Mahdi Chowdhury

Archives of Salt


Ahmed Mater, Clock Tower (Mecca Time), 2015

“There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory.” —Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever

“We were students of Jean Sénac’s single insistence; to unequivocally affirm our presence in the reality of this land.” —Momtaza Mehri, “On Pop & Petroleum”


In 1938, using the stars, the Bedouin navigator guided a group of American geologists from the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company through the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Near the town of Dammam, they discovered the then largest known reserve of crude oil on the planet. The Eastern Province would become the center of oil extraction in the Arabian Peninsula—with even richer fields like Safaniya and Ghawar discovered thereafter.

Since the 1850s—but especially after the Second World War—petroleum has shaped the ways we live our lives. “Everything we do, feel, and see is touched by oil,” writes the art historian Laura Hindelang: from petroleum we derive plastics and textiles; fertilizers that underpin industrial agriculture; asphalt and fuel that enable logistical mobility; and celluloid and inks required for film, photography, and mass printing. Our modernity has long been a “petro-modernity.” But before this viscous fossil-matter on the shores of the Persian Gulf could reach such a global and epochal role, its immediate implications were local in scale. Later renamed the Arabian-American Oil Company (or “Aramco”), the company that made this discovery remade the landscape of the province through the construction of titanic oil wells, townships, and labor colonies modeled on Jim Crow. In subsequent decades, the labor struggles of the Eastern Province’s class- and race-segregated camps, populated by foreign and Saudi workers alike, evinced the exploitative basis of this petro-modernity—and became one of the many histories that Saudi authorities would erase in their mission to monopolize power.

Oil is not just a cliché when it comes to writing about Saudi Arabia—some of the earliest histories of the kingdom were themselves authored by Aramco. The dramatic transformation wrought by oil was also what the novelist Abdelrahman Munif had in mind when he wrote his quintet Cities of Salt. Beginning in the 1930s, Munif’s novels chart the metamorphosis of a fictional oasis-town named Wadi al-Uyoun. With the discovery of oil, Wadi al-Uyoun becomes a metropolis, Bedouin society is displaced, material promises for the masses turn to disillusionment, and a furious workers’ strike erupts. Cities of Salt implies that such camps and towns were home to the largely unseen engines of Saudi Arabia’s growth in the decades after its creation, that these places underwrote the country’s ascension to the upper echelons of the global economy.

For Munif, Wadi al-Uyoun also typifies one of many worlds displaced by this shimmering yet foundationless modernity. In an interview with Tariq Ali, Munif clarified his choice of title as follows: “Cities of salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. In antiquity, as you know, many cities simply disappeared. It is possible to foresee the downfall of cities that are inhuman.”1 The eschatological tinges Munif’s words. Arabic literature scholar Ellen McLarney notes a shift to apocalyptic language in Cities of Salt itself: the desert becomes supernaturally infernal, the Americans become analogous to jinns and demons, and the oil pulled from the belly of the Earth “quench[es] the thirst” of a force that is far from human.

Classified as “petrofiction,” Cities of Salt is often noted for its themes of mechanization, alienation, and ecological havoc. But there has been less analytic attention to Munif’s stakes in the question of history—his novels’ sense of relating to a once living society abruptly relegated to the past. Though the first installment of the series was published in Lebanon in 1984, Munif does not evoke a world that is already lost but rather one in turning: an old world that is at once dying and struggling to be born. The humane and Edenic luster of Wadi al-Uyoun is corrupted, but in writing on the loss of such a place, such worlds, now rendered historyless, are at least in some sense preserved.

Against an accelerated tempo of erasure—forcible, developmentalist, and melancholic in nature—in the Arabian Peninsula, where do the displaced pasts of such places come to reside? How do they relate to the politics of history in Saudi Arabia? To answer these questions, one finds an opening in the case of another sanctuary turned neoliberal city: Mecca.


In 2005, the Saudi architect Sami Angawi predicted “the end of history” in Mecca. He was not proclaiming the nearness of the Day of Judgment nor a triumphalist new era after Francis Fukuyama. Rather, he spoke of an “end of history” in terms of its material displacement. Over two decades, the calculated razing of the city’s historic architecture proceeded in order to enhance the Grand Mosque complex. Though ostensibly meant to accommodate the increasing annual traffic of pilgrims, it also made plenty of room for commercial real estate in Central Mecca, including luxury hotels, malls, and boutiques.

In 2010, the state and its prime contractor, the Saudi Binladin Group, initiated a multibillion-dollar urban redevelopment plan—an “expansion” of the Grand Mosque—that would spell the end of historic Mecca. As the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, Mecca occupies a central role in the ritual and imaginative life of Islam. Angawi protested half a decade prior to the 2010 expansion that “Mecca should be the reflection of the multicultural Muslim world [and] not a concrete parking lot”—nor, evidently, something worse.

The Meccan photographer Ahmed Mater followed this expansion in a series he later called Desert of Pharan. The title references the Old Testament name for the city, evoking a primordial time when Mecca was still in “the wilderness” (paralleling, perhaps, the urban wilderness of the present). Mater sought to document the “grand visions” and “impossible dreams” of development: conceptual architectural renderings, giant corporate billboards, but also residents and construction workers caught between the fantasies of state monumentality and the reality of frenetically working cranes and demolition zones.

Rather than inspiring visions of a heady future, Mater observes that the expansion has “concentrated the imaginative energy of Mecca’s inhabitants on what will remain once the work is complete.” The lives of Meccans must go on “between the ruins of a lost city.” Like Cities of Salt, Mater’s series hints at something melancholic in transition. His photographs show vistas of contradiction and disenchantment: the contrast of laborers and looming towers, the minor frame of the human body against a landscape of overarching cranes and half-constructed edifices, the “official” and the “unofficial” history in a single frame.

In one of Mater’s aerial views of Central Mecca, we see the Abraj al-Bayt, a complex that overwhelms the Great Mosque and includes the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, the Fairmont Hotel, and a five-story shopping mall. In 1998, the Saudi grand mufti declared that pilgrims could perform congregational prayers anywhere within the religious complex. From this, it was reasoned that prayers performed in the prayer rooms of the Abraj’s hotel—which costs between $3,000 and $10,000 USD per night—counted as prayers performed within the Grand Mosque.2 Pilgrims nowadays return with glass souvenirs of the clock tower, and in everyday images of modern Mecca, there is a veering towards the tower—and not the Kaaba, “the House of God”—as the visual metonym of the city. Mater’s photograph may be compared to another panorama, if only to underscore this transformation in time and space: the first recorded images of the city from the 1880s by the Meccan photographer Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar. From the first to the second, one sees what has been erased: entire mountains, Islamic heritage sites, and the near-total sum of historic Mecca.

Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, Panorama of Mecca, ca. 1885-1888


Why would the Saudi state sanction the destruction of the historical fabric of the holiest city in Islam? For many, such as Ziauddin Sardar, the demolitions epitomized the regime’s commitment to Wahhabi Islam, said to sponsor practices of iconoclasm and expunge forms of bid’ah.3 While such clerical arguments were indeed marshaled by the regime to justify the demolition of Islamic heritage sites, in Archive Wars the historian Rosie Bsheer sees “the multibillion-dollar material dehistoricizing of Central Mecca” as part of a much larger project by the state to selectively rewrite its own past and erase any parts that may be inconvenient. In this view, the Saudi government did not destroy the material heritage of Mecca because it did not care about history—it did so because it cared about history quite a lot.

In the years following the Gulf War, a sea change occurred within the corridors of Saudi power. The conflict had alienated citizens due to the state’s enormous war budget, its faltering oil revenues, and its permission to allow the American military to be stationed on Saudi territory. While long secured by the United States and its own repressive state apparatus, the kingdom bore the marks of a tumultuous century, one which included mass mobilizations against its status quo by: Saudi leftist and labor movements, Shi’a protests against state violence, the popular Sunni reformist movement Al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, rival Nasserite visions of the region, and insurgent actions like the 1979 take-over of the Grand Mosque. These crises of legitimacy, particularly those that instrumentalized the sphere of religion against the regime, led to a rethinking of the state by those in power.

As Bsheer argues, a transformation occurred in postwar Saudi Arabia in the interest of the kingdom’s ideological durability: a shift from the slippery authority of political religion towards a secular nationalism based in the genealogy of Al Saud. The progenitor of the nation was not the preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab—nor its founding myth the puritanical restoration of the holy cities—but rather, the modern state of Saudi Arabia was defined by the royal lineage of Muhammad bin Saud and a line of continuity from the “First Saudi State” in 18th-century Diriyah to 1932 “unification” under Ibn Saud. However, this new national past required an “evidentiary terrain.” In other words, a central archive was needed, one that would produce its documentary authenticity and would place Saudi Arabia in the community of modern nation-states.

This was not a simple process. The state had attempted to create a national archive for decades but had encountered the practical challenges of overaccumulation, conflict between competing institutions, and resistant document proprietors. In the postwar years, private owners of important documents continued to resist giving them up, partly out of fear of their collections and memories being subsumed—if not kidnapped—into the warehouses of the central state.

Half a decade after the inauguration of this postwar project, the Saudi state was still struggling to convince its citizens of the worthwhileness of its initiative. One anecdote relayed by Bsheer illustrates this problem and how the state took matters into its hands. In 1996, the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives (or the “Darah”) deployed a series of white vans equipped with “mobile laboratories for document sterilization and restoration” to selected locations. Arriving at the doorsteps of hesitant owners of documents, the Darah’s representatives expressed their benign intention to simply offer “free, on-site preservation services.” If the materials’ owners hesitated, they might have been reassured by the selfless slogan on the side of the Darah’s vans: “Together, we preserve the nation’s memory.”

The Darah’s employees would indeed service these documents. They would also make secret copies before returning them. Nor was every document returned. Following official instruction, technicians would regularly pocket sources they deemed “incriminating” to the state and its elites.

This anecdote about the Darah’s trickery evinces not the supposed muscularity of the authoritarian state but rather an adeptness based in compensation and fragility—a distillation of Saudi Arabia’s “dominance without hegemony.” It also reveals that the archiving process was designed from the outset to be a process of silencing. The end, as Bsheer argues, was not necessarily to “produce a functional state archive” but rather to perform the notion of one; not necessarily to produce a treasury of materials open to its citizens but rather to index and possess scattered historical documents “in order to warehouse them, displaying only those very few that evinced the official history.” The archive was, in short, a project aimed not at democratizing but at monopolizing memory.

The state’s production of the evidentiary terrain of its past was also a spatial project. This involved the construction of commercial “heritage industries” and monuments related to the history of Al Saud. But this also meant the erasure and destruction of built environments that contradicted the sanctioned imagination. It is in this ideological context that Bsheer reinterprets the destruction of historic Mecca. In short, Mecca was a counter-archive. It was a city filled with the traces of “cosmopolitan pasts, identities, and intellectual trajectories” of an Arabia before Saudi Arabia. As such, Mecca beheld a “form of historical memory” that was increasingly incommensurable with the state narrative.

Bsheer also observes how members of the Saudi regime would sometimes speak of the “red lines (khutut hamra) of history.” Everything beyond these “red lines”—extrinsic at best, a liability at worst—was to be curated out of national-historical narratives presented in archives, textbooks, museums, and the like. These “red lines,” for instance, gerrymandered out the central role of British imperialism in the creation of the Saudi state; the repression of leftist and labor movements (such as the ones spawned on the oil fields); Ottoman and Hashemite architecture; and the peninsula’s deep connections to Africa and Asia, from the intellectual life of Mecca forged by Indian émigrés, Javanese pilgrims, and East African scholars. Archival violence was baked into the process of rendering a single history out of a peninsula of multitudinous pasts.

In short, the state monopolization of history meant not simply the creation of an official archive but also the elimination of counter-archives, be they in the form of private documents relegated to the warehouse or built environments bulldozed in the euphemistic name of “expansion.” In this, the Saudi historical project was not unique. “Erasure is not simply a countermeasure to the making of history,” argues Bsheer, “it is History.”


Between novelist, photographer, and historian, a common feeling of loss is traced through the question of space. Bulldozers, urban planners, contractors, skyscrapers, laborers, debris, ruins—these comprise a shared repertoire of affect between all three. In their respective investigations, they all consider the relationship between history and its residences in the Arabian Peninsula: “residence” as in the physical places in which the historical is consigned and contained; “residence” as in that which can be displaced or invented; and “residence” as in the tone of a precarious legal category for migratory or non-sanctioned elements in the Gulf.

Physical storage and historical knowledge are inseparable at the point of the archive. The meaning of “archive”—its sole meaning, insists Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever—derives “from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded.” The concept of the archive as a house recurs throughout Derrida’s lecture: domiciliation, house arrest, ascribing residence, localization, shelter, consignation, dwelling.

The archive plays a central role in academic historical training due to this process of domesticating and affixing a stable residence. By appropriating and denaturing objects from their original contexts, the archive parallels other 19th-century “placeless places” of scientific isolation, observation, and taxonomy like museums and laboratories. One of the most influential arbiters of this archival method, Leopold von Ranke, felt that the archive offered an avenue by which one could shed personal subjectivities and write a more scientific form of history.

Yet the archive was never quite a “placeless place.” It was neither a neutral storage area nor a transparent window onto the past. From the archons of Ancient Greece to Ranke, these buildings were filled with forms of magical thinking. The archive, for instance, symbolizes the transference of private memories into public histories—and has therefore been treated as a litmus test for the democratization of a given society. But the irony of this democratic association may be noted among Ranke and some of his contemporaries, for whom the archive was a refuge from the chatter of revolutionary politics occuring in Austria and Prussia after July 1830. Fearing “plebeian” control in Europe and the “deluge” of public print, Ranke took to the archive as an elite refuge from populist currents. And as evidenced in the silencing practices of the Saudi state, archives are not democratizing in nature, nor have the anxieties about public reason, the masses, nor free circulation been divorced from their function.

The Enlightenment belief in the possibility of a “scientific” historical method has often distinguished History proper from propaganda, myth, and the unreliable faculties of memory. Yet its methodological aid, the archive, is ironically drenched in metaphors of memory. The National Archives in France were famously transformed by Napoleon’s desire to reinterpret the institution as a form of imperial treasury that would store “the memory of Europe,” recalling the exhortation to protect “the nation’s memory” emblazoned on the side of the Darah’s vans. But despite its appeals to the preservation of memory, the archive is designed to be selective of that very realm.

In the course of sheltering memory, Derrida argues, the archive further institutionalizes forgetting. Bsheer makes this point by way of an empirical and historical analysis: that archives are shaped by the selective practices of state power. This is true even amongst so-called modern and democratic archives. In the wake of the official archive, one may imagine the many “negative archives” left by its occlusions—or the very forms of state power, war, imperialism, censorship, appropriation, and looting that marks the official. Like phantom limbs, these negative archives encompass cases as diverse as the looted materials of the Nakba or the cultural archives of the Palestine Liberation Organization by Israel; Britain’s enactment of Operation Legacy to “purge” its former colonies of documents related to colonial atrocities like those against the Mau Mau in Kenya; the systematic internal censorship of documents evincing the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran; or the American looting of Iraqi state and Ba’athist records (largely housed today in the Hoover Institution at Stanford University) during the 2003 invasion.4

As the research initiative Archives of the Disappeared asks: how do we think about “the question of ‘archive’ in the context of annihilation”? How can we understand these scattered episodes from the many “end of history”s in the Arabian Peninsula? In Archive Wars, one notes the repetition of a phrase by Bsheer’s interviewees: “We have no history.” This feeling of being historyless means something different from speaker to speaker. To the state official, it is a claim made “to rationalize grandiose investments in the production of historical artifacts and spaces”—including a national archive. Saudi Arabia has often been regarded through the prism of a “secondary Orientalism” that views the state as a “special image of stasis,” fossilized by Wahhabi Islam and stabilized by its “geographical lottery” atop the very oil fields described at the beginning of this essay. This exceptionalist representation, Bsheer implies, is one that is surprisingly welcomed by Saudi officials. To convince its citizenry of their historylessness, to present the past as a vacuum, offers the state an opportunity to fill in that space with its own narrative—but such a condition was made possible from the outset by the state’s decimation of social mobilizations and cosmopolitan connections and their expurgation from the record. It is in the context of those who were silenced and written out of the official state narrative that the refrain “we have no history” attains a different meaning, infused with an air of critique and melancholy

For such individuals and communities, the feeling of being left “historyless” and “placeless” are perhaps not unrelated. In these circumstances, memory returns: a container of the extra-archival, the unofficial pasts that reside in the silences of grand history. Memory allows for the continuity of pasts outside the “red lines.” Munif and Mater, for instance, mobilize literary and photographic forms in service to some notion of memetic preservation against corporate and state-led programs of erasure and forgetting. Indeed, states tend to bank on the notion that collective memories, under the right conditions, sooner or later wither away. This is why a deeply researched archival and ethnographic study like Bsheer’s or photographs like Mater’s or literary works like Munif’s are important: in charting the creation of the official archive, the remaking of Mecca, or the human costs of petro-modernity, they are index-cards and directories onto histories that are now, as Sherene Seikaly puts it, “teetering on extinction.” In a world where presents are becoming pasts in an accelerated and irrevocable fashion, and where memories are unevenly housed, the unofficial archives of the Arabian Peninsula sit on the shorelines of erasure. It is unclear if the waters will wash them away—or like the face of Munif’s proverbial cities of salt, if they intend to reclaim something else.

1 This is a particularly striking statement given the fact that Munif was once a believer in the progressive potential and dreams that petroleum exports promised the region and its ideological position within left pan-Arabist thought. Munif specialized his research on the oil industry as a university student in Yugoslavia and worked in the Oil Ministries of Ba’athist Iraq and Syria for over a decade. On this subject, see Sabry Hafez, “An Arabian Master” in The New Left Review and Jairus Banaji, “The Subversive Universe of Saudi Exile Abdelrahman Munif’s 'Cities of Salt'” in The Wire.

2 From personal conversations with its organizers, many hajj group tours promote this view, in part, for how it aids in manageability and reduces medical liabilities. The hotel prayer rooms can accommodate up to 10,000 people and have been said to be regularly packed during the hajj despite the Grand Mosque being a couple steps away.

3 “Innovations” or revisionisms that impinge upon an unwavering monotheism.

4 This list follows and contributes to the examples Bsheer’s references in Archive Wars, p. 236, footnote no. 17.

The Hypocrite Reader is free, but we publish some of the most fascinating writing on the internet. Our editors are volunteers and, until recently, so were our writers. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, we decided we needed to find a way to pay contributors for their work.

Help us pay writers (and our server bills) so we can keep this stuff coming. At that link, you can become a recurring backer on Patreon, where we offer thrilling rewards to our supporters. If you can't swing a monthly donation, you can also make a 1-time donation through our Ko-fi; even a few dollars helps!

The Hypocrite Reader operates without any kind of institutional support, and for the foreseeable future we plan to keep it that way. Your contributions are the only way we are able to keep doing what we do!

And if you'd like to read more of our useful, unexpected content, you can join our mailing list so that you'll hear from us when we publish.