a concern with multiple aspects of Arab experiences as depicted in the novel. The actions of “people” in general were of great interest and were frequently mentioned.

Word Frequency
americans 158
people 136
harran 127
wadi 86
miteb 74
arab 68
rashed 66
workers 65
munif 63
ibn 61

Can you tell us about how the teaching of Munif’s Cities of Salt comes together?

LAG: Cities of Salt is set in the eastern Arabian Peninsula in an area near  Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.  Munif tells the story of a small community named Wadi al-Uyoun that is forever changed after the arrival American prospectors who say they are looking for water, while in actuality they are looking for oil.  The novel’s translator, Peter Theroux, bemoans reviewers’ focus on Cities of Salt as a story about oil.  He says, “My feeling was that Cities of Salt was no more about oil than The Godfather was about olive oil. It was a plot mechanism that allowed the author to create a Balzacian panorama cast in a society—the eastern Arabian Peninsula—that had never found its way into modern literature in any language.”  This is certainly true and Theroux, as translator, knows his subject almost as intimately as the author himself.  Theroux’s estimation of Munif’s work articulates a definite style of Munif, who uses nature’s vast panorama, cities, and wadis as main characters.  In his book Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman, Munif’s narrator is a young boy, but the main character is the city of Amman. Individual characters and their stories wind through the streets, shops, schools, and homes of 1940’s Amman.  However, although oil is hardly mentioned in Cities of Salt, one cannot ignore its immense presence as a driving force of the story.

I had the idea to examine the concept of transnationalism in my World Literature course, and I decided to use Cities of Salt as a means of introducing the concept. The goal was to consider how individual identities are shaped by external, multicultural forces. Randolph S. Bourne’s 1916 essay Trans-national America inspired my interest in defining transnational identity and I wanted to facilitate a guided discussion of transnationalism with students. Bournes’ definition of transnationalism is western-centric and eurocentric. However, his forward-thinking rejection of the melting pot theory of American assimilation in favor of a trans-national identity of peoples (who retained their cultural loyalties) as they took their place in the America of the early 1900s struck a chord with me. Bournes defines transnationalism as “a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors.”  While this definition established a foundational understanding of transnationalism, the definition has expanded to consider social, political, and economic aspects of global society.  It has expanded beyond the eurocentric, western-centered perspective.  When I originally began teaching this course, I used my own definition of transnationalism cobbled together from various readings: The experiences and impact of existing across borders and boundaries. After teaching this course and after further reading, I now define transnationalism as a  synchronous, connected, simultaneous experience of two or more cultures, languages, and/or economies.

I designed a module for teaching Cities of Salt that provides students with historical background of the Saudi-U.S. alliance. Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif shows us the origins of a transnational company very similar to the Arab/American oil company – ARAMCO  – and it predicts the uncomfortable cultural hybrid that is still with us today. The novel does not wholly reflect transnational concepts, but I use it as a means of defining what transnationalism is and is not. Defining transnationalism is similar to trying to capture the elusive Higgs Boson, and perhaps it is a concept that inspires similar superstition and worry as those who fear an incarnation of the Higgs will swallow us all in a black hole.  Depending on our experiences, some have more transnational awareness than others. We know it when we see it.   It is a culture and a space, an embodiment, and concept all its own that fluctuates in the individual.  I wanted my students to gain awareness of this concept.  Some of them had experienced their own fleeting moments in this space, while others had never heard of it.  To get to that place of understanding, I started them off with Munif’s Cities of Salt.

A particular challenge of this course, of which there were already many, such as the participants’ minimal knowledge of Arab culture, of transnationalism, and the dense text of Cities of Salt, was that it was an online course.  Some scaffolding of information was necessary to help participants get the most out of the experience. The scaffolding seems to have been appreciated, as participants commented favorably on the availability of information that I provided. One mentioned she had taken other multicultural literature courses and the lack of cultural context was a barrier to her understanding of the texts.

I am a proponent of self-directed learning.  The student needs to get something out of the experience that is unique to their intrinsic motivation for being in the course; for being in the exercise. Here are the assignments I offered to guide the discussion of Cities of Salt:

DESCRIPTION

English 231 – World Literature  

Welcome to ENG 231-World Literature!  Our course topic this semester is Arab Writers and our theme is Transnationalism – the experiences and impact of existing across borders and boundaries.

Phase One: Introduction to Arab Culture, The Author, and The Text

 Thread: Your Knowledge of the Arab World

So that we can begin a conversation that will support our readings, please describe your knowledge or impressions of the Arab world, if any. If you are unfamiliar with Arabic culture, don’t worry, I be glad to answer questions and find sources that provide more information.

Reading: Cities of Salt. Pages 1-104

About the Author – Abdelrahman Munif

Knowledge about the author is always important when reading or viewing any kind of work so that we can understand his or her values in relation to the text. Here are some links to information about Abdelrahman Munif.

http://al-bab.com/modern-arab-writers-abdelrahman-munif

http://en.qantara.de/content/literary-awakening-in-saudi-arabia-a-distant-echo-of-911?wc_c=9202

Bedouin culture

Bedouins are generally nomadic, but the characters in the opening chapters of Cities of Salt take place in a fictional location named Wadi-al-Uyoun. Here is a musical instrument popular in bedouin culture.

The Rebab – A one-stringed musical instrument

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN7iVO0yq3Y

Reader Response Theory

We are utilizing Reader Response Theory in this course. Here is a link to more about Reader Response Theory.

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/06/

Also, please listen to my podcast for more information about Reader Response Theory and our work in this course.

Phase Two: ARAMCO and Transnationalism

Reading: Cities of Salt. Pages 206-310

The videos in the links below contain information and images that mirror the fictional events and people in Cities of Salt. Some parts of these videos could be helpful to put events in the book into perspective, but remember that these videos are also approaching the topic from the producers’ perspective. You are welcome to use events in the videos to compare to examples from Cities of Salt when you write your response this week.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZb2Px40VFY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWS7Eyb34O4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHh6wY2ua08

Harran and Dhahran – Compare and Contrast

In Cities of Salt, the port town of Harran develops after oil is discovered. The American oil company establishes a company headquarters and Arab workers build homes for the company’s American employees. Arab workers, who are brought in with the help of a local man, Ibn Rashed, build their company supplied barracks outside of the main American compound.

After review of several possible symbolic meanings for the word Harran, which does not have a standard meaning in Arabic, a case can be made for the fictional city of Harran to be comparable to the Saudi Arabian port city of Dhahran. Dhahran was the first oil-exporting area of Saudi Arabia and its origins are very similar to Harran in Cities of Salt.

Your Task

Review the following links to the ARAMCO website. ARAMCO is a transnational company under Saudi Arabian and U.S. ownership. The name is an acronym for the words ARab, AMerican and COmpany.

http://www.saudiaramco.com/en/home/our-company/ourhistory0.

Compare and contrast what you know of the fictional community of Harran with the historical information on the ARAMCO website. Keep in mind that we are learning about the Arab workers’ perspective in Cities of Salt and the Saudi-Western perspective from the ARAMCO website.

You are welcome to explore any portion of the ARAMCO site and use the information to post this response.

Transnationalism 

The books we are reading will reflect the impact of migration and transnationalism. Transnationalism is a term that is just beginning to become more prominent in discussion of literature, politics, economics and identity of the self. In regard to individuals, where immigrants of past years may have come to a country with no means of returning to their home country, today’s immigrants have more mobility and more means of communicating with their home countries. Many people possess dual citizenships. For example, there are individuals who possess Canadian and U.S. citizenship, or Japanese and Australian citizenship and their concept of “home” and its cultural influence has expanded. In Cities of Salt, we will look at one important intercultural and economic connection between the Arab world and Western nations, that of the arrival of oil companies in the Arabian Gulf. The cultural links and resulting challenges that developed are still in existence today.

Summaries:

Read Randolph S. Bourne’s 1916 essay Trans-national America and write a 300 minimum word summary.

In addition, you should search the internet for the words “Transnational, transnational citizen, transnational corporation, and transnational politics to get a current view of how this term is defined. You may follow other phrases of interest that relate to your own career or interests. Please write a one-paragraph summary of what you discovered and provide links to the information that you think is most informative.

Phase Three: Saudi Culture 

Reading: Cities of Salt. Pages 311-401

Poetry and Dance

The Ardha is a traditional bedouin dance that expresses communal values of personal commitment to the group or tribe and courage among warriors before a battle. A poem is usually recited during the dance. Bedouin culture and tradition was passed down through poetry and song for many years before the first written language. This oral tradition is still honored today. Poets and poetry are valued in Saudi society as well as the broader Arab society across the Middle East.

Here is more information on the Ardha dance.

http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?id=12148

http://www.saudiembassy.net/about/countryinformation/

culture_art/folk_music_dance.aspx

Examples of the Ardha and poetry in Saudi culture

The following is a video of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia participating in an Ardha. The time period is during the 1960s or early 1970s. King Faisal was the son of the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz bin Saud. Faisal is most remembered for his pro-Arab stance over western interests. In 1973, he challenged the West’s hegemony over oil and brought about 1973 oil embargo which caused an oil and gas shortage in the U.S. (I was 10 years old. I remember the long lines at the gas station in Dallas!)

Poetry contest

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZHkryeV0q0 

Phase Four: Translation, Literary Terms, and Critical Theory

Cities of Salt Pages 506-END

Translation

https://www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/2014-fall/selections/khaled-mattawa-essay-1-656342/

http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/abdelrahman-munif-and-the-uses-of-oil 

KEY FINDINGS

The insightful discussions among students in response to Cities of Salt are too numerous and varied to fully replicate, but some key points emerged:

Characters

Munif’s characters are elusive for one reason: They are not the main characters of his novels. The temporality of human beings is reflected in the way Munif brings them in and out of focus so that the center is the watchful eye of the place, or the author’s all-knowing eye. The main human characters were Miteb and Um Kosh who were depicted as out of their element as soon as the Americans arrived. One student thought of water as a character in the story.  It was necessary and yet could not be controlled. We might say the same thing about oil.

Colonialism

Students noted the machinations of colonialist thinking represented in Cities of Salt.  One expressed surprise at a quote from the book that says “the compensations would be generous just as if the Arabs were regular people!” (367) and took that to mean that the Arabs were not being treated with equality and fairness.

The book depicts ongoing distrust between Arabs and Americans.  When American anthropologists interviewed Arab residents of Harran, one resident says “What is wrong with you? Can’t you talk about anything but my mother and father?” While the American replied “Like I told you at the beginning; the information we need is simple and necessary, and it is confidential “( Munif 323).

However, some students struggled with the concept of colonialism and wondered why the Arabs were not thankful that the Americans were “civilizing” and modernizing their land. 

Economic Behaviors

Students noted that commerce was viewed similarly in both cultures, but that for Arabs the motivation for quick transactions was to minimize conflict and strengthen community ties while for Americans it was for expediency: time is money.   Others noted that Munif described Wadi al-Uyoun as an important stop for many caravans traveling through the desert, so commerce has always been important in Arabia.

The Roles of Translators.

Students observed that Arab translators created the shared space for the Americans and the Arabs.

Some key points:

One character named Ibn Rashed is an opportunist, yet he is a translator between the Arabs and the Americans. Students noted that he was depicted as not having a family and they discussed that this was significant based on Arab cultural norms“He praised Daham and the other men, he praised the beautiful houses the Americans had built and said the Arabs should try to emulate them”(Munif, 209). A student noted that Ibn Rashed looked down on the Arabs and their lack of power yet did not have personal power of his own.  It came from the Emir and the Americans.

Students also noticed that translation contributes to an understanding and an exchange of cultural values.  The Americans asked a character named Naim about visiting America. They asked “‘Would you like to go to America for training?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why not?’ He laughed loudly and did not know why he said, ‘The jackal is a lion in his own country,’” (Munif, 327).

Tradition, Modernity, and Changes to the Individual

On pg. 134, Munif asks “How is it possible for people and places to change so entirely that they lose any connection with what they used to be? Can a man adapt to new things and new places without losing a part of himself?”

Two characters in Cities of Salt symbolize the traditional Arab community: Miteb and Um Kosh.  Miteb leaves the Wadi early in the story.  He sees the Americans and realizes that his way of life is over.  Um Kosh is driven to madness while waiting for her son who left with a caravan but never came back. The other characters in the story seem to have collective hallucinations when they “see” Miteb and even try to capture him. “For he knew his father was there; he had seen him. True he had not been able to speak with him or question him, but perhaps because his father was still angry with him” (Munif 141). Some students felt that the characters Shaalan and Fawaz were seeing Miteb because they felt guilty that they were working for and cooperating with the Americans, even if it was out of necessity. They had turned away from their traditional way of life.

Superstition and Belief

The Wadi’s inhabitants placed supernatural, spiritual meaning on the Americans’ arrival. Students noted the following quotes:

“The jinn took possession of the whole place the day the infidels came” (Munif 45).

“People like them (Americans) who knew all those things and spoke Arabic yet never prayed were not Muslims and could not be normal humans”(Munif 31).

Regarding the anthropologists and their research, some Wadi inhabitants said, “they are magical books…..Those Americans are trying book after book to gain control over Harran and its people!”(Munif, 286).

Ambiguity

Students noted that we never learn what really happens to many characters. They just simply phase out of the story.  The setting, characters, and events are constantly changing and on the last page, Abu Orthman says, “‘God only knows,’ (…)  ‘Hope for the best. No one can read the future”(627).

CONCLUSIONS

At the end of our module on Cities of Salt, students expressed discomfort with the ambiguous nature of the story and its characters, and that the characters were elusive throughout the book. We then compared this with the concept of transnationalism and discussed the possibility that elusive, fleeting sensations are inspired by synchronous, connected, simultaneous experiences of existing within two or more cultures, or by having those cultural norms and values existing within an individual.  While the characters who were translators in the story (Ibn Rashed and Fawaz, for example) demonstrated early transnational awareness, the character that most exemplifies transnationalism in Cities of Salt is the city of Harran.  Harran’s inhabitants are  a hybrid of individuals from Wadi al-Uyoun and from America.  The transient, transnational intents and values of the people involved in the community of Harran interact in a series of discombobulating, synchronous events.  It is this experience of constant change that opens the door to fleeting glimpses of personal transnational experience.  Harran is the symbolic individual and the inhabitants represent the constantly roiling values and emotions of those who are in a synchronous cultural space.  This reminds us of Bournes’ view of transnationalism as an exceptional American phenomenon that is dynamic and something to be celebrated. However, in Cities of Salt, we see the colonialist attitudes that are the foundation of today’s individual transnational experiences. In many cases, the moments that led to today’s transnational corporations, ARAMCO for example, (and individual identities)  were experienced as forced, desperate, and confusing to the inhabitants of Harran.  The foundational experience was an immeasurable loss of land, resources, and cultural tradition.

“No one can read the future.”  – Abdelrahman Munif

#

Layla Azmi Goushey is an Associate Professor of English at St. Louis Community College in St. Louis, Missouri. She currently sponsors the Global Studies Club at the Forest Park campus. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and a Certificate in the Teaching of Writing from the University of  Missouri – St. Louis  where she is also pursuing a PhD. in Adult Education: Teaching and Learning Processes. Professor Goushey’s scholarly work is focused on Arab and Arab-American literature and culture. Her dissertation research examines the teaching philosophies of 11th Century Islamic scholar Muhammad Al-Ghazali. Her creative work has been published in journals such as Yellow Medicine Review, Mizna: Journal of Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab AmericaNatural Bridge, and Sukoon Magazine. She has published articles of literary criticism and currently writes a blog titled Transnational Literacies. Find her on Twitter @Lgoushey or at www.LaylaAzmiGoushey.com.

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