Cities of Salt

by Abdelrahman Munif

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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 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.

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