Friday Finds: 5 By and About Abdelrahman Munif

Abdelrahman Munif (1933-2004) haunts a strange place in the English-language canon:

Five of his books were translated in the ’80s and ’90s — Cities of Salttranslated by Peter Theroux, Variations on Night and Daytr. Theroux, The Trenchtr. Theroux, and Story of a Citytr. Samira Kawar — and it’s the first that has received tentative canonization, included in lists and curricula, often as much for “understanding events in Saudi Arabia” as for its literary qualities. But if he seems to be at the center of Arabic literary canon in English translation, it is largely illusory, and he is little-written-about in English, outside of academia. And the books that were translated appeared in the 1980s and 1990s; after his Story of a City was published in 1998.

Interlink brought out Endingstranslated by Roger Allen, in 2007. This didn’t show up in my initial searches — thanks to @humanprovince for the note — perhaps because the author’s name is transliterated here as ‘Abd Al-Rahman Munif.

I could find little discussion of him as a writer, and only one of Munif’s short stories seems to be available in English online: “The Open Door,” posted on the prolific Short Story Project. And although there were a few voices calling for a translation of Munif’s East of the Mediterranean, I found no evidence of an excerpt.

Munif published more than two dozen books; his final novel appeared in 2005, a year after his death.

1) “The Open Door,” tr. Hannah Amit-Kochavi. It opens:

The last thing I decided I would do before going away was to say farewell to my grandma.

By noon I was watching Ghasreen, a small town located at the heart of a small valley. It looked strange to me, repulsive with its long bare trees and old densely packed houses in the middle, with some distant houses at the edge of the strange hills. Wind crosses the roads coarsely, making me shiver, combining cold with fear.

2) Cities of Salt, tr. Peter Theroux.

The first book of Munif’s classic Cities of Salt quintet seems to be posted, in its entirety, on the University of Warwick website.

3) Excerpt of Variations of Night and Day, tr. Peter Theroux. It opens:

4) An excerpt from The Trench, also tr. Theroux, also on the Penguin Random website.

5) An interview with Nawzat Shamdin, translated by Basim Mardan, in which Shamdin talks about reading Munif’s East of the Mediterranean at age eight:

The first book that I read was for adults, East of the Mediterranean, by the renowned author Abdul Rahman Munif. I read it when I was eight years old. The main character of this novel is an Arab person living in a prison. Munif never actually identifies the country where the events of the novel are taking place. …. So I had the sense that the setting of the novel was somewhere not so very far away, and the scenario of a character living alone in a prison cell, in solitary confinement, had a huge effect on me. The character was subjected to torture: they put him in a very big bowl of water in the middle of the desert, and they left him chained there, frying.

You can imagine, for a child my age those images were extremely terrifying. All the images that I was reading in the novel mirrored actual events in my childhood in Mosul. In the novel, the regime constantly praised itself with propaganda; in Mosul, we were reading slogans in the streets that there might not be life without Saddam Hussein. The persecutors in the novel wore army uniforms – the same uniforms as the members of the regime in Iraq, the same uniforms as the Baath Party, the same uniforms as the police and the party members who were hunting deserters in Mosul, who were executing them right in front of their houses and who were charging the family of the executed person the price of the bullets they used in the execution.

6) “An Arabian Master,” by Sabry Hafez. It opens:

The premature death of Abd al-Rahman Munif on 24 January 2004 brought to an end the career of not only a major Arab novelist but also one of the most remarkable figures of contemporary world literature. It is difficult to think of another writer, in any language, whose life experience and literary enterprise has the same kind of dramatic range—or whose writing remains under posthumous ban in his homeland. Among Middle Eastern societies, the Saudi kingdom has notoriously been in the rearguard of any kind of modern culture. Yet this is the society that was to produce, however indirectly and involuntarily, one of the most advanced and incendiary writers of the Arab world, politically active as militant or technician across five countries, author of fifteen novels—including the most monumental of all modern narratives in Arabic—and another nine books of non-fiction. It will take some time for the scale and detail of this achievement to be fully registered. But an interim account is overdue.

7) Abdelrahman Munif and the Uses of Oil,” by Peter Theroux. It opens:

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

This portentous judgment of natural history and politics (and religion, and more, the more you reread it) came not from an evangelical pulpit or a Tory backbencher’s stemwinder. It was the opening sentence of John Updike’s review of Saudi dissident Abdelrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt in the New YorkerOctober 17, 1988.  As the novel’s translator, I felt let down by the emphasis on oil instead of the story. I got used to it, though—the Village Voice would entitle a later Munif review “The Price of Oil,” and still later the New Republic reviewed two of his novels under the headline “Petrofiction.” Munif would write sixteen novels, the first in 1973, and nine works of nonfiction, but his success in American publishing would come from documenting what Amitav Ghosh, writing in the New Republic, called “The Oil Encounter.”