Cities of Salt

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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 1930’s 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 Arab ways. Eventually, over the years of the novel, working conditions worsen, Arabic 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...

(The entire section is 1687 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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

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

The 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.