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Cities of Salt (1987)

by Abdelrahman Munif

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Cities of Salt (Volume 1)

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561536,832 (3.78)55
Banned in Saudia Arabia, this is a blistering look at Arab and American hypocrisy following the discovery of oil in a poor oasis community.

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Showing 4 of 4
finished Cities of Salt last night. What a rewarding read. The subject is the coming of the oil industry to Saudi Arabia and the complete destruction of Bedouin culture - not unlike Achebe's Things Fall Apart. There is something elegiac about this novel - it almost feels geologic - I don't know how else to express it - the sense of something shifting slowly and irrevocably. Fantastic book.

( )
1 vote laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
The inhabitants of Wadi-al-Uyoun are in a turmoil. Strange men have arrived in the wadi. They were not bedoiuns or Arabs though a few accompanied these strangers. The wadi was an important stopoff point for caravans crossing the desert -- here was water, rest, and a place to exchange news from far and wide. Each arriving caravan was to the residents a sign of renewal, and a link to the world outside -- they brought with them flour, sugar, and the much longed-for news of the son or the husband who has been away for many a year. The people of the wadi have always lived like this, life was simple and as predictable as the rains that were sure to come in the end of autumn. But the strangers who came with strange objects and set up camp just off the wadi -- they elicited a mix of curiousity, wonder, suspicion, but most of all fear, a terror of something unknown. Stories went around, passed quickly from one end of the wadi to the other that these strange men were sent by the emir. Which means they were to be treated as friends. Days turned into weeks, and these pale men with light hair who spoke among themselves in a low voice in an unintelligible language, continued doing things nobody understood -- they would go out to the dunes, stand on them with sticks, keep looking afar, and confer with each other from time to time. The men of the wadi kept a careful watch, some even slept just outside the camp just not to miss anything, but nobody could make neither head nor tail of it. Then one day, some very odd looking objects were brought to the camp. A loud noise was heard which continued through the night and many nights and days after, causing even more fear and confusion among the villagers. They could no longer go to the well as often as they used to, so much water was being taken by the strange men and poured into the sand that little was left for the villagers. Stories went around that the wadi sat on a big deposit of gold, and the men were digging under the sand for it. They were told that riches unheard of will soon be theirs, but that they have to be patient and do as they were told. The villagers were very much perturbed by all this, but kept quiet -- it was Allah's will. All except one man. Mitel al-Hathal, whose father and grandfather before him had been fierce defenders of their tribe, was never, for one second, fooled by any of this. He understood. He knew that the Devil had come, and what he was seeing was the destruction of the wadi, together with everything that they ever knew and loved, forever to be gone. And that he was powerless to stop it.

The swift transformation of the tiny, forgotten village in the sands into a modern town for the Americans, and the waves of new arrivals from unknown lands, brought with it problems and situations that were unrecognizable to them. The opening of the port and new roads brought many new things that caused the people consternation and misery. The changes shocked the community, and each one struggled to make sense of it but they continued to be ignorant, as no explanations were forthcoming and the Americans refused to deal with them. They could not expect anything from the emir who was inept, infantile and only cared for the newfangled toys that the Americans gave him. Superstitions and fatalism dictated the people's actions. One injustice bred another, then another until things came to a head, and the people who were meek as sheep who in their oppression left all to Allah, finally shouted enough was enough.

Cities of Salt is the story of the destruction and the diaspora of a poor oasis community in an unnamed kingdom in the Persian Gulf, following the discovery of oil there. It narrates the evolution of the modern-day Gulf states from the perspective of the people whose lives have been upended with the arrival of the Western oil companies. This is a sad and disturbing novel, but ultimately it is a powerful portrayal of displacement and marginalization, of cultural confrontation fueled by mutual incomprehension and clash of values, and the reclaiming of community honour. The book is not high literature, the writing is sometimes disjointed and the pace deliberate, characters seem to be two-dimensional, yet Munif drives home the point powerfully, and raises questions that would make politicians and big business uneasy, which is why it continues to be banned in several Middle East countries. Cities of Salt is the first of a quintet, although only three have been translated into English so far. ( )
1 vote deebee1 | Sep 21, 2012 |

A rather tough read about the arrival of the American oil companies in an unnamed Arab statelet, and the social disruption that this inflicts on the population.

I like the way in which the "Americans" are shown as alien beings, as the Other in a hitherto stable and settled society; I think that being shown oneself (and for these purposes I am certainly an "American") as others see one is always a good thing, and Munif does this blisteringly well.

I think he is not as good as Chinua Achebe at demonstrating the disruptive impact of western colonialism on the local society. Perhaps (though I would be dubious about making this comparison) that impact was less in the Gulf States than in Nigeria. Munif has existing power structures (the emir) being reinforced and distorted in their authority by the arrival of the outsiders. Achebe has the local power structures devastated beyond repair.

Both Munif and Achebe present a somewhat pre-lapsarian view of the original societies. Achebe is worse in this respect, but it is still notable that Munif's story is told almost entirely - apart from two or three chapters out of 77 - from the point of view of the male characters; I don't think there are more than half a dozen women named in the book.

Anyway, an educational read, but I would have liked a bit more nuance in the narrative. ( )
  nwhyte | Jun 17, 2009 |
Cities of Salt begins in 1930s in the Wadi Al-Uyoun, where life hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years. Then the Americans arrive. Soon the inhabitants are all told they must leave and village is bulldozed to accommodate the exploration for oil. The narrative soon focuses on Harran, a seaside village where the Americans decide to build a port and terminus for a pipeline. Cities of Salt is not a polemic, Arabs good, Americans bad, although one Arab does complain that the Americans "smell could kill birds!" The Americans are seen only at a distance, generally across the barbed wire that separates the American compound from Arab Harran. Banned in Saudi Arabia (Isn’t everything?), Cities of Salt tells of the lives of many ordinary, and not so ordinarily, people disrupted by change they cannot control and cultural conflict they cannot understand. ( )
  JustMe869 | Mar 29, 2008 |
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» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Abdelrahman Munifprimary authorall editionscalculated
Barakat, MagdaÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bender, LarissaÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bonadies, CinziaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Theroux, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Cities of Salt (Volume 1)

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Banned in Saudia Arabia, this is a blistering look at Arab and American hypocrisy following the discovery of oil in a poor oasis community.

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