cover image Variations on Night and Day

Variations on Night and Day

'Abd Al-Rahman Munif. Pantheon Books, $24 (333pp) ISBN 978-0-394-57673-2

Jordanian-born attorney Munif, former editor of the Baghdad-based monthly Oil and Development , brings his epic Cities of Salt trilogy full circle in its closing volume. Cities of Salt and The Trench , set in the Sultanate of Mooran (a thinly disguised version of Saudi Arabia) from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s, traced the effects of the discovery of oil by American and British groups. Variations covers the prelude to that period in the early decades of this century, showing how the Sultan Khureybit consolidated his power and created Mooran as a modern nation-state. By moving his chronology backwards, Munif instills the action with multiple levels of irony. His detailed picture of life in the palace, where the sultan's many wives vie for primacy, makes a vivid contrast with the common people's simple piety in Cities of Salt ; he also reveals the roots of the rivalry between two of Khureybit's sons, profligate Khazael and quietly intelligent Fanar, who will later fight for the sultanate. One of the most vividly realized protagonists is the British adventurer Hamilton, a fascinating combination of T. E. Lawrence and what might be a character out of Edward Said's Orientalism . The densely aphoristic prose and folkloric tone are for the third time superbly translated by Theroux. Munif is one of the most important writers to emerge from the Middle East in the last 20 years, and Variations on Night and Day triumphantly concludes his three-volume rumination on the poignancy of inevitable change, the sadness of those overwhelmed by the tides of history and the effect of those tides on the men and women who are carried by them. (Aug.)