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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 was mother 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. 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, he studied law in Baghdad. He became an activist in the Ba'ath Party and continued his studies in Cairo and took a PhD in petroleum economics at the University of Belgrade.

During his oil industry career Munif served as an oil economist in Baghdad, and for OPEC. In 1975 he traveled to Baghdad, where he edited a monthly periodical, al-Naft wa al-Tanmiyya (Oil and Development). Munif moved in 1981 to Boulogne, France, and five years later he left France for Damascus, Syria, where he and his wife took up residence. From 1981 Munif devoted himself entirely to writing. He died in Damascus on 24 January, 2004. After his death, Munif was denounced as a heretic in Saudi-media.

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. Until the Six Day War in 1967, he was active in many political organizations, but the Arabs' defeat by Israel  pushed him toward literature as a means of confrontation.

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 Iraq Munif formed a close friendship with the Palestinian litterateur Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who encouraged Munif in his writing projects. In 1982 they published the metafictional joint novel Alam bi-la khara' it.

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 (1977), the story of a political activist who is tortured in prison in an unnamed country.

"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." Munif's most important work, the five-volume Mudun al-milh (Cities of Salt), 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. For his novels Munif created an imaginary desert town: Thebes in his first novel, and later the oasis town of Wadi al-Uyoun. "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 earlier tradition of Arabic narrative – 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 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. Munif's 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 displaced voice, 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. Cities of Salt was banned in Saudi Arabia, and Munif's Saudi passport was withdrawn. However, Munif insisted 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. Munif saw that the novel offers the opportunity for an alternative historiography. 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. 

For further reading: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon (2011); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); World Authors 1980-85, ed. by Vineta Colby (1995); The Arabic Novel by Roger Allen (1995, 2nd ed.); Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); 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, 1985
      - 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, 1991
  • 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

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