“Cities of Salt” — A Book Review

I like reading books that are banned. I figure if a government goes to all the hassle to be so self-righteously offended by the politics of a particular novel, perhaps there’s something in that book that is worth knowing. I myself hope to have my first novel “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio” banned in Venezuela at some point; and would like to think that it isn’t not because it isn’t ban-worthy but because it just hasn’t made it into the right hands yet.

In the case of “Cities of Salt” by Abdul Rahman Munif, it was the government of Saudi Arabia which decided that what Dr. Munif had to say was not appropriate. So I read the book.

“Cities of Salt” is not an easy read. Perhaps that’s because it is a translation from Arabic into English, while staying true to the style of Arabic writing. Perhaps it’s just Munif’s particular style that was hard for me, I prefer to read books where I can really visualize in my mind’s eye the plot developing (Latin American literature is so visual, so colorful, so full of life and vibrancy that maybe I’ve been spoiled). At any rate, I found it a bit of a slog.

Nevertheless, it is an interesting book to read. It is the story of the dramatic and somewhat catastrophic changes forced upon a fictitious Arab country upon the discovery of oil. It is not a gentle story – and the author pulls no punches; be it against the Americans whose arrival spells wholesale destruction of a way of life, or the Bedouin who are not generously portrayed, nobody gets a pass in this book. I can see why a sensitive government would take umbrage.

What I took out of this book was a different perspective on “development” and “progress” than we Americans have. Good literature challenges our views and sometimes pushes us out of our comfort zones, and “Cities of Salt” certainly does this. If that’s what you’re looking for, take a chance with this book – you may learn something, I certainly did.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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