Abdelrahman Munif, R.I.P.


The Saudi author Abdelrahman Munif has died at the age of 70 in Damascus. Why should that matter? First, because his five-book Cities of Salt saga (published as a trilogy in English by Vintage International), particularly the first volume, was an unsparing account of the formation of a Gulf petro-monarchy?in effect Saudi Arabia?written in the days when, at least from an American perspective, the corruption and cruelty inherent to such systems were largely ignored.

Second, because Munif, who was as unsparing in his criticism of American involvement in transforming Gulf backwaters where oil had been discovered, long ago anticipated the destructive cultural rift that would ensue between the U.S. and conservative forces in the Gulf kingdoms.

The Al-Ahram Weekly obit linked typically misses the point: Munif?s ?legacy will live on as something over and above literature?the struggle of a truly pan- Arab citizen to attain historical lucidity and to retrieve the right to self expression.?

That is a reference to the fact that the Saudi authorities deprived Munif of his nationality. But what Al-Ahram missed was that the experiences of this allegedly pan-Arab citizen did more than anything to reaffirm what a terrible idea pan-Arabism was, since its success would have merely added more layers of stifling patriarchal rule. Indeed, that Munif should have turned to communism and died in Syria was a testament to what abysmal alternatives secular Arab opposition figures are often left with.