Analysis

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Last Updated on February 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305

Cities of Salt , published in 1984, is about the process of modernization and westernization in a fictional Arab nation. At the beginning of the book, the author portrays the traditional Bedouin way of life in a place called Wadi al-Uyoun. Munif’s characters show how local people react to the...

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Cities of Salt, published in 1984, is about the process of modernization and westernization in a fictional Arab nation. At the beginning of the book, the author portrays the traditional Bedouin way of life in a place called Wadi al-Uyoun. Munif’s characters show how local people react to the arrival of Americans looking for petroleum. A character named Miteb al-Hathal is immediately suspicious of the Americans, while others do not know what to make of them.

The author portrays the ways in which the Americans seem odd to the local people in the wadi. The locals remark on the Americans’ smell, for example, and the bizarre exercises that the Americans do. The author depicts the gulf of understanding that develops between the local people and the Americans and the ways in which the Americans, intent on making money and westernizing the desert, do not understand how they are destroying the locals’ way of life.

Symbolically, the wadi is razed, and the locals move to a rapidly industrializing coastal city called Harran. There, they are amazed by the sight of the sea, which represents the way in which they are plunged quickly into a modern world that leaves them perplexed. Their leader, the emir, is fixated on the new Western technology to the point that he does not attend to his people and their needs. The people who move from the wadi to Harran are also introduced to Western sexual mores with the arrival of a shipload of American women and to Western forms of medicine that differ from their traditional healing techniques.

The author portrays the ways in which the Middle East was subjected to rapid westernization and industrialization that quickly destroyed the indigenous peoples’ ways of life. The shock waves that these processes generated led to the crises that define the modern Middle East.

Cities of Salt

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Last Updated on February 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1687

Cities of Salt has been banned in several Middle Eastern countries (including Saudi Arabia) since its first publication in Beirut in 1984, and it is easy to understand why. Abdelrahman Munif, a Jordanian living in Paris, has written a novel which dates modern Persian Gulf history from the coming of American oil explorers in the 1930s and the consequent exploitation of this oil-rich desert region. Those characters in the novel who fight the Americans die or are driven out; those who help them become rich and powerful themselves. In the culture clash that follows the arrival of the Americans and their technology, Bedouin ways are lost forever, and what rises in their place erases Arabic history. As the first volume of a trilogy, Cities of Salt describes powerfully this transformation of culture in a crucial center of the modern world.

The story in such a long novel is actually quite simple. Cities of Salt opens in Wadi al-Uyoun, and its first quarter describes the destruction of the wadi, as American bulldozers level the oasis to make way for the exploration for and eventual production of oil. Only Miteb al-Hathal, who “sensed that something terrible was about to happen,” stands up in protest, but few heed his dire predictions. (It is not just that the Americans “had terribly odd habits and smelled peculiar”; Miteb senses also that they are “devils” who cannot be trusted.) Miteb watches the “butchery” of the wadi, but all he can say is, “I’m sorry, Wadi al-Uyoun . . . I’m sorry!”

This was the final, insane, accursed proclamation that everything had come to an end. For anyone who remembers those long-ago days, when a place called Wadi al-Uyoun used to exist, and a man named Miteb al-Hathal, and a brook, and trees, and a community of people used to exist, the three things that still break his heart in recalling those days are the tractors which attacked the orchards like ravenous wolves, tearing up the trees and throwing them to the earth one after another, and leveled all the orchards between the brook and the fields.

The wadi, this “earthly paradise,” has been destroyed. Miteb disappears, to become a ghost, but his spirit haunts the rest of the novel, and his predictions become a forecast of what will eventually happen, his name a call to the inevitable revolution.

The last three quarters of the novel take place in the small Bedouin village of Harran, which is quickly transformed by the Americans into a major oil depot and shipping center. Actually, two cities spring up here: an American Harran, complete with swimming pools, air conditioners, and other amenities for the American managers who work here; and an Arab Harran, which is cheap and poor and barely capable of sustaining Arabic ways. Eventually, over the years of the novel, working conditions worsen, Arab leaders become unresponsive to the people’s needs, and worker unrest grows.

They felt afraid, but still dared to say things they would never have said had they not been so consumed with sorrow and anger. Why did they have to live like this, while the Americans lived so differently? Why were they barred from going near an American house, even from looking at the swimming pool or standing for a moment in the shade of one of their trees? Why did the Americans shout at them, telling them to move, to leave the place immediately, expelling them like dogs? . . . Why did the Americans make them perform tasks that they themselves would never dream of doing? Although the workers held their peace and showed nothing but contentment, the Americans were never satisfied by anything but constant work.

The novel ends with no final resolution, but with the first strike against American oil exploitation. Only the future, Munif implies, holds the answer to this conflict between opposing ways of life. The two remaining volumes of the trilogy will take readers closer to that future.

If there is a literary category for Cities of Salt, it would be “Arabic proletarian novel,” and many of its features may be unfamiliar to Western readers. The novel certainly has an old-fashioned, nineteenth-century narrative style that fits perfectly the story it is telling but which may seem slow-moving to contemporary readers. (Almost the whole first chapter, for example, is given over to describing the wadi.) This leisurely pace is matched by the novel’s point of view, which maintains a certain distance from the characters and lacks the psychological intensity or inner focus that modern novels often display. Yet it is this detached point of view—describing events from a vaguely Arabic perspective—that most effectively reveals the cultural clashes throughout the novel. For example, Munif describes how puzzled the inhabitants of the wadi are by the Americans’ “morning prayers”—which turn out to be their athletic exercises. The Arabs also cannot figure out why these alien people are digging into the arid sand, and Munif allows readers to deduce on their own, over many pages, that the Americans are seeking oil.

Munif’s narration (in Peter Theroux’s strong and sensitive translation) portrays starkly the passing of the Bedouin way of life. Here is a sample passage, a description of the area surrounding the wadi:

Al-Hadra and its surrounding areas a few days’ ride in every direction had not changed since God created the earth. Since the life of the people was marked by extraordinary difficulty and harshness because of the lack of rain, the scarcity of caravans and the consequently high prices they paid for flour, sugar and cloth, they were used to it and never expected anything better. If the earth became too crowded, something had to give. It was usually death that solved the problem, in the form of raids and feuds, frequently the results of disputes over grazing and water, or as the result of diseases that struck men and animals. Death was the regulator that made them capable of living and enduring, and when the men got tired of death and were no longer able or willing to continue killing one another, or when caravans arrived, they felt the powerful lure of travel, unprepared as they were and having given it no previous thought. When they did leave, there was more room for the others, who kept on living.

There is something oblique about this style of narration that may be unfamiliar to American readers. Contemporary novels in English usually have a linear development: They move from point a to point b with a certain logical progression. Munif—like the Bedouin caravans that traverse his novel—takes a more circuitous route. The first quarter of Cities of Salt, for example, takes place in Wadi al-Uyoun; the action then moves to Harran, and Wadi is almost forgotten. Similarly, new characters are introduced late in the novel, and earlier characters are dropped almost completely. Short stories are told along the way, almost as eddies in a narrative stream, but their relation to the structure of the larger novel is at best indirect. Finally, dialogue in the novel reflects this circuitous quality: characters rarely gain information from one another directly; rather, it is given by implication or parable.

There is another side to this use of language, however, and that is its wonderfully figurative quality. Characters talk to one another in riddles and metaphors: “The jackal is a lion in his own country,” a Bedouin worker says when asked why he will not go to the United States for training. “Pull your thorns with your own hands,” the emir responds to a request for assistance. “Beware of your enemy once, but of your friend beware a thousand times,” Ibn Rashed warns regarding Dabbasi. This rich, delicate language confirms the novel’s understated qualities.

At the center of Cities of Salt is the clash between two cultures: the modern, technological American and the primitive, Bedouin Arab. The mysterious “black boxes” that the Americans are always turning on are tape recorders; the generators in Wadi frighten its inhabitants terribly; the emir falls in love with his telescope. The childish reaction to the first radio reveals the primitive background of these people: “How could this box speak and make music? Who was playing the instruments? Where did he sit? How could he eat and sleep, and how did that tiny space hold him?” Ironically, it is through this technological wonder (and thanks to the news from the British Broadcasting Corporation) that the people of Harran learn of the Americans’ plans to turn their area into a gigantic oil center. Yet it is not only the technology that is different; beneath the surface there are deeper differences. Americans interview Bedouin workers and offend them with their questions about religion. They bring sex workers to Harran and the people are horrified—and fascinated. (The Harrani baker falls in love with one of the women from a distance and ultimately loses his mind.) Americans drink “devil’s piss” (alcohol), go on vacations when the summer gets too hot, and treat their workers as prisoners. In those rare passages when Munif gives the American perspective, it only confirms the gap: “These people are strange—they seem so mysterious,” one American comments. “You never know whether they’re sad or happy. Everything about them is wrapped up, layers upon layers, just like the desert under their feet!” “They’re like animals,” another answers, “jostling each other and moving around in this primitive way to express their happiness. Imagine!”

In some ways, this is a 1980s Grapes of Wrath: a 1930s novel about the clash between the haves and the have-nots. (The bulldozers leveling the wadi may remind readers of John Steinbeck’s description of the same machinery pushing the Okies off their land.) Moreover, for English-speaking readers unfamiliar with it, the novel is an introduction to a contemporary Arabic literature of richness and subtlety. Cities of Salt speaks of a part of the world that American readers have ignored for too long, even though, as the novel makes clear, Americans have been part of Arabic history, and American and Arabic futures are of necessity intertwined.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on February 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 300

The overriding thematic concern of Cities of Salt is to chronicle the passing of one historical epoch and the onset of another. As is often the case in human history, the transition from one phase of civilization to another occasions a clash between the old and the new. In this novel, the arrival of machines, cars, and boats in the desert announces the start of the conflict between the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the indigenous Bedouin population and modernity.

This universal theme takes the form of a cultural conflict in the novel because the agents of transformation are foreigners. That these foreigners are non-Muslims adds a religious dimension to the conflict. For the indigenous population, the American land surveyors and engineers appear as the very embodiment of the devil. Their looks, indiscreet dress code, lax manners, and especially the technology they bring strike a note of terror in the hearts of the locals. The vast knowledge they display about the history, geography, social customs, and mores of the Bedouins (including the genealogy of their numerous and diverse tribes) arouses the suspicion and hostility of the locals. When they hear the Americans speak fluent Arabic and discourse knowledgeably about Islam, the Bedouins’ suspicions acquire even more compelling weight. They ask in sincere bewilderment, “Why don’t they convert to Islam, if they are not devils?”

The status of women is another major theme in this novel. In a highly segregated society such as Saudi Arabia, the women’s quarters are carefully shielded from public view. The omniscient third-person narrator of this novel carries the reader right into these quarters, to observe the hierarchy among the sultan’s harem in the palace, the preparation of new brides for the sultan, and the ways in which women pass their time behind their veils.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on February 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 58

Allen, Roger. The Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction, 1982. Modern Arabic Literature, 1987.

 

Chicago Tribune. August 14, 1988, XIV, p. 5.

 

Christian Science Monitor. September 2, 1988, p. B6.

 

Kirkus Reviews. LV, December 1, 1987, p. 1645.

 

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 29, 1988, p. 3.

 

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, December 11, 1987, p. 58.

 

Siddiq, Muhammad. “The Contemporary Arabic Novel in Perspective,” in World Literature Today. LX, no. 2 (Spring, 1986), pp. 206-211.

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