Cities of Salt, a sweeping trilogy* of novels, and particularly the first, with the same name, by Abdelrahman Munif does what no other Arabic fiction I have read (in translation) has tried to do: create the great landscape of disruption and change with the coming of the oil age as the Anglo-American technical world begins to move into the rural Arabic world of small oasis towns, caravans and trade. Written in the style of grand travelling story teller Munif sets out a sweep of character and place, of fabulous places and times, of great confusions, traditions clashing, resistance, rebellion and death.

 Wadi al-Uyoun: an outpouring of green amidst the harsh, obdurate desert, as if it has burst from within the earth or fallen from the sky.  It was nothing like its surroundings, or rather had no connection with them, dazzling you with curiosity and wonder: how had water and greenery burst out in a place like this?

What a marvelous beginning!  And yet the wadi is familiar to the inhabitants, “exciting no strong emotions, for they were used to seeing the palm trees filling the wadi and the gushing brooks surging forth in the winter and early spring…”

With the mesmerizing incantation of a natural born, and long practiced, story teller Munif floats the image of the wadi before us, almost mythic to those who come upon it, and even more so to us.

For caravans, Wadi al-Uyoun was a phenomenon, something of a miracle, unbelievable to those who saw it for the first time and unforgettable forever after.

The family which holds our attention in the beginning has its own mythic introduction:

On that day so long ago, like many thousands before it, the last of Miteb al-Hathal’s sons was born.  It was late spring in the afternoon.  The heat had been merciless for days….

Into this paradise come “foreign guests” staying with another family in the wadi.

 They were busy all day long.  They went places no one dreamed of going.  They collected unthinkable things. … They placed wooden markers and iron poles everwhere they went, and wrote  on them, and wrote things no one understood on the sheets of paper they carried with them everywhere….

He sensed something terrible was going to happen…

The Americans leave, and then they return.  Strange machines are erected.  Fences and lights.  Men working shirtless in the blazing heat.  The Emir makes his annual visit and the people of the wadi bring their complaints to him.  In a couple of pages Munif evokes the marvelous circumlocutory politeness of an Arabic negotiating session, with elaborate praise of one by the other and the subtle raising of the issues.  No matter, in the end the Emir turns their complaints aside:

You will be among the richest and happiest of all mankind, as if God saw none but you.

Miteb, the head of the family, argues they do not want these people.  The emir tells him if he does not like it

…then know that the earth is wide …  They have come to help us… There are oceans of oil, oceans of gold … oceans of blessings beneath this soil.

And so the scene is set.  The wadi is transformed.  Families are told they have to move.  The young men no longer long to go out on the caravans but to work with the machines.  The focus changes to a small port town, Harran, close enough to build a pipe-line from the wadi.  Harran is transformed over night.  The men from the wadi who have been brought to work are terrified, at first, of the sea itself:

…in spite of the long hours each of them spent submerged in endless contemplation, the mystery grew with each passing day:  Where had all this water come from? Why was it here instead of other places where people needed it? …Those who had come from the interior, from the depths of the desert, were lost in a whirlpool of thought and bewilderment.

and the noise and activity of unloading boats.

…a phase of work began that never slowed or stopped.  It was like madness or magic.  Men raced back and forth with the raging yellow machines that created new hills racing behind them.  They filled the sea and leveled the land; that did all this without pausing and without reflection.

After the first pay day, it is time to sell the camels — they are of no use here.

Barracks are built for the workers, with tin-roofs in the hot Arabic sun.  Arabic Harran takes shape.  Across a fence a fine American Harran with swimming pools, sidewalks and air conditioning. The men are pressed to work harder.  Rules and regulations are set out. Fingerprints are taken. Interviews and personal data required —

“What is your mother’s name?”
Ibrahim gave him an astonished, shocked look.
“What do you want with my mother?”

As the pipeline extends and Harran grows the ghost of Miteb al-Hathal “who had taken refuge in the dark and the desert, would be back.”

Tension grows  The crown prince comes to celebrate the opening of the pipe-line.  A  Dr. Subhi, who has come from Aleppo and Cairo to build his medical practice in the fast-growing town, becomes a major player in the  town, the novel and the two novels that follow.  Some of the men from the wadi become over-seers or translators, others remain as workers. Labor troubles begin (may I say, one of the few instances in all the fiction I have read in which the lives of working people, and their responses to exploitation are significant.)  A drowning.  The appearance of American women:

The women were perfumed, shining and laughing, like horses after a long race. Each was strong and clean, as if fresh from a hot bath, and each body was uncovered except for a small piece of colored cloth … the men stroked the women and then attacked suddenly for hugs and kisses, and carried the women around on their backs, and made them sit on their laps – the Arabs shouted and pointed more boisterously. … No one could believe his eyes: it was indescribable.”

I love hearing the language Munif brings to us, the set phrases, aphorisms and constant references to God:

Praise God, we are more patient than camels, but from the day those devils came nothing has been the same.

or when a worker, liked by no one, dies:

When Ibn Rashed died, when he became dust, suddenly God had made no better man!… By God, you have no consciences, O sons of Arabs. Every day you have a new face and every hour a new opinion.

or

If you see a friend in need and you don’t help him, you’re no better than a scorpion –and scorpions die when they sting themselves.

The novel ends with an explosion of labor unrest and the flight of the emir:

As the wind sweeps through a tree, or as waves collide with rocks, gusts of anger flooded their faces and hearts, smashing the timorous prudence that had ruled them in the mosque and the marketplace. Within moments the people had become like a flame, or a tempestuous wind.

In moments the barbed wire was buried under the sand, and the human waves plunged forth.

And the final sentence both echoes the fatalism of we have seen throughout, as well as the hope:

“Ours is a long story, Abu Othman.”
“Long.  How much longer?”
“Trust in God. man.  All is well with the world.”
“God only knows.  He laughed sadly.  “Hope for the best.  No one can read the future.”

Cities of Salt is a novel I’ll return to again (though not the two that follow it,) along with some of the great European classics. I have a special shelf in my library for these.  It is not long.  The conception and execution of Cities are marvelous.  Peter Theroux’s limpid English is just amazing. Translating from the near cousins of English, like Italian or French,  is difficult enough, but to venture into Arabic, with its different script, syntax and traditions, not to mention Arabic’s own rich oral culture of metaphor and aphorism,   needs both a linguistic genius and the patience, as the Arabs would say, of a camel.  Theroux has both.  We never lose the feeling that we are reading about an alien culture, or that we can enter, and understand the people who compose it: not like us at all, but much like us.

The two other novels of the trilogy, The Trench, and Variations on Night and Day, didn’t capture me at all as Cities of Salt did. Reviews are forthcoming.

*Actually, although most articles and reviews in English refer to Cities of Salt as a trilogy, it appears it is actually composed of 5 books — the last two of which have not been translated to my knowledge.  The fourth, in an Al Ahram listing, is Cities of Salt: The Rootless and the fifth, Cities of Salt: Desert of Darkness.

Enormous thanks Abdelrahman Munif and Peter Theroux.  A wonderful wonderful work!

Munif’s obituary in the Guardian, UK, here. A a great bibliography of essays about him, here.

[And I’ve just discovered that some brave souls have turned Cities of Salt into an Opera, after literature, my favorite art form.  Haven’t seen it of course, but wow! Can’t wait.]