Cities of Salt Summary
by Abdelrahman Munif

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Cities of Salt Summary

Cities of Salt, by Abdul Rahman Munif, tells of the discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula and how it disrupted the land and the people, altered the socio-political climate of the country, and threw the Middle East into a constant state of unrest. The action of the book takes place in the fictional cities of Harran and Muran, which could represent any village in Saudi Arabia that grew into a metropolis after the discovery of oil. Munif shows how the vast beauty of the untouched desert was corrupted and transformed by American oil engineers. He also conveys the discontent of the indigenous Bedouin people as the Americans drilled for oil, built modern houses, and transformed their kingdom into something similar to an American city.

Life had been peaceful for the Bedouin people before the Americans arrived in the Persian Gulf, and their culture, values, and land had remained unchanged for centuries. Once the Americans arrived, however, they disrupted the peace in the area and left the people and their land indelibly altered. The culture clash that ensued and the battle over oil and money changed the course of history for the Middle East and for the world. By telling the story through the eyes of the Bedouin people and by highlighting the clash of Old World and Western ideas, Munif shows how the discovery and exploitation of oil in Arabia set the stage for constant conflict and turmoil in the area.

Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Mudun al-milh (cities of salt) narrates the story of the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula and the radical impact of that discovery on the physical and human landscape. Although the kingdom in which the action takes place is never mentioned by name, it is clear that the reference is to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the novel, the cities of Harran and Muran represent the major Saudi Arabian cities that developed in the aftermath of the discovery of oil during the first decades of the twentieth century.

The action of volume 1 spans the period from World War I to the early 1950’s. No specific dates are given in the novel itself. The time frame, however, can be readily established from the transparent correspondence between internal narrative events and actual historical events. Thus, the reign of Sultan Khuraybit, founder of the fictional kingdom in the novel, corresponds to the reign of Sultan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (1902-1953), founder of the Saudi kingdom.

Volume 2 begins with the ascent of Khaz ‘al, Khuraybit’s eldest son, to the throne and ends with his overthrow by his younger brother on charges of inefficiency and corruption. Sultan Khaz ‘al stands for King Sa‘ud, who ruled Saudi Arabia from 1953 until 1962, when he was deposed by his younger brother, Faysal, who then became sultan. (The forthcoming third volume, entitled “Taqasim al-layl wa-al-nahar,” “divisions of day and night,” will presumably dramatize subsequent historical events that occurred during the reign of Sultan Faysal and his successors.)

Although sultans, kings, and princes exercise significant control in the novel, they are not its immediate or primary subject. The focus of attention throughout volume 1 is on the gradual transformation of a desert oasis from pristine simplicity to a bustling metropolis. What sets this process of transformation in motion is the sudden, unannounced appearance of three American petroleum engineers in this idyllic landscape. Having had no previous exposure to foreigners, the indigenous Bedouin population views the three American engineers with curiosity and apprehension as they go about surveying the desert landscape in search of oil. In the manner of nineteenth century European and American naturalist fiction, the slow-paced narrative attempts to capture in minute detail the reaction of the Bedouins to this unprecedented encroachment on their desert habitat.

The Americans’ presence in the desert begins to take a more permanent nature with the arrival of prefabricated houses, heavy landscaping and drilling equipment,...

(The entire section is 1,159 words.)