On an 81st Birthday: Why Does Abdelrahman Munif Not Make the ‘World Literature’ Canon?

Today would have been Saudi-Iraqi novelist Abdelrahman Munif’s (1933-2004) 81st birthday. Although a great craftsman of the 20th century Arabic novel, his literary legacy goes largely un-celebrated.

This is perhaps in part because he was disowned — stripped of his passport — by Saudi Arabia when he was just 30 years old. After all, it is usually nations that organize celebrations of their writers. But Munif also goes un-celebrated in translation. Despite acclaim by prominent thinkers like Edward Said and Tariq Ali, Munif’s work has made small impact on English-language readers.

51BM2D1RCTLIn The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time, released in 2004, Daniel S. Burt did include Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, trans. Peter Theroux, among the “best 100” novels.

Not Mahfouz, not Salih, but Munif.

One can argue — strenuously — with many of Burt’s choices, which lean heavily toward English and fails to include a single novel from the Indian subcontinent. But it’s interesting that Munif appears here, when he is generally overlooked in other attempts to form a “world literature” canon.

Munif apparently wasn’t on the list of Arab writers considered for the Nobel in 1988 (Mahfouz, Idris, Adonis, Salih). This is understandabale, as none of his books were translated into English until 1987. But he also didn’t go on to achieve much acclaim in translation, despite being championed by Edward Said and others, and having editions of his work brought out by Random House.

Indeed, the first three novels in Munif’s Cities quintet, trans. Theroux, landed in English with a thud. One of the leading men of American letters — an author many US critics felt should receive a Nobel — not only panned the book, but panned the whole cultural world where it was set.

Updike is no stranger to “Muslim” novels. He wrote his own, Terrorist (2006), and several years before he reviewed Cities of Salt, he published Coup, a novel that foregrounded a culture clash between the US and a fictional “Islamist Marxist” dictator in Africa.

Updike’s Coup seems to have been well-enough reviewed without being particularly well-loved. Kirkus said, “This being Updike, all the Africana fits tight as a glove, well-researched and intellectually digested.”

For the Kirkus reviewer, this novel seemed also to fit into Updike’s “long interest” in African literature. Updike spent considerable time reviewing works by African authors, including Ousmane, Yambo Ouologuem, Kofi Awoonor, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Elechi Amadi, Alex La Guma, Francis Bebey, T Obinkaram Echewa, and Wole Soyinka. There’s no evidence he had any particular interest in or knowledge of Arabic literature; this might have been the first novel he reviewed in translation from Arabic.

Nonetheless, he was John Updike, which gave him a status to review just about anything.

Updike’s review in The New Yorker opens with a thunderclap:

“The most fabulous geological event since the explosion of Krakatoa surely was the discovery of oceans of petroleum beneath the stark and backward Muslim realms of the Persian Gulf.”

With this, Updike seems to signal that his critical force is not directed at this particular novel, but at something different entirely. “According to the World Almanac,” he writes, “the highest per-capita income on the planet belongs not to the United States or Sweden or Japan but to Qatar.”

Instead, he says that Munif, despite his higher studies in Europe, seems to be “insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer…”

Updike goes on to criticize Western caricatures of Arabs. It’s a good thing, he says, to have an Arab’s view of things. He also acknowledges the work has a translator. And yet, throughout his review, Updike doesn’t seem to bear in mind that this is a work translated from not just another language, but another literary tradition. Instead, he says that Munif, despite his higher studies in Europe, seems to be “insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer; his characters are rarely fixed in our minds by a face or a manner of developed motivation; no central figure develops enough reality to attract our sympathetic interest; and, this being the first third of a trilogy [sic] what intelligible conflicts and possibilities do emerge remain serenely unresolved.”

“The thought of novels being banned in Saudi Arabia has a charming strangeness, like the thought of hookahs being banned in Minneapolis.”

Beyond this, what Updike focuses on most is the culture clash between wadi-dweller and Westerner, and how annoyed he is at the anger against Americans and particularly Americans’ sartorial choices. The review’s final shot: “Some authorities, too, were evidently affronted: the jacket flap tells us that ‘Cities of Salt’ has been banned in Saudi Arabia. The thought of novels being banned in Saudi Arabia has a charming strangeness, like the thought of hookahs being banned in Minneapolis.”

In some ways, this review could have been written yesterday, or tomorrow. In other ways, the reviewing of Arabic literature is much changed. It’s more careful now, focusing mostly on bland back-patting that feels almost as condescending as Updike’s “insufficiently Westernized.”

But this bleak view of Cities of Salt was not just Updike’s: Many English-language reviewers found they didn’t like Cities of Salt in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the first three books of the quintet were released. After that, Vintage seemed to give up on Munif. Only five of his novels have been translated: three from the quintet and two others from London’s Quartet Books at the end of the 1990s.

Certainly, any critic has a right to find other literary traditions uninteresting. Don’t enjoy Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg? Okay, fine. Don’t recognize its mastery? Hmm.

Perhaps, if Munif were around now, the story would be different. He could be invited to lecture at universities. His novels could be re-issued. New translations could come out. We could ask charming, smart authors fluent in both literary traditions  to review Munif’s books. Perhaps they would tear the books apart: That would be great, too! But they would deal with the books as themselves, and not as a proxy for an enemy culture.


Theroux responds, twenty-four years later, to Updike’s review

Read Updike’s review. You might teach it, as Sinan Antoon does. You could also include some more contemporary reviews of Arabic literature. In fact, you could teach a whole class on how Arabic literature is reviewed in translation! I double dare you.