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Unpublished Munif Interview: Crisis in the Arab World – Oil, Political Islam, and Dictatorship
By Iskandar Habash
This interview was conducted by the author with Abd al-Rahman Munif for the French magazine, L'Orient Express in 1999. Due to its length, a shortened text appeared in the French magazine. Following the death of Abd al-Rahman Munif in late January 2004, the Lebanese daily As Safir republished the full Arabic text of the interview for the first time. The English version (translated by Elie Chalala) appears exclusively in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, no. 45.
Habash: Those who are familiar with your life note that you started studying economics, and that you received a doctorate in the economics of oil before you moved to literature. How did you come to the novel from “oil”?
Munif: My great gamble was in politics, but after I experimented with political activism, it became apparent that the available political methods were insufficient and unsatisfactory. As a result, I started the search for a formula to connect with others and to express their concerns and the concerns of the historical period and the generation. Given my hobby of reading, especially the novel, I thought that my reading and command of expression would enable me to substitute one tool with another. Instead of the political party or direct political action, it was possible for the novel to be a means of expression. This is why I came to the novel. As for economics, especially that of oil, it was useful background for reading societies, mainly the powerful ones, at this current stage. Thus, economics and other sciences could assist the novelist in reading and understanding the factors that shape society. This places the novelist in a better position as far as his narrative tools are concerned.
Between Literature and Politics
Habash: Why did you find the political means non-democratic? Are you not also concerned that the novel would develop into a political more than a literary discourse?
Munif: Concerning the first question, we as a generation can possibly be called a transitional generation; we were burdened with an immense load of dreams and desires for change and at the same time a group of political parties presented themselves as a vehicle to bring about change. But, in fact, our dreams were greater than our resources. The political parties which existed, and whose remnants still exist to date, were too weak and not able to instigate the process of change. They were primitive in their ideas and means. They were not connected with the movement within society, and subsequently what they presented were mere slogans rather than political programs. When these parties faced the real test, their weaknesses and failures became apparent, and this explains their decline, as well as that of the individual. This individual had a sort of dream to become a part of the movement of history, only to discover that these parties are not the appropriate medium for this mission.
“Oil joined and embraced political Islam, providing it with the much needed power, and what we witnessed in Afghanistan offers the most important example. At the same time, oil enabled dictatorial regimes to continue practicing the cruelest forms of repression.”
As far as the second question, it is natural that instead of the novelist being disappointed outside the political party, he will move toward society through a political vision. But with the passage of time and increased experiments, he discovers society to be richer and more diverse than the political discourse. Thus the novel evolves into reading society and giving expression to its concerns and dreams, and becomes more than mere political discourse. As you indicated in the previous question, other sciences like history, economics, and sociology facilitate the reading of the movement of society and its conflicts, both collectively and individually, and this is what the novel attempts to express constantly through general and diverse writing.
Habash: Whoever reads your novels no doubt will discover something constant–that is the image of the tormented intellectual. Why? What do you suggest the role of the intellectual in the Third World be today?
Munif: In the beginning of the 20th century and before political parties were formed, there was a presupposed role of the intellectual, whether intellectuals acted on their own or had the role delegated to them by society. Thus the Arab renaissance at the end of the 19th century and the onset of the 20th can be considered as a movement of intellectuals in the first degree. We can cite in this context a large number of intellectuals who express this phenomenon.
At a relatively later time, political movements represented by parties and social forces appeared and found it necessary to have their intellectual voices expressing their concern, just as had been the case for the tribe and its poet. In another period, when these parties became ideological, if we can use that expression, they started to demand that their intellectuals become political advocates involved in political mobilization and incitement. When these political parties retreated, they rationalized their failure by the failure of the intellectuals and their inability to perform the necessary and enlightening role. At the same time, the intellectuals assumed that it was possible that they could become a substitute for the political party; thus, there was, from a very early period, confusion about the position of the intellectuals and their role and relationship with the political party. In my first novels, I attempted to portray the breakdown and defeat of the intellectual. In a subsequent period, I discovered that the intellectual is not everything in the novel and life. Life is richer and broader than this category, for even if the role of the intellectual retreated before other sectors in society, such a role resembles a multi-dimensional mirror; even if one or two sides go dark, the intellectual is still able to see the concerns of the period and its possibilities through the remaining parts.
As for the present role of the intellectual in the Third World , undoubtedly this is an important question that needs to be discussed carefully. I am convinced that the intellectual is a fundamental partner in the process of change and enlightenment, and while he must have a critical position, he should abandon the position of incitement or propaganda, and instead should engage in a broad dialogue–whether with himself and his ideas or with the ideas of others–in order to define the proper strategies. In other words, the intellectual can neither be a substitute for the political party nor its mouthpiece. Henceforth, he must have a critical position, a different one, but this requires a democratic principle and a plurality of viewpoints and opinions.
As far as the exact definition of the place, this doesn’t mean much to me for one major reason–the difference between one place and another is relative, marginal, and insignificant. If, for example, we discuss the political prison in a confined place such as Iraq or Saudi Arabia, it seems as if I am exonerating other places or as if the political prison does not exist in these places, especially when we know the political prison exists from the Atlantic to the Gulf to be exact, whether in terms of its environment, means, or concerns.
Habash: You mention in the dedication to your novel “When We Left the Bridge,” “The memory of many failures past and others that are on the way.” That was in the beginning of 1976. Today, after more than 20 years, do you still have this position? What has changed?
Munif: I said that the “seven drought years” were still going on and would continue until the end of the century (20th) or even afterwards. It is possible that there will be major shocks, especially in stagnant societies, such as Saudi Arabia or the like. Civil wars are likely to be a feature of this next era. Poverty will increase and there could be starvation revolts, as happened in the 1970s and 1980s. Political conflict will continue, although in my estimation, the fundamentalist trend has already reached its peak and is bound to retreat. The major problem is that there are no alternatives, no forces or programs that could comprehend today's situation and rationalize it and give it a positive dimension. This means we will continue to see confusion and search for the form of relationships in society which could pave the way for the establishment of civil society and the beginning of pluralist democracy.
Habash: You wrote “The Eastern Mediterranean” in the 70s, wherein you dealt with a wide range of issues to which you returned in the early 90s in the novel, “Now Here, or the Eastern Mediterranean One More Time.” Why this return? Do you think you will re-examine this issue in a new novel?
Munif: When I wrote “The Eastern Mediterranean” I hadn't published any other novel, thus I was my own censor, a role that prevented me from saying everything in the first novel and subsequently led me to write the second one “Now Here…” in order to settle my scores with the political prison. “Cities of Salt,” for example, covers a period of history of the region, a phase extending to the changes in oil prices, which ushered in a new phase that someone else could cover. But on the whole, there are many issues, whether political, social, or human, which form important material for novel writing. Now I am in the midst of another novel, but I do not rule out that in the future; if necessary, I could go back to the “Cities of Salt,” although I empathize with the people whose time limitations prevent them from reading new parts of the same novel. Though the author can follow a different approach by focusing on the essence and the tensions caused by the dominance of oil, it remains difficult to return to “Cities of Salt” one more time.
Habash: Do you still think that our real problem lies in oil?
Munif: Our crisis is a trilogy: oil, political Islam, and dictatorship. This trilogy is the factor that led to the collapse, confusion, and consequently to the suffering lived by Arab societies in their search for the road to modernity. Oil joined and embraced political Islam, providing it with the much needed power, and what we witnessed in Afghanistan offers the most important example. At the same time, oil enabled dictatorial regimes to continue practicing the cruelest forms of repression. The increase in oil and wealth coincided with an increase in reaction and dictatorship which spread throughout the region, mainly due to the inability of other political forces to stand up to the challenges.
Habash : Place is nowhere to be found in your novels, and to be exact, it remains ambiguous. What explains this ambiguity?
Munif: As far as the exact definition of the place, this doesn't mean much to me for one major reason–the difference between one place and another is relative, marginal, and insignificant. If, for example, we discuss the political prison in a confined place such as Iraq or Saudi Arabia, it seems as if I am exonerating other places or as if the political prison does not exist in these places, especially when we know the political prison exists from the Atlantic to the Gulf to be exact, whether in terms of its environment, means, or concerns. Thus, I consider the generalization of this subject is the ultimate specificity because everyone is responsible and everyone suffers from the same problem. This is a special reading of society influenced by the nature of my life and movements, an experience that had given me a clear idea about the nature of these societies, the common denominator which unites them, and which in turn led me to discover no essential difference between one place and another, especially in the negative aspect of it.
Habash: What about Beirut : does it not constitute a difference from this dominant society?
Munif: Perhaps reading the civil war, which lasted from 1975 to the early 1990s, offers the true meaning of the level of modernization this society reached and its relationship with time. In other words, excluding the external shell layer, Lebanon also remained a hotbed of backwardness and divisions which are related to old and primitive societies. Perhaps there is a difference in form and appearance between one place and another, but the Bedouin oil blessing, which at one time was confined to the desert, had moved to all Arab cities and it had become the force defining not only politics but culture, ways of life, and the human concerns in this region.
“...the intellectual can neither be a substitute for the political party nor its mouthpiece. Henceforth, he must have a critical position, a different one, but this requires a democratic principle and a plurality of viewpoints and opinions.”
Cities and Features of Life
Habash: In your book about Amman , you seem predisposed toward writing the “autobiography of a city,” but this story is discussed within a particular history, from the 1940s until the Palestinian migration. Why this autobiography? Why did you frame the discussion within this history? Do you find Palestinian migration to Amman a reason for its economic and architectural birth?
Habash: It is a multi-dimensional question. First, I do not find much writing about cities in our modern literature, and much of the life features associated with these cities would start to disappear unless documented through means which could keep them alive in memory. My writing the autobiography of the city aims at urging many authors to write about two important things: cities and childhoods.
Habash: To what extent does autobiography play a role in your novels?
Munif: It is possible to distinguish between two things: the novel and other writings. In the novel, there is a role or impact, albeit a small one. But as far as the subject of the novel, its characters, and life story, I am convinced that every author has some of himself in what he writes, and this is distributed in varying degrees and forms among the characters. The character of the intellectual in some of the novels, for example, does not necessarily mean the life story of the writer. Just the opposite – there are certain characters where the author aims at criticizing them. Certain uneducated characters, according to common definitions, could represent in part some of the author's life story. The level of fiction in the novel is abounding and so the level of desires and dreams. I believe, however, autobiography can be a basic obstacle in novel writing. As far as other writings are concerned, and precisely “ Sirat Madina ” (The Autobiography of a City), “Urwat al-Zamman al-Bahi” (The Bond of the Beautiful Time), and to a lesser extent, “Rahlat al-Fan wa al-Hayat” (The Journey of Art and Life) on Marwan Qassab Bashi, were documentation of a certain period, precisely defined through places and names which point at issues of relationship to the journey of the author and his human relations and political direction. I said once that if an author decided to rely on autobiography in his writing, it is possible to write only one novel, but it can be an important and exciting one, given the intimacy that characterizes autobiography.
Habash: What about your writing on Marwan Qassab Bashi (a Syrian artist)?
Munif: There is more than one reason: First, I like fine art and thus it is natural to share this appreciation with the public. Second, there are precedents of authors and poets who “read” and wrote about the works of artists. Third, there is a rupture between the arts, especially in the Arab world, where each art grows separately from the others, a condition that weakens art in general. However, at a time when the novel is becoming capable of building bridges between these arts, offering insight into each other, the novelist is establishing relationships with the novel as well as with theater and film.
This interview is adapted from a slightly longer Arabic version, which appeared in the Cultural Section of the Lebanese daily As Safir. The translation is by permission.
This interview appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, no. 45.