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Exiled Novelist Writes of Arab Repression

November 11, 1991 GMT

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ Abdelrahmin Munif is known in the Arab world for writing about taboo subjects like corruption and human rights. For two decades, he has paid the price.

Saudi Arabia took away his passport. Iraqi authorities jailed him for months. Many Arab countries ban his novels, which focus on what Munif sees as the main shared trait of Arab nations: a lack of democracy and rights.

″All Arab countries resemble each other in their prisons,″ the 58-year- old writer said in an interview at his home. ″There are a few simple differences in the number of prisoners and the number of prisons.

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″There are just no governments who believe in democracy.″

Prisons, corruption and the confusion caused by trying to adapt to Westerners, especially Americans, are the main themes of two Munif novels just published, one in Arabic, the other an English translation of an earlier work.

″His importance is that he writes about sensitive topics,″ said Aqil Awit, a poet and literary critic for the newspaper Sharq il-Awsat. ″He’s well-known for it.″

The book in Arabic, ″And Now Here - Once Again East of the Mediterranean,″ deals with mental torture, beatings and petty humiliations experienced by two men who are moved from prison to prison.

For Munif’s purposes, the various jails represent life in different Arab countries.

″There is no means to realize everyone’s dream of enjoying basic rights in a democratic atmosphere because the systems in the region are either feudal, tribal or military,″ he told the interviewer.

The book in English tramslation, ″The Trench,″ is the second part of a quintet written over the past decade. It chronicles the unsettling changes in a slow-paced desert society corrupted by oil wealth.

While the first volume revolved around an oil town, the second focuses on life in the capital, with the king increasingly beholden to the oil companies as the ruling family acquires vast wealth.

Other volumes in the quintet follow the country through a major political crisis, when a king is deposed and internal problems mount under the torrent of petrodollars.

Like Munif’s earlier ″Cities of Salt,″ the novel was translated by Peter Theroux and published by Random House.

Although the Arab kingdom has no name, the parallels with Saudi Arabia are unmistakable.

Munif was born in Amman, Jordan, to Saudi parents. His family is from Ayoun, a town in the Nejd, the highly conservative desert heartland of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials lifted his passport without explanation while he was abroad in 1963. Munif believes it was for political reasons.

He ruefully acknowledges one benefit of inter-Arab squabbles: He may be ostracized in the Persian Gulf, but travels on a Yemeni passport and has lived for five years in Syria, which also lacks the freedoms he writes about.

He also has lived in Lebanon, France and Iraq, where his outspoken opinions on the need for greater democracy landed him in jail.

Munif has a doctorate in oil economics from the University of Belgrade, Yugoslavia. He has been director of marketing for Syria’s state-run oil company and once edited an oil journal in Baghdad, but now devotes all his time to writing.

″I’m first and foremost a novelist, but I have political problems,″ he said. ″Political books sometimes focus on lifeless things, frozen things, while the novel reflects life.″

The Gulf War provoked agony for Munif, and many other Arab intellectuals, because the Arabs could not find their own solution and the outcome did little to alter the repression in Iraq.

He sees a bleak future unless there is change: ″After each crisis in the region, the governments promise elections, parliament, a constitution. When the storm passes they forget everything. ″Promises are one thing; implementation is something else.″

Munif finds fault with the West, especially the Americans, for lacking the will to goad Arab governments to reform much as they pushed eastern Europe.

How can Americans talk of constitutions, fair trials and free speech in eastern Europe, he asks, while ignoring the fact that Saudi Arabia, for example, has none of these?

″The West knows all this and ignores it because these ruling regimes are friends with the West,″ Munif said.