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Wed Apr 3 09:04:20 MST 2002
Chronicles of Higher Education, April 5, 2002
The Hidden Lives of Oil
By ROB NIXON
As a teacher of international literature, I'm constantly looking for books
that will enable my students to vanish with engagement into other worlds.
Reading works by non-Americans usually poses some challenges, but I hate
the idea of students' recoiling from foreign authors because they associate
foreignness with the unfathomable or the threateningly remote. I want to
help them discover those points of passion that plunge them, like Alice,
down a bolt-hole into a kind of astonishment that is also a kind of
I like students to come away from a world-lit course with more than a
dutiful set of multicultural sensitivities. I try to teach books that will
transform a class's inner geography, giving emotional dimension to the
fresh ways that students map the world. The foreign isn't important just
because it's there, but because it meshes with the places we inhabit,
because over there is, in subtle and unsubtle ways, also over here.
In 15 years as a professor, I don't recall a time when students needed less
encouragement to intensify their engagement with foreign lands. Like most
of us, they've had their imaginative limits violently overturned by recent
events. Now, they are open about their impatience with the insular fictions
on which they have been reared. The self-enclosed stories that the United
States routinely tells itself -- on television, in film and literature --
seem glaringly incomplete, unequal to students' suddenly insistent need to
integrate into a wider world.
Kashmir, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan are names and places
previously obscured to most Americans by apparent irrelevance. What kinds
of books can help make them less remote? Perhaps more important, what
issues and topics can, while engaging our students' curiosities and fears,
also show them that such places are, in fact, seamed through with America's
past and American interests?
Oil, for one. Few subjects resist a national frame as self-evidently as
oil. And few subjects open up the classroom to such varied perspectives on
the current crisis: terrorism, Islam, tyranny, imperialism, patriotism,
globalization, environmental wreckage, SUV's, and fuel efficiency are all
cross-hatched with the question of oil. In responding to our students'
desire to broaden their worlds, we can find an ally in the extensive
literature on oil.
It was a graduate student who reminded me that the environmentalist Aldo
Leopold, who lived just north of where I teach in Wisconsin, once observed:
"When I go birding in my Ford, I am devastating an oil field, and
re-electing an imperialist to get me rubber." Our challenge is to unpack
the almost aphoristic compression of Leopold's utterance in order to give
the oil story historical depth and geographical reach.
To do that, I have tried teaching Upton Sinclair's Oil!, the most ambitious
American oil novel to date. However, while Sinclair does give his 1927 epic
an international dimension, Oil! predates what has become the dominant
story of petroleum, the one linking the United States to the Middle East in
a matrix of mutual, volatile dependencies.
The most ambitious literary exploration of these dependencies appears in
the work of the Jordanian-born novelist Abdelrahman Munif. Beginning in the
mid-'80s, he produced a quintet of epic oil novels, collectively called
Cities of Salt, that possess a deep resonance today. For the novels help
track the human consequences of America's oil-driven entanglements with
Islamic repression, political unrest, and environmental devastation.
If ever a writer was summoned to his subject by the stars, it was Munif,
born on the very day in 1933 when the Saudis signed the Gulf's first
concession agreement with an American corporation, the California Arabian
Standard Oil Company. His great subject is the rise of the Gulf State
petrodespots; his subsidiary theme, the role that American oil gluttony has
played in sustaining them. The novels include, within their sweep, a sense
of growing disillusionment among ordinary Muslims, whose lands and lives
have been trampled by the petroleum behemoth.
Munif has led a peripatetic life -- first as that most improbable of
creatures, a left-wing petroleum engineer, then as a full-time novelist. He
has lived in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and France, eventually
settling in Syria. Saudi Arabia stripped him of his citizenship and, along
with several other Gulf states, banned his novels for their excoriating
satires of the peninsula's oil elite.
The quintet's first and finest novel, also called Cities of Salt, is the
most teachable as well. Students at first may be a little daunted: At more
than 600 pages, it is, for many of them, the longest book they've ever
attempted. But the pacey narrative soon draws them in, and it's also a
novel that throws out issues on every page. Munif begins his story in the
1930s and '40s, revealing how an emergent international oil culture created
in the Gulf states a chasm between local beneficiaries and the masses
uprooted, dispossessed, and subjugated by oil. The newly wealthy feared
losing their sudden cornucopia, while their subjects had less and less to
lose and soon began to lose all fear.
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