Abdul-Rahman Munif is a prolific writer whose large output displays a high degree of originality and a remarkable variety of theme and structure, although nearly all his novels have several features in common, in particular the author’s passionate concern for the freedom of the individual vis-a-vis an oppressive totalitarian regime (in fact, the only novel in which this does not appear as a prominent theme is Qissat Hubb Majzisiyya, which is set in Europe and deals overtly with the theme of love at first sight, the narrator’s romantic obsession with a highly idealized and unattainable western woman).
Munif’s first novel al-Ashjdr wa Ightiydl Marzuiq (Trees and Marzutq’s Assassination, 1973) consists of two parts and a conclusion. In Part One Mansufr ‘Abd al-Salam, a history lecturer in his thirties, dismissed from his university post for refusing to teach his students the official distorted version of recent Arab (and by implication Iraqi) history, is after three years of forced unemployment finally allowed to leave his country to take up the post of a translator for a French archaeological expedition in a neighbouring country. On the train taking him to this country, he meets Ilyas, a strange gipsy-like man with an almost mystic reverence for trees. Profoundly disturbed when he finds that the trees on his old yard have been cut down by the new proprietor, Ilyas spends his life restlessly doing a variety of jobs, the last of which is smuggling second-hand clothes across the border. Most of this part of the novel, which covers the time taken by the train journey, is devoted to Ilyas, slightly inebriated, narrating the story of his life to Mansir, who plays the passive role of listener to the strange tale of this Zorba-like exuberant man. In Part Two Mansuir tells the reader his own very different story: a broken down intellectual, a victim of political oppression, he tries to drown his sorrows and flee from his terror of the secret police in alcohol, daydreams and sexual fantasies. The narrative takes the form of flashbacks and nightmarish memories from the time of his orphaned childhood to his unhappy love-affairs, both at home and abroad and his imprisonment for his revolutionary political ideas. During his exile Mans-ur’s behaviour while working for the archaeological team, shows signs of growing abnormality, until finally his mind is unhinged when he reads in a local newspaper the devastating news of the assassination of his friend Marzu-q, a geography teacher who clearly stands for all revolutionary intellectuals at home. In the Conclu-sion a journalist relates what he has heard at his hotel about Mansuir’s being hauled off by the police to a mental asylum after being found shooting at his own reflection in the mirror in his hotel room. Here, in his very first novel, Munif gives a powerful portrait, the first of many, of an Arab intellectual, psychologically maimed or destroyed by a ruthless despotic regime for refusing to compromise his intellectual integrity. At the same time the ironic contrast between its two parts, the parallelism between the cutting down of the trees and the assassination of Marziiq, the faint underlying symbolism of the events lend this novel considerable structural and technical interest.
In Hzna Tarakna al-Jisr (When we Abandoned the Bridge, 1976) Munif gives his oblique comment on the Arab defeat by the Israelis. It is a strange novel, set vaguely in Iraq, in which nothing much happens: the protagonist, Zaki Nadawi, a solitary young man who suffers from an acute sense of personal and national failure, escapes from the boredom of his life by bird hunting, accompanied by his dog, his closest associate, to which he confides his random thoughts and anxieties. He cannot forgive his government for ordering him and other soldiers to abandon ignominiously a bridge which they had built with loving care, instead of destroying it before their disorderly retreat. His mind bordering on insanity, Zaki spends his time talking to birds, trees and stones besides his dog. However, when the dog dies in an accident at the end of the book, he is suddenly flung out of his solitude and made to realize that people around him, whom he has hitherto been shunning, share his feel-ings about the bridge and are only biding their time to do something, though we are not told exactly what. The intimate relation between man and animals, and the minute details, the joys and disappointments of game hunting, so admirably described here are themes that will be further developed in Munif’s later works.
Munif’s cride coeur, denouncing political persecution, is undoubtedly Sharq al-Mutawassit (East of the Mediterranean, 1977), in which by way of preface he quotes several clauses from the United Nations Charter of Human Rights and uses as an epigraph lines from Neruda’s poetry. The novel consists of six chapters, narrated alternatively by the thirty year old protagonist, the ex-political prisoner Rajab Isma’il and his older married sister Anisa. It opens with a lyrical description of Rajab on board a Greek ship taking him to France for medical treatment for the serious illness be contracted as a result of the torture to which he has been subjected in prison over a period of five years and which eventually drove him to give in to his torturers and sign the required confession that branded him, especially in his own eyes, as traitor to the revolutionary cause. While abroad he decides to resume the struggle and he informs the Red Crossin Geneva of this torture of political prisoners in his country. The novel ends with his death after he has been further tortured and blinded on his return to his country: he has had to come back to save from jail his brother-in-law Hamid who has been made to guarantee his return from France.
In the end, however, IHamid is taken away from his wife and children for daring to reveal the cause of Rajab’s death. ‘East of the Mediterranean’, which consists mainly of reminiscences of the past, interlaced with present happenings, is a most powerful indictment of the methods of torture employed by a police state, a remarkably vivid account of the destructive effect of political tyranny on the lives of innocent human beings, while at the same time being an eloquent expression of man’s unconquerable spirit. It stands comparison with the best known works of a similar vein in Soviet literature. For obvious reasons of censor-ship the state east of the Mediterranean is not mentioned by name; it is meant to stand for any Arab state, but clearly refers in the first instance to Iraq.
One of the most original of Munif’s novels is al-Nihaydt (Endings, 1977). Al-Tiba, a fictitious village on the edge of the desert, in which there isan idyllic cohesiveness among its inhabitants and to which even its children, who emigrate to the city, remain loyal, is struck by severe drought, which drives its inhabitants to hunt for game in the desert. A group of visitors from the city descend upon the village for pleasure hunt-ing and, despite the growing scarcity of wild life, are welcomed by the local people according to the traditional rules of hospitality. The visitors are given as a guide the strange solitary ‘Assaf, known for his unequalled skill in hunting and intimate knowledge of the desert. ‘Assaf reluctantly agrees to accompany the party, but only after he has warned the villagers against the folly of overhunting and thereby endangering their very survival. Driven by reckless greed, the party decides to stay longer in the desert, against ‘Assaf s advice, and as a result of a sudden sandstorm they are lost and are found the following day by a rescue team, the guests nearly dead in their cars, while ‘Assaf, who has been hunting on foot is discovered dead and buried in the sand, with his dog, also dead, shielding him from the vultures. The villagers feel they are responsible for ‘Assaf’s death. His body is carried to the village chief’s house where he is laid out with the grieving chief and other villagers keeping vigil overnight and spending the time by telling anecdotes from personal experience and folk tradition, including two anecdotes from ‘The Book of Animals’ by the great al-Jahiz, all relating to birds and animals, wild and domesticated, pointing out the need to main-tain the balance and harmony between man and the animals in his environment and showing an exquisite sensitivity and affection in describing animal and bird behaviour. The story, suspended during the telling of anecdotes, is resumed with an account of ‘Assaf’s funeral procession, during which he is transfigured from an almost social outcast to a mythical hero whose death inspires the villagers with the resolve to get the city authorities to build the dam that has been promised to save them from future droughts. Alike on the realistic and symbolical level Endings is a significant work which not only treats afresh the subject of the uneasy relation between town and country/desert, but also hints at the primor-dial balance and near mystical affinity between man and nature. It is yet another manifestation of Munif’s originality of conception and execution: the different modes of narration, the ‘pastiche’ use of the classical literary tradition (cf. al-Ghiadni), the transmutation of the realistic to the magical, of the individual to the collective. The hunter and his dog of the earlier novel ‘When we Abandoned the Bridge’, where the interest lies in the inner world of the individual, has now become a metaphor for the collective world of a whole community.
Sibdq al-Masafdt al-Tawdla (The Marathon, 1971) is set in Iran during the turbulent rule of Mosaddeq (1951-3), although neither Iran non Mosaddeq is mentioned by name. The background is the events leading to the fall of Mosaddeq and the return of the autocratic rule of the Shah with the help of the Americans (and the British). It describes the machinations and the various subtle methods used by the British and the Americans to engineer the end of the nationalist government and the return of the ancien regime, but the novel is ultimately about human beings. The narrator is a British agent, Peter McDonald, a supporter and faithful servant of the British Empire, who displays the traditional western prejudices against the mysterious East: the men, he feels, are wily, but stupid and sheep-like, to be despised and never to be trusted; the women voluptuous and sexually insatiable. It is an unusual novel, in that its main character is a European and although by implication it con-demns the unscrupulous methods used by the west to promote its own interests at the expense of the local people, because the events are viewed through the eyes of McDonald, a certain measure of sympathy is aroused for him as a human being. Inspite of himself his passion for the ‘Oriental’ Shirin gets the better of him and his sense of personal failure, as a result of his ultimate rejection by the authorities in London, as well as his painful awareness of the decline of the British Empire (to which his devotion is absolute), and its supplanting by the crude and vulgar but rich and powerful Americans, are sensitively described by the author.
Munif’s most impressive work to date is Mudun al-Milh (Cities of Salt, 1984-9), a huge work of gigantic proportions, consisting of five large volumes running to more than two thousand and four hundred closely printed pages (only volume I has been translated, as Cities of Salt). This marathon work has no parallel in modern Arabic fiction: not even Mahfiiz’ Trilogy is comparable in length and epic breadth. Its main theme is the psychological dislocation and distortion which mark the impact of the discovery of oil and development of oil interests on the individual, social, cultural and environmental life of the author’s native country, Saudi Arabia, although typically names of actual places or rulers are not given, but are to be inferred from internal evidence. No dates are cited either, but the period covered is roughly from 1933 to 1975. In many ways Mudun al-Milh is the summation of Munif’s work, containing several themes and features of his earlier novels. Al-7Th (The Wilderness), the first volume, covers the period from the beginning of pro-specting for oil by the Americans to the celebration of the completion of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline. It begins with a highly idealized description of Wadd ‘lI-Uydn,a bedouin village, that lies on a caravan route, where people’s uncomplicated lives are lived in harmony with the rhythm of nature and traditional caring values have reigned from time immemorial. It is a simple idyllic existence in which natural joys and sor-rows are evenly balanced, to some extent reminiscent of the world we encounter in the beginning of Endings. It is a community of proud, dignified, largely unmaterialistic individuals with their own folk heroes, in particular al-HadhdhAl, who in the past terrorized the Turkish forces of occupation.
This peaceful existence was upset by the arrival of Americans prospecting for oil, but under the pretext of searching for water-a thing which aroused the suspicion and hostile reaction of Mutcib al-Hadhdhal, one of the leaders of the community, who, endowed with uncanny prescience, felt that they constituted a serious threat to their way of life. The local people viewed these foreign infidels, some of whom could speak a little Arabic and even quote the Koran, with total incomprehension. Amusingly enough their morning exercises were mistaken for daily prayers and their scientific notes, taken concerning the rocks and soil, assumed to be black magic formulae. In the course of time al-HadhdhMl’s fears were justified: trees were cut down, villagers forcibly uprooted to make room for various oil installations, simple trade and subsistence agriculture replaced by capitalist enterprise and industrial strife.
Al-Tkh is a truly remarkable novel, with its own peculiar, almost magical atmosphere, so different from anything else in Arabic fiction. The narrator assumes the character of a contemporary chronicler with the consciousness of a local man, a thing which enables him to present the changes in the environment, brought about by modern technology, with the freshness, wonderment and lack of comprehension which mark the naive vision of people cut off from the main stream of modern civilization for many generations. The Emir and his people view the miracles of new technology such as the telescope, the radio, the telephone and the motor car, not to mention the oil drills and the electricity generator with utter fascination, mixed with fear. But despite their technological innocence, they are fully human, with all the psychological complexities, emotions and intelligence of men. And in the course of time innocence gives place to experience and with sophistication moral corruption creeps in. Al-Tih, which begins with a harmonious community, ends with the brutal suppression by the Emir’s soldiers, trained by their American mentors, of a demonstration staged by the oil construction workers (who live in unpleasant housing conditions, separated from their families and fed on empty promises) against the redundancy of some of their men and lack of proper investigation into the murder of their medicine man. The novel is a moving lament on the destruction of tradi-tional society and its replacement by the ‘cities of salt’, i.e. ephemeral artificial creations lacking any roots and bound to dissolve into nothingness once the oil is exhausted. Munif’s prodigious inventiveness is seen, not least, in the endless pro-cession of characters that move before our eyes, characters vividly drawn such as Mutib al-Hadhdhgl, Umm al-Hish, Ibn al-Rashid or Dr. Subhi al-Mahmalji, to mention but a few. Al-Hadhdh5l, a man incapable of compromise, watches from a distance with tears in his eyes the first trees of the village being brutally mown down by the American bulldozers and angrily disappears into the desert on his white camel, armed with a gun, nobody knows where, and is gradually transported to the world of legend. He later, no less mysteriously, makes fleeting visits to the site of the vanished village without speaking to anyone, only to be glimpsed from afar. His haunting apearance strikes fear into the hearts of those engaged in working for the oil company and acts of sabotage are attributed to him. His figure, real or imaginary, runs like a Leitmotif in a musical composition through the story and continues to be a source of inspiration in the people’s struggle against the forces of corruption until the end of the novel. Umm al-Huish, pathetically driven to distraction because of the lack of news of her long absent son, is constantly calling upon the local hostelry and pestering every passing caravan with questions about her son. Her sudden and moving death occurs significantly on the very day the community is forced to leave the village. Ibn al- Rashid, the proprietor of the hostelry sees in the arrival of the Americans an opportunity to line his pockets, is subcontracted to provide labour for the oil company: he entices bedouin with false promises to come to Har-ran (i.e. Dhahran) to work for the Americans, buys off their camels (thus making it difficult for them to return home), which he sells at con-siderable profit to the Americans, but he himself is ultimately destroyed by a bigger entrepreneur, al-Dabbas, and killed, largely by fear. But it is Dr. Subhi al-Mahmalj1, later to be known as al-Hakim (the Physician), who in the course of subsequent volumes emerges as Munif’s finest character creation. Here he is introduced as a cynical Syrian physi-cian, who resorts to lying and scheming, worming his way into the favour of the ruler, amassing a fortune for himself by setting up a modern private hospital, buying cheap extensive land, the value of which he knows to be rising to astronomical heights and having a mansion built for himself and his family. Al-Mahmalji’s character is further developed in the second volume, al-Ukhdzid (The Trench), where he is shown employing a mixture of diplomacy and subtle tricks, including a skilful use of his wife and children, to attain a position of great power as the trusted and indispensable counsellor to the Sultan Khaz’al (i.e. King Su’u-d). Unlike al- TM, which consists of a large number of fast moving vignettes, showing various aspects of tribal society, the pace of narrative in al-Ukhdzid is slow, largely because it describes in considerable detail life under Sultan Khaz’al, including the beginning of the physical changes in town planning and the general modernization of the capital Miiran (i.e. Riyadh), the building of wide streets and the replacement of horses and camels by motor-cars as status symbols to which were subsequently added large palaces. Al-Ukhdzid concentrates on the role of Dr. al- Mahmalji during this period, giving a full account of his machinations, his ability through nepotism and corruption to appoint his friends and relatives to responsible positions at the court and to set up his dishonest and opportunistic relations in lucrative businesses, to form large international commercial companies for import and construction to get rich quick, exploiting the locals’ naivete and fast growing wealth and lack of serious competition, in short to turn the country into a jungle of capitalist enterprise. Al-Mahmalji felt all along that he has been entrusted by the Sultan with the task of creating a whole modern state. He therefore set up for him a system of secret police for security reasons as well as local journalism for propaganda purposes. The only thing that the state lacked in his view was an ideology, which he set about trying to formulate on the basis of his own philosophy, which he called the Theory of the Square, or of the Four Pillars, four being the sacred number to be seen in Nature in the four seasons and the four elements (humours): the pillars being reason, heart, stomach and sex. In the new society money and sex are the dominant values, particularly among the princes. Al- Ukhdzid lacks the tragic sense of al-Tih, but it possesses satiric intensity in the masterly portrait of Dr. Al-Mahlmalji, complete which his bogus philosophy of the Four Pillars. Ironically enough, despite his insight into human nature, which enables him to manipulate people, he is totally unaware of his being deceived by his own highly-sexed wife. Al- Ukhduide nds with the fall of Dr. al-Mahmalj1 and his expulsion from the country after the deposition of his patron, the extravagant and much married Sultan Khaz’al, by his brother during his absence abroad on his honeymoon with his latest wife (Dr. al-Mahmaljl’s 15 year old daughter Salma), and his replacement by his brother Finar (i.e. Faysal). The third volume entitled Taqastm al-Layl wa’l-Nahar (Division of Day and Night) goes back in time and treats Finar’s childhood and upbringing under the watchful eye of his father Sultan Khuraybit (i.e. King Ibn Su’uCd), the founder of the kingdom with the help of the British. The novel describes the role of the British (in the person of Mr. Hamilton) in the early history of the Kindom and generally reads more like chronicle than a novel proper. Much more accomplished as a novel is the fourth volume al-Munbatt (The Uprooted), which deals with the life of the deposed Sultan Khazcal in exile in Baden Baden and the estrangement of Dr. al-Mahmalji. The latter loses his power and influence as a result of the persistent advice of the Sultan’s family to dissociate himself from the Doctor who is regarded as the sources of the Sultan’s unpopularity and the disaffection of his people. Under pressure from his close relatives and his favourite and influential wife, the deposed Sultan divorces his latest wife, Salma, order-ing her to return to her father, whereupon the anguished Dr. Mahmalji decides to leave Baden Baden immediately, accompanied by his wronged and humiliated daughter. They take up residence in a house in Switzerland where he sadly broods over what he feels to be his wasted life and his unhappy daughter commits suicide. He is abandoned by his son Ghazwan who takes the side of the new Sultan Finar and his wife who joins Ghazwan first in America, then in Mu-ran. Ironically enough in betraying him his son and wife are only applying the philosophy of life which makes money the be all and end all of existence and which he himself has diligently taught them. The slow and subtle development of Dr. al-Mahmalj1 from a satiric portrait to an almost tragic figure, betrayed not only by his patron but also by his own wife and son, makes him one of the major creations in modern Arabic fiction, to be compared only with characters like al-Sayyid ‘Abd al Jawad, the paterfamilias of Mahffiz’s trilogy. The ‘Uprooted’ of the title refers as much to him as to the deposed monarch, forced to live with his retinue in exile where he pathetically dies at the end of the volume. The last volume, Bddiyat al-Zulumdt (The Desert of Darkness), like the third volume, goes back in time, dealing wiht the formation of Prince Finar, particularly the influence upon him of his English mentor Mr. Hamilton, with his amoral modern version of Machiavelli’s Prince. It is narrated at first in the form of memories (‘Memories of the Distant Past’ and ‘Memories of the Recent Past’), then it traces Finar’s reign until his assassination by his crazed young relative. Here the author resumes his very leisurely chronicle narration, interspersed with apt verse and prose quotations from classical Arabic sources as well as extracts from allegedly foreign journalists’ diaries and correspondents’ accounts of the general situation and catastrophic changes in the Kingdom of Muiran. It gives further information about the recent history of Muiran, such as the attempt on the life of Sultan Khuraybit, showing how Khaz’al’s risking his own life to defend his father has led the Sultan in gratitude to declare him heir to the throne instead of the expected heir Finar, much to the disappointment of Finar and Mr. Hamilton. It also shows the details of Finar’s successful plot to oust Khazal. The picture painted is that of a jungle replete with greed, corruption, deception and tyranny, in which men prey upon one another and summary executions are normal events. Of the five volumes of this impressive work the most outstanding as novels are the first and the fourth, the first as a lament on the passing of the old order and the fourth for its tragic human interest. ‘Cities of Salt’ has undeniably epic breadth, but it does not reveal the same poignant sense of time as Mahfuiz’s Trilogy. However, it is pervaded by a distinctly elegiac tone, arising partly from the author’s attitude to the manner in which the oil wealth has been used, or misused, by the desert Arabs, to the wanton and irreversible destruction of permanent, albeit meagre, natural resources of wealth in keeping with the recurrent rhythm of living nature and of their attendant humane values and social harmony, and their replacement by impermanent structures, senseless consumerism and capitalist greed and strife. Apart from his contribution to the Arabic novel of political repression, Munif, with his sensitive handling of the Arabic language, his deep insight into individual human behaviour and broad vision of history, has made his own the novel of the Arabian desert which has its own unmistakable atmosphere and distinct flavour.