Cities of Salt

by Abdelrahman Munif

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The wadi’s people were known for their strange mixture of gentleness and obsession. Peaceable and happy, they were always quick to help out and expected little in return, but they were at times prone to laziness and daydreaming.

In this excerpt, the author explains what people were like in the wadi before the arrival of American petroleum engineers. They lived peacefully, if a bit aimlessly.

They certainly didn’t come for water—they want something else. But what could they possibly want? What is there in this dry desert besides dust, sand and starvation?

In this quotation, Miteb is speaking to his son about the foreigners who have come to Wadi al-Uyoun. He can’t imagine what they want in such a dry, remote place. Their appearance alarms and confuses him.

The very sight of the foreigners and their constant activity all day, the instruments they carried around, the bags of sand and stones they had amassed after writing in their notebooks and drawing symbols on them, the discussions that lasted from sun­ down until after supper and the writing that followed, the damned questions they asked about dialects, about tribes and their dis­putes, about religion and sects, about the routes, the winds and the rainy seasons—all these caused Miteb’s fear to grow day by day that they meant harm to the wadi and the people.

Miteb fears the foreigners and senses that their coming will only bring evil. Their ways seem strange and disconcerting to him, and he fears that they will bring harmful changes to the wadi. His premonition is correct.

Neither profuse use of perfumes nor incense burning could get rid of their smell. Ibn Rashed also said that they never went to bed at night without doing some writing—they might have been practicing witchcraft. Often they would stop writing, talk to each other and then go back to writing.

Ibn Rashed observes the oddities of the foreigners in the wadi. The local people find the Americans’ smells and ways odd, which points to the cultural gulf between them.

No one had ever dreamed such people existed: one was short and obese with red hair and another was tall enough to pick dates from the trees. Yet another was as black as night, and there were more—blond and redheaded. They had blue eyes and bodies fat as slaughtered sheep, and their faces inspired curiosity and fear.

Even the physical appearance of the Americans frightens people in the wadi, as the local people have never seen people who look like the Americans do. Again, this excerpt emphasizes the cultural divide between the Americans and the local people and the fear with which the locals regard the Americans.

After that there were questions and comments, but Ibn Rashed, who had talked and joked paternally in Wadi al-Uyoun, dealing patiently with every man’s opinions, was a different man in Harran. He was extremely self-confident and made no jokes; he was serious and even harsh. He gave curt orders and spoke in such a way that no one knew whether it was out of hostility or distrust.

Once the people from Wadi al-Uyoun go to the new city of Harran, they find Ibn Rashed changed. Just as the desert is being altered in Harran, so also do the people who associate with the new system change.

Later on they waded into the shallow water. It was enticing, caressing their feet with its coolness and density, and with the passing of time they did not hesitate to bathe in the sea; they squatted right on the beach, where the water immersed their feet and swelled...

(This entire section contains 710 words.)

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up to the middle of their calves. They scooped up water in their hands and with metal cups to pour over their heads and bodies, but the waves alarmed them: they got up and ran away, looking all around, afraid that these wild beasts would attack them.

The people who come to Harran from the local wadis have never seen the water, but they slowly immerse themselves in it, even if they are still afraid of the waves. This excerpt is a metaphor for the ways in which the locals are changed by modernity when they come to the city.




Critical Essays