Amin Maalouf was a journalist in Lebanon until the civil war in 1975, when he left for Paris with his family. He became a novelist whose historical characters span cultures and continents. Now an opera using his first libretto is being performed in London.
Soon after the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Amin Maalouf, then a journalist in Beirut, took refuge in his ancestral mountain village. He recalls hearing explosions from a war in which he refused to take sides, and wondering whether to join an endless family exodus. "During my youth, the idea of moving from Lebanon was unthinkable," he says. "Then I began to realise I might have to go, like my grandfather, uncles and others who left for America, Egypt, Australia, Cuba." Maalouf went as a refugee to Paris, where he has lived since 1976.
Now 53, Maalouf has published seven novels in addition to journalism, essays and a work of history, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1983), widely seen as a classic in the Arab world. His early journalism was in Arabic, but all his books were written in French (he also speaks fluent English). They have been translated into more than 20 languages. His fifth novel, The Rock of Tanios (1993), set in early 19th-century Lebanon just as the seeds of sectarian bloodshed were being sown, won France's premier literary award, the Prix Goncourt. For Maalouf the prize was a source of "immense joy" and also anxiety that "you'll never have the same serenity, or write with the same innocence again". Yet his overriding thought was not that he had won the prize Proust had won in 1919, but to try to build an oeuvre "that might be read in a few years' time".
The novels are marked by his experience of civil war and migration, the feeling of being "poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions". Their characters are itinerants, voyagers between lands, languages and religions. According to the novelist and historian Robert Irwin, they "range across the Mediterranean and the old world of the Levant that's vanished since the first world war when Greek and Italian mingled with Arabic and Turkish, and Druze rubbed shoulders with Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims".
Maalouf's fiction illuminates history common to the Middle East and the west. Yet as he wrote in his non-fiction book Murderous Identities (1998), as a Lebanese Christian "the fact of simultaneously being Christian and having as my mother tongue Arabic, the holy language of Islam, is one of the basic paradoxes that have shaped my identity". Translated into English by Barbara Bray in 2000 as On Identity , the book was published shortly after September 11 in the US, where reviewers were struck by its insights into the historical rift between western and Arab worlds and its rejection of exclusive religious affiliations as "tribal".
For the Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman, "at this time of fundamentalist identity seekers, Amin's is a voice of wisdom and sanity that sings the complexity and wonder of belonging to many places". Dorfman is surprised Maalouf is not better known in the English-speaking world. Even before the Goncourt, his novels were bestsellers in France, where he is an intellectual presence on TV, in the newspaper Le Monde and L'Express magazine.
That relative obscurity may be changing: Bray's English translation of his latest novel, Balthasar's Odyssey (2000), is being reprinted after selling more than 5,000 hardback copies within weeks. It follows a 17th-century Levantine book merchant of Genoan ancestry, Balthasar Embriaco, to Constantinople, Genoa, Lisbon and London at the time of the Great Fire. On the eve of 1666, the apocalyptic "Year of the Beast", Balthasar is in pursuit of The One Hundredth Name, a book believed to offer its holder salvation. For Maalouf, it was a way of "reflecting on irrationality, and the fears of our own mil lennium". Like the author, Balthasar feels himself a "stranger everywhere".
The novelist Michèle Roberts was enchanted by "both a meditation on the need for Christians, Muslims and Jews to tolerate each other and a fantastic travelogue". Hilary Mantel, however, thought Maalouf less concerned with the strangeness of the past than with history "as a well from which you draw morals". Irwin, who admires the novel's mood of foreboding, with its omens and false messiahs, agrees that its subject is not the 17th century but modern terrorists and demagogues. Maalouf concedes that he stresses similarities between attitudes in the past and today, but says, "You can't say history teaches us this or that; it gives us more questions than answers, and many answers to every question."
Maalouf's apartment in Paris's 17th arrondissement, where he and his wife Andrée have lived for 21 years, reveals a breadth of cultural interests from Ethiopian scrolls and Persian miniatures to a St James's Bible from Portobello Road. He prefers to work at his nearby studio, or in a fisherman's cottage on L'Isle d'Yeu, off France's Atlantic coast, where the couple spend several months of the year. "There's a quality of light and concentration I never have in Paris," he says. He numbers among his friends writers such as Andrei Makine, Ismail Kadaré and Jorge Semprun, but professes to being "extremely solitary".
He works on several projects at once. The first libretto he wrote was for an opera by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho: L'Amour de Loin (Love From Afar), which has its UK concert premiere at the Barbican in London next Thursday. Set during the Crusades, it is based on the true story of Jaufré Rudel, a 12th-century troubador and prince from Aquitaine who sang of an idealised love for Clémence, a countess of Tripoli whom he had never seen. At its premiere at the Salzburg festival in 2000, Humphrey Burton reported standing ovations and praised a libretto of considerable beauty and a "Liebestod worthy of Isolde". The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini thought it the best libretto in many years.
The librettist was struck, as an emigré, by a poet "loving from afar", and invented a pilgrim who comically distorts Jaufré's words. "I'm extremely precise; for me, the transmission of the exact word and feeling is very important. That's how I connected to Jaufré: in an era when communication was hard, he had to speak to a loved one through intermediaries." Saariaho, who lives in Paris, describes Maalouf as "extremely gentle, sensitive and cultured; he must be very musical to have understood what I was looking for". Maalouf, though he loves to "discover beautiful music from all over the world", says that in his family almost everyone but him plays an instrument. Two of his three sisters, who are also in France, are piano teachers.
He was born in Beirut in 1949, the second of four children. His parents' families were from the Lebanese mountain village of Ain el Kabou. They had married in Cairo in 1945, where Odette, his mother, was born of a Maronite Christian father from the village, who had left to work in Egypt, and a mother born in Turkey. Amin's father, Ruchdi, was from the Melchite or Greek Catholic community, which recognises the Pope while retaining some Byzantine rites. One of his ancestors was a priest whose son converted to become a Presbyterian parson. The parson's son (Maalouf's grandfather) was a "rationalist, anticlerical, probably a freemason, and refused to baptise his children". While the Protestant branch of the family sent their children to British or American schools, Maalouf's mother was a staunch Catholic who insisted on sending him to French Jesuit school. He studied sociology at the French University in Beirut.
"Being Christian in that part of the world makes you feel marginal," says Maalouf. Yet his family is renowned for its writers. A great-great-great-uncle translated Molière into Arabic, and the diasporic clan includes the Australian novelist David Malouf and a Brazilian poet, Fawzi Maalouf - the "Arabic Rimbaud". Amin's father was a journalist, poet and broadcaster of western classical music. He owned a newspaper and wrote essays on parliamentary democracy. At 22, Maalouf joined Lebanon's leading Arabic daily An-Nahar and began travels that have taken him to more than 60 countries. He interviewed Indira Gandhi, witnessed the 1974 Marxist coup in Ethiopia and covered the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, a fellow journalist on An-Nahar in the 1970s, recalls Maalouf as "very studious, reserved and more focused than anyone else - not a big talker". She also sees the Maaloufs, who trace their origins to Arabia and have been Christians since the 3rd century AD, as immersed in Arab culture, unlike more western-oriented Christians. Maalouf married Andrée, a Maronite Christian, who was a teacher at an institute for deaf children, in 1971. "She's my first reader, and very severe," he says. Their three sons were born in Lebanon and now work from Paris, though they too travel widely: Ruchdi is a lawyer, Tarek is in film special effects and Ziad is a radio journalist. The Lebanese civil war broke out under their window in Beirut. On April 13 1975, Maalouf heard a quarrel and shooting between Palestinians and gunmen from a Christian faction. "We saw 20 bodies." Sheltering in the basement that night with his pregnant wife and small son, Maalouf felt immense pressure to take sides. "Neighbours said people from the other side were coming to kill us. I felt strongly that if it were true, and if somebody had given me a weapon, maybe I'd have become a murderer." The realisation fed On Identity . "Ethnic tension can make a murderer of everyone," says Maalouf. "The duty of any responsible person - and all leaders - is to avoid a situation where people can become murderers." To al-Shaykh "the civil war really shocked Amin, that people could fight using religion. Before, there was no real separation between Islam and Christianity, and Amin had access to both traditions."
Loath to retreat to a Christian ghetto, Maalouf held out in Lebanon for a year, then took a boat to Cyprus and made his way to Paris. Two months later his wife, who had just given birth to their third son, followed with the children. Renting a high-rise flat in the Paris suburbs, Maalouf joined the magazine Jeune Afrique, writing in French for the first time and later becoming editor-in-chief. From 1979-82 he was director of An-Nahar's Paris-based weekly before returning to Jeune Afrique. He wrote The Crusades Through Arab Eyes after realising that "nobody had told the history of the crusades from the other side, a marvellous story". It sought the roots of a "problem that's never been settled between these two worlds - Arab and western".
The book has sold steadily for almost 20 years. According to the Lebanese writer, sculptor and publisher Mai Ghoussoub, whose Al Saqi imprint published it in English, while the history of the counter-crusades had been chronicled in Arabic, Maalouf "brought a wider view of our common history to a western readership". In Irwin's view, however, the defeat of the Crusaders is presented in the book "as a triumph of Arab nationalism, when the strange paradox is that many leaders were Turkish and Kurdish; it's political mythology, popular history by an intelligent journalist but not a professional history; it's written like a novel". Maalouf had always wanted to write fiction. "It's the relationship I have with the world: always trying to escape from reality. I'm a daydreamer; I don't feel in harmony with my epoch or the societies I live in." His first novel, Leo the African (1986), which begins with the fall of Granada "told from the other side", was based on the true story of the 16th-century traveller Hassan al-Wazzan, or Leo Africanus. Born a Moor in Granada he fled the Inquisition to Fez, performed the haj to Mecca then converted to Christianity and fed Vatican intrigue in Renaissance Rome before reverting to Islam. Maalouf calls it the "book of a new emigrant", whose opening words are also Maalouf's own credo: "I come from no country, from no city, no tribe. I am the son of the road... all tongues and all prayers belong to me. But I belong to none of them." Writing it, "something magical happened: I knew I'd spend the rest of my life writing fiction". He quit his job in 1985 to write full time.
His second novel, Samarkand (1988) - with Leo the African, often praised as his best - recreated the life of Omar Khayyam and his Rubaiyat in 11th-century Persia. Covering the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Maalouf had been puzzled by a religious revolution in the late 20th century. "I wanted to understand the relationship between politics, religion and culture in that part of the world." His research also fuelled The Gardens of Light (1991), on the life of Mani, the third-century Persian founder of Manichaeism. Maalouf says the book exorcised part of his own family history that was "always mysterious in my youth". Some relatives lived in a religious commune. "There's a trauma linked to the fact that my grandfather didn't want his children baptised, and that my father and his siblings were caught between Protestantism, Catholicism and anti-clericalism. It's created a very tortured relationship with religion; some of my family moved towards a very extreme attitude."
He is sceptical of all religions. "I have the profoundest respect for people who behave in a generous way because of religion. But I come from a country where the misuse of religion has had catastrophic consequences. One must judge people not by what faith they proclaim but by what they do." As he writes in On Identity : "For me a believer is simply someone who has faith in certain values" - which he sums up as human dignity.
For Ghoussoub, Maalouf's main theme is tolerance. Yet Dorfman insists "it's a ferocious tolerance; his narrators come to tolerance after being buffeted by violence. Amin's seen the destruction of his country - when you live through tremendous loss then rebuild a non-sentimental hope; all his novels do that. They're unflinching and tender; the humanism shines through but so does the tension." He sees Maalouf as a "fabulist raconteur; he tells vastly entertaining adventure stories that are also deeply philosophical". The First Century After Beatrice (1992) is set in the future, as advances in science allowing parents to determine the sex of their child are yoked to age-old prejudices against girls. Maalouf, who believes the level of civilisation of any society can be determined by the place of women, is concerned by a "gap between the material and moral evolution of mankind".
According to the Barcelona-based British novelist Jamal Mahjoub, he can be wrongly seen as a latter-day peddler of Arabian Nights exotica, "but he makes the past breathe without lurid sensationalism; his passion is an intellectual one". Maalouf is exasperated by the idea of people from the west being the norm and others being exotic. As for Arab storytelling: "Arabic poetry was very present in my home; my father recited verse by heart." But he finds the Arabian Nights "boring". He grew up on western literature in Arabic translation: Gulliver's Travels , Dickens, Dumas, Mark Twain. "For me, storytelling comes from there."
Irwin says that unlike some Arab writers Maalouf is assimilated into the French literary tradition. For the fiction writer and critic Aamer Hussein he "seems to follow Flaubert in looking at the east, but he centres the narrative differently: it's the Orient telling itself. You learn about the multiplicity of cultures, their openness and permeability; that the boundaries between religions are not as hard and fast as we've been led to believe; that Levantine Christians are not as western."
Reluctant for many years to write fiction about his home country, Maalouf finally set The Rock of Tanios in 1830s Lebanon during in-fighting in the Ottoman empire and the rival interventions of France and Britain. Maalouf invested the period with nostalgia for his own pre-war childhood years. It was, he says, the "very beginning of the cycle of communal clashes in Lebanon which has never stopped. Before that, different communities felt they were part of the same people." In "impure fiction" Maalouf inserted episodes of family history, including the source of the rift between Catholic and Protestant.
He first returned to Lebanon as a reporter in the 1970s, and visits every two or three years. Since his father's death in 1980, his close family has regrouped in France. He was invited back by his Lebanese publishers the year after the Goncourt. "It was a beautiful moment," he recalls. "People felt it was important for us to win literary prizes after years when the only talk of Lebanon was of kidnapping, killings and bomb blasts."
Ports of Call (1996) moves between 20th-century Lebanon and France, as a Lebanese of Turkish aristocratic and humble Armenian origins becomes a resistance hero in Paris and marries an Austrian Jewish woman, only to lose her in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. One of Maalouf's main themes, says Dorfman, is lost or forbidden love - "how we fall in love with what's different from us, and discover we're different from what we thought we were". He sees Maalouf as exploring the "labyrinth of identity. It's a journey showing how we - especially Europe and the Middle East - are one multiple entity. The destruction in his novels comes from the attempt to impose one culture, one language, one religion, on a multifarious, scattered world."
"The question of identity never leaves my mind, because mine is problematic," says Maalouf. "My identity is made of many elements and I have to acknowledge each one. People in France prefer you to say, 'whatever my origin, I'm French'. In Lebanon they prefer you to say, 'though I spent many years in France, I'm still Lebanese'. I insist I'm both." The unease is heightened in someone "made of so obviously antagonistic elements". Yet as Maalouf writes in On Identity , people who are "arenas for allegiances in violent conflict with one another" have a bridging role to play.
That book challenges the attitude that reduces identity to one single affiliation - often in response to a perceived threat - rather than the "sum of our allegiances". Fashioning identity into an instrument of exclusion is, he warns, the way to civil war and genocide. On modernity and religious revivalism, he rejects an opposition between a Christianity destined for ever "to act as a vector for modernism, free dom, tolerance and democracy", and an Islam "doomed from the outset to despotism and obscurantism". "No doctrine in itself is necessarily a liberating force," he writes. "Nobody has a monopoly on fanaticism." Dreaming of a world where spirituality will no longer be associated with the need to belong and where Europe embraces its complex identities, he says everyone should speak at least three languages. Some reviewers accused him of wishful thinking. But for Dorfman "Amin recognises that identity is a complex process, and he's not willing to subject himself to categories others impose."
Maalouf is working on another libretto for Saariaho, set in a Balkan "country at war", and a fictionalised family memoir. According to al-Shaykh, many Arabs see Maalouf as "their voice, their historian to the west", and he has spawned many imitators. He also has a growing readership in Arabic translation, says Ghoussoub. In her view, his novels broach many Arab taboos in a subtle, unprovocative way. "He's read for the story, but you're reading about the interaction between religions, Jews who were integrated into society."
Maalouf is critical of both Islamicists and undemocratic regimes that seek to silence them. On Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist acquitted last month of inciting hatred against Muslims, he says he dislikes what Houellebecq writes about Islam but will not condemn him, because of an absence of any freedom in the Arab world to criticise religion.
Dorfman felt his friend's profound shock at September 11. "It's as if what he's worked for all his life - crossing frontiers, breaking down barriers - had been exploded: suddenly it's 'us against them'." In Maalouf's view September 11 was spectacular proof of how deep the divide has become between the two worlds, but the writing was on the wall from the Iranian revolution, and before. He believes governments that suppress democracy reinforce traditional allegiances. Sceptical of President Bush's intentions towards Iraq, he says, "This part of the world needs true democracy, true modernity; I hope to see it in my lifetime. But I don't trust those who say they're committed to it. I feel we'll have another session of mass bombing, with hundreds of thousands dead and nothing valuable afterwards."
Belonging to more than one world may be fine, he says, in periods when those worlds have a quiet relationship: "But when they're in a bitter, violent conflict, one feels like a grain of wheat being crushed by two powerful stone jaws. I feel I should try to conciliate those worlds; that it's possible to build bridges. At other times I feel like Don Quixote tilting at windmills; that it's presumptuous to try to interfere in such a gigantic collision." When such a mood descends, he says, "you have to go to your island, lock yourself in your room and write libretti".
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