Analysis of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt

The most celebrated, controversial, and critically acclaimed series of novels by Abdelrahman Munif (1933–2004) merits the title of epic by way of the work’s time span covering many years, the endless chain of memorable characters, and the many plot threads. A quintet that started as a trilogy, Cities of Salt has been translated into several languages and is recommended reading for many university courses around the world; it is also banned in some Arab countries.

The novel is a graphic and detailed account of the transformation of a fictional Gulf country (resembling Saudi Arabia) from a simple Bedouin life into an oil-producing state governed, albeit indirectly, and exploited by American oil companies. It records the shattering of people’s lives and the violation of their own traditions. Driven out of their simple homes and tents, the people watch their villages being leveled to the ground while American ports and cities are erected in their place. They are left feeling not only bewildered by modern technological novelties but also totally betrayed by their own greedy rulers, who give the foreign corporations the green light to do whatever they want regardless of the country’s people and traditions.

Munif started working on the novel while staying in France; the first two volumes were published between 1981 and 1986. He completed the other three volumes after settling in Syria. The first volume—in Arabic, Al-Teeh (the labyrinth/the wilderness, 1984)—was translated in 1987 as Cities of Salt by Peter Theroux, who also translated the second volume, al-Ukhdud (1986) (The Trench [1993]) and the third, Taqasim al-layl wa al-Nahar (1989) (Variations on Night and Day [1993]). The fourth book, Al-Munbatt (the uprooted, or the exiled), and the fifth, Badiyat Azzolumat (desert of darkness), both published in 1989, have yet to be translated into English.

Cities of Salt is said to have appeared at an opportune time politically. In the second half of the 20th century, Arab people had suffered many setbacks, having been let down by their governments and foreign interventions. The continued battles between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Lebanese civil war (1975– 90), and the Saudi-Egyptian-American political accord (1990) all took their toll. There was a need for an epic work that reevaluated the Arab history and future. Characters in Munif’s works are ordinary, broken, and trapped. They speak everyday language, are disillusioned by modern industries, and struggle within an intricate social, economic, and political matrix in an effort to assert their identities. Eventually they take the law into their own hands. These are the characters that many Arab readers wanted to read about.

Having lived in many Arab cities, Munif knew the Arab people and political conditions better, perhaps, than any other writer at the time Cities of Salt was written. By traveling constantly, he developed first-hand knowledge and a unique relationship with many Arab cities and their history, which his uncontrolled imagination transformed into a great panorama delineating the social, economic, and political contours of an epoch. Such documentation is rendered in a captivating literary style, evoking at times the Arabian Nights and creating a wonderful portrait of the tragic accommodation to modernity by an oasis community. The collective title of the quintet is symbolic. The oil-based cities are as fragile and soluble as salt (extracting salt from the sea was the people’s traditional industry before the exploration of oil), indicating their ephemeral existence.

Munif’s style, described as unhurried, varies in the five volumes. The first volume is more descriptive, whereas the other volumes are more realistic. The conventional first-person narration is sometimes interrupted by other points of view, while memories, letters, and diaries are used without complicating the fl ow of the plot. In this sense, Cities of Salt reads like popular literature, especially in the way Munif makes use of poetry, religious quotes, fables, and historical anecdotes (markedly by Ibn Bakhit in the third volume, Variations on Night and Day). What characterizes this novel is the dialogue, which uses everyday (spoken and informal language) rather than formal literary language, creating vibrant, plausible characters. In The Clash of Fundamentalisms (2002), Tariq Ali, the renowned British historian and novelist, referred to Cities of Salt for description of some historical figures such as the Arabist and British agent H. A. R. Philby.

Cities of Salt depicts a society as it falls apart. Although the rulers are main characters in the quintet, Munif presents numerous unforgettable, typical characters whose characterization and complex relationships with the ruling elite bring history alive. The opening novel of the quintet tells the story of a desert village located on a brook, Wadi al-Uyoun, in the early 1930s. The village witnesses the first strike of sudden transformation represented by the main character, Miteb al-Hathal, a simple Bedouin. His stubborn resistance during the death of Wadi al-Uyoun as the tractors cut down all the trees leads to his mysterious death and makes a legend out of him. He becomes a phantom, appearing whenever the villagers are stressed or rebel. Al-Hathal does not witness the building of the modern, steel-like Western town of Harran, but his son Fawaz, with whom the story continues, does.

In contrast to Miteb al-Hathal, Ibn Rashed, another Bedouin who hosts the Americans quite hospitably and cooperates with them, thinks that the Americans will come no matter what, so he finds no point in resisting them. The character of Mufaddai al-Jeddan, a traditional doctor who helps the sick without pay, is also contrasted and, indeed, left to die of his injuries at the end by Subhi al-Mahmilji, a modern doctor who establishes good relations with the emir and allows new technologies to take control. Dr. al-Mahmilji and Ibn Rashed, the opportunist, continue to be main characters in the second volume, The Trench—the story of Mooran, the modern capital of the desert. The killing of al-Jeddan rouses and disturbs the inhabitants, who had accepted the sudden transformation of their town and who have become enslaved to modern professional life.

Variations on Night and Day is set in an earlier period, when the British ruled the region. Sultan Khureybit, with the help of the conniving British Hamilton, restores his ancestral claim to power and rules over Mooran, the city that the British mushroomed in the middle of the desert, under the name of the Hudaibiya State, expanding his dominion mercilessly over surrounding towns. In this volume, we meet one of the most admirable characters, Shemran al-Oteibi, a man who single-handedly rebels against the government for unjustly jailing his son. The novel also portrays the sultan’s domestic life at the palace, his polygamous household—wives, eunuchs, children, servants, mistress—and the conflicts, intrigues, and murders within the palace.

The Uprooted (or The Exiled) is about the life of Sultan Khzael, who is exiled to Geneva. Dr. al-Mahmilji’s daughter, Salma, is the main tragic character in this fourth volume. Her marriage to the sultan does not last long, and she is puzzled why her marriage fails so quickly. Like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Salma’s mysterious death symbolizes the loss of innocence. Female characters are as passive in the quintet as they are in real-life Saudi Arabia. Munif often criticized the treatment of women as third-class citizens in Saudi Arabia.

The last volume of the quintet, Desert of Darkness, follows the life of Prince Finner, son of Sultan Khureybit (of the third volume) and Khazael’s brother (of the fourth volume). Now that the political center has clearly shifted from Britain to the United States, Dr. al-Mahmilji’s son, Ghazwan, who has learned to use his father’s relations with the political elite, establishes a trading company in the United States to be exploited by local government personnel. The quintet ends with Finner’s death.

Cities of Salt arguably surpasses Noble laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy in its richness of characters, creation and analysis of typical characters, recreation of historical figures, and precise descriptions, tying the stories together in a heroic setting: the desert itself. It remains an unparalleled literary Arab epic.

Analysis of Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy

Allen, Roger. “Review of Munif, Cities of Salt.” World Literature Today 63 (1989): 358–359.
Boulata, Issa J. “Social Change in Munif’s Cities of Salt. Edebiyat 8, no. 2 (1998): 191–215.
Munif, Abdelrahman. Cities of Salt. Translated by Peter Theroux. New York: Random House, 1987.
———. Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman. Translated by Samira Kawar. London: Quartet Books, 1996.
———. The Trench. Translated by Peter Theroux. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
———. Variations on Night and Day. Translated by Peter Theroux. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993

Categories: Arabic Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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