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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on February 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on February 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913

Cities of Salt (Mudun al-milh) 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 1950s. 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, and other technological wonders such as binoculars, radios, tape recorders, and television sets. The apprehension of the indigenous population turns to forthright hostility. Initially, this hostility is passive and finds expression in the withdrawal of Miteb al-Hathal, the patriarch of the oasis, from the encounter with the new reality. When he fails to persuade the prince to put a halt to the surveying and drilling and to order the Americans out, the patriarch simply rides his camel into the desert one night and disappears. Although no physical trace of him is ever found, he becomes a symbol of resistance to the new epoch and occasionally returns to haunt the prince and local representatives of the government. When, toward the end of volume 1, the Bedouins stage a strike against the American oil company and someone sets the entire oil field and camp ablaze, all fingers point to the ghost of Miteb al-Hathal.

The focus of volume 2 shifts from the physical landscape of the remote oasis and the city of Harran that was built around it to the new capital in the interior, Muran (presumably Riyad, the actual capital of Saudi Arabia). Unlike Harran, the nucleus of the capital consists of a cluster of palaces built with oil revenues for members of the royal family. The sultan’s main palace houses his ever-increasing harem and serves as the locus of much of the narrative in this volume.

A still greater portion of this volume is devoted to describing the personality, motives, concerns, and lifestyle of the sultan’s physician and main adviser, Subhi al-Mahmalji. While not a member of the royal family by blood, “the physician,” as he is called in the novel, is the actual founder of the kingdom. It is he who creates the governmental institutions and offices on which the nascent state stands. Foremost among these are the secret service and the propaganda department, for which he handpicks the most loyal and efficient among the sultan’s subjects. To immortalize his own name, the physician envisions writing a historical and philosophical treatise about the nature of government based on his actual experience in the service of the sultan. As he indulges his illusions of grandeur in this manner, control over the affairs of state slips imperceptibly from his hands and passes into the hands of his subordinates, especially Hammad, the head of the sultanate’s secret service whom the CIA had been cultivating for many years without the physician’s knowledge.

Totally engrossed in his quest for financial and political power, the physician also neglects the emotional and sexual needs of his wife, Wadad. She avenges herself by maintaining regular illicit relations with his various subordinates and business partners. Just when the physician’s lifelong wish to become the sultan’s exclusive adviser and confidant appears within reach, events take an unexpected turn. Shortly after the aging sultan marries the physician’s sixteen-year-old daughter and departs for Europe on their honeymoon, he is deposed by his younger brother, and the physician is ordered by the new ruler to leave the country immediately.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Chapter Summaries