Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 24 February 2004
Issue No. 678
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The novel: a homeland and a passion

In 1998, Abdel Rahman Munif was awarded the prize of the Cairo first International Conference on the Arab Novel. Below are excerpts from his acceptance address

"I came to fiction-writing quite late in life, turning to it after I grew weary of the politics of the time. I came to the novel as a refugee, almost certain that this was a whim, a brief respite after which I would return, once again, to politics, to changing the world. But as I was to realise quite quickly, my late arrival to the novel was not a mistake, because fiction-writing, like all other mediums of expression, calls for life experience, including sometimes experience of failure, and my own political experience had taught me a great deal about that.

"I also came to understand that the novel can never be a mere station on the way, a crossing-point: either it becomes an eternal homeland, or it cannot be at all. Fiction-writing does not lend itself to being a margin, or a temporary respite; it cannot be a whim, or a settling of scores with a regime or with the political establishment. No sooner do you enter the expanses of the novel than you become its captive and it becomes your world, your passion and your dreams, and quite possibly everything for you. Even the desire to change the world is conditioned by it, for one of its criteria is that the novel should exist, that it should be sound, and that the world should be discovered and understood anew through the novel as a prelude to effecting change.

"It seems to me at times that whoever has a passion for the novel can find no substitute for it, nor can he bear life without it. Thus, embarking on a novel is in itself the objective and the target. Even the subject-matter of the novel -- any novel -- is often no more than a cause, a raison d'être, for the novelist to continue. For, if silence prevails loneliness closes in, and then comes emptiness, and then the end. The novel, then, is a homeland and a passion before everything else.

"The novel, for whoever has not undergone it, is also a hardship, a suffering unlike any other. And yet it is a pleasurable, creative and sometimes surprising kind of suffering, for in the end it yields something that even its creator had not expected, and this is what keeps the novelist going during this dangerous adventure.

"As for this change, which was a primary motive for my turning to the novel after politics, we must admit that the world we live in holds failure and disenchantment, as well as stolen pleasures, and it holds enough of all these things to make us discontented. It is, therefore, for us to articulate this bravely, in a clear, loud voice, and to call on ourselves and on others to find a more beautiful and more humane formula for life.

"As long as one is alive one should make every effort to render life less bland and less ugly, if, that is, one cannot make it beautiful and enjoyable. Among the reasons why the Arab novel has emerged as the prime medium of expression is the great defeats that began in 1948. These defeats revealed the extent of our illusions and our blinkers and allowed us to perceive reality in a new way. They also created movement in this stagnant Arab swamp, and one question after another burst forth.

"The novel is the biggest and most important repository of questions, because it rereads the status quo, flees certitudes, seeks out possibilities, sounds out other facets of life. Thus we find that the Arab novel, in its entanglement with real life, broaches questions and never claims for itself the exclusive ability to provide answers. And this may be the ideal method for many to cooperate in searching for what has been lost, without indulging in a spirit of prophecy or having illusions about the whole truth.

"In this sense, the broaching of political questions in the Arab novel is both an expression of the status quo and of a dire need. This is why I turned my attention from the start to political detention as one of the symbols of the times, then to petroleum as the curse that has enveloped Arab reality in its entirety from the Ocean to the Gulf, and which continues to expose us on a daily basis to punishments of various kinds. The 1967 defeat made me turn to fiction- writing not as an escape, but as a means of confrontation. The defeat had an impact that can never be forgotten: an Arab world of this vastness and of this potential, and also with this huge quantity of slogans and of clamour, suddenly collapsing, and not in six days, but in the space of a few hours. The defeat threw into relief the grave contradictions in the Arab situation.

"The social disparities and contradictions throughout the Arab world are such that neutrality is impossible, particularly since deafness and backwardness characterise the ruling classes. We should therefore stand by the downtrodden, the abused and the oppressed, and not allow ourselves to become instruments in the hands of the ruling classes, or the mouthpieces of the rich, or the servants of the foreign circles that would have us remain backward.

"One should make reference here to two forms of censorship that have hampered the growth of the novel: the censorship exercised by society and that exercised by the state. If state censorship is understandable, if unacceptable for the most part, then what of society's censorship? The oppressed also practice forbidden things in secret and enjoy them to the full in daily life -- through swear words, gossip, scandals and nude photographs -- even as they forbid the novelist from writing about any of this.

"Arab society is one of the strangest of all societies because it practises all manner of things secretly, and yet it fears if a single word, no matter how indirect, should be said or written about this secret life. It is the task of the novel to head straight to this secret life in order to try to expose it and exhort people in a resonant voice to be brave and confess. If the writer, particularly the novelist, submits to this general hypocrisy and resorts to concealment when everything is known to others, then this would be a form of complicity and acquiescence.

"The more courageous the novel, regardless of its subject matter, the more it can shake rotten roots, clean away thick layers of dust and become an instrument of discovery, knowledge and freedom. In this respect, I often call upon the daring of our forefathers who said many things we would not dare to say now and who courageously confronted those who tried to impose taboos. Why, then, should we not try to break the taboos and create an atmosphere that nurtures these attempts, not for the sake of sensationalism but to let the sun into every corner so that it can light up all aspects of life?

"But to return to my experience as a novelist, to my first novel and to the one that I am writing now. My first novel was a step in the dark, a testimony that was to an extent autobiographical. But no sooner was it complete than a big worry began: what to write now, and how? And with the attempt to answer those two questions anxiety and worry increase. It is no secret that every new novel is more difficult than the one before it, constituting a greater challenge to the novelist and the endeavour of fiction-writing because the process of searching for and discarding material calls for a great deal of experience and exertion. I have always tried, from very early on, to keep one cardinal question before my eyes: what kind of novel do I aspire to?

"I searched quietly and assiduously for a formula, or for a number of formulas, that could constitute a novel. In my first novel, al-Ashjar wa-ightiyal Marzouk (Trees and the Assassination of Marzouk), I recoursed to myth; in Sharq al- Mutawassit (East of the Mediterranean), I sought a polyphony of voices; I continued my search in al-Nihayat (Endings), where I made the short-story part of the novel, and I tried with my friend Jabra [Ibrahim Jabra] to open up a new horizon for the Arab novel by co-authoring Alam bila Kharait (A World without Maps) with him. In place of human beings, or alongside them, I also made animals my heroes in a number of novels, including in al-Ashjar, al-Nihayat and Hin Tarakna al- Jisr (When we Left the Bridge).

"I also tried to give a place to the human dimension, so to speak. When the land is treated with cruelty it screams, calls out for help and protests. When the machines thrust their claws into the palm trees in Mudun al-Milh (Cities of Salt), for example, the trees resist and challenge the machines, and, when they lose out in this confrontation, they scream again and weep aloud before falling in an attempt to be at one with the earth again. The same can be said about the individual hero [in my works]. For if my first novel revolved around a single hero, the later novels search for a hero and for heroism of a different order.

"This is what I attempted specifically to do in Mudun al- Milh, where every character who appears is, in a sense, the hero of a particular situation, of a span of time or of a given state of being. And this could be a path forward for the Arab novel, drawing on the old traditions of Arab narrative, and this is what I suggest should be attempted by Arab novelists. I have also recently become less inclined towards ideology in favour of a greater interest in popular culture. With its linguistic richness, the diversity of its sources and its historical vistas, popular culture can lead us to the heart of things.

"Today, the Arab novel is better than it was yesterday, and tomorrow it should be even better than it is today. However, this process of betterment necessitates that we should tolerate each other, should accept a variety of techniques, and should make room for experimentation. It may well be the good fortune of the Arab novel that it does not need a prince or a priest to accomplish all this."

Translated by Mona Anis

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