Wadi' 'Izz al-Din Mundhir:
A Corner of Australian Literature
The Australian scholar Dr Dennis Walker is currently researching Southern Thailand ("Patani"), at the Monash Asia Institute at Monash University. He graduated in PhD on the basis of a thesis that he submitted in 1992 to the Australian National University on Pan-Arab Identities of Acculturated Muslim Egyptian Intellectuals 1892-1952. This work surveyed the evolution of pan-Arab cultural Nationalism in Egypt up to Nasser's 1952 military revolution. Walker's contributions to learned journals have studied the evolution of cultural nationalisms in Lebanon, Egypt and the Gulf.
The Druze are ethnic Arabs who distanced themselves from Sunni Islam in the 11th century and have a religion that evokes origins in ancient Egypt and its Pharaonism and in India. Educated Druze read the Bhagavadgita as one of their religion's holy books in addition to the Qur'an. The majority of the overall Druze communities in the Middle East, which total around 1,000,000, live in Syria and Lebanon.
While in Egypt recently researching Egyptian pan-Arabism, Dennis Walker discovered in a Arabic newspaper from America published before the post-1952 Nasser period a treasure-trove of Arabic articles by a Druze Lebanese writer Wadi' 'Izz al-Din Mundhir, who was a resident of South Australia until his death in 1952.
Mundhir spent a year in the retinue of the prince Salim al-Atrash. Mundhir came of an elite Druze family of the old autonomous district of Mountain Lebanon, which had been promoted as a quasi-autonomous state under the Ottomans by France and other of the Great Powers from 1861-1914. He had from childhood been grounded in both (a) standard literary Arabic and Sunni Islam and (b) English and the entrepreneurial and capitalist civilization of the West. His sharp awareness that the Arabs lagged so behind those developed countries led him after the end of Turkish rule not to support demands for the independence in Lebanon and Syria: instead, he opted to help the French establish governance in the hope that they would bring the development that would bring strength and thus independence in the long term.
Some might have termed Mundir a collaborater and traitor. Mundhir had good relations with such French military personnel as the subtle Catroux, on whose behalf he worked for a full year in Syria's Mountain of the Druze to start up an autonomous (' independence') government there. But some cruder French military did not make the fiercely self-assertive Druze there feel that they were gaining much more agency over their lives, and in 1926 they rose and were quickly joined by the Sunni Muslims of Syria in a general national uprising for independence from French rule. Mundhir's career moves and his strategy for building indigenous strength and independence had been seriously impaired, and when he got an invitation to migrate to Australia from his uncle and father-in-law Majid Rashid, a rich merchant in Adelaide, he left with his family in the same year. Mundhir became a successful trader in Australia, whose private enterprise opportunities he appreciated, but continued to pen a stream of articles in his native Arabic.
The articles of Mundhir throw light on what print-culture Druze and other Arab Australians even in Adelaide consumed at this time. How does Mundhir rate as a writer? He had a fast-moving and clear style although, like so many Arabs who migrate to Anglo-Saxon countries, he occasionally stumbled in grammar, because any community of writers and books thins out in exile and you lose practise. Still, his fast-fleeting juxtapositions of parallel phenomena from the modern West and the classical Arab world range far enough and with enough substance to evoke a universal macro-history. We do feel that we are being whipped back and forth between continents, civilizations and historical eras when reading Mundhir. In this sense, Mundhir does pass muster as a sort of Anglo-Arab or Anglo-Lebanese who consumed British and American print-products without seeing submerged Celtic and other non-Anglo cultural traditions beneath the conformist surface of Australia and America.
Mundhir does seem to have followed the press of Australia while he lived there, giving him a fair knowledge of it and Britain's public life. In an essay on nervous breakdowns and deaths down history in literary life and in political high office, Mundhir cited the recent resignation of the British foreign minister, but also the deaths in office of Australian Prime Ministers Joseph Lyons [United Australia Party: governed 1932-1939] and PM John Curtin [Australian Labour Party: governed 1941-1945] who had both been in good health before they took on the tensions of heading a state. Mundhir visited America and ilts Arab community: Roosevelt had been in good physical shape when he assumed the presidency but it and the extreme tensions of conducting global warfare felled him at the end. Mundhir offered a sharp flash of Winston Churchill who had resorted to painting throughout his life to break the circuit of obsessions of politics and high office and now was approaching seventy years. Mundhir described many diversions and hobbies through which thinkers and political leaders found some relief and relaxation in the modern era , but also those of the classical Arabs who did not just resort to sexual pleasures ( maladhdh) , but also the gatherings for music and songs, and the costume parties (malabis al-munadamah) with which those kings and writers of ' the East' maintained much better mental health than modern Western elites.
The works of this Arab-Australian belletrist intellectual, or Anglo-Arab, Wadi' 'Izz al-Din Mundhir, a sort of rough-diamond comparative sociologist, merit projection and analysis. They refute the claims of some that only a homogenous single Anglo-Saxon culture has been strong or legitimate in Australia's history and for building our new Australian identity.