Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



In association with Amazon.it - Italia

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Trench

Abdelrahman Munif

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Trench

Title: The Trench
Author: Abdelrahman Munif
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986 (Eng. 1991)
Length: 554 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Trench - US
The Trench - UK
The Trench - Canada
Zeit der Saat - Deutschland
  • Arabic title: الأخدود
  • Translated by Peter Theroux
  • The Trench is the second in the Cities of Salt-trilogy (which is actually a quintet, but only the first three volumes were translated into English)

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

A- : an impressive, (very) multifarious epic of that place, and rapid change

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 24/5/2008 Angela Schader
The NY Rev. of Books . 26/3/1992 David Gilmour
The NY Times Book Rev. A 27/11/1991 Francine Prose

  From the Reviews:
  • "Der ambitiöse Mediziner, dessen Schicksal den grossen Bogen über Zeit der Saat schlägt, ist eine bemerkenswerte Kreuzung aus Faust und Mephisto -- eigennützig berechnend und weltfremd überspannt, listiger Gegner und ahnungslos gehörnter Gatte, zäher Machtmensch und verblasener Theoretiker." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The Trench sits on that stormy front where past and present collide and unleash a damaging hail of temporal dislocation. (...) What makes The Trench so fascinating and so tricky to describe is that its texture and narrative methods embrace so many seeming contradictions -- paradoxes that mirror perfectly the book's atmosphere and themes. The novel is simultaneously epic and domestic, sweeping and claustrophobic, traditional and timely, linear and digressive, serious and satiric. (...) The novel glitters with brilliant, refractory character portraits, most strikingly of its women (.....) The book deepens, enriches and above all humanizes whatever sense of Arab culture we may have garnered from the Middle East experts we see regularly on television, and from the recent spate of nonfiction books about the history of the region. (...) One wishes that it were required (or at least suggested) reading for every American." - Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       The Trench is the second of Munif's Cities of Salt-series (of which the first three are available in English translation) -- but, like the other volumes in the series, stands comfortably also on its own. (Indeed, the next installment, Variations on Night and Day is, for example, actually set in the decades preceding The Trench, so readers who want to take things chronologically might even want to tackle that one before this.)
       The Trench is set in the 1950s and early 1960s, in the fictional Sultanate of Mooran -- an obvious stand-in for Saudi Arabia, with the novel basically spanning the rule of Sultan Khazael (the real-life King Saud). The novel begins with the death of Sultan Khureybit (modeled on Ibn Saud -- King Abdulaziz, who died in 1953), with Sultan Khazael succeeding him, while Khazael's brother, Fanar (modeled on the future King Faisal), is initially sidelined and then abroad (i.e. out of the picture) for much of the novel, before eventually returning and then essentially deposing Khazael (as Faisal did in 1963-4).
       Sultan Khazael is a significant presence in the novel, but not really front and center; the court, and his activities there, rarely figure at the fore -- not quite completely hidden behind the palace walls, but rarely as exposed as is what happens beyond them. Instead, the novel is dominated by advisers to the court, business people in the rapidly growing city of Mooran, and all their families. There are several storylines and characters that dominate The Trench, but the novel moves back and forth between these (and other, more incidental characters), with significant figures often long out of the limelight, or a series of chapters focused on a single character and some of their activities -- notably including some strong female characters, such as Umm Hosny (her story ending fairly abruptly with her death).
       If any character could be singled out as central, it is Dr. Subhi Mahmilji, who attends to the dying Khureybit and then becomes a trusted advisor to Khazael. Subhi decides to throw his lot in with the new ruler, moving his family to the underdeveloped city of Mooran that then quickly and constantly undergoes transformation, in cancerous urban growth. Subhi works more or less behind the scenes; he also enriches himself by buying a great deal of land in Mooran, a city that never stops growing. He soon sees his mission as being: "no mere adviser of the Sultan, but cut out for a much greater task: building a nation".
       For much of the time, Subhi is in a central position, helping to make significant decisions, including about how posts close to the Sultan are filled -- notably in the selection not only of the Sultan's own barber but then as to who should head what amounts to the national intelligence service. Yet he also finds himself out of the loop at times -- more so, as times go by and other factions increase their power and influence. When projects of much greater dimensions are launched -- the building of three airports, and the network of international highways linking Mooran with neighboring countries, for example -- he only learns of them (and all the money involved) when they are announced, leading him to wonder about his position: "Where was he ? What had he become ?" (and why hadn't his better-informed contacts told him anything).
       Fairly early on, Subhi's son, Ghazwan, goes to the United States to study, and so he is absent for the first few years of Subhi's rise and the growth of Mooran (and for a long stretch in the novel). Subhi fully expects the boy to come back into the fold and is crushed when Ghazwan says he plans to return to the United States soon after his graduation, taking a job there. But Ghazwan also fully exploits his father's connections -- and new ones he has made on his own -- and parlays them into professional success, notably with a business trip he arranges (with the help of his father) for a larger entourage. As he understands, times are changing, and Mooran's changing position in the world demands engagement with outside powers, rather than just -- as his father operates -- on the local level. As he explains to his father:

in the modern age, and especially in recent years, huge changes had taken place in political thinking and international relations; Mooran was vitally important to the United States and the West in general because of its strategic location, oil wealth and regional role, so that its fate was more likely to be decided outside Mooran than within.
       From the beginning of Khazael's rule, Subhi is involved in the shaping of Mooran -- including his pet project, the developing of a guiding philosophy , "the philosophy of the Four Centers, or the Square Theory". Unsurprisingly, his obsession with the abstract does not work in his favor given the down and dirty practicalities around him, where everyone is out to improve their position -- and make money. As with the huge infrastructure project that he doesn't learn about until it's already all set, he does find himself out of the loop at times -- and yet for the longest time still sees himself as trusted, close advisor to the Sultan. Indeed, near the end, the relationship seems set to become an even closer one, further improving Subhi's position, as the Sultan asks for the hand of his daughter Salma in marriage -- a great honor. But, while the wedding is a grand affair, neither the Sultan nor Subhi realize that by that time they are already being pushed aside. The arc of the novel follows Subhi (and Khazael) and their fates, from Mooran's humble beginning through a quick modernization that sees the sultanate as increasing important, to what appears to be a final triumph -- only for the rug to be pulled out from under them, and others replacing them for the next stage in the country's development.
       Another major figure in the novel is Hammad, installed by Subhi as chief of the new Intelligence and Security Agency. While hardly particularly qualified, Hammad takes to the job very well and, given its nature, is soon someone with great power: knowledge is power, and he has his eyes and ears everywhere in the sultanate. He's suited for this kind of work, and grows into it: "He learned silence and perfected it, and saw and heard much". (He also travels to the United States for a three-month training course; like Ghazwan he returns with the knowledge that American contacts are vital for the future.) Subhi treats him as someone he has done a great favor for -- getting him this position -- but can't sense the shift, over time, in the importance of their respective roles, or adjust to it; Hammad continues to listen to Subhi -- while Subhi is oblivious, so used to the set old ways that he is unable to make the necessary adjustments. As Hammad realizes listening to the old man:
He does not know what's happening around him, or anything about the people nearest him.
       There is a large cast of other characters, and their stories come to the fore at times too. These include Subhi's wife, Wadid -- a well-drawn character, whose sexuality Munif explores in some detail --, or characters such as Shamran, a representative of the old guard obsessed with horses who struggles with the changes in Mooran -- including his son Najm, who, to his bafflement, opens a bookstore:
     Shamran laughed loudly but sadly. He knew that people could trade in sheep and merchandise, and had learned that some traded in land and buildings, but had never imagined that people would buy and sell paper. What books were there but the Koran and the tales of Antar and Zeer ?
       Commerce, especially land-speculation but also the introduction of stores sepcializing in a variety of goods and then in automobiles, is a major underlying issue in Mooran, as it rapidly expands and grows richer. And, indeed, the changing city itself is arguably the central figure in the novel, as Munif constantly notes the changes there -- also in comparison to Harran (the city where Subhi had settled, and found success).
       Mooran is not a promising site: "this city, which resembled no other city on earth, sunk in a distant, forgotten desert, with its brackish, bitter water, seemed almost uninhabitable". The locals are set in their ways, speak their own distinctive dialect, and the outsiders find it difficult to integrate. So, for example: "Wadid could not stand Mooran or adapt to it at all". But of course the explosive growth and the influx of outsiders -- including then many foreigners -- completely reshape the city. It becomes:
     A city that had no pity on itself or its citizens: a mound of debris that rose higher every day.
       And, as old-timer Shamran realizes:
The Mooran we knew has gone, it's dead, and in its place we have this Mooran -- God willing, it will be for the best !
       The Trench is a well-drawn, large-scale novel of a period in Gulf history that, with its large cast of characters, captures so many different aspects of life and change in these times. Munif tends towards the sweeping, and so we learn too little about many aspects of the characters' lives -- all the more disappointing, because the strongest parts of the novel are the revealing close-up descriptions of specific encounters and interactions, many of which are superb. The mix of broad outlines of lives -- much of even Subhi's past is barely touched upon -- and the careful, vivid unfolding of particular scenes and events -- can be a bit stark; of course, the book is already long, and there's only so much he could stuff in it.
       Though clearly modeled on Saudi history and experiences, Munif focuses less on the familiar leading figures -- making also for a picture that its much deeper, of a whole nation in constant disorienting upheaval (or, indeed, a locale that wasn't anything resembling a nation but rather of isolated, tribal places brought together faster than anyone can really comprehend). Among the striking things about the novel is how limited the role of religion is, as it barely figures -- an omnipresent foundation, but one of only limited reach here into the daily lives and, especially, actions of the characters.
       A grand, entertaining novel, covering many stories and characters -- if anything, it is arguably too multifarious --, The Trench is, both on its own as well as as part of a larger work, an impressive achievement. It is, indeed, (a part of) perhaps the great Gulf novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 April 2020

- Return to top of the page -


The Trench: Reviews: ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf: Other books by ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf under review: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Saudi author ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf (عبد الرحمن المنيف) lived 1933 to 2004.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2020-2021 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links