This was an unusual, but rewarding, reading experience for me. Cities of Salt, published by a Saudi Arabian/Jordanian author in 1984, is a very foreign novel to an American reader. It is set in an unnamed country – presumably Saudi Arabia; the Gulf port of Harran, the book's primary setting, is probably based on the real place called Dhahran – and spans an unspecified period of time, during which oil is discovered and the local way of life is utterly transformed. The community, or the place itself, is the real protagonist; characters come and go and the narrative moves on very naturally, but in a sense the individual men are almost incidental to the story. (I say “men” because women are virtually invisible throughout.) The book charts the key moments and the effects of change on the community as a whole, with a narrative that seems at times disembodied.
And yet, it works – there is a plot structure here, albeit an unusual one, and the book maintains a certain narrative momentum. It took about half the novel for me to get used to its rhythm and begin to appreciate it, but I am glad I took that time. It’s one thing to read a novel set in a foreign country, but a novel with a completely different storytelling method is altogether different – more challenging, yes, but also far more authentic. The excellent English translation complements that storytelling: it’s clear that this is a translation, but not due to any awkwardness of expression: the word choice and cadence of the language feel slightly foreign, bridging the gap between the Arabic original and English readers while maintaining (presumably) the flavor of the author’s writing.
So, I am glad I read this book, with its panoramic storytelling and its unapologetic look at the impacts of the oil economy on the traditional way of life. And it isn’t all big ideas; we get to know a number of characters, though not in quite the same way as in your typical English-language novel, and Munif doesn’t stint on detail. It isn’t a book I’d recommend casually to those looking for pure entertainment, but it's definitely worth reading if you have an interest in Middle Eastern fiction.