Cities of Salt (Saudi Arabia)

Book CoverCities of Salt
by Abdelrahmen Munif

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore



If the novels of William Faulkner were set in the Hellishly hot desert, in an Islamic country, and didn’t make near unintelligible use of local dialect, they might be half as good as this book. (Apologies to Faulkner enthusiasts–I’m not.)

This novel is an easy read, though it is thick, and only the first in a trilogy exploring how a largely Bedouin society changes into an oil extraction emirate. It is banned in several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. (This is why I wanted to read it. The author was born to a Saudi father and an Iraqi mother. He was eventually stripped of his Saudi citizenship by the al-Sauds because they were afraid of his novels–so I wanted to find out what, exactly, was so offensive to them. I wanted to know which truths the author had spoken to power. I wanted to know what the al-Sauds are trying to hide.)

map of Saudi ArabiaProtagonists: And Then There Were None

  1. The book starts with a man called Miteb al-Hathal, a member of the Atoum tribe who lives on a hill overlooking an oasis. The arrival of caravans to the oasis is eagerly expected, for travelers bring news, sugar, flour, bolts of cloth, and long-lost sons. In the desert, everything is the reverse of (my patch in north Idaho). Winter is the good season. The oasis provides water, shade, and greenery. Life is hard and people are poor, but life is still good.
Ancient city of Harran
The ancient Mesopotamian city of Harran was famous for its beehive adobe houses

Then, under the auspices of a man called Ibn Rashid, some foreign devils (Americans) arrive. Miteb al-Hathal is immediately suspicious and rides out with his gun. His son Fawaz “said to himself, If he opens fire he’ll set the whole wadi ablaze; we won’t be alone. The people of the wadi wouldn’t let a man fight by himself, they’d fight with him to the end. After the battle they’d ask why he was fighting. Fawaz had heard of such things many times.”

This is what it is to be a member of a desert tribe. But Ibn Rashid betrays them, aiding and abetting the infidels as they destroy the wadi with bulldozers, frightening the men and the camels equally. There is oil and gold beneath the sands, and the Americans and Ibn Rashid are greedy for all of it. The Emir is complicit–Ibn Hathal says that “the emir is kin, but he’s useless.”

Inside a beehive home
Inside a beehive home

2) Ibn Hathal disappears from the narrative now, and we ride with his son Fawaz and his cousin to a new village by the sea, a city called Harran. Ibn Rashid pulls his old tricks in this place, telling the people who live there: “all the land belongs to the government; it is the government’s privilege to take and give out land” and that “they couldn’t eat or drink land, so they had better take what was being offered them now, because someday the land might be taken from them, and then they would be no better than refugees.”

A new and newly-divided city arises–American Harran with swimming pools, gardens and air-conditioning and Arab Harran with mud huts, a new mosque and a fancy Emirate building for guess who (a different useless one). Fawaz and his cousin now disappear from the narrative and Harran itself becomes a character. The rest of the book is devoted to how Harran changes and develops.

Saudi beachI must admit, I was praying to Allah the whole time that something bad would happen to Ibn Rashid, that he would come to a sticky end. SPOILER ALERT: I was not disappointed! From time to time, scantily clad American women are unloaded at the port and the local men think they are sluts. However, back at the oasis in Wadi al-Oyoun, when it still existed, the American oil workers used to lay about in the heat clad only in short trousers and caps and the men of the wadi were equally scandalized and some complained to the Emir that it wasn’t decent. Of course this was because their women had to walk past these bodies on their way to the brook to fetch water.

I don’t agree with or approve of the fixation on controlling women’s bodies.

Neither a Farsi nor a Farce

Camels in the desertIn the hands of a different writer, such as the author of Dear Uncle Napoleon, this novel could have been a farce–he could easily have tweaked it into extreme sarcasm. He chose not to. I think the writer felt the topic was too serious. The comic bits are still delightful. The Emir of Harran, for example, is given a telescope that he can’t stop playing with. He’s invited to a wedding, but delays giving an answer, because he secretly wants to stay home and train his telescope on the event, as it will be well-lit in the darkness. Obsession (in fiction) is nearly always amusing.

Crowded modern cityThere is a diving accident that renders one of the workers “imbecilic” and his uncle comes to Harran, seeking compensation from Ibn Rashid. The villain shows his cowardice by hiding, and is tormented by small boys shouting, “The Bedouin! The Bedouin!” to frighten him from then on. Sometimes he jumps and hides, and sometimes he lets off his gun.

When I looked up the author, after reading this book, I was saddened to find that he has passed away. I wanted to contact him and say how much I enjoyed his book. He had a degree in oil economics, had worked for oil companies, and so really knew how to get inside the heads of these men and the politicians who work for them. The book is immensely engaging and entertaining while being a powerful political statement. It is a portrait of a hugely changing time in society.

Saudi flag is green with white Arabic writing and a swordWas the author born at the time the novel takes place? He was not. The al-Sauds came to power in Saudi Arabia by consolidating many smaller tribes, and this happened in 1932. The author was born in 1931. But this time must have been very alive in his father’s mind. And heart.

Interestingly enough, the author went to Iraq for a time and joined Saddam Hussein’s Bath party, but left when he could no longer ignore what the regime was doing. He was very against it, and against the U.S. invasion. No doubt if Saddam Hussein had lived, he would have revoked the author’s Iraqi citizenship as well.

Rating: Five Stars in the Desert Sky Above an Oasis!

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