Themes and Meanings
The overriding thematic concern of Mudun al-milh is to chronicle the passing of one historical epoch and the onset of another. As is often the case in human history, the transition from one phase of civilization to another occasions a clash between the old and the new. In this novel, the arrival of machines, cars, and boats in the desert announces the start of the conflict between the traditional nomadic life-style of the indigenous Bedouin population and modernity.
This universal theme takes the form of a cultural conflict in the novel because the agents of transformation are foreigners. That these foreigners are non-Muslims adds a religious dimension to the conflict. For the indigenous population, the American land surveyors and engineers appear as the very embodiment of the Devil. Their looks, indiscreet dress code, lax manners, and especially the technology they bring, strike a note of terror in the hearts of the locals. The vast knowledge they display about the history, geography, social customs, and mores of the Bedouins (including the genealogy of their numerous and diverse tribes) arouses the suspicion and hostility of the locals. When they hear the Americans speak fluent Arabic and discourse knowledgeably about Islam, the Bedouins’ suspicions acquire even more compelling weight. They ask in sincere bewilderment, “Why don’t they convert to Islam, if they are not devils?”
The status of women is another major theme in this novel. In a highly segregated society such as Saudi Arabia, the women’s quarters are carefully shielded from public view. The omniscient third-person narrator of this novel carries the reader right into these quarters, to observe the hierarchy among the sultan’s harem in the palace, the preparation of new brides for the sultan, and the ways in which women pass their time behind their veils.