The desert, once affronted, makes a mockery of human desires.
Contributors: Roger Allen (Translator)
Author: Abd Al-Rahman Munif
US publication date: 2007-03
Most famously chronicled in One Thousand and One Nights, the tradition of storytelling has long been a pillar of desert society. In Salman Rushdie's children's book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the mystical waters of Kahani are the source of every story in the world. But in 'Abd al-Rahman Munif's Endings (first published in Arabic in 1977), it is the desert that is both the source and the graveyard of the stories that humans -- frail, stupid, nostalgic creatures -- tell in a futile attempt to reclaim the mythical past and deny the certain destruction that is their fate.
The village of al-Tiba rests on the very edge of the desert and although there once was rain in the winter, drought has become a condition of life. Many of al-Tiba's residents have departed for the city, which Munif establishes as a symbol of wealth and stability, devoid of traditional culture. The ones who remain spend much of their time repeating stories about the past and discussing the possibility of future salvation in the form of a dam that would provide year-round water. Munif doesn't seem to have much faith in that potential salvation, but does have an admiration of sorts for those who stay, even though he deplores their addiction to nostalgia and stubborn reliance on blind hope.
The foundation of the novel rests on the novella-length story of 'Assaf, a reclusive hunter who lives in the village of al-Tiba, but is not really a part of it. 'Assaf journeys out with his dog most days to search for the increasingly elusive wildlife in the desert. There was once a time, 'Assaf relates to several villagers, when a hunter could have his pick of partridges and gazelles, but "year by year al-Tiba was gradually but relentlessly despoiled." Munif returns to this theme again and again throughout the book. Selfish, reckless human behavior results in the destruction of the world.
Munif, who died in 2004, was a Jordanian-born novelist who began his career as an economist. His experience working with various oil companies informs his most famous work, Cities of Salt. Munif set this quintet of books in an unnamed desert town in which oil has been discovered. Over the course of the narratives, the land and the traditional society are irretrievably changed by the infusion of people and money into the once-quiet desert village.
In Endings, Al-Tiba is also in the process of change. The novel begins, "Drought. Drought again! When drought seasons come, things begin to change." Munif invokes a sense of destiny throughout the novel, and seems to believe that the course of human life runs necessarily toward dissolution and despair. Against his wishes, 'Assaf takes a large company of hunters from the city out into the desert to search for game. Munif's descriptions of the harsh, desolate desert evoke the landscape's power and indifference to human life. Unsuccessful in the morning, the hunters decide, despite 'Assaf's warnings that the weather might change, to try again in the afternoon instead of returning to the village. Late that afternoon, a sandstorm blows up and 'Assaf and his dog disappear.
The desert has claimed its own. With the death of 'Assaf, as a result of human greed and arrogance, the main narrative of the degeneration of al-Tiba is also cut short. Munif chronicles the burial preparations, but the novel itself then degenerates into a series of 14 tales told by mourners the night before the funeral. These are traditional tales of the desert, cautionary stories about the futility of human hope and happiness, but infused with a small dose of dark humor. For the reader, the effect is jarring. The elevated tension of the story of 'Assaf and the hunting party makes it difficult to climb back down to these fable-like tales.
Perhaps that's the point, though. The desert, once affronted, makes a mockery of human desires. Even the telling of stories, so venerated in traditional desert society, seems inconsequential, even ridiculous, in the face of the senseless death of 'Assaf. All our words, Munif implies -- even my own -- mean nothing if our selfish actions lead to the destruction of our lives.
The last line of Rushdie's charming children's book is, "Read, and bring me home to you." But stories cannot save anyone in al-Tiba. The damage has already been done, and there will be no salvation, no redemption. The child Haroun can return home by reading, but in the multivalent stories of Endings, Munif seems to be saying that home isn't what it used to be. And for the inhabitants of al-Tiba, they have no one to blame but themselves.