Cities of Salt, by Abdelrahman Munif. Published 1989 by Vintage. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux.
Cities of Salt takes place in the 1930s, in a nameless Persian Gulf state, and examines the impact of the discovery of oil on a small town, its inhabitants and its diaspora. Wadi Al-Uyoun is a backwater, a stopover for caravans and a place where it seems like life has changed little in a long time. Then oil is discovered, but nobody tells the locals what's going on. People go on the move, form a new community based on the priorities of the foreigners, an Arab one and an American one, separate and different and each mysterious to the other.
The novel seemed to me to be written as a series of episodes moving forward in time, with different sets of characters spotlighted as different conflicts erupt and subside. A mother who has been keening for her lost son who left Wadi Al-Uyoun a long time ago becomes further distraught as the chaos sets in and her plight becomes emblematic. Another man becomes a ghost haunting the wadi. Further in, as the new town is set up and divided between the Americans and the Arabs, more conflicts come up. A man working for the company dies in an accident and the consequences will ripple for years to come. The Americans are a faceless horde, aliens and regarded with suspicion, derision, humor and indifference by the Arab characters who are just trying to adapt and stay afloat.
People from all walks of life come in and out of the story- doctors, travelers, workers, hapless bystanders. Munif portrays them with compassion, except for emir and his handler, who are portrayed as a bumbling idiot and a conniver respectively. The emir, a fool enamored with anything shiny and new, leaves everything up to the Americans and his handlers are too busy currying his favor to step in. I get the sense that this might be a bigger problem in the sequels (Cities of Salt is first in a quintet). Here it feels like a counterpoint to the stress and tension building among the rest of the characters.
Did I like it? I liked it enough to keep reading, but I'm probably not going to read the sequels. It was honestly hard for me to keep track of everything that was going on, and none of the narratives seemed really compelling or powerful enough to hold my interest for too long. I get the point about the culture clash, the alienness of the Americans, the mix of fascination and fear with which the Arab characters viewed them, especially the women. Cities of Salt is a very immersive book and will find admirers among fans of historical fiction but the drama is low-key and quiet.
This is book #2 for the #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.