This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education

 

  From the issue dated 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

  recognition.

 

  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.

 

  For many students, Munif's writings provide their first real

  encounter with a textured Muslim world, something more

  intimate and more complex than the parade of demons and

  victims who flash by in the news media. But the classroom

  value of Cities of Salt goes well beyond that. Munif once

  remarked that he sought to give imaginative shape to "the

  deep, internal movement of history." Arguably, his greatest

  gift is for bringing to the surface, through his historical

  vision, stories that trace the relations between economic

  power and the uprooted peoples of the Middle East. A product

  of the Arab diaspora, born in Jordan to an Iraqi mother and a

  Saudi father, Munif is perfectly positioned as a witness to

  displacement.

 

  Cities of Salt is a story of upheaval that begins in the 1930s

  with the arrival of specter-pale Americans at an oasis. The

  Americans first come to test-drill the earth, then reappear in

  otherworldly "yellow iron hulks" to rip up the oasis groves

  that have long sustained Bedouin culture. The first

  consequence of the oil strike is environmental ruin. The

  bewildered Bedouins soon find themselves at the violent end of

  another cultural novelty: a police force, instructed to beat

  to death, if necessary, any nomads who refuse to leave their

  oil-rich lands. Next, a prison is created, in which nomads can

  be jailed for, among other things, the ironic crime of

  vagrancy.

 

  In the second novel, The Trench, Munif continues to track the

  repressive machinery that the oil sheiks introduce, with

  assistance from foreign oil barons and U.S. intelligence

  agents. Soon the sultanate's paranoid, profligate ruler has

  established a surveillance culture that, he boasts, "can hear

  ants crawling in the dark."

 

  As Munif chronicles such upheavals, he distinguishes

  implicitly between the nomadic and the rootless. The culture

  of nomadic Bedouins had been inscribed on the land through

  movement; it was a form of belonging in motion shaped to an

  arid world. But the deracinations of the oil age have

  plummeted them into a rootlessness that becomes the opposite

  of their once-nomadic lives. Driven from their lands, the

  locals find themselves impoverished, culturally diminished,

  and politically estranged. Their severance from their nomadic

  heritage becomes a mark of their new, oil-inflicted

  homelessness.

 

  Rereading Munif last semester, I thought of an insight by the

  French economist Jacques Attali: Ours is a world increasingly

  divided into rich and poor nomads, a wandering elite that

  travels expansively and a disenfranchised poor whose movements

  are propelled by misery.

 

  Cities of Salt also offers an imaginative sketch of a third

  population uprooted by the oil encounter, giving voice to the

  swelling discontent among the most volatile of the

  deracinated: the armies of migrant workers drawn to the Gulf

  from poorer Islamic and semi-Islamic nations like Bangladesh,

  Malaysia, Egypt, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Yemen. On the

  edges of the novel, one feels their hopes curdling into

  despair and rage.

 

  In an interview during the Gulf War, Munif reflected further

  on this devastating history of injustice and squandered

  opportunities: "The tragedy is not in our having oil, but in

  the way we use the wealth it has created and in the future

  awaiting us after it has run out," he observed. In

  underdeveloped countries, he said, "oil becomes a damnation.

  In 20 or 30 years' time we shall discover that oil has been a

  real tragedy for the Arabs, and these giant cities built in

  the desert will find no one to live in them and their hundreds

  of thousands of inhabitants will have to begin again their

  quest after the unknown."

 

  Munif's lament applies not just to the Gulf states, but also

  to other oil-rich, oil-ruined societies, like Brunei,

  Indonesia, and Nigeria. It is relevant, in short, to almost

  any of the world's fossil-fuel authoritarian regimes. As a

  rule of thumb, the greater a state's economic reliance on a

  single product, like oil, the higher the chances that the

  society is undemocratic, militaristic, and riddled with

  corruption. That is what economists call the "resource curse":

  the paradox that resource-poor societies typically have

  more-diverse economies, which grow faster than those of

  resource-rich ones.

 

  Munif's determination to testify to the violent mutilation of

  his oil-scarred society is an impulse shared by the Nigerian

  writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. In the classroom, Saro-Wiwa's prison

  memoir, A Month and a Day, can serve as a powerful companion

  piece to Cities of Salt. He became Africa's most visible

  environmental martyr in 1995, when Nigeria's Abacha regime

  executed him on trumped-up charges of murder. Through his

  writings and international activism, Saro-Wiwa emerged as the

  most vocal opponent of the oil companies' despoliations in

  Nigeria. Like Munif, he was alert to the complicity between

  transnational petroleum companies and the brutal repressions

  inflicted on local populations by undemocratic, unpopular,

  oil-empowered regimes.

 

  Saro-Wiwa called it "genocide by environmental means." One

  year before executing him, the Nigerian government issued a

  memorandum: "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless

  military operations are undertaken for smooth economic

  activities to commence."

 

  I have taught Saro-Wiwa's memoir several times. What it offers

  students more explicitly than Cities of Salt is an example of

  transnational activism as a potential counter to the global

  power of the oil corporations. Saro-Wiwa inventively fused an

  environmentalist discourse (something he first encountered on

  visits to the United States) with the powerful vocabulary of

  human rights. Together, the two languages gave him a way of

  broadcasting the plight of his Ogoni people in terms

  intelligible to those who know nothing about Nigeria.

 

  Students respond strongly to a similar movement in Joe Kane's

  Savages, which chronicles the plight of Ecuador's Huaorani,

  who had the misfortune to inhabit an oil-rich land. Like

  Saro-Wiwa, Kane, an American environmental journalist, weaves

  into his story of brutality and dispossession a fragile strand

  of optimism: Just as the oil despoliations in Saro-Wiwa's

  Nigeria generated a protest movement that took on the joint

  might of Shell and the dictatorship, so, too, in Ecuador,

  Accion Ecologica arose to challenge the power of Texaco and

  the Ecuadorian state.

 

  Read in sequence, Cities of Salt, A Month and a Day, and

  Savages bring into focus the double standards that bedevil the

  international politics of petroleum. In terms of human rights

  and environmental standards, oil corporations typically

  reserve one ethic for their operations in the West, another

  for their operations in the so-called developing nations. Even

  when law-abiding at home, they too often join forces with

  lawlessness abroad. For a writer to protest the corrupting

  intimacies between petrodespots and oil transnationals can be

  a life-threatening enterprise. Saro-Wiwa was executed; Munif

  lives in exile, as does George Aditjondro, the vocal

  Indonesian intellectual who has written against his nation's

  oil-driven authoritarianism.

 

  Munif once told the British journalist Tariq Ali that the

  double standards of Washington's cold warriors left him

  nauseated: He said they talked of democracy and human rights

  in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Cuba, but

  "when the West reached the Mediterranean coasts, they forgot

  about democracy. All they thought about was oil." In 1996,

  when a bomb blast killed 19 American servicemen stationed in

  Dhahran, Munif lamented the attack and sought to understand

  it. The United States needed "to treat the causes of despair,

  not merely the symptoms," he warned. "The United States,

  obsessed with oil fever and the need to control it, has gone

  much too far in protecting regimes and individuals unworthy of

  protection." Munif feared that, unless America helped those

  Muslims who wished to integratethe disaffected into democratic

  processes, and unless it adopted a more evenhanded approach to

  the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, worse was to come: further

  violent hijackings of Islam, with calamitous consequences.

 

  While teaching the literature of oil, I have found myself

  returning to a remark that the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy

  made in her essay "The Greater Common Good." Roy portrays

  globalization as "like a light which shines brighter and

  brighter on a few people and the rest are in darkness, wiped

  out. They simply can't be seen. Once you get used to not

  seeing something, then, slowly, it's no longer possible to see

  it." We can readily apply her remark to oil's invisible

  casualties.

 

  Trying to bring those lives into focus is a challenge that

  requires creativity. In my experience, the evocative testimony

  of writers like Munif, Saro-Wiwa, and Kane offers students

  what TV and newspaper reports cannot: a close-up sense of

  oil's impact on the health and fortunes of individuals about

  whom they have grown to care. From there, ethical questions

  about how we can act flow more forcefully. Shortly after we

  read Cities of Salt, one student announced to the class that

  she had calculated that an improvement of a mere 2.7 miles per

  gallon in the fuel efficiency of America's cars and light

  trucks would be enough to liberate us of the need to import

  any further Saudi oil. Our conversation quickly fanned out to

  include the morality of driving SUV's and drilling in the

  Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as government

  failures to support petroleum alternatives.

 

  Munif's novel had served as a wonderful catalyst for a story

  about the entanglements of another society with our own. But

  it was crucial, I felt, that the students not move from "us"

  to "them" -- that they not start by peering briefly at foreign

  stick figures through the wrong end of a telescope. Instead,

  Munif's novel offered the class a long, intimate view of the

  Gulf; then they could stand back and say, "OK, what about us

  here in America and the life choices that we make?"

 

  After we'd read Saro-Wiwa's memoir, a reserved young Nigerian

  in the class suddenly found himself the center of attention.

  He didn't just rise to the occasion, but at semester's end

  mentioned to me that several friendships had sprung from the

  experience of sitting for the first time in a roomful of

  Americans who showed a detailed curiosity about his country

  and who possessed at least one book's worth of knowledge on

  which to base their conversation. "That feeling was good," he

  said. "And new."

 

  The tumult of recent months has instilled in many students a

  yearning to envisage lives and cultures that had previously

  passed unseen. I feel the urge to respond to that shift,

  encouraging my students to live with a more encompassing sense

  of what constitutes their world. Oil literature is one way of

  enabling them to do that, for it helps them connect the dots

  between the consumer lives they lead, human rights,

  environmental justice, and geopolitics. Driven by the way

  world events have reshaped personal needs, many students will

  find that oil stories give imaginative dimension to places

  that, until now, had never made it onto their maps.

 

  Rob Nixon is the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the

  University of Wisconsin at Madison. His most recent book is

  Dreambirds: The Strange History of the Ostrich in Fashion,

  Food, and Fortune (Picador USA, 2000).

   

 

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 Copyright 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education