A book for our time though written in the 1980s, it chronicles the destruction of a culture and an environment, that of the Arabic desert oasis culture, previously a rich interesting life, based on custom and religious and other beliefs. The people were sustained by stories, tales of adventure, family, inheritance, observation of character and respect for each other.
It was a moral life. Men married often hardly knowing their wives, but sometimes they did and were in love. Men did not look on women as sexual beings, people married, and committed to love and sustain each other and rear children. People generally did not want more of anything, though they welcomed rain with joy, they loved the beauty of the desert, relished visitors for their stories and trade, admired and valued their camels for their speed and endurance and the freedom they brought, had adventure through travel and kept interested in life through relationships within and without the clan.
Into this world came strangers. Not strangers of the normal kind, travellers with tales, these strangers were different, they were Christians (infidels), white, wore strange, revealing clothes, ate strange food and knew Arabic. They were busy, they collected samples, tabulated, wrote and were never still. Of course they were oil prospectors, American. They had come to take from the desert not live with it, they ruined it and the way of life, they were hated from the start, but nothing could be done to stop them.
Over a couple of years the Americans built a port using Arab labour in the hottest most inhospitable place. One day a boat came full of women, young, white, scantily clad full of fun and beauty. The men knew desire, jealousy and sexual frustration for the first time and were never happy again. Other elements of western states slowly followed, modern medicine (sort of), radios, cars and finally a funny, hotch-potch mad army, it was this last thing that made people realise just what had happened:
“this was the cruellest experience he had ever known in his life. He had never imagined that the day would come when people would be forced to abide by rules they did not understand or approve of” p571
The people had not welcomed the oil workers and pipeline that had planted themselves on their bleak little village but had tolerated it in their Bedouin way and workers had come into the hot desert area to live in tin sheds to live intolerable lives and a few of the more wealthy traders and fixers were brainwashed into thinking it a
“ … pipeline of blessings and prosperity for this people that love might flow for all people, near and far, and that all of us might enjoy a more comfortable life” p544
Cities of Salt is the first of five books, I look forward to reading the others.