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Book review: A literary treasure by Abderrahman Munif

A new book of the Saudi writer's letters reveal his passion for painting and how it changed his thoughts about writing

Sayed Mahmoud, Tuesday 21 Feb 2012
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Tanweer Publishing House and the Arab Institution for Studies and Publishing have uncovered a new literary treasure in the unpublished letters of renowned late Saudi writer Abderrahman Munif. The letters, which were addressed to his Syrian friend, the painter Marwan Qassab, have been collected in a new book titled Adab Al-Sadaqa (Literature of Friendship).

Abderrahman Munif, who was born in 1933 and died in 2004, is one of the most important Arab writers of the 20th century. His work reflected the social and political reality of the Arab world, illustrating the violent shifts Gulf societies witnessed during the 20th century.

Munif is best known for his five-volume novel Modon Al-Malh (Salt Cities) which narrates the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, and his novel Sharq Al-Motawasset (East of the Mediterranean) that draws its lines around the Arab intelligence agencies and torture in prisons.

The letters, published eight years posthumously, reveal many aspects of Munif's personality related to his passion for painting and his thoughts about writing as a device for expression.

Followers of Munif's work know that he wrote two books on two Arabian great painters, the first book devoted to Iraqi painter Jabr Elwan, titled Jabr Mousica Al-Alwan (Jabr; The Music of Colours) and the other book devoted to Marwan Qassab. The letters published in this new work reveal how the idea of a book about Qassab came about, and how it was written and published.

On a letter dated 18 May, 1994, Munif sent questions to Qassab asking for answers, and throughout these answers the book was shaped. Yet the interesting thing about the letters is that they put us face-to-face with the artistic expression problems writers face while writing about a great painter.

Qassab and Munif met for the first time in 1956, but days separated them until they met again during the 1990s and become intimate friends.

Lebanese writer Fawaz Al-Traboulsi who wrote the preface of the book, described the letters as ‘rare,’ yet also representing a rare testimony about the process of literary and artistic production, and the relation between them. They also include a prophecy of the recession that will face the Arab regimes.

In the earlier letters, Munif focuses on the process of artistic creation. The famous writer whose work still features among bestsellers, envies the painter as he "possess freedom as god; he has the right to recreate the world as he desires with no restriction drawn by others." Painting, according to Munif, is equally a letter to the other as it is a letter to the self. Munif envies the artist to the extent that he found writing dissatisfying.

Munif says with a remarkable courage, manifesting his pain, "I sit to the table to write for a couple of hours every day, but I find myself totally empty. I find myself hungry but never able to eat. It's a rare condition that I face for the first time. So either I change the expression device I'm used to or accept again to violently continue my way." But the letters reveal that Munif sought to learn painting.

The letters give the reader insights on how he can receive a painting and create tools to read it. Qassab speaks of the purity of the painting in exchange for the impurity of the word; for Qassab colour is more neutral than words.

Though the reader will notice how Munif fought to avoid any political hints in his work, the letters bear simple hints to the political atmosphere he lives in, including its paradoxes and problems starting from the repeated drop of the phone line to the problems of daily life. The letters reveal his concerns and refer to the books he and his friend were reading while exchanging these letters.

Qassab sees his letters to his friend only as a kind of monologue that records a little bit of what spins between his eyes and heart. Munif sees Qassab's letters as a motivation to trespass on the holy, prevented things, just to get to know it better and have a dialogue with it too.

The painter, who lives in Berlin, does not forget to mention in his letters how hard it is to live in self-exile, away from home. Qassab was born in 1934 in Damascus but since 1980 he has lived in Berlin. Despite the luxurious life he has there, Damascus continues to be an obsession that haunts him. He writes in one letter, "In Damascus I feel tenderness and alienation too, but when I get back to Berlin I'm only a stranger and my friends are sadness, despair and isolation."

Many letters carry this romantic sense, indicating that Qassab was not like his friend Munif who was concerned with the problems of artistic expression. Most of his questions flow around the duality of "home and exile," Munif is rather concerned with transcending the isolation of the artist in exchange for the dominating presence of the writer.

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