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.