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...
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