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Existentialism in the Works of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf

Author(s): Geula Elimelekh

Source: Oriente Moderno, NUOVA SERIE, Anno 94, Nr. 1 (2014), pp. 1-31
Published by: Istituto per l'Oriente C. A. Nallino
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'«»* ORIENTE MODERNO 94 (2014) 1-31

Existentialism in the Works of cAbd al-Rahmān


Geula Elimelekh
Bar Ilan University - Israel
geulai8o@gmaiL com


This article examines existential themes in three of ťAbd al-Rahmān Munīfs novels:

The Trees and the Murder of Marzüq, East of the Mediterranean and Here and Now
East of the Mediterranean Revisited .
The innovation of existentialist literature lies in the strength with which it describ
alienation in the modern era, the meaninglessness of life and the pursuit of truth a
absolute values. Munīfs characters reflect the central themes of existentialist philos
phy and literature. Like the protagonists of Sartre and Camus, they are aware of th
absurdity of human existence and attempt to rebel against it, though often rebellio
leads them to death and obscurity.
Munīfs works, some of which belong to the unique Arabic prison literature sub-genr
highlight individuality and authenticity in his characters and portray other issues th
preoccupy Western existentialist writers: anxiety and distress, fear of death, loneline
alienation and moral decline. In Munīfs literary world the existentialist fate is inevi
table. However, most of his leading characters do not give up and do not succumb t
fate, but fight against it in body and spirit Across the spectrum of his writings, Munīf
indomitable, yet highly human figures live and die lives committed to the existenti
ideals of freedom and authenticity, because they are aware that if they give up t
struggle, all hope for a better future is lost.


Abd al-Rahmān Munīf - Existentialism - Alienation - Commitment - Absurdity -

Individualism - Exile literature

© KONINKLIJKE BRILL NV, LEIDEN, 2014 | DOI 10.1163/22138617-12340036

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Introduction: Western Existentialism and Arabic Existentialism

'Abd al-Rahmān Munlf adopted existentialist thought and commitment

whole-heartedly. The central tenets of both Western and Arabic existentialism
are a powerful undercurrent that runs through all his works. And yet not all of
Munlf's fast-growing cadre of scholarly readers and critics has recognized his
devotion to existentialism as a way of life and a modern literary topos that
has the sweeping potential to overcome the forces of tyranny, extremism and
violence that control large swathes of the Arab world.
In order to discuss Munlf's unique place in existentialist literature, I must
first briefly review the relevant elements of classic Western and the new Arabic
existentialism. The central proposition of Western existentialist philosophy,
that man's existence precedes his essence,1 grew out of the crisis of values that
began in the end of the nineteenth century, when Friedrich Nietzsche
announced the "death of God." Man found himself in an absurdist world, in a
world without a deity, in which science can reveal the mechanical workings of
nature but cannot discover the reason for their existence or any rational moti-
vation for the existence of man and the universe.
The absurdity of existence evokes in man a sense of horror, disorientation,
loneliness and anxiety. He experiences an existential fear - which is a fear of
death - and attempts to find a way to render his existence tolerable. In the
absence of God, he is forced to bear the full responsibility for his existence and
shape his life and environment as best he can in order to confront his terror
and the absurdity of his plight.
The existential philosophers and writers invite us to contemplate our exis-
tence, experience it and discover the full scope of its implications. Man, they
say, cannot escape himself and his existence, but must experience them as a
dynamic process, an ongoing and unique progression of decisions and choices
between various possibilities.
The Danish writer and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), consid-
ered to be the spiritual and historical father of existentialism,2 introduced into

1 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Humanism. Trans, and intro. Philip Mairet. London,
Methuen & Co., 1946, 1965, p. 26-27.
2 The term "existentialists" generally refers to a number of nineteenth and twentieth century
philosophers who address the concrete questions of man's existence through a philosophi-
cal-conceptual (and sometimes also literary) prism, stressing the tragic nature of the human
condition. John Macquarrie writes that existentialism is not a "philosophy" (in the sense of a
common body of doctrine) but rather of "a style of philosophizing " one that can lead those
who use it to very different conclusions about the world and man's existence in it. However,
despite this, the three great existentialists - Kierkegaard, Sartre and Heidegger - share some

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Western thought the concept of man who stands full of fear and trembling as
he faces the most basic and fateful questions of his existence.3 Notions of soli-
tude, authenticity, anxiety, despair, death and the absurd4 are central to exis-
tential philosophy. Man, living in this world, is perceived as being limited by
death and as suffering from profound isolation and existential anxiety.5
Existentialist philosophy and literature reached its peak after World War II,
which saw the greatest horrors of the twentieth century, because this philoso-
phy and literature address the basic question of life, death, selfhood and the
realities of the modern world, and presents modern man as standing alone in
the struggle to confront his fate.

characteristics that allow us to call all three "existentialists." The foremost of these is a style
of philosophizing that begins with man rather than with nature. It is a philosophy not of the
object but of the subject - a subject who not only thinks but also is an initiator of action and
a center of feeling. Furthermore, the existentialists founded their philosophy on a broad exis-
tential basis and eschew any narrow rationalism or intellectualism. The dominant issues that
concern them - such as freedom, decision and responsibility - are not the stuff of abstract
philosophy, but are at the core of human experience. The focus is on the individual searching
for authentic selfhood and pondering the meaning of life. Macquarrie, John. Existentialism.
Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1972, p. 14-17.

3 According to Kierkegaard, man is alienated from himself, from the world, and from reality,
asking himself: "Where am I? What does it mean to say: the world? What is the meaning of
that word? Who tricked me into this whole thing and leaves me standing here? Who am I?
How did I get into the world? [. . .] How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actual-
ity?" Kierkegaard, Seren. Fear and Trembling /Repetition. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H.
Hong. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 200.
4 Richard E. Baker writes that the existentialist writers in the twentieth century gave different
definitions for the sense of the absurd, but all their definitions involve "the same dialectical
experience of an individual trying to relate to an irrational world." Baker, Richard E. The
Dynamics of the Absurd in the Existential Novel. New York, Peter Lang, 1993, p. 1.
5 Martin Buber in The Knowledge of Man discusses some possible causes for the anxiety and
loneliness that afflict many in the modern world, namely: changes in social life and the rise
of the individual at the expense of the family and community, which increase one's isolation
in the world and create a sense of disorientation and depression. Buber, Martin. The
Knowledge of Man. Atlantic Highlands, nj, Humanities Press International, 1988, p. 63.
Shlomo Shoham presents a different approach to the notion of solitude. He writes that,
according to Kierkegaard, authentic existence is in solitude: "The solitude of the individual is
a unique loneliness because his inner core is linked with an umbilical cord to unity. Of this
the individual can be aware if only he turns inwardly to his 'pure-self.' By prodding into his
inner self, Man is revealed to truth and to a God, which are synonymous." Shoham, Shlomo
Giora. Rebellion, Creativity and Revelation. Northwood, Middlesex, UK, Science Reviews
Limited, 1985, p. 235.

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most profound and difficult question: how to deal with the absurdity of exis-
tence. They contended that man has three options: to commit suicide; to
deceive himself; or to recognize the absurdity, rebel against it and strive for
Camus favors the third option, arguing that man must live the absurd. That
is, he must acknowledge the absurdity of existence and thus bear the doom
that was best described by Sartre when he said, "Man is condemned to be free."
Man is required to rebel against the absurd and strive for the full realization of
his essence. One who does so is an authentic being whose existential morality
defines his freedom as long as it does not infringe upon the freedom of others.
In his seminal article "Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the
Intellectual History of Decolonization," Yoav Di-Capua discusses the Arabic
adaptation of existentialism largely from a philosophical, historic, political
perspective, and literature. He first notes that Egyptian philosopher
ťAbd al-Rahmān Badawl's doctoral dissertation titled al-Zamān al-wugüdJ
(Existential Time, 1944)» "investigated how time shapes individual existence
It argued that 'true existence is that of the individual. The individual is the
subject that necessitates freedom. The meaning of this freedom is the very
existence of possibility.' "10 Six years later, Badawl presented a new philosophy
for "our generation" (Badawl's words), which he called "existentialism
(■ wugüdiyyah ), and though it shared the name of the European movement, it
was not simply a carbon copy of it, but rather a series of formulations and
adaptations that collectively sought to create a new postcolonial Arab subject:
confident, politically involved, independent, self-sufficient, and above all

Di-Capua argues that the advent of Arabic existentialism as a major cate-

gory of Arab thought coincided with the worldwide process of decolonization
and the rise of the first Third World regimes. Arab intellectuals employed vari-
ants of existentialism in order to meet the multiple challenges of decoloniza-
tion: cultural contradictions, uneven development and the consequent social
injustice, a struggle for full physical liberation, and the derivative search for an
alternative Cold War political space.12 Di Capua stresses, however, that Arabic
existentialism did not emerge as a uniform and monolithic philosophy but as

10 Di-Capua, Yoav. "Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the Intellectual History of

Decolonization American Historical Review, vol. 117, no. 4 (2012), p. 1067. See also Badawl,
łAbd al-Rahmān. "Hulāsat madhabinā al-wuģūdi: al-Zamān al-wugùdl". In idem, Dirāsāth
ß l-fatsafah al-wuģūdiyyah. Cairo, 1966, p. 236-263.
1 1 Di-Capua. "Arab Existentialism". 1061.
12 Ibid. 1062.

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Munīf and His Existentialist Foundations

At this point we turn to Arab writer 'Abd al-Rahmān Munïf,15 who praised the
individual's right to freedom, his duty of responsibility and authenticity, the

13 Ibid. 1061-1064.
14 Ibid. 1067-1068.
15 'Abd al-Rahmān Munlf (1933-2004), a novelist, economist and intellectual, was born in
Jordan to a Saudi father and Iraqi mother, and grew up in Amman, spending summer
vacations with his family in Saudi Arabia. He spent his adult life living in many differ-
ent countries in both the Middle East and Europe. In 1952 he went to Baghdad to study
law, and there he became politically active and joined the Ba't Party. After the Iraqi
authorities banished him from the country for his political activities, he moved to Cairo,
and completed his law degree there. In 1958 he traveled to Yugoslavia, where he stud-
ied oil economics on a Ba't Party scholarship, and obtained a doctorate in this field in
1961. Subsequently, Munlf worked for the Ba't Party in Beirut for a year, but following
the party's ascension to power in Iraq and Syria in 1963, he became critical of the violent
nature of its Iraqi coup. This led the Ba't government to deny him entry to Iraq when he
needed it most, having recently been stripped of his Saudi nationality for openly oppos-
ing the Saudi regime. He spent the next ten years living in Syria and working at the Office
of Economic Affairs; however, his growing disillusionment with the Ba't Party led him
to resign from it in 1965. Munlf's first book, a study of the oil industry, was published
in 1972, and was followed in 1973 by his first novel, The Trees and the Assassination of
Marzùq. The success of the latter encouraged him to leave his clerical job in Damascus
and move to Beirut, where he worked as a journalist. After publishing his second novel
East of the Mediterranean in 1975, he moved to Baghdad and took a job in the Ministry
of Economics. During the next few years he published three more novels: When We
Abandoned the Bridge (1976), Endings (1977) and Long Distance Race (1979)- After the out-
break of the Iran-Iraq War, he left the Middle East for France; it was here he wrote his

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search for self-identity and meaning of life, which Badawl claims that the phi-
losophy of Heidegger, one of the founding existentialists, is based on. One criti-
cally important concept Badawl did not address was that of Sartrean
"commitment" or engagement, which was beginning at the time to gain
immense momentum in the East. Both Munlf's life and works exuded existen-
tial commitment, a notion to be discussed at the end of this article.
Munlf's works, some of which belong to the genre of the prison novel and
which also emphasize the individualism of the protagonists and address many
of the issues that concern the existentialist writers as noted in the paragraph
above and in addition, the more negative existentialist elements - angst of a
depressing and anguished existence, fear of death, isolation, alienation and
moral decline - all of which are explored through the protagonists' perceptions
and experiences.16 The experience of existence is the individual experience of

famous quintet, Cities of Salt (1984), and later Here and Now, or East of the Mediterranean
Revisited (1991). Soon after this, increasing financial difficulties forced him to leave France
and return to Damascus, where he spent the rest of his life. His last novel The Dark Land
was published in 1999. For a full review of Munlfs life and works, see Hafez, Sabry. "An
Arabian Master". New Left Review, vol. 37 (January-February 2006), p. 39-67.
16 The writers of Arabic prison novels were influenced by Western existentialist literature
and philosophy, which peaked in the 1940s. Researcher Sabry Hafez points out that many
Arabic novels chose to address the issues of political freedom and assassination from an
existential perspective, rather than a purely political and social one. For instance, the
Syrian writer Muta' Safadī's čilal-Qadar (Destiny's Generation, 1961),
presents the question of freedom and the human rights that ensue from it by inter-
twining the protagonist's existential freedom and his desire for individual growth,
although this personal quest is challenged by the state of affairs in the Arab world. For
example, when their organization fails to assassinate the dictator, the characters in the
novel believe that their failure was due to an absurd coincidence that saved the dicta-

tor's life. Their enthusiasm to assassinate the dictator does not seem to spring from
their rejection of his tyranny and their wish to eliminate his non-democratic policies,
but rather emerges from a lustful desire for self-fulfillment [. . .] This existential view of
freedom, although it differs from the social or political ones, still emphasizes the
importance of freedom as an essential human right, and this work demonstrates the
bloody consequences of its absence in the Arab world. Sabry Hafez, "Torture,
Imprisonment and Political Assassination in the Arab Novel", www.arabworldbooks.
com/Articles/ article60.htm (accessed June 12, 2013).
Focusing on Egyptian literature, the critic 'Alijad writes,
The ideological vacuum which followed a sense of over-saturation with socio-political
novels, the disillusionment and alienation with the social/political situation in Egypt
in the late 1950s and 1960s and the early 1970s, seems to have been filled, partly but
considerably, with a complexity of ideas, attitudes and poses covered by such blanket
terms as 'Existentialism,' 'absurdity' and 'revolt' (particularly as these can be traced

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This paper explores some existential themes in three of Munlf's novels: The
Trees and the Murder of Marzüq , East of the Mediterranean , and Here and Now
or East of the Mediterranean Revisited .

Dislocation and Homelessness

All three novels are profoundly concerned with dislocation and homelessness,
which are intimately related to alienation - a dominant theme in existentialist
literature.18 In his philosophical treatise "The Myth of Sisyphus," Camus
explained that the sense of estrangement and alienation stems from a sense of
the absurd, "A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar
world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and
light, man feels an alien, a stranger."19 Camus' statements clarify that man finds
a discrepancy between the existing reality and an imagined desired reality, and
therefore feels alienated and estranged from the world. The world seems irra-
tional and incomprehensible, and therefore unfamiliar. Alienation character-
izes not only the relationship between man and the world, but also the
relationship between individuals, between the individual and society, and
even between the individual and himself. The state of alienation has several
manifestations, including a sense of dislocation, homelessness and loneliness,
as well as withdrawal and a preoccupation with the meaning of life and death.
Alienation may be both the cause and the effect of all these.
Alienation is especially acute for people living in exile. Munlf, who was
stripped of his Saudi citizenship for his criticism of the regime, and who spent
much of his life wandering restlessly from country to country, experienced this
at first hand. In his book The Writer and Exile , he wrote,

1 8 The term "alienation" has many diverse and sometimes conflicting definitions addressing
its various sociological, philosophical, economic, religious, political and psychological
aspects. It is a dominant term in social theory and criticism of the twentieth century, and
is used to refer to numerous social and psychological ills involving the severance or sepa-
ration of elements that belong together: individuals alienated from one another, man
severed from his religious beliefs and traditional values, etc.
Alienation is also central to the literature and philosophy of existentialist writers and
thinkers. Kierkegaard, as an early example, regards man as alienated from himself, from
the world and from reality (see n. 3 above). Martin Heidegger believes that man experi-
ences the world as foreign and strange, and that this is the source of the anxiety, which is
a fundamental component of human existence. Sartre believes that each individual is
isolated from others by an unbridgeable abyss.
19 Camus. Sisyphus. 6.

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20 Munïf, 'Ab
dirāsāt wa-1-na
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22 HalabI Zein
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Edward. The Ed


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Exile is strangely compelling to thinking but terrible to experi

the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a na
between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be

surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain

heroic, romantic, glorious even triumphant episodes in the exile's life,
these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of
estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined
by the loss of something left behind forever.23

The protagonists in Munlfs three novels - like Munlf himself - are all exiles in
some sense: all of them are on the run, either from their homeland or within
their homeland, and they are constantly on the move, whether by choice or
out of coercion. Their sense of dislocation and homelessness is accompanied
by feelings of fear and alienation, estrangement and isolation, which afflict
them even within the confines of their community, their family and their own
souls. They suffer from a lack of inner calm, since dislocation and homeless-
ness are the antithesis of wholeness and harmony. This sense of dislocation is
a universal condition that characterizes not only Munlf's characters but also
modern man at large.

Dislocation and Homelessness in The Trees and the Murder of


Published in 1973, The Trees and the Murder of Marzüq (henceforth Trees)24
is MunīPs first novel, which tells the story of two men - the intellectual Mansùr
and the peasant Ilyas - whose lives are characterized by suffering and restless
wandering. In his book The Writer and Exile , Munlf speaks of two types of
exiles: those who flee political persecution and those who leave their home-
land for socioeconomic reasons.25 Mansur and Ilyas represent these two cate-
gories, respectively.
The novel consists of two parts, a section called "Diary," and an epilogue.
The first part begins with Mansūr 'Abd al-Salām, a history professor living in an

23 Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, ma, Harvard University
Press, 2002, p. 173.

24 Munlf, łAbd al-Rahmān. The Trees and the Murder of Marzüq. Beirut, al-Mu'assasah
al-łarabiyyah li-1-dirāsāt wa-1-našr, 2003, (Arabic). All subsequent page numbers for this
novel refer to this edition.

25 Munlf. The Writer and Exile. 79-80.

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teach the h
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p. 292-296.
27 Badawi, M. M. "Two Novelists from Iraq: Jabra and Munīf". Journal of Arabic Literature ,
vol. 23, n. 2 (1992), p. 146.

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land, but at the same time he is abandoning his chosen field of study, namely,
modern history, and instead, turns to ancient history. Paradoxically, this escape
to ancient history is meant to free him of his past. In his monologue he tries to
convince himself to discard the past and "never look back," to "let everything
go and try to forget" - though he knows that the authorities have not forgotten
him and are watching him day and night. He asks himself,

What is a homeland? Is it the soil and the naked hills? Is it the harsh eyes
that spew hatred, [molten] lead and contempt? Should a homeland make
a person starve and wander the streets in search of a living, with the
secret police on his tail? (p. 22).

Away from his land and home, Mansūr feels that something within him has
broken and that he will never again be like other people. One of the scenes that
best describes his sense of alienation is the one in which he reaches a city and
finds it sleeping like "a wounded man whose blood has been draining away
from him all day. People's faces look like "pieces of sticky rubber" and he him-
self is like "a corpse in search of a grave" (p. 198). The atmosphere in this pas-
sage conveys loss of life and lack of humanity.
Dislocation and alienation are also apparent in the scene where he speaks
of people's faces "shrinking, melting and fleeing until nothing is left but a con-
stant nightmare that stays with me until the day I die - a nightmare named
Mansūr Wbd al-Salām" (p. 196).
Feeling alienated, indeed, from his own soul, Mansūr asks himself, "Do you
know yourself, Mr. Mansūr? Where are you going? Why are you going?" (p. 197).
This feeling is conveyed with particular poignancy when he says, "I died many
years ago, and three people attended my burial" (p. 188). Mansūr's state of dis-
location is also manifest in his inability to marry and build a stable home and
family - a theme that is echoed in Ilyãs' tale as well.
Ilyãs' story begins in the second chapter of the book, after his meeting with
Man§ūr. It is initially related by Mansūr and later by Ilyãs himself in the first
person. Ilyãs is a penniless wanderer who has left his village, al-TIbāh, because
he felt like a stranger and a refugee there. He tells Mansūr that his village began
to change when the peasants started to cut down their orchards and replace
them with cotton. Ilyãs, who also had an orchard, refused to do the same,
remembering his father's words to him when the trees were first planted:

These trees are like children; they are even more precious than children.
I do not believe there is a man in the world who would kill his own chil-
dren. Please look after them after I die, I leave them to you as a trust.

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can supply him with all his basic needs - his cave, for instance, is cool in sum-
mer and warm in winter. He also befriends the wild beasts, who shunned him
at first He concludes that "when living in the mountains, man becomes a won-
derful being," and if the people of al-TIbāh had led this kind of natural life, they
would have been much happier.
Munlf tries to present a solution to modern man's misery: return to nature,
to the primordial. As mentioned, the disengagement from the primeval, from
one's roots, is the key factor to the human being's suffering.
In fact, Ilyas' philosophy seems to echo that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who
held that modern life has distorted man's true nature. According to Rousseau,
modern man has traded his untamed, natural state, which afforded him the
freedom to choose his own way, with an artificial society that shackles him and
subordinates him to those more powerful than him. Society, Rousseau said, has
subverted and corrupted man's original, virtuous character, creating a reality
where "all of man's customs are nothing but control, constraint and
Munlf follows Rousseau in decrying the harm caused by modernization to
traditional communities. His monumental masterwork Cities of Salt tells of a
Bedouin community that undergoes profound changes after oil is discovered
in its territory. The novel documents the economic, social, cultural and psycho-
logical repercussions of modernization in the oil countries, and describes the
heavy price ancient communities pay the "new imperialism" that serves the
interests of these oil countries.

Returning to Ilyas' fall in the novel Trees , the critic Sabry Hafez writes that it
"is representative of the destruction of a rural community and its way of life
that had become the experience of so many ordinary Arabs. But Munlf does
not exonerate him from responsibility for his plight, as the contradictions in
Ilyas' narrative multiply to reveal an ingrained mentality of defeat, which
thrives on accepting fate and attributing blame for it to others."30
Eventually, Ilyas returns to civilization and tries his hand at various trades.
He finds work as a furnace attendant in a bathhouse, but soon quits because he

life and thereby 'chooses' his own identity." Ted Honderich (ed.). The Oxford Companion to
Philosophy. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 68.
29 Rousseau writes in Emile that "God makes all things good; man meddles with them and
they become evil. He forces one soil to yield the products of another, one tree to bear
another's fruit [. . .] He confuses and confounds time, place and natural conditions. [. . .]
Prejudice, authority, necessity, example, all the social conditions into which we are
plunged, would stifle nature in him and put nothing in her place." Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.
Emile, or Education. Trans. Barbara Foxley. London, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1911, p. 4-5, 11.
30 Hafez. "An Arabian Master". 42.

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misses the tree

work as a peddl
falls in love w
back to al-TIbāh
childbirth, caus
him away from
Hannah is a sy
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the condition o
death, the auth
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Ultimately, Il
marred by his
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and lack of pea
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a tree, a man
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A tree cut dow
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released, the t
asks his brother
law says, "This

3 1 Munlf, 'Abd al
dirāsāt wa-1-našr


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is dead and gone." The protagonist replies, "Trees of this kind, the tall and thin
ones, make me sad. I have long detested the poplar and the cypress. They are
depressing trees" (p. 58). The tree is associated with the past: the protagonist's
life was destroyed in prison and his ties with his past were severed, so the tree
must be cut down as well.

Trees thus explores two universal existential themes, which are intimately
interrelated. The first is the misery and distress of humanity that has lost the
connection with its ancient heritage that once supported and nurtured it. This
heritage is represented by Ilyas' deep-rooted trees and their demise, a symbol
which when cut down literally severs them from their roots, a clear metaphor
for Ilyas' uprooted life story. The loss of their heritage leaves the two protago-
nists wandering in an endless and hopeless circle, prevents them from putting
down roots and eventually leads them to perdition.32 This disengagement is
noted as the source of misery, alienation and anxiety in modern times.
The second theme is in fact the solution to the reality: the misery caused by
the loss of man's connection with nature. Following Rousseau, Munlf yearns
for a simpler, primordial age in which man was at one with nature and thus
enjoyed purity, innocence and mental wholeness. He believes that the discon-
nection from nature transformed man from a happy into wretched being
enslaved by his material desires. Man, says Munlf, destroyed his life with his
own hands.

Alienation and Dislocation in East of the Mediterranean

The protagonist Rajab Ismā'īl in Munlf's East of the Mediterranean (henceforth

East) is a political activist who is jailed and whose health is ruined by the tor-
ture and hardship he endures in prison. After five years behind bars, and after
he agrees to sign a written confession and promises to refrain from political
activity in the future - an act that leaves him feeling like a traitor to his own
beliefs - he is released and allowed to travel to Paris for medical treatment.
Following a brief stay at his sister Anisah's home, he boards a Greek ship bound

32 In Sun' Allāh Ibrahim's novel That Smell, the nameless protagonist, after his release from
prison, wanders the streets of Cairo, where he encounters the alleged "new" society, "satu-
rated with the smell of political repression and the smell of the emerging bourgeois con-
sumer society." The narrator moves within the closed circle of his own self, because of his
inability to make contact with reality. See Mehrez, Samia. "Sonallah Ibrahim and the
Hi(story) of the Book." In: idem, Egyptian Writers between History and Fiction. Cairo,
American University in Cairo Press, 1994, p. 42.

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for France. Even

undergoes furth
Rajab is an alien
lessness, lonelin
his imprisonmen
homeland create
wandering, of b
The novel opens
waiting to take
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33 The sea as a lim

the infinite. We h
us - indeed, we ha
out! Beside you is
out like silk and g
ize that it is infin
bird that felt free
the land as if it ha
Friedrich. The Ga
p. 180-181.

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away . . . Harbor of misery, may you be a harbor of no return, the last

patch of homeland (p. 7).

The scene takes place at dusk, an hour associated with romanticism, but also
with loneliness, yearning and sadness. The description is impressionistic,
focusing on the passing moment and on shifting reflections, colors and light. It
is also absurdist and even surreal: the death-dance of the slaughtered rooster is
demonic, and the people are dehumanized, distorted and contemptible,
resembling puppets or beasts more than human beings. The overall impres-
sion is grotesque, alien and disturbing. It seems that the impending departure
from the homeland causes a shift from the real to the odd and surreal - a sense

of estrangement that begins even before Rajab actually leaves his home, and
thus underscores the deep rift between the two worlds, the East and Europe.
Rajab is about to leave his country, where he feels like an outsider, and the
expression "harbor of no return" reflects his loathing for this land. At the same
time, however, it also reflects his feeling of being uprooted and torn from his
land. Rajab is doubly homeless, for he has neither a home to yearn for nor a
safe haven to escape to. He has no past and no future, and the present too is
unreal. Rajab's speaks his words to the ship, reflecting his estrangement from
the human world. This state of isolation continues during his ocean journey:
the other passengers sit in a circle while he remains outside it, removed not
only from his land and family but also from everyone around him.
The antithesis of alienation and dislocation is represented in this novel by
two female characters: the protagonist's mother and his sister. Before his
departure, they are the only source of warmth and comfort in Rajab's life, and
the novel describes them in idealized terms as a complete contrast to the gro-
tesque and brutal world. The mother is likened to a bird: "She hovered in the air
like a large bird whose wings beat the air" (p. 41). Elsewhere, she is likened to a
rock. After he is incarcerated, she often waits for hours outside the jail to
receive permission to visit him, and, though the visits last only ten minutes,
they are a source of encouragement and strength that helps him to survive.
In the Munlf's follow-up novel Here and Now or East of the Mediterranean
Revisited (henceforth Here and Now),34 the mother-figure is again likened to a
bird. One of the two protagonists, Tāli4 al-'Urayfì, also a released political pris-
oner, sees his mother "reach out like a bird spreading its wings, as though try-
ing to take [him] there, to that place where peace and quiet prevail and nobody

34 Munlf, 'Abd al-Rahmān. Here and Now, or East of the Mediterranean Revisited. Beirut,
al-Mu'assasah al-łarabiyyah li-1-dirāsāt wa-1-našr, 2001 (Arabic). All subsequent page num-
bers refer to this edition.

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attacks anyo
ing her you
the earthly
ideal spouse
and comfort

Silence as a Manifestation of Alienation

Silence - presented as an aspect of alienation and estrangement from human

society - is a central motif in both East and Here and Now. In the former novel,
Rajab often prefers to refrain from speaking or to address his words to inani-
mate objects like the ship Aeschylus , as we saw above. His silence is, among
other things, a means of concealing and protecting himself by maintaining
anonymity. Aboard the ship, he yearns to join his fellow passengers, who are
singing melancholy songs, but decides that it is safer not to: "I stood behind
the mast and the desire to sing [filled] my throat like boils waiting to burst [. . .]
But then I decided to remain silent. Silence is a healing potion. I had learned to
drink it constantly, and I had healed" (p. 80).
In Here and Now the narrator 'Ādil al-Hālidl and his friend Tāli' al-'Urayfì are
political prisoners who are hospitalized in Prague after being severely tortured
in the prisons of their homeland. Despite the dedicated care of the medical
staff, Tāli' eventually dies, and 'Adii, shocked to the core by the death of his
friend, takes a vow of silence, which exacerbates his state of loneliness, turning
it into a kind of chronic sickness. "In the heavy days of June, anguish lay in wait
for me in every place and at all times. With the constant reliving of the past and
the silence I had imposed upon myself, or which Tāli°s absence had inflicted
upon me, loneliness became an additional disease" (p. 59).
In another part of the novel, Tāli' says that Hilāl, his cellmate, advised him
to remain silent during interrogations. "They are convinced that you are an
important person who possesses a lot of information. That is why they have
protected you so zealously until now. They only had conjectures and specula-
tions. That is what I felt during the interrogation, and therefore I want you to
remain silent, as you have so far, whether you are in fact one or not" (p. 277).
Tali' says that this taught him a lesson in silence, the most important lesson he
had ever learned.
Silence in this novel characterizes not only human beings but also inani-
mate entities, like the fictional city of 'Amuriyyah. In modern literature, large

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cities are often associated with a lack of communication and solida

causes people to cloak themselves in silence or to retreat into a world o
tasy. 'Amuriyyah is a case in point, for it is described as "the city of
death and longing. Its people had learned the virtue of patience and ha
doned life, becoming filled with a yearning for Heaven" (p. 302). Suffer
ship and alienation, the people of 'Amuriyyah paradoxically long f
which will allow them to exchange the city's deadly silence for th
Paradise - which is the complete antithesis of the prisons here o
'Amuriyyah, like the ship Aeschylus , is an inanimate entity, but its ver
conveys the cry of the oppressed and the tortured.35


Existentialism deals with life in an age that has seen the decline of religious
faith and the belief in absolute truth - a development that has led many to feel
a sense of loneliness and isolation. Loneliness is born of the feeling that no
man can truly communicate with another, for one's sense of being is so unique
that it cannot be described or shared. Loneliness is also a result of silence. In
East , Rajab's sister Anlsah understands that a man who is always silent is nec-
essarily lonely, for his silence creates a barrier between himself and others. She
berates herself for not forcing her brother to speak of his years in prison,
because "a man, no matter how strong, is worth no more than a fly when he is
alone! Rajab was lonely, [though] it was he himself who had chosen that soli-
tude . . ." (p. 302).36
Rajab's feelings of alienation and loneliness reach a climax in his hotel
room in Paris. Before his arrival he yearns to be in this city but, once there, he
discovers that Paris does not welcome foreigners - especially ones who roam
her streets full of worries and anguish - and treats them with harshness and
arrogance. It accepts them, but without compassion or respect. Looking out of

35 In Trees, too, cities are associated with death. Ilyãs speaks of a big city that "eats away at a
person's internal organs until the day he dies." He adds, "Death in these cities is an every-
day occurrence [. . .] while in a village, people die only when they are tired of living (p. 89).
36 As we saw, Rajab is largely responsible for his own loneliness, for he isolates himself from
others, such as his fellow passengers on the ship. When he does attempt to draw close to
those around him, he is unsuccessful. For instance, at one point of the novel, he says,
"I yearned to speak to someone, anyone. Had I spoken to someone then, I would have told
[him] everything. But nobody spoke to me, and I found [people] distant, as though sepa-
rated from me by continents of ice. And even if I do speak, will anyone hear me? Will
anyone understand why I left [the prison]?" (p. 148-149).

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the window,
will appear i
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This passage
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Rajab, and
Edward Said
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37 Said. Refle
38 In The Plag
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protagonist is
it new meanin
out of man's


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guage. In the second part, it is represented by a tyrannical regime, which seeks

to control every aspect of the citizens' lives, including their intellect, emotions
and behavior, thwarting and crushing anything that does not conform to its
despotic demands. Indeed, the lives of Ilyas and Mansūr become a living hell.
Both of them succumb to death, and Mansūr comes back to life every day only
to die again.39
Many passages in the novel evoke death. When the customs clerk asks
Mansūr if he has anything to declare, he replies, "I declare that I do not exist"
(p. 191). His fortitude, courage, confidence and ability to resist are shattered by
the loss of his freedom, which leaves him weak and helpless, and with a self-
destructive streak. Mansūr says, "Everything has shattered within you, has
turned into a thin and wretched ash. You cannot come together again to
become a man like other men" (p. 197). Trapped in a crisis without reprieve,
he renounces all the values for which he has lived. His hopes of realizing the
ideal of freedom are dashed, his dreams are shattered and he falls into an abyss
of despair.
As for Ilyas, Mansūr describes him as "a man of about 50, of about 100, age-
less, who does not exist, who has always existed, invisible as dust" (p. 180).
Mansūr also declares himself to be "dead, long absent from reality" (p. 191).
Conversely, the geography professor Marzùq in Trees , who is the embodi-
ment of freedom, dignity, social belonging and noble values, and who repre-
sents all the precious lives lost due to the tyranny of the regime dies physically
but continues to live on in the hearts of his friends. He is dead but alive, while
Ilyas and Mansūr are living but dead.40
The fear of death in Trees is an existential fear because it is the protagonists'
constant companion. The picture is totally dark, without ever a glimmer of
light, and thoughts of death and the absurdness of life permeate the charac-
ters' consciousness.

In East , Rajab also describes himself as "dead." While spending a few days
with his sister Anisah at her home before setting off to France, he notices a
picture of himself on the wall and says, "There is no resemblance between
us . . . Whose face is that? One of us is dead" (p. 12). After Rajab leaves, Anisah
waits impatiently for a letter from him, and when it comes she is overjoyed.
She wants only to know he is alive, no matter how ill or miserable. "Everything
in life can be cured," she says, "the only thing that has no cure is death itself"
(p. 116). However, lack of meaning in life - also one of the main pillars of

39 Al-Nābulsī, Šākir. Madār al-Sahrď. Beirut, al-Mu'assasah al-'arabiyyah li-1-dirāsāt wa-1-

našr, 1991, p. 491 (Arabic).
40 Ibid. 492.

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tence is so poin
one" (p. 178). Il
life meaningles
[. . .] If we pon
In Here and N
following the
when my grief
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material compo
ence that it is
accepted as an

41 Freud, Sigmun


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Czech scientist Purkinje, dreams serve to refresh and heal the soul. Purkinje

The mind is loath to continue the tension of the waking life, but wishes to
relax it and recuperate from it. It creates, in the first place, conditions
opposed to those of the waking state. It cures sadness by joy, worry by
hope and cheerfully distracting images, hatred by love and friendliness,
and fear by courage and confidence; it appeases doubt by conviction and
firm belief, and vain expectation by realization. Sleep heals many sore
spots in the mind, which the day keeps continually open, by covering
them and guarding them against fresh irritation.42

The word "dream" occurs with noticeable frequency in Munlf's works, often
referring to his characters' night dreams. However, the night dreams experi-
enced by Munlf's characters do not usually serve to ease the fears and bitter-
ness of their daily lives. On the contrary, they are nightmares that reproduce
and mirror the characters' worst fears: their fear of death, disease, failure, help-
lessness and loss. They are like a steel trap that ensnares the characters and
does not let them forget their grief. Munlf presents two ways of remedying the
existential distress of man: by going back to nature (as seen in Ilyãs' story) and/
or by escaping into dreams or fantasy or both.
In East Rajab's brother-in-law Hamid (his sister Anlsah's husband) observes
that "the dreams of night are worse than the torments of the day" (p. 74). In
Trees , Mansūr says, "Sleep is a nightmare for me. It is a torment worse than the
torment of the day. I saw myself standing at the edge of a steep cliff, with a pack
of predatory beasts slowly advancing towards me. [. . .] I stepped back and sud-
denly fell" (p. 28). As mentioned, Ilyãs has a dream on the night he loses his
orchard, in which he sees a tormented, weeping tree, and also sees his father's
face covered with scars or bleeding wounds (p. 49). After the death of his
beloved first wife Hannah, Ilyãs says, "Once again my life has been tarnished,
but now it is Hannah who is tarnishing it, for her ghost comes to visit me every
night" (p. 137).
This view of dreams corresponds to the approach of existential literature.
As mentioned, existential literature explores the terror that permeates human
existence. Nightmares are a medium that reflects this terror and the anxiety
that accompanies it. Even if an individual escapes this terror during the day, it
haunts him during the night, when he is unable to avoid it.

42 Freud. The Interpretation of Dreams, 28.

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Interestingly, M
them, accepting t
Sartre and Camu
fate, even if it is
Alongside night
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dreams, I could n
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have become yel
dreams! (p. 126).

Mansūr, too, trie

novel says of him
would sometime
another part of th

43 al-Rayyāhī al-Qus
Tunis, Kulliyat al-'ul
44 Gaston Bachelard
direction. Hence, th
(reverie), because th
plot or interesting r
rêverie. Paris, upa, i


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world. I want only to dream" (p. 311). However, unlike Ilyas, he has less faith in
the healing power of daydreams. He tells himself, "Your dream will not last. It
will collapse like a sand castle on the beach" (p. 197). When Ilyas gets off the
train, and Mansūr no longer has someone to share his memories with, he tries
to dream and reminisce. But, being much more pessimistic than Ilyas, he can-
not conjure up beautiful fantasies and memories. He tells himself that, unlike
Ilyas, he has no trees and no land, and that even if he had a piece of land, he
would probably turn it into a grave.
It should be mentioned that, even for Ilyas, daydreams are not always a
source of solace and comfort. Over time, many of his dreams turn into obses-
sive thoughts and hallucinations that pursue him endlessly and disrupt his
daily life. His nostalgic dreams of his orchard, for instance, become an obses-
sion: the imagined scent of earth starts to follow him wherever he goes, day
and night. At a later point in the novel, when he finds employment as a furnace
attendant in a bath house, his hallucinations make it difficult for him to work.
When he tries to cast firewood into the furnace, the sticks suddenly seem to
him like the limbs of his trees in al-Tībāh, and the smoke reminds him of a liv-
ing thing burning, which causes him great anguish and eventually prompts
him to quit the job.
In their tendency to trade reality for a world of fantasy, Munlf's protagonists
to some extent resemble other existentialist leading characters who cannot
overcome the intense compulsion to think.45 For example, the protagonist of
Sartre's Nausea says,

My thought is me: that's why I can't stop. I exist because I think and I can't
stop myself from thinking [. . .] The hatred, the disgust of existing, there
are as many ways to make myself exist, to thrust myself into existence.
Thoughts are born at the back of me, like sudden giddiness. I feel them
being born behind my head.46

45 al-Rayyāhī al-Qusantlnl writes that in many of MunlPs works the notions of "thinking"
and "dreaming" are closely related. For example, in Trees, Ilyas says, "At that time I began
having crazy dreams. I started to think and dream a lot" (p. 150). Looking at a girl sitting
beside him in the train, Mansūr says to himself, "Perhaps you will dream more and maybe
you will think you are extending your hand towards her hair [...]" al-Rayyāhī al-Qusantlnl.
al-Hulm wa-L-hazimah. 39-40.
46 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. Trans., Richard Howard. New York, New Directions, 1964,
p. 99-100.

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In Sartre's Age
Mathieu began t
was: thoughts
thoughts."47 M
their own head
past and their m
resembles Math
class intellectua
a simpler man a


The works of Sartre and Camus made a tremendous impact on the Arab intel-
lectuals; Sartre's influence was particularly great, especially among the literary
circles in Beirut, as well as in Cairo and Baghdad. His ideas - in particular the
notion of "commitment" - became central for the new generation of novelists,
essayists and poets who sought radical change and involvement in the burning
issues of their societies. The literature of the day was profoundly committed to
Arab causes such as Palestine and Algeria.49
Camus' idea of commitment to a life of revolution even after the revolution
was officially over was compatible with the political realities for Arabs, with
neocolonialism, and with the message of Nasserism that the revolutionary sit-
uation authentically emerged "from the self" (i.e., that it is existential).50
Sartre's more political brand of existentialism was endorsed by Lebanese
novelist and literary critic Suhayl Idris,51 and by the mid-1950s this approach

47 Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Age of Reason. Trans., Eric Sutton. New York, Vintage Books, 1973,
p. 220.
48 Glicksberg. "Literary Existentialism". 11-12.
49 Jabra Ibrahim Jabra observes that Arabic writing in the last half century has been domi-
nated by three themes: social justice, political struggle and a moral evaluation of the
human condition. This trend gained special momentum in the 1950s, when existentialist
writings began to appear in Arabic. Jabra, Jabra I. "Modern Arabic Literature and the
West "Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 2 (1971), p. 87.
50 Di-Capua. "Arab Existentialism." 1081.
5 1 Suhayl Idris expounds ideas clearly derived from the existentialists in his Asābi'unā aliati
tahtariq, which is a confession of his policy as the editor of a cultural magazine. Even the
title of Jamil Jabr's Qalaq reveals the influence of existentialist thought, and most of the
Syrian and Lebanese writers show something of the same preoccupations. Their novels
concentrate on the individual and his philosophical development, and though none of

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overshadowed Badawl's more philosophical and politically-disinterested

brand. For Idris, existentialism was not just a philosophy but a mode of action.
Later in life he said, "I did not understand existentialism as a philosophy but as
a social and political doctrine which put the values of liberty and responsibil-
ity, so urgently needed in the Arab world, into the center of ethical behavior."52
Idris arrived in Paris in the 1940s, when Sartre an existentialism was in
full swing and writers and artists felt they had to create a committed literature
and art.

We might say that ťAbd al-Rahmān Munlf followed Suhayl Idris. Munlf's
works reflected the excitement of freedom in the Western world, the same
freedom that so excited the Arab writers who came to Paris after World War II.
Using the resources of the Arab state, which misleadingly represented itself
as the flag-bearer of freedom, Arab intellectuals spoke of a Sartrean commit-
ment to a revolutionary life. Intellectually, this ethos was indebted not only to
Sartre but to Albert Camus' notion of metaphysical revolt against reality.
Camus' idea of revolution as a state of being, which continues even after the
revolution's political goals have been achieved, suited the political realities and
climate in the Arab world at the time, and jibed with the Nasserist claim that
the revolutionary situation authentically emerged from the self and was there-
fore existential.
Camus' idea of commitment to a life of revolution and sacrifice and revolt
and Sartre's committed responsibility, are reflected in Munlf's characters:
Rajab Ismā'īl in East of the Mediterranean, and Taliť al-'Urayfï and 'Ādil al-Hālidl
in Here and Now or East of the Mediterranean Revisited , and Mansūr ťAbd
al-Salām and Ilyäs Nahiah in The Trees and the Murder of Marzüq. All these
protagonists are characterized by a sense of responsibility towards the society
in which they live, and commitment to do eveiything possible to fulfill the
basic need for freedom, which is the need of every human being.

them advocates the retreat to the ivory tower, they are disinclined to depict a panorama
of society or to see the class struggle as the determining factor. Their heroes are commit-
ted in a less practical sense than the Egyptians'.
It has been suggested that the Lebanese and Syrian preference for existentialism is due
to the great volume of translations of existentialist writers emanating from Beirut, and
the existence there of a technical vocabulary unfamiliar to other Arabs. Kilpatrick, Hilary.
"The Arabic Novel: A Single Tradition?" Journal of Arabic Literature , vol. 5 (1974),
pp. 105-106.
52 Di-Capua. "Arab Existentialism." 1075. See also Klemm, Verena. "Different Notions of
Commitment ( Iltizām ) and Committed Literature (ai-adab al-multazim) in the Literary
Circles of the Mashriq". Middle Eastern Literatures, vol. 3, no. 1 (January 2000), pp. 51-62,
here p. 55.

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These charact
Mansūr ťAbd a
desire to expr
Ilyas Nahlah, is
heritage of his
Munlf's ideal
thus they refle
fice their spirit
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Frantz Fanon's
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Charles Glicksberg writes that existentialism was an important innovation in

fiction not because it introduced new literary forms or structures, but because
it addressed the most fundamental questions of human existence. The modern
protagonist, unlike the solid and virtuous heroes of the nineteenth century, has
neither duties nor rights, neither loyalties nor responsibility. He questions and
doubts everything. According to the existentialist point of view, man attempts

53 "In its philosophical version, it addressed the question of authenticity - a key aspect of
the effort to decolonize the self. In its version as iltizām, it functioned as a powerful politi-
cal tool, marginalizing the colonially complacent intelligentsia and drawing a younger
generation into concrete political struggles both at home and abroad. Existentialism thus
tied the Middle East to the worldwide anti-imperialist movement of the 1960s and to its
prominent leader, Jean-Paul Sartre. Finally, in its literary form, existentialism criticized
the ongoing retreat of the Arab subject in the face of an allegedly liberated society and
tolerant state" (Di-Capua. "Arab Existentialism." 1090).

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to give meaning to reality when it is nothing but a collection of deceptions and

illusions with nothing behind them. At the same time, man remains responsi-
ble for his own life and for his thoughts and anxieties, which confirm his

The innovation of existentialist literature lies in the intensity with which it

describes man's alienated state, his insignificance, and his futile search for
absolute values and truth. Existential principals are suffering heroes who bear
their anguish alone. Richard Baker, however, counterbalances the essential
negativism of existential thought by recalling the all-pervading notion of com-
mitment: ". . . it is this way of existing - through a passionate choice, a revolt
against any moral or metaphysical absolutes, and a total commitment to free-
dom - that becomes the focal point of existential thought."54
In fine, Munif's works uniquely blend the Western brand of existential anxi-
ety with all its darkness with the more optimistic Arabic existentialism, which
accepts the existence of evil, but for all the power invested in evil, one must
continue to believe and act in defiance against it. Munif's characters may attest
to the absurdity of reality ("1 cannot explain what is happening on the face of
the earth," says 'Ādil al-Hālidī) and suffer loneliness, depression and distress,
yet they ponder the meaning of life and conclude that life cannot be meaning-
less (thus echoing Camus' character Sisyphus). However steeped in existential
anxiety they may be, they transcend the individual experience to become a
universal phenomenon. Munlf and his works are expressions of authenticity
and devotion to freedom. And throughout his oeuvre, he imbued his protago-
nists with an almost inhuman willingness to commit themselves to revolution-
ary ideals despite the inevitable existentialist outcome, because to give up the
struggle would spell the end of any hope of a future worth living in.

54 Baker. The Dynamics of the Absurd. 1.

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