On September 10th we read Endings (Al Nehayat) by Abd al-Rahman Munif. A compelling interweaving of stories, Endings is striking not only for its setting and its unique style of narrative, but also for its vivid commentary on the emergence of the modern city and its urban middle class.Set in a village on the edge of a desert, Endings provides an exquisite portrayal of the desert environment, the tumultuous forces of change and the relationship between humans and animals. Born in 1933 to a Saudi father and an Iraqi mother, Munif’s rich text incorporates both pre-Islamic traditional myths and self-reflective social commentary. Endings was the first book by a Saudi author to be translated into English from Arabic. The translator, Roger Allen, is a Professor of Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA. He undertook the translation in consultation with the author.
Endings explores, through the anti-hero figure of a hunter on the outskirts of society, the impact of man on his surroundings and the loss of traditional desert village communities. The impact of over consumption on nature and the harsh realities of life in a desert community are both described with expressive detail. Themes include the loss of past and of paradise, death and its impact on community, and generational societal shifts. Throughout the book, storytelling is interwoven with straight narration so that its flow reflects the dual forms of modern and traditional approaches to story and history increasingly experienced by its characters.
Munif’s other works include: The Trees and Marzuq’s Assassination (Al-Ashjar waghtiyal Marzuq), When We Abandoned the Bridge (‘Indama tarakna al-Jisr), East of the Mediterranean (Sharq al-Mutawassit), Gyspy Love Story (Wissat Hubb Majusiyya), Long Distance Race (Sibaq al-Masafat al-Tawila), and Cities of Salt (Mudun al-Milh), the last being a trilogy exploring the author’s consideration of the political and social circumstances of his homeland, Saudi Arabia, exploring the impact of the oil boom on traditional Saudi society and natural landscape. Munif’s insight as an author is amplified by the fascinating fact that he earned a Doctorate in Petroleum Economics. Munif collaborated with the great Palestinian author and his close personal friend, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, to jointly produce the novel Mapless World (‘Alam bila Khara’it).
As so much of Munif’s approach to writing was linked to his political beliefs, why not read this interview with Munif published in Al Jadid on the “Crisis in the Arab World: Oil, Political Islam and Dictatorship” : http://leb.net/~aljadid/interviews/Abdal-RahmanMunifUnpublishedInterview.html . This interview was adapted from a slightly longer Arabic version, which appeared in the Cultural Section of the Lebanese daily As Safir.
Also, here’s a link to an article about Munif, including a reflection on Endings, from the current issue of the MIT Electronic Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, which is devoted to Munif and his writings: http://web.mit.edu/cis/www/mitejmes/issues/2007sp/UPON%20LEAVING%20THE%20BRIDGE-%20Jarrar.pdf
The full Journal is at http://web.mit.edu/cis/www/mitejmes/intro.htm
Below is an interesting background on Abdul-Rahman Mounif (alternative spelling to his name) can be found in The Guardian’s February 5, 2004 obituary for the author, written by Abdul-Hadi Jiad.
Abdul-Rahman Mounif, writer, born 1933; died January 24 2004
Abdul-Rahman Mounif, who has died aged 71, promoted a new genre of fiction that reflected the social, political and economic realities of modern Arab society. A political activist for the nationalist cause and a widely travelled oil economist, the breadth of his experience (he did not start writing until he was 40) enabled him to create a richly imaginative body of work. Books are, Mounif believed, an effective vehicle for change. In his words, “the mission of literature is to increase awareness and receptiveness in an attempt to create cases for renaissance and revival”. His particular target was injustice. Despite the oil revenue boom, which began in 1973, the Arab world had been characterised by two contrasting and conflicting phenomena: the great financial wealth of the ruling few and the poverty, deprivation, torture and political oppression of the masses in the desert countries of the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, his work was banned in several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Mounif’s constant movements between locations and professions enriched and sharpened his narrative skills to portray Arab life through the critical eye of an insider. They also allowed him to draw upon a rich and varied source of imagery and subject matter. His first novel, Trees And The Assassination Of Marzouq (1973), has as its central character a man who flees his country after imprisonment and torture. His five-part novel The Cities Of Salt (1984-89) registers the history of the Arab world during the oil era and examines Mounif’s theory that the Arabs were “the subjects of injustice, deprivation and oppression”. A work saturated in symbolism, its message can be applied to any and each city in the Arab oil countries, where “Arabs have been the victims of their rulers and the foreigners”.
This was the central theme of his writing, particularly the most celebrated of his 15 novels, East Of The Mediterranean (1975), in which he revealed, in graphic detail, the torture and abuse that prisoners suffered in Arab prisons and detention centres (and of which he had personal experience). It highlighted the fact that “a human being in the lands east of the Mediterranean is cheaper than anything and a cigarette stub has more value than him”. The novel tells the story of a man who is arrested when the security police raid his house, detaining him on the grounds that he reads a lot and his friends fight for justice and freedom. These sorts of terrors did not intimidate Mounif, however, who said in a recent TV interview: “It seems to me that I am no longer afraid of that. I might seem to be anxious or nervous, rushing with no consideration for the consequences. But such Arab realities must be challenged. Any complacency, appeasement or silence is a kind of complicity, and approval, in one way or another, with the existing circumstances.”
The son of a Saudi Arabian father, and an Iraqi mother, Mounif was born and brought up in Amman, Jordan, then moved in 1952 to study law in Iraq. His political activity while a student there, as a member of the emerging Arab Ba’ath party, cost him his residence and education in Baghdad. He was expelled from the country in 1955, along with dozens of other Arab nationals, after they had joined the protests against the signing of the Baghdad Pact. At the urging of the US and UK, wary of Soviet influence in the region, this agreement established the Middle East Treaty Organisation to ensure mutual security between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and the UK. Iraq, where the organisation had its headquarters, pulled out of the arrangement after the fall of the monarchy in a military coup in 1958.
From Baghdad, Mounif moved to Cairo during Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalist drive and then, in 1958 to General Tito’s Yugoslavia, where he got his doctorate degree in oil economics in 1961. But his political activities continued to cause him problems: in 1963, he was stripped of his Saudi nationality after he had criticised the regime. Having worked in the oil industry in Syria (1961-73), he moved to Lebanon to launch another career, this time in print journalism, and also took up the literary life. His journalism took him to Iraq to be an editor of Oil And Development magazine (1975-1981). He lived in France for five years and returned to Syria in 1986. With a background in politics and economics, there was no better judge than Mounif, who had a profound knowledge and appreciation of the political, economic and social conditions of the characters of his novels. That knowledge took him as far as writing a novel in the early 1980s, The Race Of Long Distances, on “the ambitions of western powers in Iranian oil after the defeat of Mosadaq revolution” in Iran in 1952 and the reinstatement of the Shah to the throne.
He won two distinguished Arab awards for his novels, and his work was translated in over 10 languages. An opponent of both the Gulf wars, at the time of his death he was writing a book on Iraq. His wife and four children survive him.