Arab citizen par excellence
Mona Anis reviews the life and career of a writer who had roots in half a dozen Arab countries and who belonged to the entire region
Abdel Rahman Munif, who died last month at the age of 70, was a master of narration, imbuing dark shadows with drama and having modern Arabic literature permanently in his debt. Munif was born in Amman in 1933 to a Saudi father and an Iraqi mother. He obtained his Baccalaureat in Amman in Jordan in 1951, then proceeded to Iraq where he enrolled at Law School at Baghdad University. However, before attaining his degree he was expelled from university in 1955 because of his political activism. He then left Iraq for Egypt, where he obtained a law degree from Cairo University in 1958, after which he went to Yugoslavia, obtaining a PhD in oil economics in 1961 from the University of Belgrade. Shortly afterwards, Munif went to Syria, working as an oil expert for the Syrian Oil Corporation and resuming his activism in the Pan-Arabist movement. This activism led him to be stripped of his Saudi nationality in 1963.
A member of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party since the early 1950s, Munif was active within the more radical wing of the Ba'ath in Syria later in this decade. When the Ba'ath Party in Syria seized power in March 1963, a month after it had succeeded in overthrowing the rule of Abdel Karim Qassim in Iraq and two years after the end of Syria's union with Egypt, Munif immersed himself in working towards a new tripartite union between Egypt, Syria and Iraq. However, as the divisions and feuds between the Syrian and the Iraqi Ba'ath intensified, and as the rule of the Ba'ath in both countries became more dictatorial, Munif became disenchanted with politics, eventually leaving Syria for Lebanon in 1973 where he published his first novel, al-Ashjar wa-ightiyal Marzouq (Trees and the Assassination of Marzouq), and worked for a time in journalism on the Lebanese newspaper Al- Balagh.
In 1975, at a time when the Iraqi Ba'ath was embarking on what was then called a "Progressive Front" between the Iraqi Ba'ath and the country's communist party, Munif moved to Baghdad and worked for the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, editing its magazine Oil and Development. Nevertheless, his disenchantment with the Iraqi brand of Ba'athism only grew as a result of this experience, and friends recall Munif saying as early as 1978 that the Iraqi regime was no better than the Saudi. During this period, Munif concentrated on writing fiction, having already published four novels, including his acclaimed Sharq al- Mutawassit (East of the Mediterranean), which exposed the physical and psychological horrors of torture carried out in Arab prisons. He contemplated co-authoring a novel with the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, but Youssef himself had to flee Iraq at this time for fear of being subjected to the kind of horrors described in Sharq al-Mutawassit.
Abdel Rahman Munif
by George Bahgory
Yet, this project of co-writing a novel did materialise later in Alam bila Kharait (A World without Maps), which Munif wrote jointly with the renowned Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, at the time himself based in Baghdad. By the time this novel appeared in 1982, however, Munif had left Baghdad never to return, and from 1981 to 1986 he lived as a political refugee in Paris, where he dedicated his time to writing fiction and publishing two volumes of the quintet of novels that was to become his magnum opus. Originally conceived as a trilogy, but expanding beyond the limits of three volumes, Mudun al-Milh (Cities of Salt), some 2,500 pages in length, tells the story of a desert community changed by the discovery of oil and all that this brings in terms of the destruction of traditional bonds and patterns of social life, detailing the kinds of havoc that enforced modernisation wreaks on the community.
Having established his reputation as a novelist, and more importantly perhaps having remained true to his decision to keep away from political power games, Munif was finally allowed to return to Syria in the late 1980s, his wife's native country, where he remained for the last 17 years of his life. While living in Damascus, Munif edited a cultural journal with the late Syrian playwright Saad- Allah Wannus and the Palestinian critic Faisal Daraj, wrote nine non-fiction books on political and cultural themes, completed his quintet of novels, the three last parts of which appeared in 1989, and embarked on another magnum opus, this time a trilogy of novels on Iraq. Ard al-Sawad (Land of Darkness), a historical novel, appeared in 1999 and was to be Munif's last work of fiction.
However, if Ard al-Sawad, set in early 19th century Iraq, and, in the author's own words, "a love song to the people of Iraq and their struggle against all hazards", was to be Munif's last work of fiction, it was not his last book on Iraq. Indeed, al-Iraq: Hawamish min al-Tarikh wa al- Moqaoumah (Iraq: Footnotes on History and Resistance) appeared only a few days before Munif's death in January this year, and it engaged directly with the present occupation of the country. Hawamish, which will be reviewed in the next edition of the Books Supplement, utilises the wealth of material Munif accumulated while preparing Ard al-Sawad to invigorate the historical memory of resistance in Iraq at a time when the history of the Iraqi people is itself being wiped out by foreign occupation in order to facilitate what Munif called "the history of the victors".
Abdel Rahman Munif, author of 16 novels and nine works of non-fiction; born Amman, Jordan, 1933; died Damascus, Syria, 24 January 2004. He is survived by his wife, Soad Qawadri, their two daughters, Azza and Leila, and two sons, Yasser and Hani.