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Abdelrahman Munif (1933-2004) - also spelled 'Abd al-Rahman Munif


Abdelrahman Munif was Jordanian-born economist and prominent Arabic-language novelist, who used modernist narrative techniques. Munif began his career as a writer of fiction relatively late in life. His best-known work is the monumental quintet, Cities of Salt (1984-89), set in an unnamed Arab state of the Gulf. The story chronicles the transformation of a traditional desert society, following the discovery of oil, to a rich and powerful kleptocracy. It also reflected Munif's wide variety of experiences of his time as an oil industry insider. His novels were banned in several Gulf States and Egypt for their uncompromising views.

"They must have been mad to leave Mooran, falsely swearing that they would never come back, because of the restrictions and hardships there. Though Mooran seemed to be gone, it slumbered in their depths, only to explode later on, with the same unreasoned force that had moved them to leave it, and it was this force that brought them home again." (from Variations on Night and Day, 1989)

Abdelrahman Munif was born in Amman, the capital of Jordan, into a trading family. The day of his birth coincided with the Persian Gulf's first concession agreement, signed between the monarch of the newly created Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Abdul Aziz ibn Saud and an American oil corporation, the Californian Arabian Standard Oil Company.

Munif's mother was Iraqi and father Saudi, who traveled expansively across the region as the race for oil divided the society into the mobile rich and poor nomads. His father died soon after his birth and Munif was brought up largely by his Iraqi grandmother, who used to vivit Baghdad very often and told him lots of stories of the city. The first eighteen years of his life he spent in Amman. In Story of a City (1994) Munif wrote of his childhood, and his realization, that "although they were separated from Baghdad by a great distance and different accent, Baghdad was also very close."

After secondary school education in Jordan, Munif studied law at Baghdad University. Describing himself from a third point of view, as being young, he later said:  "Munif‘s intellectual and political orientations were closer to those of the Communist Party at the time, but he vehemently opposed of Israel, and slavish adherence to Moscow‘s line. His strong nationalist sentiments and views on Palestine led him to reject the Communist Party and instead join the Ba‘th, in which he was a critical and radicalizing influence." (Regionalism and Cultural Perspectives in the. Novels of Thomas Hardy and Abdul Rahman Munif: A Comparative Study by Thamer Yousif Allawi Allawi, 2017, p. 22)

A member of the the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, he participated political demonstrations against the Baghdad Pact, a pro-Western defence alliance between Turkey, Iraq, Great Britain, Pakistan and Iran. Due to his political activities, Munif was expelled from the university in 1955. He continued his studies in Cairo and took a PhD in petroleum economics in 1961 at the University of Belgrade. He then worked at the Ba'th Party office in Beirut, before entering the world of the oil industry. In 1965, he resigned from the Ba'th. Munif's Saudi citizenship was revoked by the government in 1963.

During his career in the oil industry, Munif worked for the Oil Ministry (1964-1973) in Syria and the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council (1975-1981). While in Baghdad, he edited a monthly periodical, al-Naft wa al-Tanmiyya (Oil and Development), financed by the government. In 1981, Munif moved to Boulogne, France, and five years later he left France for Damascus, Syria, where he and his wife, Souad Qawadiri, took up residence. By this time, Munif had established himself as one of the most important Arab novelists of the 20th century.

Although Munif despised Saddam Hussein's regime, he opposed the American invasion of Iraq. His final book, about Iraqi resistance to imperialism from 1917 to the twenty-first century, came out in 2003. In the course of his somewhat nomadic life, he held eight different passports-of-convenience, including Yemeni and Omani. Munif died in Damascus on 24 January, 2004. After his death, Munif was denounced as a heretic in Saudi-media. His library, which contained more than 15,000 books, was vandalized in 2015 in the Syrian Civil War.

Munif belonged to the post-World War II generation, who grew up witnessing the rapid progress of decolonization, but whose dreams of democracy and socialism were crushed by corrupt rulers and their allies, American and British petroleum powers."Our crisis is a trilogy: oil, political Islam, and dictatorship," Munif once summarized in an interview. "This trilogy is the factor that led to the collapse, confusion, and consequently to the suffering lived by Arab societies in their search for the road to modernity." Until the Six-Day War in June 1967, Munif was active in many political organizations, but the Arabs' defeat by Israel  pushed him toward literature, as he recalled: "not as a means of escape but of confrontation. It had an unforgettable effect: to see such a vast area as the Arab world with all its enormous clamour and slogans – crumble and fall, not just in six days but a mere few hours." (Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon, 2011, p. 78)

As a novelist Munif debuted in 1973 with Al Ashjar wa-ightiyal Marzuq (Trees and the Assassination of Marzuq). Like his other books, it was published in Beirut. In Sharq al-Mutawassit (1975, East of the Mediterranean) dealt with the conflict between authorities and intellectuals. The central character, Rajab Ismail, is subjected to eleven years of torture in an unnamed country. Many of Munif's protagonists come into conflict with those who have the power.

While in Iraq, Munif formed a close friendship with Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1919-1994), one of Palestine's most distinguished authors. Together they published in 1982 the metafictional novel Alam bi-la khara' it (A World Without Maps). Jabra encouraged his younger colleague in his literary projects and persuaded Munif to abandon active political life and devote himself entirely to writing. 

Munif's deep concern for the fragile environment of the desert communities marked several of his works, among them Al-Nihayat (1978), a collection of stories. Drought season is the expression of change: "Yes, drought is back again. Here it comes, pushing a whole host of things ahead of it. No one can explain how these things coincide of happen to be there at all." In the story Assaf, a hunter and guardian of wildlife, takes a group of city folk out hunting. They are trapped in the desert by a sandstorm, which proves to be fateful for Assaf. In the 1990s Munif returned to the theme of the freedom of individuals and the status of the intellectual, which he had dealt with earlier in such novels as Al-Ashjar wa-ightiyal and Sharq al-Mutawassit.

The five-volume Mudun al-milh (Cities of Salt), Munif's most important work,  gives a portrait of traditional Bedouin society, starting with the establishment of the Middle Eastern sultanate of Mooran, the thinly veiled Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Munif started to write the work in France. Much of his savings were gone when he finished the first two books. In its richness of characters and vivid and detailed narrative, the quintet has been compared with Naguib Mahfousz's Cairo Trilogy (1956-57). At the time of its publication, Cities of Salt was the longest novel in modern Arabic literature.

When the first volume came out in Beirut, it was hailed as a new beginning for the Arabic narrative. The first three volumes were translated into English, but they were ignored by readers and critics alike. Even the omnivorous American literary journalist and author John Updike said in his review: "It is unfortunate, given the epic potential of his topic, that Mr. Munif, a Saudi born in Jordan – though he lives in France and received a Ph.D. in oil economics from the University of Belgrade – appears to be insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel." (The New Yorker, October 17, 1988)

For his story Munif created an imaginary desert town, his Yoknapatawpha – Thebes in the first novel, and later the oasis town of Wadi al-Uyoun (valley of springs). "For caravans, Wadi al-Uyoun was a phenomenon, something of a miracle, unbelievable to those who saw it for the first time ands unforgettable forever after. The wadi's name was repeated at all stages of a journey, in setting out and returning: "How much longer to Wadi al-Uyoun?" "If we make it to Wadi al-Uyoun, we'll rest up for a few days before going on," and "Where are you, Wadi al-Uyoun, earthly paradise?""

The narrative is written entirely in classical Arabic, but every character speaks in the colloquial Arabic of the tribe to which he or she belongs. The story leaps backward and forward in time, and honors the old Arabic prose – The Arabian Nights – by replicating the techniques of traditional storytellers: apparent lack of concern with time, the lengthy asides, different versions of a particular event. The Palestinian literary scholar, writer, and critic Issa J. Boullata placed Cities of Salt into a category with "recent Arabic novels that speak in the voice of Arab culture, using its narrative techniques and heeding its neds and its environment, in the interest of establishing Arab authenticity and disengaging from Western influences. ('Petro-capitalism, Petrofiction, and Islamic Discourse: The Formation of an Imagined Community in "Cities of Salt"' by Ilana Xinos, Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter 2006) The whole series gives a picture of the deep transformation of Arabia from the tribal societies before the age of oil to our own day. How the change altered lives of millions in the region is told in a chorus of voices.

'Al-Tih, the opening volume of Cities of Salt, which spans the period from 1933 to 1953, tells about the life of a Bedouin community and the sudden intrusion of foreigners, when oil is discovered in a remote oasis. Miteb al-Hathal, he main charater, rebels stubborny against change. A contrasting character, Ibn Rashed, an opportunist, cooperates with the Americans. In search for oil, the yellow tractors of the new overlords destroy the oasis by tearing up its trees. American – and their friends – are called along the work as "infidels," "bastards," "dogs," etc., and of course, "pigs." One of the most admirable characters, Shamran al-Oteibi, says in The Trench (1986): "Mooran has never been the Garden of Eden, and I suppose it will never be; those parasites and pickpockets aren't satisfied with anything less than taking over the land itself. We have nothing to do with them and nothing in common with them. They prefer their infidel friends anyway; you'll see."

The title, 'al-Tih, could be translated as "the wilderness," but the phrase refers also to wilderness as an existential human condition. Banished from his own country, Munif himself became a distant voice of resistance, who responded with his novels, essays, polemics, and manifestos.

The second volume, The Trench, is set in the 1950s and focuses on the city of Mooran. It has attracted profiteers from the Middle East and elsewhere, who take advantage of the inexperience of Sultan Khazael. Gradually the values of capitalism inevitably turn against the old tribal ways. Behind the plotting is Machiavellian Dr. Subhi Mahmilji, the young sultan's chief advisor, whose great plans and achievements are only the beginning of his own destruction. "As the novel progresses, seismic social and economic changes open chasms so wide that Mr. Munif's characters are always scrambling to keep from tumbling in. Their fates suggest the convolutions of a Victorian novel transcribed into Arabic calligraphy, or perhaps "The Arabian Nights" as retold by Stendhal -- with Sinbad driving a white Rolls-Royce and the Grand Vizier jetting off to Atlanta for counterintelligence training." (Francine Prose in The New York Times, October 27, 1991).

In Variations on Night and Day Munif describes tribal rivalries, battles, and intrigues in the royal palaces. The protagonist is Sultan Khureybit of Mooran, modelled after the great desert chieftain Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. He begins to attack his neighbors with quiet backing from abroad. Al-Munbatt continues the story of Sultan Khazel, who lives in exile in Germany. The final volume in the quintet, Badiyat al-zulumat, goes back in time and follows the career of Khazael's brother and replacement, King Fanar, who is later assassinated.

"However, despite the nightmarish atmosphere in most of Munif's novels (save Quissat hubb majusiyyah [Magian Love Story] and Sibaq al-masafat al-tawilah [Long-Distance Race]), there is always a glimmer of hope and a strong belief that while it may be possible to crush man, it is impossible to defeat him." (Sabry Hafez in Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier, 1993)

Deeply worried about national questions, Munif depicted the consequences of Western influence on Arab culture, and the history of the region, which had been largely written by Westerners. When he was asked why he named his quinted Cities of Salt, he explained: "I meant by Cities of Salt the cities that were founded in a short time in an abnormal and exceptional way . . . they are a sort of explosion as a result of this urgent fortune. This fortune [oil] has led to building huge cities as big as balloons which would explode when touched by a sharp object." (Translation, Culture, and Censorship in Saudi Arabia (1988-2006) and Iraq (1979-2005) by Huda A. Yehia, 2007, pp. 10-11) In the Bible, the City of Salt was one of the six cities in the desert of Judah.

Cities of Salt was banned in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The reason was not only political but religious as well: the work takes a critical look at Wahhabism, the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. To his critics, Munif pointed out that the work is fiction – there is no direct association of events and characters in the novel with the "facts" of history. According to Munif, official history falsified Arab experience, particularly that of ordinary people. He saw that the novel offers the opportunity for an alternative historiography.

The Palestinian American literary theorist and critic Edward W. Said wrote: "Real problems of democracy, development, and destiny, are attested to by the state persecution of intellectuals who carry on their thought and practice publicly and courageously – Eqbal Ahmad and Faiz Ahmad Faiz in Pakistan, Ngugi wa Thiongo in Kenya, or Abdelrahman Munif in the Arab world – major thinkers and artists whose suffering have not blunted the intransigence of their thought, or inhibited the severity of their punishment." (Culture and Imperialism by Edward W. Said, 1993, p. 18)

For further reading: Regionalism and Cultural Perspectives in the. Novels of Thomas Hardy and Abdul Rahman Munif: A Comparative Study by Thamer Yousif Allawi Allawi (2017); Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon (2011); 'Cities of Salt' by Ahmad Al-Issa & Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael D. Sollars (2008); Translation, Culture, and Censorship in Saudi Arabia (1988-2006) and Iraq (1979-2005) by Huda A. Yehia (2007); The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant by Stefan G. Meyer (2001); 'Munif, Abdeltrahman,' in World Authors 1985-90, edited by Vineta Colby (1995); The Arabic Novel by Roger Allen (1995, 2nd ed.); La Littérature arabe contemporaine by Nadia Tomiche (1993); The Arabic Novel since 1950, ed. by Issa Boullata and Roger Allen (1992)

Selected works:

  • Al-Ashjar wa-ightiyal Marzuq, 1973
  • Mabda al-musharaka wa-tamin al-bitrul al-arabi, 1973
  • Qissat hubb majusiyyah, 1974
  • Al-bitrul al-arabi, musharaka aw at-tamin, 1975
  • Sharq al-Mutawasit, 1975 (A l'est de la Méditerranée)
  • Tamin al-bitrul al-arabi, 1976
  • Al-Nihayat, 1978
    - Endings (translated by Rober Allen, 1988)
  • Sibaq al-masafat al-tawilah, 1979
  • Alam bi-la khara' it, 1982 (with Jabra Ibrahim Jabra)
  • Mudun al-milh, 1984-1989
    • Mudun al-milh 1: Al-tih, 1984-1989
      - Cities of Salt (translated by Peter Theroux, 1987)
    • Mudun al-milh 2: Al-ukhdul, 1986
      - The Trench (translated by Peter Theroux, 1991)
    • Mudun al-milh 3: Taqasim al-layl wa-al-nahar, 1989
      - Variations on Night and Day (translated by Peter Theroux, 1993)
    • Mudun al-milh 4: Al-Munbatt, 1989
    • Mudun al-milh 5: Badiyat al-zulumat, 1989
  • Hina tarakna al-jisr, n.d.
  • Al-An Huna aw Sharq al-Mutawassit Marrah Ukhra, 1991 [Here and Now, or East on the Mediterranean Again]
  • Al-katib wal-manfa - Humum wa-afaq ar-riwaya al-arabuyya, 1992
  • Al-dimuqratiyyah awalan, al dimuqratiyyah daiman, 1992
  • Sirat Madinah, 1994
    - Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman (translated by Samira Kawar, 1996)
  • Urwat al-Zaman al-bahi, 1997
  • Bayna al-thaqafah wa-al-siyasah, 1998
  • Law'at al-ghiyab, 1998
  • Ard al-sawad, 1999 (3 vols.)
  • Dhakirah lil-mustaqbal, 2001
  • Rihlat daw', 2001
  • Dhakira lil-mustaqbal, 2001
  • Al-'Iraq: hawamish min al-tarikh wa-al-muqawamah, 2003
  • Umm al-nudhur, 2005
  • Asma' musta'arah: qisas qasirah, 2006
  • Al-Bab al-maftuh: qisas, 2006
  • I'adat rasm al-khara'it, 2007
  • Al-Qirāʼah wa-al-nisyān: al-khurūj min Mudun al-milḥ, 2015

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