A Primer on Saudi Lit, Abdulrahman Munif to Present

In the most recent Qantara, journalist Fakhri Saleh sketches the landscape of Saudi literature, arguing that its recent blossoming can be attributed to 9/11.

That may or may not be. In any case, names you should know:

Abdulrahman Munif (1933-2004). One of the most significant Arab writers of the last century and one of the first new Saudi novelists; his Cities of Salt quintet was chosen by Sinan Antoon (for our summer writing challenge) as one of the “five books you should read before you die. Daniel Burt, in his The Novel 100, ranked the quintet as the 71st greatest novel of all time. He was not one of the Arabic-language writers mentioned by Denys Johnson-Davies as in contention for the “Arab Nobel” (which went to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988), perhaps because virtually nothing of his was in English or French translation in 1987, and Cities of Salt wasn’t fully out until 1989.

As Saleh notes in his Qantara piece: “The locus of Munif’s work, his fiction as well as his non-fiction, circled around despotism and decadence in Arabia.”

Ghazi Al-Gosaibi (1940-2010). Al-Gosaibi was a poet, a novelist, and a reformist minister in the Saudi government. He died this August. His best-known novel, An Apartment Called Freedom (English translation: 1996), related the experiences of four young men who went to study in Cairo in the late 1950s before returning to their home countries in the Gulf. Other works in translation include Seven, The Gulf Crisis (nonfiction), and A Love Story.

Turki Al-Hamad (1953-present). Al-Hamad is a journalist and novelist, best known for his trilogy about the coming-of-age of Saudi teen Hisham al-Abir. The trilogy, although banned in the Gulf, has sold tens of thousands of copies. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie’s review in The Daily Star: Turki Al-Hamad’s not-so-explosive trilogy.

Abdo Khal (1962-present). The winner of the 2010 Arabic Booker for his novel She Throws Sparks. (Or, if I must, She Spews Sparks as Big as Castles.) Writes Saleh: “Khal portrays the atrocities perpetrated on the lives of the underprivileged people, the sheer violence exercised by the powerful on the weak.” From an excerpt translated by Anthony Calderbank (the main English-language translator of Saudi literature):

The name of our quarter is The Pit, or The Salt Mine, or The Bottom of Hell, or Inferno; all are terms that reflect torment, and our lives.

The quarter awakens before the sun’s rays penetrate the windows of the huddled houses to the contented lapping of the satiated sea. It awakens to the racket of boys preparing to set off down twisting lanes on their walk to school and the raucous banter of fisherman returning with fresh catches from trips begun the previous night, and songs on the radio exuberant in the dewy morning air: He said good morning without saying a word, Morning breeze, say hi to the one with radiant cheeks, We are farmers on the land of our country.

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed (1965-present). Al-Mohaimeed, who writes about love and the dispossessed, has two books out in English: Wolves of the Crescent Moon and Munira’s Bottle. I have reviewed Wolves of the Crescent Moon, which is promising but ultimately disappointing.  I haven’t yet read Munira’s Bottle, but Al-Mohaimeed has given some interesting interviews about it.

You can also read a short story by al-Mohaimeed on his website.

Leila Al-Johani (1969-present). Saleh writes that “Two female Saudi writers took the responsibility to experiment with style – Rajaa Alem and Laila Al-Johani. In her novel The Silk Road, Alem depicts Mecca as the setting of her narrative, writing about the lives of people coming from various parts of the Islamic world to perform the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.”

Rajaa Alem (1970-present). Alem has written two novels (Fatima: A Novel of Arabia and My Thousand & One Nights: A Novel of Mecca) with Tom McDonough, as well as many works of her own. McDonough interviews her here, for Bomb.

Rajaa Al-Sanea (1981-present). Wait! Maybe Rajaa Al-Sanea is the “Carrie Bradshaw of the Middle East.” You think? In any case, her Girls of Riyadh, published in Arabic in 2005 and English in 2007 (somewhat controversially, because of translation issues), has been extremely popular. It has been credited with starting a new wave of Saudi girl-lit.

Other phenomena:

The “naughty novelists,” who are accused of increasing sexual content in Saudi women’s lit: Samar al-Muqrin (Immoral Women), Siba al-Harz (Others), Wafaa’ Abdel Rahman (Love in the Capital), and Zaynab Hanafi (Features). Sometimes Rajaa Al-Sanea is also placed in this group.

Other Saudis longlisted for the Arabic Booker: Abdullah bin Bakheet for Street of Affections and Umaima Al Khamis for The Leafy Tree, both for the 2010 prize.

Also, Beirut39ers from Saudi (those who won a competition for the best 39 Arab writers under 40): Abdullah Thabit (novelist); Mohammad Hassan Alwan (novelist; I thought the excerpt he had in the Beirut39 collection, “Haneef from Glasgow,” had very good character sketching); and Yahya Amqassim (novelist).


  1. I think it’s difficult to really consider Munif as a ‘Saudi novelist’, or at least he is far more than this. Munif, whose father was Saudi and mother Iraqi, was actually born and grew up in Aman. In fact, during the course of his life he spent very little time in Saudi Arabia. In a biographical account it is recalled that as a boy he would stay with relatives in Saudi Arabia for some weeks during the Summer holidays. In the 1960s (I forget the exact year), his Saudi citizenship was rescinded on account of his political activities whilst a university student in Baghdad. Furthermore, it was only reinstated by the Saudi government after his death, although I read at the time his wife actually refused to accept this rather belated gesture. Most of Munif’s adult life was spent in Syria and Lebanon. Munif’s quintet “Cities of Salt”, clearly satirizes the rise of the House of Saud and the creation and consolidation of the modern Saudi state. However, Munif never makes this explicit, preferring to avoid the use of real place names, and although this can be ascribed to censorship etc., he always insisted in interviews that what he wrote about was relevant to the whole of the Arab world. Whilst this is perhaps not so convincing in the case of the quintet, it can certainly be applied to the many other novels that make up his oeuvre, with the exception of Ard al-Sawad which is set in 19th century Iraq. All things considered then, it might be better, as Meyer suggests, to describe Munif as an Arab cosmopolitan. Interestingly, when asked in an interview if he considers himself Saudi Arabian, he replied “I consider myself to come from the Arabian Peninsula”.

    1. Actually, Thomas, that might be a chicken before the egg argument. However, I wrote a paper in university once comparing Munif’s literary criticism against one of his works (I think الأشجار واغتيال مرزوق). Munif was explicit in his literary criticism early on. I refer you to one of the essays in الكاتب والمنفى وآفاق الرواية العربية where I am getting these ideas from. I do not have a copy with me, so I cannot give you the particular essay. If you read most of his works however, time and place are intentionally obscured. He says was going for universality of theme and timelessness of literature. However, as you might guess, there might have been some convenient afterthought to excuse self-censorship he needed to get by (the novel I mention talks about the helpless life of a translator/literary buff who was once a political activist; we can both guess where he got this Marzouq character from, haha).

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