Culture, Politics

On the recommendation of LanguageHat, I’ve been reading Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt trilogy. I just received the second volume, The Trench, in the mail, and a particular passage leapt out the page at me. The central character in the novel, introduced at the end of the first one, is the

Machiavellian Dr. Subhi Mahmilji, the young sultan’s chief advisor, whose great plans and achievements are only the beginning of his own destruction.

(Read more about the books here.) In this passage the Westernized doctor has just moved from the coastal oil town described in the first book to the capital city where he has recently made some important political connections. The description of his transformation seems like one that many contemporary Iraqis could probably relate to:

When the doctor returned in the morning exactly one week later with a large delegation from Harran, he seemed, to everyone who saw him, a totally different man. He was not dressed in the often flashy European clothes he had always worn, which set him apart from all around him, and whose neatness and elegance were his foremost concern. On this visit he was lost, like a puppet, in a set of gaudy Arab robes that he hand not yet learned to arrange. He kept tripping over them. The beard he had allowed to grow over the past few days was not as full as the beards of the men around him and made him look as though he had forgotten to shave. In the shadow of the red-and-white-checked headcloth he wore, he looked like a fugitive; his whiskers grew unevenly and looked like irregular smudges.

… The doctor stayed in Mooran for several days with no sign of leaving, in his Arab clothes, which gradually grew neater and suited him better, his beard more elegantly trimmed, so that it looked extremely handsome, coal-black against his fair, rosy complexion — with this new development, a great number of people grew depressed, guessing that a new era of bad luck had begun. (p. 8-9)