When someone asks what comes to mind when you hear the word “salt,” they will likely end up with a variety of answers ranging from french fries to preservative. What’s odd is that most likely, in America, the answers someone might receive all have one thing in common: Salt is connected in all its descriptions by a proverbial goodness. Salt preserves and enhances, it even heals. We are so inundated with seeing the total positive in everything that the brilliance of Abdelrahman Munif’s epic novel’s title, Cities of Salt, can be a bit lost on the average person. What is a city of salt? It is a place where nothing can grow. It is dead. Think of Lot’s wife looking back upon Sodom and Gomorrah and being turned into a pillar of salt. Salt, in this use, carries a completely negative connotation to it. Yet, to Munif, what is the salt?
Cities of Salt is an odd novel in that its main character, if it were to be argued, is a city. As such, the narrative absolutely refuses to stay focused on any one character, instead opting for several, though a pattern is never established. At first we follow a Saudi farmer named Miteb al-Hathal in his Eden-like town of Wadi al-Uyoun, an oasis that is essentially a paradise in the middle of the desert. Its people are successful and happy, if not a bit too eccentric. As the chapters that lay the groundwork for both the novel and the paradise of Wadi al-Uyoun flow, it becomes difficult to not identify with the oasis both as an American and as a southerner. Throughout the novel Munif seems to underlie the narrative with an almost conservative brand of tribalism that pits outsiders against insiders; people that do things the right way and people that do things the wrong way; though it becomes easy to perhaps see why he does this as the novel continues.
Returning to Miteb, the reader increasingly identifies with this older man who, when Americans venture into Wadi al-Uyoun and promise untold wealth due to the vast amounts of oil under the surface of the oasis, finds himself alone in opposing the idea of tearing apart Wadi al-Uyoun for the sake of wealth. Part of this opposition comes from a place of distrusting what is different, yet the more interesting side of Miteb al-Hathal is the side of him that sees the project as short sighted and misleading – that the land as it is has been nothing but good for the people and that there is no real reason for changing it. Though Miteb exits the narrative except in stories told by workers and fearful bosses – who worry that Miteb will incite a revolution – he sets up a sort of specter of a hero that dominates the story, foiled by those who don’t question the actions of the Americans and go along with everything they say for the sake of making more money.
When Miteb al-Hathal leaves, the novel then begins the process of telling snippets of stories that are designed to build towards a climactic finale. Nearly alternating, but not quite, – as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no pattern to the novel’s narrative – the reader is faced with a juxtaposition between those in power and the workers who live in the slums of Harran, the twofold city that has been built over Wadi al-Uyoun. In a Marxist critique of capitalism, we see the workers used up and abused by fanciful, impossible promises given to them by the Americans and the Emir of Harran, a bumbling idiot who quickly sells out his own people for the comfort of gold, oil, and technology. In the capitalistic system brought to Wadi al-Uyoun by the Americans, just enough of the Wadi workers escape their newfound poverty and situation to give them a false hope, yet these men also become hopelessly changed for the worse. Multiple characters begin as likeable, but argumentative figures that function to balance the ideas of the workers and prevent them from just assuming what is different is necessarily evil. Yet these characters eventually ascend to the place of villains, fighting against the workers they once deemed friends despite the Americans abuse of them as well through scapegoating.
The novel is easy to follow, but the problem it repeated faces is its passive style. It reads as a history book more than it does a novel. Part of this may be the author’s choice of telling the narrative from the psuedo-perspective of a city where these events occur, but it nonetheless is difficult to be entertained by a 600 page novel that is told entirely in passive voice. Upon finishing it I was unsure if I enjoyed it. I remain unsure if I have any strong feelings on it whatsoever beyond the fact that I agree with its message: namely that expansion, growth, and wealth have a cost, and it is normally human life that is lost, whether literally or spiritually. What is a city of salt? It is a city built not with humanity in mind, not with the idea of bring forth the common good in people, but instead built to bring wealth and comfort for the few. It is a city built simply to say that it has been built. Nothing can grow in salt, it sucks the life out of everything it comes into contact with, preserving only what has already died. If Munif is correct, then places built on promise of oil and wealth are places that dead before they even rose. Cities of Salt, then, functions both as a critique and, more importantly, as a warning.
Recommended to: Those whose tastes lean more into history than fiction, but that have been looking for a good novel to springboard into fiction with.
Avoid as if its reading yet another think-piece that blames millennials or minorities for Trump: Cities of Salt is interesting in that, as stated above, it is an extremely passive novel. As such, it will never grab anyone. It has no highs or no lows. It just moves forward. Thus, it becomes difficult to recommend or advise against beyond simply recommending patience with it. It’s a lot like reading the Bible.