Cities of Salt

by Abdelrahman Munif

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Cities of Salt Summary

Cities of Salt is a 1984 novel by Abdulrahman Munif that tells the story of the arrival of American oil engineers in an Arabian wadi, or desert oasis.

  • The Americans arouse the suspicion of the indigenous Bedouin people of the wadi, whose lives are upended, and home destroyed, by the American oil operation.
  • Miteb al-Hathal, a Bedouin patriarch, opposes the American presence but, when he is not heeded by the local authorities, disappears into the desert.
  • Cities and barracks are built in the desert, and many of the Bedouin tribesmen are given work in dangerous and dehumanizing conditions.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Cities of Salt, by Abdulrahman Munif, tells of the discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula and how it disrupted the land and the people, altered the sociopolitical 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.

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Chapter Summaries