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Cities of Salt Paperback – International Edition, July 17, 1989

4.4 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Originally published in Beirut in 1984, this multipage epic brings to life many of the political issues that have plagued the Mideast for most of this century. Set in an unnamed gulf country that could be Jordan sometime in the 1930s, the novel relates what happens to the bedouin inhabitants of the small oasis community of Wadi al-Uyoun when oil is discovered by Americans. Seen through the eyes of a large and varied cast of bedouin characters, the upheaval caused by the American colonization is shown in various manifestations, from the first contact with the strange foreigners ("Their smell could kill birds!" observes Miteb al-Hathal, who later leads a rebellion of Arab workers when the village of Harran has been made into an American port city) to confused and suspicious descriptions of the sinister "magic" tools brought by the Americanswhich are in fact bulldozers, automobiles, radios and telephones. The story unfolds at a stately pace over a timespan of many years and provides an endless stream of characters and events, each connected to the next by many threads of plot. Theroux's sensitive translation conveys the subtleties of ambiguity and nuance inherent to the Arab language and culture. Banned in several Mideast countries including Saudi Arabia, this is the first volume of a planned trilogy by a Paris-based Jordanian novelist who holds a law degree from the Sorbonne and a Ph.D. in oil economics from the University of Belgrade. Despite the Lawrence of Arabia setting, Munif writes from a unique vantage point; English-language readers have been given few opportunities before now to look at this situation through native eyes.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Banned in several Middle Eastern countries, this novel records the encounter between Americans and Arabs in an unnamed Gulf emirate in the 1930s. As oil exploration begins, the destruction of an oasis community amounts to "a breaking off, like death, that nothing and no one could ever heal." The promise inherent in the creation of a city divided into Arab and American sectors provides the novel's most striking revelation: here not merely two cultures, but two ages, meetand stand apart. Alternatively amused and bewildered by the Americans and their technological novelties, the Arabs sense in their accommodation to modernity the betrayal of their own traditions. Highly recommended, if only for its cross-cultural insights.L.M. Lewis, Eastern Kentucky Univ., Richmond
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Vintage International ed edition (July 17, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039475526X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394755267
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #42,440 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bob Newman VINE VOICE on October 3, 2002
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.
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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.
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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.
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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
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