I hate to use the formally inventive and affectively brilliant Cities of Salt (by Abdulrahman Munif) as a sociological text or a total mirror of reality, which is what so many people do probably because until America’s Kingdom came along very few texts actually gave us something so powerful about the texture of racialisation in Aramco’s labour camps or about labour strikes by oil-workers in 1950s Saudi. But I am afraid the strange ways in which the fictional characters of the book are borrowed from reality and then bleed back into reality is too compelling in this instance.
Case in point: Subhi al-Mahmalji.
When we first meet him in the first volume of the quintet, he is a new arrival into Harran (the fictional version of Dhahran), has a shadowy past, and is most likely more a charlatan than a doctor (the comic “needle”-as-universal-cure theme adds to the air of levity when we are first introduced to Mahmalji). By the end of Al-Tih (trans. Cities of Salt), though, he is indirectly responsible for the death of a “traditional” healer, has already wormed himself into the heart of the crown prince, and has proven himself a rapacious, unscrupulous, and mercenary courtier. In Al-Ukhdud (trans. The Trench), the second volume of the quintet, he has consolidated his power by hitching his fortune to that of the king via marrying off his teenage daughter to him. By the time we reach Al-Munbatt, the fourth volume of the quintet and not yet translated into English, a coup has overthrown King Khaz’al (the fictional avatar for Saud ibn Abd-al-Aziz), Mahmalji has gone into exile, and Mahmalji slowly descends into madness.
Aside from the different genres and moods so effectively conveyed by Munif (from comedy to villainous epic, to tragedy), a history is distilled and crytallised in the story – and here is where things bleed into reality (or at least the reality of my research project) in all sorts of interesting ways.
Subhi Al-Mahmalji is based on a real figure, Rashad Pharaon, a Syrian who moved to Saudi Arabia in 1936, and who eventually became a physician to King Abd-al-Aziz and advisor to his son Faysal, and Khalid and Fahd after him.
Rashad’s son, Ghaith, is the person most relevant to my project, though. Ghaith who started his construction company REDEC in 1965 with startup capital from his father benefited like so many other big construction firms from the injection of petrodollars into that sector in Saudi Arabia after 1973. By mid-1970s, REDEC had revenues upwards of $1 billion per year and was involved in all sorts of construction projects including “a $500 million contract in partnership with the American company Parsons and was involved in the construction of Al-Assard Military City, one of the largest military construction projects in history”. But what came next is even more audacious – because Ghaith acted as the front guy for BCCI (the Bank of Credit and Commerce International) to break into the US market, the scandal of whose collapse is dizzyingly complex but comes down to extraordinarily mendacious and corrupt dealings, including vast sums being taken out as “loans” by shareholders who were using their shares as collateral!
Anyway, so far, so complicated. Where it gets even more interesting (at least for someone interested in the political economy of logistics) is that despite the man being on a an FBI most wanted list for white-collar crimes, one of Pharaon’s concerns in Pakistan was granted an $80 million contract to provide fuel to the US bases in Afghanistan. At the time, ABC reported that “An official at Attock [the Pakistani firm owned by Pharaon], who did not wish to be named, confirmed the refinery was supplying thousands of tons of jet fuel to the US base at Bagram Air Base every month.” I haven’t yet followed through on what happened next – but this is definitely something I will have to pursue!
So there you go. The son of Subhi al-Mahmalji is on the run from the FBI while providing logistical supports to the US military, and his logistical support consists of fuel, presumably first drawn from the ground in Saudi and then processed in Pakistan.