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Cities of Salt: A Novel (Vintage International) [Paperback]

Abd al-Rahman Munif
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

15 Sep 1988 Vintage International
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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Product details

  • Paperback: 627 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; Vintage International ed edition (15 Sep 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039475526X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394755267
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.7 x 3.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 327,704 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By John P. Jones III TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The subject quote, from page 134, succinctly describes one of Munif's strongest themes. His novel is a thinly disguised account of the coming of the American oil companies to Saudi Arabia, starting in the 1930's, from the point of view of the native inhabitants. Though the books are quite dissimilar, an excellent companion book would be Wallace Stegner's Discovery!: The Search for Arabian Oil" Stegner was one of America's most accomplished writers, and wrote his book at the request of Aramco; in the introduction, it was stated that certain negative and controversial parts were "bowdlerized," omitted. So Stegner presented an overly positive account of the historical meeting of two of the most disparate of peoples, the Americans and the Saudis. Munif presents, in the opinion of this reviewer, an overly negative account. Perhaps a balance can be achieved by reading both - an understanding of these events is vital background for anyone dealing with two subjects that dominant the political agenda of the world today: Oil and Islam.

The style of Cities of Salt recalls the "magic realism" of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "Jinns," the spirits dominate the actions of numerous characters. The novel commences in Wadi Al-Uyom (Arabic for lake), which is described in almost Rousseauan terms, as an idyllic place where man was in harmony with his environment. One of the major characters, Miteb Al-Hathal, a leading figure in the wadi, happiest when tending his garden, prophesizes disaster for the wadi, and its way of life. He struggles to instill resistance to what he sees is the American destruction of the wadi, and the inhabitant's way of life, who are forcibly relocated.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece 5 Nov 2008
By Pearl
Format:Paperback
You're unlikely to pick this book up by accident- it's as important now as it ever was- believe all of the good reviews! I read this as an accompanyment to Power by Daniel Yergin, it provided a rare anthropological view of the emerging Gulf oil states written from the perspective of those enjoining modernity. Excellent.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Modern Arabic Epic Novel 19 Aug 2007
Format:Paperback
This novel was published in Arabic in 1984 and in English in 1987. It's only the first section of a five-book Arabic-language work that totals some 2,500 pages, covers seven decades and is said to be the longest novel in modern Arabic literature. The second and third sections have been published separately as The Trench and Variations on Night and Day. It appears that the fourth and fifth sections haven't been published yet in English.

This first book covers the period roughly from the 1930s to 1950s. It begins with the pious, poor inhabitants of an oasis in the desert whose peace and social harmony are disrupted by the discovery of oil by American researchers who've been invited into the country. Six hundred pages later, it ends following a mass strike over injustice in the coastal city that's grown up around the pipeline to the interior. In between, it shows the impact of modernization brought about by the development of oil, from the locals' point of view. And the resentment caused by the presence of non-Muslims, the increasing materialism and loss of spiritual and communal values, and a backward, paternalistic local government that ignores the attendant social problems.

The technologically superior Americans, despite their practical competence and good intentions, are depicted in this book ultimately as the real villains, because of their foreignness, utter lack of understanding of the inhabitants' world, and the negative effects of the modernization they've set in motion.

A recurring pattern in the novel is that none of the parties involved comprehend the factors behind events that bind them together, and none make an effort to understand the other. (One individual who's something of an exception disappears into the desert early in the novel.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  28 reviews
70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The source of the illness and the root of the problem" 3 Oct 2002
By Robert S. Newman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
CITIES OF SALT is a highly unusual novel because unlike most, its main character is not a human being, but a city, even a country or a culture. Like the great Mexican muralists, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, Munif paints the painful, colorful, and confused story of the transformation of a whole society---like Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, he shows what happened when "things fell apart". No single character is found in every chapter,the focus constantly changes,yet the direction remains clear. Peter Theroux faced an immense task, I believe, though I do not know Arabic. He either had to capture the flavor of a language that uses proverbs, quotations from the Qur'an, and indirect approaches to topics and risk English speakers' incomprehension ... or turn the Arabic into more familiar English dialogue, based on general meaning, and utterly destroy the special nature of the text. I would say he has done a fantastic job. You have the feeling of being in another world, where people express themselves in ways unlike North America/Britain/Australia in 2002. It is a convention of Western novels that speakers understand each other, but we know, in real life, that that is not so. Munif recognizes that, especially in a situation of rapid culture change, one speaker may not understand what another is saying at all.
When the word "colonialism" is mentioned, we usually think of Africa, of India or Southeast Asia, or of the Spanish invasions of Central and South America. Secondarily we may (or should) remember the Anglo-Saxon deeds in North America and Australia. Even if we narrow the focus to the Middle East, our "take" on colonialism there usually derives from the British or French occupation of former Turkish territories. CITIES OF SALT, written in the 1980s, tells a story, in other words, that has seldom been brought to the world's attention, that is very far from twenty first century dialogue. This is amazing, this is tragic, because it seemed to me, by the time I had finished Munif's novel, that here lay so much of the origins of Al Qaeda and of Osama bin Laden. The American oil companies, with the agreement and active cooperation of the local emirs and ruling families, came to a society which was entirely unprepared for their arrival and totally uninformed about the consequences of Big Oil's operations. The novel opens with a description of a backwater oasis with a traditional way of life. After 120 pages, American bulldozers uproot all the trees and the inhabitants of Wadi al-Uyoun are exiled forever. Is this a potent metaphor or what ? A port is built on the coast, an airconditioned American compound erected behind barbed wire with gardens and swimming pools, while the newly-recruited Arab workers live in stifling, fetid dormitories. The relationship between Arab and American, worker and boss, is the usual capitalist one, but this (probably eastern Saudi Arabia) is a deeply traditional Islamic society with entirely different values. The characters that oppose change and so-called modernization most vehemently are driven away or killed, but they remain, like spirits, like echoes of the solid, understandable past, for the many people caught in a whirlwind of change. Like those exiled or murdered princes of medieval Europe, people believe that they may appear when most needed. Munif traces the rise of different classes, the change in mentality owing to new social circumstances, the arrival of doctors, merchants, and transportation companies, and the beguiling of the rulers. [Women play almost no role in the novel, nor do Americans ever appear as anything more than unfathomable aliens.] The Americans came for their own profit, the rulers conspired to allow them a free hand in return for unimaginable wealth, (p.595 "was he their emir, there to defend and protect them, or was he the Americans' emir ?" Munif and his books are banned in Saudi Arabia). Some of the people shared in the new wealth, but they were made to feel outsiders in their own land. Many people got nothing. The long-term result of this colonial penetration, so ably and lyrically portrayed in this novel, is known to us all.
CITIES OF SALT, though without love or sex and without strong protagonists, is a lively, colorful, unique novel well-worth reading and free of diatribe. I often thought of the Brazilian writers, Guimaraes Rosa and Amado, who brought whole worlds to life, onto the world stage. Munif has done a similar job. This novel should be much more widely known than it is.
36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Modern Arabic Epic Novel 18 Aug 2007
By Reader in Tokyo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This novel was published in Arabic in 1984 and in English in 1987. It's only the first section of a five-book Arabic-language work that totals some 2,500 pages, covers seven decades and is said to be the longest novel in modern Arabic literature. The second and third sections have been published separately as The Trench and Variations on Night and Day. It appears that the fourth and fifth sections haven't been published yet in English.

This first book covers the period roughly from the 1930s to 1950s. It begins with the pious, poor inhabitants of an oasis in the desert whose peace and social harmony are disrupted by the discovery of oil by American researchers who've been invited into the country. Six hundred pages later, it ends following a mass strike over injustice in the coastal city that's grown up around the pipeline to the interior. In between, it shows the impact of modernization brought about by the development of oil, from the locals' point of view. And the resentment caused by the presence of non-Muslims, the increasing materialism and loss of spiritual and communal values, and a backward, paternalistic local government that ignores the attendant social problems.

The technologically superior Americans, despite their practical competence and good intentions, are depicted in this book ultimately as the real villains, because of their foreignness, utter lack of understanding of the inhabitants' world, and the negative effects of the modernization they've set in motion.

A recurring pattern in the novel is that none of the parties involved comprehend the factors behind events that tie them all together, and none make an effort to understand the other. (One individual who's something of an exception disappears into the desert early in the novel.) For the most part, the locals don't grasp clearly the significance of what the Americans are doing. The latter make no effort to comprehend the locals and their motivations or actions, unless they perceive a threat to the benefits of oil. And the local ruler spends much of his time away from both in his newly constructed palace, obsessed with the workings of dazzling imports like the telescope, stethoscope, radio, automobile and telephone.

The author, who was also an oil economist and political activist, is considered a pioneer of writing that reflected social, economic and political developments in the modern Arab world. A member/associate of the socialist, pan-Arab nationalist Ba'ath Party until the early 1980s, he wrote partly to counter official history, which he believed up to that point had served mainly the interests of the West and the ruling governments and ignored ordinary people's experience.

He based a number of occurrences in the novel on real events in Saudi Arabia, although the country in his novel goes unnamed. There are differences from reality, though: the local ruler in the book is depicted as a buffoon rather than a strong, independent leader in his own right. And there's nothing in the book like a fundamentalist movement that gained power with the state and rising oil revenues, as did the Wahhabis.

I agree with other reviewers that this book is important for showing a widespread point of view in the Arab world concerning relations with the West and the impact of the oil economy on local values. Tragically, this view is characterized mainly by a sense of victimization and religious profanation. In those respects this book, written a quarter-century ago, can be regarded as sounding prophetic themes. Yet the author was committed to socialism, and from this novel alone it doesn't appear that he viewed radicalized religion as the solution.

I wasn't enchanted by the style, which was deliberate in pacing, with lengthy narrations and digressions, said to be influenced by traditional oral storytelling modes, and with an ending full of magic realist visions. Or by the characters, many of whom were stand-ins for various pieties and evils. And I found it difficult to believe the depiction of the paradise on earth that was the oasis before the discovery of oil. In some ways, for example its black-or-white morality and the lack of depth to its character-symbols, this novel reminded me of Soviet proletarian works from the 1930s, with a difference being that its model society seemed placed in the romanticized past rather than the future. How the author reconciled this idealization of the past with his own socialist commitment is maybe something that becomes clear in the later installments of this work.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A nostalgia to humanity before oil era 16 Dec 2001
By mohamed farid abdelbary - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is the first part of the pentology city of the salt.I read this pentology 3 times,and i will read it again and again.In this volume the author described the Saudia,s people"before the oil era"they were poor but happy and how they had changed with the oil drilling and the coming of the Americans,you can feel the nostalgia of the old days.i laugh a lot about the prince when he saw the first radio and how he loaded his gun before he put it on.The next 4 volumes"i do not know how many volumes had been translated to English as i read it in Arabic" described how people there changed,rich but lost their old nobel feelings.you can know easly the real names of the main characters.This book is forbidden in Saudia Arabia ,even there is a debat about rhe real nationality of the author,but surely he feels nostalgia for old days,even the name of this novel,as he said in one of his pages,means ir will collapse for the first rain because it is made of salt.Many members of my family have the same feelings when they read this book,they are so absorbed to the book ,so that they can not even talk to anyone at home.lastely i think this is the second great book written in arabic after mahfouz Cairo triology
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cities of Salt Turning to Tears 21 May 2001
By Elizabeth Hendry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I can see why this book has been banned in Arab countries. Cities of Salt details the transition of an unnamed Arab emirate from how it had apparently been functioning to a current, oil producing state. The story, taken as a whole is heartbreaking. The story begins before oil is discovered, and tells a tale of a generous, yet human, people. Their Emir, unbeknownst to them, allows some Americans into the country to test for oil and eventually, drilling takes place. On the way, people are driven out of their homes, villages are leveled, lives irrevocably, irretrievably changed. The old way of life is gone, and with it, the general pleasantness and generosity that had once been prevalent. The story is of mainly of a place, the characters only secondary, for their is no true protagonist, save the land. Characters play the lead for a time, but soon something happens, someone leaves, someone arrives and things change again. Cities of Salt is a moving and bittersweet story told in a matter-of-fact manner, a story which mourns the passing of a way of life, without being mournful itself.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sorrowful repeat of history 21 July 2005
By Newton Ooi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Cities of salt is a historical fiction book set in an unnamed Arab country during the first half of the 20th century. It describes the changes in the place, a semi-arid desert, and its local Muslim inhabitants over this time period. Specifically, it shows how the local Arab communities are changed for the worse by the intrusion of Western individuals, Western corporations, and Western society as embodied by the oil corporations.

This society begins as an egalitarian community based on family ties and extended kinships. Everybody knows and trusts each other. Gates, land titles and other ways in which individuals divide up resources do not exist, and all is shared in common. Likewise guns and violence are almost non-existent as conflicts are solved slowly and surely by long and lengthy discussions.

Then Western geologists enter the scene and discover oil. Western oil corporations are quick to follow. To get access to the oilwells, and to ship them out via pipelines requires control of land, which of course is communally owned and used. To solve this dilemma, the corporations try to cajole and bribe the locals to give up rights to these lands. This often did not work, so the corporations resort to a tactic that was used against Native Americans and Africans in the previous four centuries. Specifically, the local tribes had nominal leaders. The corporate representatives would bribe these leaders with modern marvels such as the telephone, repeating guns, television, ice, etc... Slowly these local leaders would switch loyalties from their own tribes to the Westerners. Eventually, these local leaders, and their henchman, would sell out their fellow Arabs, order locals of the land needed by the oil corporations, and back up their orders with their newly acquired guns.

Overall, the egalitarian, communal society that existed was transformed into a dictatorship propped up by Western oil interests. A ruling class was created that was distinct from and unrepresentative of the people at large. Oil, and the control of its acquisition, transportation, and distribution, replaced people and communal consensus as the source of power. And this is how many of the modern Arab nations came into being. All in all this is a great book, probably the best fiction book to read to understand the thinking of Al Qaeda and roots of Arab anger at America. The cloest way to describe it is the Arab world's version of America's Grapes of Wrath; the destruction of a communal and family-based way of life by modern corporations.
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