Exile and the Kingdom

Exile and the Kingdom

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.


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.

The two M’s–Mahfouz and Munif–became the patriarchs of Arab literature. Mahfouz’s Balzacian reconstruction of family life in Cairo from the beginning of the twentieth century to the rise of Nasser won him the Nobel. Many Arab literary critics (though not Munif, who admired his Egyptian rival) felt that it was the Saudi who merited the award, but his savage and surreal satires of the royal family, their entourage and the oilmen made him contraband within official culture. He wrote of the oasis towns, small and coquettish in character, that were lost in the tidal wave of oil and replaced with tall symmetrical buildings that bore little relationship to the region or the environment. Munif depicted how the Saudi dynasty, with the help of the British Empire and later the United States, possessed the peninsula as sole proprietor and arbiter. Their voice and their interests drowned all else: Contrary opinions were forbidden, literature discouraged, free inquiry suffocated. But the world of ideas (nationalism, communism, revolution) was stirring elsewhere in the Arab world, and these could not be halted at the border. They entered the minds of many citizens, Munif included, and even infected a young prince or two.

Munif’s books were banned in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the gulf. But they traveled nonetheless and were read secretly by many a peninsula potentate. Munif’s books were novels of ideas, but they also resonated on the Arab street. He penetrated the internal lives of his fellow citizens, rich and poor.

Three novels of the Saudi quintet were translated into English by Peter Theroux–Cities of Salt, The Trench and Variations on Night and Day–and published by Knopf in New York. But the American critics did not like them, and John Updike famously denounced the books for having little resemblance to the fiction he was used to reading. When I told Munif this he chuckled and his hands gestured in despair. Despite his enormous popularity with ordinary Arab readers and literary critics (the late Edward Said was one of his biggest fans), he was not feted and celebrated by officialdom. He was proud of this fact.

I met him in the flesh only once, when I interviewed him in London for a TV documentary I was producing. He was a soft-spoken and modest man, genuinely bemused by the thought that a film was being made about his work. In that sense he was the polar opposite of some of the hyped Third World novelists in the West. Why, I asked him, had he chosen the title Cities of Salt for his masterwork? He replied:

Cities of salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. In antiquity, as you know, many cities simply disappeared. It is possible to foresee the downfall of cities that are inhuman. With no means of livelihood they won’t survive. Look at us now and see how the West sees us…. The twentieth century is almost over, but when the West looks at us, all they see is oil and petrodollars…. Saudi Arabia is still without a constitution; the people are deprived of elementary rights. Women are treated like third-class citizens. Such a situation produces a desperate citizenry, without a sense of dignity or belonging.

Munif was not in the least surprised that the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. After all, he had been warning us of what might happen for the previous four decades. His most recent work was a set of essays on Iraq. He had despised Saddam Hussein and written of the need for social democracy throughout the Arab world, but he was angered by the war and occupation. His son, Yasir, whom I met in the States a few months ago, told me that the recolonization of Iraq had reignited his old father’s radicalism, and this is obvious in his last essays. The new situation forced him to put his fiction aside and wield his pen as a weapon against local dictators and imperial warmongers alike.

But it is as a novelist that he will be missed the most. He was a storyteller without compare, who enriched the culture of the Arab world as a whole. He was a strong and independent-minded intellectual who refused to bend the knee before prince or colonel. His work and his example inspired younger writers, both men and women, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and for that reason I am almost sure we will see his like again.

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