The world of letters lost one of its most eloquent voices on January 24, when the Saudi novelist Abdelrahman Munif died in his Damascus exile after a protracted illness. Together with Naguib Mahfouz, Munif succeeded in transforming the literary landscape of the Arab world by making the novel central to its cultural and political concerns, just as it had been in Europe during most of the nineteenth century. The day after his death, in a unique tribute to his integrity, he was denounced as a heretic in the Saudi-owned Arab-language media, especially the newspaper Al-Hayat and Al-Arabiya television, a cable channel launched to compete with Al Jazeera. Munif’s widow, Suad Qwadri, refused to receive the Saudi ambassador who had come to offer his condolences–a gesture almost unheard of in Arab culture.
Born in Amman in 1933 to a Saudi trader and an Iraqi mother, Munif spent his first decade in the Jordanian capital. Despite the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, this was still a world dominated by cities, a world where frontiers were porous and Arab families and trade moved comfortably from Jerusalem to Cairo to Baghdad to Damascus and beyond. All these territories (with the exception of Damascus and Beirut) were under the control of the British Empire. The lines had been drawn in the sand, but no barbed wire or armed guards policed them. Abdelrahman Munif went to primary school in Amman, high school in Baghdad and university in Cairo. Later he would recall the Amman of his childhood in a delightful memoir, Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman (1996), in which he described school life in the mid-1940s:
Sometimes, the names of the cities in other Arab countries were confused with one another or not easily remembered, but all the hands of the students would shoot up when the teacher asked who could name five cities in Palestine. Competing voices drowned each other out: Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Gaza, Lydda, Ramlah, Acre, Safad, Ramallah, Hebron…. Palestine was more than just a land and a people. In the mind of every Arab it is a constellation of meanings, symbols and connotations which have accumulated and filtered down through several generations.
The names of the old towns of Palestine continued to reverberate in Munif’s own head. He could never forget the Palestinian refugees whose anguish he had glimpsed in his early teens. Only a few months ago he referred to Sharon as the greatest abomination in the Arab East.
Throughout his teenage years he would spend the summer holidays in Saudi Arabia with his father’s family. It was here that he heard the old Bedouin stories and spoke with the oil merchants and the nouveau riche emirs who would later populate his fictions. The rise of Nasser in Egypt and the revolutionary wave that swept the Arab world as a result did not pass him by, and he became a secular socialist militant. For his political opposition to the royal family he was stripped of his Saudi nationality in 1963 and fled to Baghdad. There he found work as an economist in the petroleum industry and came to grasp the importance of the liquid gold that lay underneath the sands of Arabia and Mesopotamia. He turned his knowledge of the commodity and the industry to devastating effect in his novels.
Munif started writing fiction in the 1970s, almost a decade after resigning from the Baath Party leadership in Baghdad and moving to neighboring Damascus. His active political life was now at an end. Henceforth his mind was fully concentrated on his fiction. He wrote a total of fifteen novels, but it was Cities of Salt–a quintet based on the transformation of the Arabian Peninsula from ancient Bedouin homeland to hybrid tribal kleptocracy floating on oil–that established his reputation in the Arab world. He depicted the surprise, fear, uneasiness and tension that gripped Saudi Arabia after the discovery of oil, and his portraits of the country’s rulers were thinly disguised, causing a great deal of merriment in the street and even in the odd palace.