Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim Munif: The prolific and renowned Arabic novelist of our time [Archives:2007/1080/Culture]

August 27 2007
Photo from archived article: photos/1080/culture2_1
Photo from archived article: photos/1080/culture2_1
Prepared by: Eyad N. Al-Samman
Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim Munif (1933-2004) was a Saudi novelist, economist and oppositional intellectual. He was born in Amman, Jordan to an Iraqi mother from Baghdad. His father was a trader of Saudi origin, originally from Qusayba village in the region of Najd in central Saudi Arabia. Munif studied the Holy Qur'an first and then attended Al-Abdalia School in Amman and obtained his baccalaureate. In 1952, he departed to Iraq to study law at the University of Baghdad. Munif joined the Ba'ath Party and participated in demonstrations against the Baghdad Pact in February 1955. Due to his career as a political activist, he was expelled from Iraq together with other student activists and went to Egypt where he pursued his academic study and graduated from Cairo University in 1958. He won a Ba'ath Party scholarship to the former Yugoslavia and obtained a Ph.D in petroleum economics from Belgrade University in 1961.

He returned to Beirut, Lebanon and worked for the Ba'ath Party's head office for a year. In 1964, he settled in Damascus, Syria for nearly a decade and worked as an expert in the Syrian Oil Ministry. In 1963, Munif was banished from the Ba'ath Party and he consequently resigned from the party in 1965. His political activities caused stripping of his Saudi nationality in 1963 when he criticized the then-regime. He moved to Beirut in 1973 to work on editing “Al-Balagh” cultural journal and left Beirut after outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, settling once again in Baghdad. He worked as a consultant for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and as an editor-in-chief of the journal “Al-Nift Waa Al-Tanmiya” (Oil and Development) in Baghdad. The Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988) pushed Munif to leave Iraq for France, taking up residence in Boulogne near Paris, where he remained until 1986. He then moved to Damascus, Syria where he settled down, devoting himself to writing up until his death.

Munif was a prolific and advanced writer in the Arab world. He believed that the Arabic novel is the history of those who do not have a source of historical reference. Munif is the author of 15 long novels and more than 9 non-fiction books as well as studies on political, socio-economic and cultural issues. He wrote his first book entitled, “The Principle of Partnership and the Nationalization of Arab Oil” (Beirut, 1972), which was a documental research about the future of the oil industry. In “Democracy First, Democracy Always” (Beirut, 1992), Munif expressed his commitment to democracy as a tool to face, deal with, and solve many of the regions' problems. In 2003, Munif published his last book which was a study of situations in Iraq from 1917 to 2003 entitled, “Iraq: Notes on History and Resistance”.

Munif started producing fictional works when he was almost 40. His first literary debut was in 1973 when he published his first novel entitled, “Trees and the Assassination of Marzooq”, which presented new and persuasive means for the creation of a more humane, free, and just society. Munif was one of the writers who excelled in prison fiction with his two novels “East of the Mediterranean” (1975) and “Now and Here or East of the Mediterranean Once Again” (1991). “A Magian Love Story” (1974) is another novel in which Munif romantically discussed the embedded relation between the two civilizations of the Orient and the Occident. “Aalam Bela Khara'it” (A World Without Maps, 1982) is a novel written by Munif and coauthored by Palestinian author Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.

Munif's most important literary work was the quintet of “Mudun Al-Milh” (Cities of Salt, 1984-1989). “Cities of Salt Quintet” is the longest novel in modern Arabic literature, which took more than six years to be written at 2,500 pages and was banned in several Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia. “Cities of Salt Quintet” registers the history of Arab life through the critical eye of an insider and emphasizes the fact that Arabs have been victims of their rulers and foreigners. Each of its five volumes has a different plot and are unified with a distinctive tone. The first volume, “Al-Teeh” (The Wilderness, 1984), covers the years from 1933 to 1953. The second volume, “Al-Ukhdood” (The Trench, 1985), deals with historical events between 1953 and 1958. The third volume, “Taqaseem Al-Layl Waa Al-Nahar” (Variations on Day and Night, 1989), moves backward to the period between 1891 and 1930. The fourth, “Al-Munbatt” (The Uprooted, 1989), moves forward to the years between 1964 and 1969. The fifth, “Badiyat Al-Dhulumat” (Desert of Darkness, 1989), which is divided into two parts, first returns to 1920-35, and then moves to 1964-75.

Munif's last monumental work was “Ard Al-Sawad” (Land of Darkness Trilogy, 1999), which comes in three volumes covering 1,500 pages, imaginatively narrating the era of Iraqi history during the early 19th century. Munif's literary works were translated into over 10 languages and in 1989 Munif won the Al-Awais Cultural Award. He also won the Award of Cairo Gathering for Arab Creativity in Novel Writing in 1998. Munif's posthumous published works include “Mother of Vows” (2005), “Pseudonyms” and “The Open Door” (2006).

Munif passed away on January 24, 2004 after a prolonged sickness while living in exile in Syria. Munif has not been awarded the recognition he deserves, especially in the English language, but he will be remembered as the Arab novelist who enriched Arabic culture through his literary prose.