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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302

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.

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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 their 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 May 7, 2015, 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 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...

(The entire section contains 2048 words.)

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