The Case of the Missing Masterpiece, ‘East of the Mediterranean’ – A Real Life Mystery


The acknowledged Arabic masterpiece ‘East of the Mediterranean’ has never been translated into English. Why not?

‘East of the Mediterranean’ was written in 1975 by Saudi Arabian writer Abdelrahman Munif. Some of his other novels had already been published to wide acclaim, even by fellow author Graham Greene. No other writer has had as deep an impact on changing my view of the world as  Abdelrahman Munif with the powerful novels in his ‘The Cities of Salt’ series. Yet ‘East of the Mediterranean’ is nowhere to be found.

Munif opened my eyes to how the real world operates. 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.

His novels deal with the history of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia, how the United States and British oil interests came in and propped up these authoritarian Saudi princes with unlimited money and resources, destroyed the environment with their oil drilling and devastated the lives of the common people living there. His work so offended the rulers of Saudi Arabia that many of his books were banned for their scathing criticism of the oil industry in the Middle East and of the elite Saudis who played along with the oil companies.

The ‘Cities of Salt’ trilogy tells a compelling story which had a profound effect on me. It has been translated into English and is there for us to read. The message of ‘the three ‘Cities of Salt’ trilogy novels is that in the Arab oil countries, the Arabs have been the victims of their rulers and the foreigners. It is a gripping disturbing work. However according to Arabic sources, Munif’s most celebrated work is ‘East of the Mediterranean’ which has never been translated into English. Why not?

According to Arabic sources, ‘East of the Mediterranean’ reveals in graphic detail the torture and abuse that prisoners suffered in Arab prisons and detention centers of which Munif had personal experience. It highlighted the fact that “a human being in the lands east of the Mediterranean is cheaper than anything and a cigarette stub has more value than him”.

‘East of the Mediterranean’ is a political prisoner novel to rival the classic ‘Darkness at Noon’ by Arthur Koestler, yet no publisher has felt the need to translate it into English. It has been translated into German. One can obviously see that it would be deeply embarrassing to the Saudi elite and probably to some of the oil interests in the United States and Great Britain too.

Yet we readers of English are being denied an acknowledged masterpiece, and the reasons for this have never been explained at least to me.



5 responses to this post.

  1. A very enlightening review Tony. The writer and his works are unknown to me, as is the history/culture of Saudi Arabia (years ago I did read House of Saud and David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace, which is a very good account of how the national lines were drawn in the Middle East, but that’s about it). That East of the Mediterranean isn’t better known really makes you realize how important those translations are.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Janakay,
      Fortunately we do have Abdelrahman Munif’s trilogy ‘Cities of Salt’ of which Graham Greene said, “An Arab novel – and an excellent one at that. It opens up new vistas to the imagination.” I totally agree with Graham Greene. But I would like to read Munif’s take on Arab prisons in ‘East of the Mediterranean’ also.

      Liked by 1 person


  2. Gosh, Cities of Salt is expensive to buy. I’ve asked my library to get a copy…



    • Hi Lisa,
      I did see this offer for a used copy on AbeBooks. I doubt that $2.00 shipping rate would apply to Australia though. I did get mine from the library a long time ago after reading a very positive review from Graham Greene.

      Cities of Salt

      Munif, Abdelrahman

      Published by Vintage, 1989

      ISBN 10: 039475526XISBN 13: 9780394755267

      Seller: Half Price Books Inc., Dallas, TX, U.S.A.
      Contact seller

      Seller Rating: 5-star rating

      Used – Softcover
      Condition: Good

      US$ 4.50
      Convert currency
      US$ 2.00 Shipping

      Within U.S.A.

      Quantity: 1



      • Thanks, Tony, I’ll see how my request to the library goes, I linked to this review to help persuade them.
        PS Yes, US postage to Australian is breathtaking.



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