Abdelrahman (or ‘Abd al-Rahmān) Munif (moo-neef) is a highly gifted contemporary Arab novelist. His main themes involve the impact of colonialism and the discovery of oil on the people and politics of the Middle East. Relatively little is known about Munif’s background; it has been determined that he was born in Jordan on May 29, 1933, into a family of Saudi Arabian origin. Beyond that, few facts have been established about formative events in his early life. Evidently, the author’s natural reticence–and possibly some concern about the political repercussions of his works–has led him to suppress many aspects of his personal history.
According to some accounts, he studied law in Baghdad and Cairo; it is known that he pursued university work in France and the former Yugoslavia and that he earned a doctorate in oil economics. He has been employed in positions drawing upon this expertise; for some time he lived in Iraq, where he served as editor-in-chief of the government-controlled journal al Naft wa-al-tanmiyah (oil and development). Probably it was there that he became persuaded that an approach to social and cultural problems of the modern age could be found through fiction. In Baghdad he became a friend of the exiled Syrian writer and Saddam Hussein supporter Jabrā Ibrāhīm Jabrā, with whom he collaborated in the writing of a novel. In 1986, Munif moved to Damascus, Syria, with his Syrian wife and their four children.
Munif was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1963 because of his involvement in Arab nationalism, a political movement that holds the West–especially the United States–responsible for the Arab world’s economic and political problems. Munif made a similar charge during the Gulf War of 1991, describing the U.S. response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait as an attack on Arab culture. Though for some time he was not well known, particularly outside the Arab world, the distinctive standpoint and subject matter of his works have generated wider interest. Munif himself has maintained that in its development the Arabic novel has reached only a rudimentary stage when compared with the much longer traditions of prose fiction in other lands; he has also stated that serious work in this genre demands close attention, to the exclusion of other pursuits.
Much of Munif’s writing comments on contemporary events and issues. His first novel conveys the sense of disillusionment and bitterness that swept the Arab world following the Arab defeat in the war with Israel in 1967. Disenchantment on this level, moreover, is followed by an unhappy and unequal confrontation with political repression, which is thrust upon his protagonist. Sharq al-Mutawassiṭ, which begins with a quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, depicts the suffering of an isolated political prisoner seen as suspect by an unnamed Arab regime. The use of internal monologue helps to communicate this character’s sense of isolation and his response to prolonged confinement and physical abuse.
In contrast to many other Middle Eastern writers who use urban settings, Munif has written about the people of the Arabian desert in ways that reveal an unusual depth of feeling and understanding. In Endings, drought, oppressive and unrelenting heat, and arid, austere landscapes are presented in a thoroughly evocative fashion in this outwardly simple but effective tale of the struggle to prevail in a difficult and often hostile environment.
The social and cultural consequences of the discovery and exploitation of oil have often been cited by Munif as offering a vast but only partially explored area for the novelist. Sibāq al-masāfāt al-tawīlah: Rihlah ila al-Sharq has generally been regarded as an allegorical study of events in Iran during the early 1950’s; with an American agent as the leading character, political pressures and contrasting national attitudes and interests are set forth in this fictional account of international power politics. Munif has pointed to the corrupting effects of sudden and abundant wealth; in a long trilogy he depicts the displacement of traditional values and ways of life in a land that, though no identification is supplied, very much resembles Saudi Arabia since World War I.
The first two volumes, Cities of Salt and The Trench, show the upheaval and disorientation resulting from the arrival among bedouins of foreign (mainly American) specialists. The first volume describes attempts by the local people, unsuccessful at first, to dissuade the westerners from establishing drilling sites. Though the introduction of prefabricated houses and oil equipment seems to have effected permanent change, popular resistance leads to a violent workers’ strike and then to a devastating fire, which brings the oil company’s operations temporarily to a halt. In the second volume, divisions within the kingdom lead the country’s monarch to employ secret police, who collaborate with American operatives. Within the Arab government, rivalries and intrigues, sharpened by competing quests for wealth and sexual favors, finally bring about the deposition of the monarch; nevertheless, the incursion of modern material ways continues unabated. The third volume, Variations on Night and Day, explores the crucial role Britain played in bringing to power the current ruling family of ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia. In this ongoing conflict between riches and pleasure on the one hand and time-honored virtues on the other, or on the level of the struggle between power and honor, it is not clear which side will prevail; Munif himself, however, has expressed a distinctly pessimistic view about the eventual outcome.