Cities of Salt

“Set in a Persian Gulf kingdom in the 1930s, where the discovery of oil belies the existence of a poor oasis community, this story portrays the cultural confrontation that results when Americans colonize the area.”…opens up new vistas to the imagination.”- Graham Greene.

“Cities of Salt”  is a narrative of tribe in” Persian Gulf”, it revolves around a small tribe “Harran”. It is timed at 1930s when extraction and discovery of oil by foreigners (American) took place. These events lead to unrest and disturbance in the traditional Arab lives. It has two dimensions; on one hand it gives cultural confrontation between two distinct cultures (one local and second Americans). On the other hand it comprehends the history of Arab rulers, how they manipulated the events and used foreign support to maintain their governance. It has political motive in essence and that is the only reason it has been banned in number of Arab countries including Saudi Arabia.

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The discovery of today’s major source of energy, “OIL” near a small town (wadi in Munaf terms) opens the sources of great unrest in that community. The local resident of the community have to vacate the place and were for the first time in their lives saw machines, and modern people (Americans) who brought with themselves new social trends. The destruction of their homes by foreigners leads to a series of events that resulted in unrest and chaos in the community which suffered by this.

The social transformation of people who were living in tribes and are nomadic by profession saw this change as something new and thought this change will disrupt their traditional roots. The people were never into modern way of livings and when they came close to modern ways of living, they were astonished by this new trend of living. People are feeling that oil extraction will jolt their life style. The people who are used to live in customary ways of life and are contend with their lives will now come across a battle of economy. The struggle for development and money will bring the people into something that will ultimately destroy them. The simplicity of life and strong social and cultural beliefs of people will run through a wave of urbanization. The life of deserts and tribes will ultimately vanish and will be replaced by greediness all over. The people will lose their self and morality, and new social order will creep in with its roots in corruption.

The destruction of “Wadi” which leads to the installation of pipeline from “Wadi” to Harran is the second major event which astonished people. The American developed a walled city around this area and it was the centre of all their activities, which were totally new to local people. The arrival of foreigners brought social confrontation in the area, see e.g. an extract from the novel,

“The lingering summer was thought by many to be the worst in living memory. The days grew long and the nights very short, as the harsh blaze of the sun grew ever stronger, and many of the people felt assured that this summer would annihilate men and beasts alike and leave nothing and no one alive. Ibn Naffeh never stopped telling the people, joyfully, almost gloatingly, how demons would soon fly around their feet like mice, and how the Hell that boiled beneath the earth would soon burst out and burn everything to cinders”

This is depicting the clash of two societies local people are used to love in hotness of desert and on the other hand they are witnessing foreigners who are enjoying in this hotness under the roof of modern technology.

See below another extract which is depicting the confrontation of modernization with tradition. Local people have never been to doctor and were not aware of this new science and then again they come to situation where they face doctor,

“The emir’s son caught a fever that no one could cure, so [Dr] al-Mahmilji took over his treatment and did splendidly. The emir himself watched the doctor’s every move attentively, as if trying to learn or understand every detail .The emir stared at the medical instruments, so Mahmilji showed him the stethoscope, thermometer and blood pressure gauge. The emir held the stethoscope gingerly, then put it to his ears with the doctor’s help, and looked amazed when he heard the strong, regular heartbeats. . . When the boy’s temperature went down and he was back to normal on the third day, the doctor began to enjoy a great deal of respect and inarticulate awe”.

This explains how the people came to know new technology and what new questions arose in their mind. All this was happening in a context which was never prone to modernization and people were astonished at one hand and upset on the other, as they were thinking to themselves why they are deprived of such useful things. See below another extract from the novel, which is themed about the use of wireless technology and this thing was again new to them.

“The emir crept nearer, as a child who knows what fire is a creep nearer to it. Patiently, carefully, he placed his hand where Hassan Rezaie indicated and did as he was told. When the box emitted loud music he started and drew his hand away, and when the music rose to fill the tent he retreated slightly and looked into the men’s silent faces. ‘The world around us is a strange one, full of secrets’, said the emir. ‘Almighty God “teacheth man that which he knew not”.’

Besides this cultural and social confrontation, there are two other important dimensions which cannot be neglected

1- Islamic morality and humanity

2- Political biasness of Arab rulers

Islamic Morality and Humanity:

See below an extract from the novel,

“An episode in Chapter 68 which illustrates two opposing standpoints in Islam is one which concerns the funeral of a foreigner: on the one hand we see the narrow, rigid and fanatical, and on the other the indulgent, charitable and large-hearted.

This episode starts with the death of a well-liked sojourner in Harran, a lorry-driver named Arkoub, who was an Armenian originally from Aleppo. The imam of the local mosque refuses Arkoub a religious funeral, since ‘the deceased was a Christian and an infidel’. Nevertheless the other villagers take the view that, since they liked him and held him in high esteem, he must in reality have been a Muslim; it was ascertained that he had died at the exact moment when the people at morning prayer were uttering the shahadah, and witnesses were found who were willing to testify that the deceased had never touched alcohol.

No one knew the Armenian’s full name, but in the eulogy pronounced over his body he was addressed as Ya’qub b. Fatimah, and his tombstone was engraved with the inscription ‘Here lies the remains of Ya’qub al-Harrani’. Thus the generous and magnanimous tendency in Islam triumphs, but on its own terms: the Armenian Christian is converted, after his demise, into an Arab Muslim”.

The morality and humanity preached by Islam to His followers who were willing to regard a Christian as he was good and kind to them.

Political Biasness of Arab Rulers:

The Cities of salt is just not a cultural confrontation, in its message it has political motives and goals. It is in disguise revealing the political biasness of Arab rulers. The Arab rulers always tried to intertwine with foreigners and got help from them to establish their dynasties.

The contract with foreigners to dig oil and replacement of local people from their homes is just not a cultural discourse. It is in fact something pervert in it. The use of power intrigues and religious manipulation of events is evident in Arab tribal life. Munaf in Cities of Salt is trying to locate the Arabic tradition of manipulation of sources by the tribal heads. The tribal heads are always fond of foreign support and ready to plot intrigues against rival tribes. This tradition has lead to formation of dynasty of a single family in Saudi Arabia. The gradual development of story in the novel is referring to this fact, how the one family captured the dynasty. Munaf is pointing through social confrontation the dogma by which rulers of the Arabs deprived them of new technology and knowledge. For the survival of their own empire, the rulers helped west to establish the empire of oil on their own people’s right. The “cities of salt” is a historical discourse of maintaining monopoly over people of rich resources. It is removing the dust of lies over the claim of emperor and leading the reader towards a truth. And that truth is Arab Rulers maintained their power with the help of west and suppressed their people from rights of resources.


The novel in its essence is extraordinary explanation of social, moral and cultural confrontation of two opposing communities. The one which is traditional and other is modern. It tells the reader how civilization is affected by opposing values. How historical changes are brought and what are the motives behind these changes. The novel also portrays the biasness of rulers of world’s most scared resource “Oil”, and how they used foreign help to rule their own people. It is wrong to read this novel as a clash of east and west. It is a historical discourse of West supremacy over Arabs and Arabs inability to rule without west.


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