Abdelrahman Munif – One of My Favorite Writers of the Twentieth Century


No other writer has had as deep an impact on changing my view of the world as Saudi Arabian writer Abdelrahman Munif with his powerful novels in ‘The Cities of Salt’ series. Abdelrahman Munif opened my eyes to how the real world operates. The two novels ‘Cities of Salt’ and ‘The Trench’ are masterpieces and are must-reads as far as I am concerned. They contain some of the most moving scenes I have encountered. I personally believe that Munif should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature before Egyptian author Naiguib Mahfouz, although I have read and treasured several of Mahfouz’s novels. Maybe they both should have gotten the Nobel Prize.

Munif wrote 15 novels, but all of his work has been banned in Arab countries and only a few of his novels have been translated into English. I was very lucky to discover Munif and read his novels.

First, some background on Abdelrahman Munif. He was born a Saudi Arabian national in Jordan in the year 1933. He studied law in Baghdad and Egypt, and got his law degree from the Sorbonne and also got a doctorate in oil economics in Belgrade. In 1963, he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship for his political activity and his opposition to the Saudi royal family. Forced into exile, he then moved to Syria to work as an economist in the oil ministry and also as an editor of ‘Oil and Development’ magazine. In the late 1970s, he quit working in the oil industry to concentrate on his fiction writing. He died in 2004 at the age of 71.

What is the message of Munif’s novels? Through his fictional characters, Munif traces the shift over decades of Arab society from an almost egalitarian community into one dependent on oil and the shift from a spiritual Islamic society into a radically authoritarian Islamic state. These shifts occurred because of the rise of the oil industry and the resulting foreign, British and American, influence. The Arab people, except for the Saudi royal family and a ruling few, became “the subjects of injustice, deprivation and oppression”. The great majority of Arabs in the oil countries have become victims of their rulers and of the foreigners. With his oil background, Munif had a deep understanding and appreciation of the lives of the characters in his novels. Edward Said has said of ‘Cities of Salt’ that it is the “only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans, and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country”.

The tragedy is not in our having the oil, but in the way we use the wealth it has created and in the future awaiting us after it has run out. Trees were cut down, people uprooted from their land, the earth dug up and oil finally pumped out only to turn people into a crowd of open mouths waiting for charity or a crowd of arms fighting over a piece of bread and building an illusory future…Oil could have been a road to the future, but what actually happened is nothing like that. As a result, we shall again have to face a sense of loss and estrangement, this time in complete poverty.” – Abdelrahman Munif

Munif was a dedicated foe of monarchy and dictatorships and the despots who control most of the Middle East’s oil. The Yemen conflict shows that the Middle East despotic crisis continues and only gets worse.

Is the world now so depraved that a murderer’s victim is at fault, that a man is imprisoned for seeking his rights? Can a man take all this and remain silent?” – Abdelrahman Munif

In his writings he exposed the complicity between the oil companies and the brutal repressions inflicted on the Arab people by undemocratic, unpopular, oil empowered regimes that he calls “genocide by environmental means.”

But if Munif’s novels were only political diatribes, I would not have liked them so much if at all. Abdelrahman Munif had the talent of a superior story teller and his characters come alive so that the reader cares what happens to them. He savagely ridicules the despotic rulers of these oil countries while his empathy clearly lies with the average people who are trying to make a go of it in these difficult circumstances.

Read ‘Cities of Salt’ and ‘The Trench’ and watch your view of the world change. If my words haven’t convinced you, perhaps these words from Graham Greene about ‘Cities of Salt’ will: “An Arab novel – and an excellent one at that.  It opens up new vistas for the imagination.”




6 responses to this post.

  1. Sounds fab. Never heard of him or his books. I have been a frequent visitor to the UAE over the years (to visit family) and have often been troubled by the bright glittering facade it presents when I know there’s so much more bad stuff going on beneath the surface. I will look Munif up. Thanks for bringing him to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Kim,
      The Saudi Royal family is very influential not only in Arab countries but even in oil company countries such as Great Britain and the United States. Munif is banned in the Arab countries, and less than readily available in the English speaking world. I will be very interested in getting your reactions to his work.



  2. He sounds very interesting…how did you come across him?

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      In the early 2000s, I was in the midst of my fascination with Graham Greene. I checked out a collection of his book reviews from the library, and he had a very positive review of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. So I read that then and was so impressed that I read The Trench also within the next two months and was just as impressed with that novel.



  3. I read and liked this Munif trilogy about twenty years ago. I too wished they were better known and more widely read. I appreciate your spreading the word.

    Liked by 1 person


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