THE CITIES OF SALT by Abdelrahman Munif


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From a Jordanian who now lives in Paris: the magical, fabulistic story of the discovery of oil in an Arab country, and the vast changes wreaked upon the inhabitants. The novel is set in an unnamed Arab gulf kingdom in the 30's, and begins with a near-idyllic description of the oasis of Wadi-al-Uyoun, three miles long and lush as paradise, where travelers have stopped for uncounted centuries. Miteb al-Hathal is a great warrior whose family has lived there for centuries as well, and who fought and drove out the Turks during WW I. All he wants is the peace to sire sons into his old age, but oil is discovered and the Wadi becomes a changed place; the Americans are brought in, and tractors attack the vegetation and trees with a ""bestial voracity."" Miteb simply disappears into the night, while most of the population of the Wadi heads for the booming town of Harran to find work on the pipeline. What follows is the sad destruction of a culture: Old ways are subverted, proud men and women treated as little more than base hired hands, and a kind of suffocating bureaucracy overwhelms freedom. All of this is symbolized by the ridiculous figure of Emir Khaled, who fearfully takes a ride on an American horse named Ford and gradually becomes a puppet, finally losing his mind and his health. In the end, however, the oil workers strike; there's a bloody confrontation (and the wraith of Miteb-al-Hathal may or may not appear), and the Arabs begin to regain at least a small sense of identity. This first book in a proposed trilogy was originally published in 1984 in Beirut; to Western ears, it's a powerful, untold story, done with humor, grace, and a resonate depth of feeling.

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 1987
Publisher: Vintage/Random House