Cities of Salt (Munif)

This novel, the first of a trilogy, is a kind of parable – what happens when the Americans come to town? Or, more specifically, to the desert. In search of oil. (Hint: Very little of it is good.) What takes this novel beyond the ordinary parable is that Munif describes the  destructive impact of the Americans on the indigenous population and environment in several ways. The Americans not only oppress the people, but they turn some of the local Arabs into their allies so that they, too, become architects of the destruction of the people and land they once cherished. Interestingly, Munif does not shy away from mocking the Arabs, particularly the way they lust after American women. It’s one thing to mock the Emir; I was surprised that he also mocked the ordinary Arabs.

Munif creates memorable characters, including one who disappears early on and becomes a kind of legend. My guess is that his presence looms over the next two novels. My favorite characters were the two bus drivers, once clearly enemies, but in the end good friends.

There’s a Things Fall Apart quality to the novel, but Achebe is the better writer. And he’s much more succinct.


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