The book is set in a gulf country that is never actually named, but is suspected to be Jordan around the time of the 1930s. In the novel, the Bedouin residents of a little oasis and community called Wadi al-Uyoun have their lives forever changed when Americans come to their tiny area and discover that there is oil there (Munif, 1989). Instead of having just one person in this community relate what has happened because of this, there is a large and diverse cast of Bedouin individuals that are used in the story, so that it can be seen through the eyes of many and given various perspectives.
There are many different manifestations that are created from the upheaval that is seen when the Americans arrive, and the author of the novel believed that it was important to see the issues from many sets of eyes and from many different opinions (Munif, 1989). The Americans basically come in and colonize the small oasis community, and the novel moves from the first contact with the Americans through the suspicions and other problems that their technology causes, and moves at a good pace to keep the reader not only interested in the story, but interested as well in what is happening to the politics and the society that has been changed through the arrival of foreigners and their beliefs.
The technology that the Americans bring is a problem for the Bedouin residents, because they have never seen it before and do not understand it. Because of this, they are very suspicious of the Americans and the equipment, which includes telephones, automobiles, bulldozers, and radios, among other things. Many of the residents see these items working off of 'magic' and this makes them frightened and confused (Munif, 1989). This is one of the ways that the author shows how the clash of cultures and societies can cause problems and misunderstandings, and is therefore very important to the central theme of the novel.
The book has been banned in several countries in the Middle East, most notably in Saudi Arabia, but is only the first volume in what is expected to be a trilogy. It is likely that the other two books in the series will be banned in many Middle Eastern countries as well. There is no serious discussion as to why some Middle Eastern countries have banned the book, but it is likely that the reason has much to do with the fact that many people who are in power in those countries do not feel as thought the book reflects events and beliefs in a sense that is accurate and not inflammatory. The vantage point of the novel is very unique, because readers of the English language generally do not get to see the situation through the eyes of those that are actually involved in that situation. This provides different insight and perception than what would be seen from an outsider looking in.
Lewis' Critique of Said
Lewis criticizes Said because he believes that Said has 'poisoned' the term Orientalism by changing the meaning of it (Lewis, 1982). Originally it was more involved with painting and artwork - as a style, not a specific opinion about an individual or a group of them (Lewis, 1982). Naturally, Said disagrees with this and states that there was no change in the definition of Orientalism; it is what it has always been, and he was just bringing it to light and discussing it (Said, 1978). Both men are 'right' to some extent in their definitions of the word. Orientalism is a style of artwork, and it is also a way that people categorize or stereotype other people. Not everyone may realize that they are even doing this, but it teaches that Orientalism cannot be easily defined or put into a box by one person or one group of people. It can have many different meanings and there are a lot of varied opinions about it.
Lewis, Bernard. (1982). The attack on Orientalism. The New York Review of Books. https://eee.uci.edu/09w/28230/home/lewis-nyrb+said+critique.pdf
Munif, Abdelrahman. (1989). Vintage Books: Vintage International Edition.
Said, Edward W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House.