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.

Munif’s father was a Saudi caravan trader from Najd who travelled widely in the Middle East, establishing homes in Syria and Jordan as well as Arabia; his mother was an Iraqi from Baghdad. He was born in Amman in 1933, the youngest son in the family, a few months after the first concession to the Americans to explore for oil was signed by Ibn Saud in Riyadh, an event to which he linked his own fate. For the arrival of the Americans heralded the beginning of the end of a world in which merchants like his father could roam freely in the Arab lands, unhindered by borders or politics. Soon after Munif’s birth, his father died. The family remained in Jordan, where he was brought up largely by his Iraqi grandmother, while his elder brothers took up their father’s trade, and provided for the household. Munif has left us a vivid description of his childhood in Amman, where he went first to a kuttab for traditional learning of the Qur’an, before being admitted to an elementary school next to the headquarters of Glubb Pasha, the British commander who largely ran the Transjordanian state for the Hashemite dynasty under the Mandate.footnote1 Political events pressed on the boy from the start. Among his first memories were the mysterious death of Ghazi, king of Iraq, in 1939, and the pro-Axis—because anti-British—sympathies of most ordinary people in Amman during the Second World War. In his early teens, he witnessed close-up the disastrous Arab–Israeli war of 1948, and the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians at the hands of Zionist forces with the complicity of the—now formally independent—Jordanian monarchy; events that made a profound impression on him. In the summer, he would spend his holidays with the Saudi side of the family in Najd.

In 1952 he obtained his baccalaureate and went to Baghdad to study law. At Baghdad University he found an intense political ferment. The campus teemed with political groups covering the whole spectrum from communists to the pro-British conservatives, with many shades in between, and Munif became an early member of the Ba’th Party, establishing himself as one of its most cultured and trusted cadres.footnote2 His Saudi nationality made him a prized figure in a movement of pan-Arab ambitions, providing him from the start with an advantageous position in its germinating organization. In 1955 Nuri al-Said’s regime signed the Baghdad Pact with Britain, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, unleashing a wave of protests in the region, and Munif was banished from Iraq for his political activities before completing his university education. Moving to Egypt, he arrived in Cairo in time to witness Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and live through the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of 1956. A year later he obtained his degree in law, and in 1958 won a Ba’th Party scholarship to Yugoslavia, where he studied the economics of oil at Belgrade University, completing a doctorate in 1961. Arab nationalist fervour was at its peak and the nationalization of the oil industry in Iraq was high on the agenda of the Ba’th. The party was preparing cadres who could run the industry in years to come, and Munif clearly saw his future in this field.

Upon his return to the Arab world, Munif worked for the Ba’th Party head office in Beirut for a year or so. When, in the spring of 1963, the Ba’th came to power almost simultaneously in Iraq and Syria, he was critical of the brutality of the Ba’th coup and its aftermath in the former. This led Salih al-Sa’di’s government to deny him entry to Iraq when he needed it most, having recently been stripped of his Saudi nationality as a threat to the kingdom.footnote3 In the autumn, when a counter-coup ousted the Ba’th regime in Iraq, he went to Syria, where the party held on to power, and worked in the Oil Ministry for a decade (1964–73). But it seems that his years in Yugoslavia had radicalized Munif, endowing him with too much sceptical humanism and questioning intellectualism to be a good party member. Gradually becoming a discordant voice in its ranks, he resigned from the Ba’th in 1965. But he remained committed to a revolutionary transformation of the Arab world. In the years after the searing Arab defeat in the Six Day War and the crushing of Palestinian resistance by the Jordanian monarchy in 1970, he wrote his first book, a well-documented study of the future of the oil industry. Published in Beirut in 1972, it laid out many of the basic policies later pursued by the Iraqi Ba’th.footnote4

In the following year Munif published his first novel, Trees and the Assassination of Marzuq.footnote5 Coming to fiction late, when he was almost forty, he could draw on first-hand knowledge of political life in several Arab countries, and an intimate experience of certain kinds of revolutionary organization and their outcomes. By this time, the scene had darkened nearly everywhere. In Syria, the radical anti-imperialist wing of the Ba’th leadership had been ousted when Hafez al-Asad toppled Salah Jedid, in an epilogue to the Jordanian Black September, and a more repressive regime installed. Nasser, after a vicious persecution of the Egyptian Left, had expired while publicly embracing King Hussein. Such was the immediate background to Munif’s earliest works of fiction, architecturally characterized by a striking dualism. Trees and the Assassination of Marzuq opens with two strangers meeting on a train in an unnamed Arab country.footnote6 The first, Ilyas, is an ordinary man who has lost his orchard in a gamble and the woman he loved in childbirth, and with them all traditional bearings and peace of mind. Descending into the alienated world of hired labour, as a waiter, hotel worker, street vendor, he clings to the hope that a better life is still possible at the next station of his life, that a kinder woman and more beautiful trees can yet be found. His fall is representative of the destruction of a rural community and its way of life that had become the experience of so many ordinary Arabs, but Munif does not exonerate him from responsibility for his plight, as the contradictions in Ilyas’s narrative multiply to reveal an ingrained mentality of defeat, which thrives on accepting fate and attributing blame for it to others.

The fellow traveller to whom he tells his story is, by contrast, an intellectual, setting out to serve as interpreter to a French archaeological mission looking for clay tablets in the desert of a neighbouring country. Mansur too is a product of loss, formed by a catastrophe on a larger historical scale, the Palestinian nakbah of 1948. Conscripted to fight in one of the Arab armies against Israel, he saw at first hand the spirited enthusiasm of the young soldiers of the time, and cannot come to terms with the way in which the disaster has been absorbed by the surrounding regimes. ‘I understand that we are defeated once, I understand that we are defeated a hundred times, but what I cannot understand is that we conceive our defeats as victory’. Like many Arab intellectuals Mansur then goes on to spend several years studying in Europe, before returning to teach history at a university, which from the outset he wants to do with a difference—‘certainly not the history of the kings, hucksters or pimps who try to look like roosters, but of simple people who went unnoticed, whose names no one mentioned in a book, or bothered to inscribe on a piece of marble’. This approach to the past does not endear him to the authorities, particularly when he draws the attention of students to the farcical way in which Faisal was crowned King of Iraq in 1920. Mansur’s questioning of the legitimacy of the Arab regimes, his exposure of the rampant corruption and lies that dominate public life in the Arab world, and above all his reminders of the constant Arab failure to check the Zionist colonial project, make his brand of history lethal and inadmissible. He is interrogated and dismissed. After three years of unemployment, poverty, humiliation and excessive drinking, he is granted a passport to go into exile—a condition that would become one of Munif’s most frequently recurring themes.footnote7

The interaction between these two retrievals of the past, each narrative woven with stray reminiscences and repeated digressions, gives a sharp questioning edge to the novel as it probes the sensitive question of continuous Arab defeat from the perspective of the insider. The university teacher is no more able to master his fate than the farmer. Typically, Mansur cannot reconcile private life and public roles; unable to take the Belgian girl he loved in Europe back with him, he also refuses to stay in Europe for her, and is then no more successful with an Arab woman at home. Personal and political failings reflect each other. The conclusion of the novel takes the form of a third-person report by a journalist. On learning that his principled friend Marzuq has been murdered by the regime at home, Mansur tries to shoot himself in the mirror, and ends up in a mental asylum. But what becomes of his contemporaries is worse. As he tells an old comrade who has become one of the beneficiaries of the new regime: ‘I trust that previous generations were better than ours, for as soon as our generation took the stage, it descended into corruption, chicanery, nepotism and kleptocracy. It is the ugliest of generations, but it does not recognize this’. Trees and the Assassination of Marzuq can be read as a lesson in the alternative history for which Mansur suffers exile, its narrative discourse undermining every official version of the past and present of the Arab world since the time of the Mandates.