The first volume of Abdelrahman Munif’s trilogy dealt with nomadic tribes on the Arabian Peninsula and how their lives are altered by the discovery of oil and the establishment of an Arabian kingdom on land they had historically roamed. The author’s fictional kingdom closely resembles Saudi Arabia, where this novel was banned and where Munif was stripped of his citizenship. The fictional kingdom is forever altered by the discovery of oil. The kingdom’s royal family allows Western technicians and advisers to exploit the environment in order to drill for oil. Through the setting up of an oil industry, the industrialized West gets a seemingly unlimited supply of the fossil fuel and the kingdom’s royal family becomes filthy rich.
THE TRENCH opens with Dr. Subhi Mahmilji being called to the city of Mooran to care for the dying sultan. Mahmilji is unable to save the old sultan, but he does succeed in gaining the confidence of the sultan’s eldest son, Khazael, who ascends to the throne. The doctor becomes both physician and close adviser to Khazael. Mahmilji surmises that the kingdom will be changing dramatically in the near future and he is determined to have influence on how the kingdom is shaped. A major portion of THE TRENCH describes the various plots that are concocted by the doctor. Munif also relates on how life in Mooran has changed since the days when it was made up of no more than huts. Oil revenue is used to construct a number of palaces. The author describes in detail the inner workings of the sultan’s ever-increasing harem.
The doctor is the central character of THE TRENCH, but there are some finely drawn portraits of Arab women. The royal city of Mooran joins the modern world through the devious efforts of Mahmilji. He also helps to create a repressive secret service. The head of the secret service, Hammad, is chosen by the doctor; but little does he know at the time that Hammad will eventually take his place as the real power behind the throne. THE TRENCH is both an epic novel and an intimate portrait of Arabian life rarely revealed. Peter Theroux is to be commended for his expert translation of the first two volumes of CITIES OF SALT. Through this richly textured novel, Munif has given a human face to the Arab world.