Nonfiction: Legends from the Levant
Amin Maalouf, Catherine Temerson, trans., Origins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
Amin Maalouf is a Lebanese-born journalist who immigrated to France in 1975 to escape his country’s civil war. A world-renowned novelist, essayist, historian, journalist, and librettist, Maalouf bridges East and West through his exploratory writing about Arab culture. His fifth novel, The Rock of Tanios, won France’s premier literary award, the Prix Goncourt. Maalouf’s best-known nonfiction text, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, is considered a classic in Middle Eastern studies (cited by at least one hundred other books to date). The original French version of Maalouf’s first memoir, Origines, won the Prix Méditerranée in 2004.
Newly translated into English, Origins is a saga woven around family legend and the remarkable figure of the author’s paternal grandfather, Botros Maalouf. At the opening of the book, the author describes the family lore that inspired his curiosity, later fueled by the discovery of a trunk full of letters after his father’s death. Did Amin Maalouf’s grandfather Botros really travel to Cuba to rescue his brother Gebrayel as family legend claimed? And what was the nature of that dire situation, or that of Gebrayel’s mysterious death? This personal story expands to include the political, historical and social climate of these brothers: Botros, an anti-clerical poet and educator, founder of the first unisex and nondenominational school in Lebanon, and his younger brother Gebrayel, a proud and seemingly successful man in the Havana business community. Through letters, documents, family lore, and his own trip to Cuba, Maalouf’s skill as a novelist, journalist, and historian reassemble a reliable, yet fantastic and riveting tale that spans centuries and continents.
The author treats his colorful family members, living or dead, with a warm respect that doesn’t interfere with his candid journalism or search for the truth. Ancestral quarrels and quirks are not exempt from Maalouf’s judgment, revealing the author’s legendary insight and wisdom. The author calls himself a “belated parent” to the forebearers to whom he owes even a small part of his identity, and expresses remorse over any histories not unearthed, individual legacies passively forgotten. Maalouf laments that his curiosity almost came too late to interview remaining family members with personal memories of Botros and Gebrayel, or to recover writings and documents previously thought lost. It appears to this reader though, that Maalouf writes exactly when his story is ready to be told.
Maalouf smoothly pulls the backdrop of history onto center stage, creating powerful moments of tension and nostalgia:
Barely a hundred years ago, Lebanese Christians readily proclaimed themselves Syrian, Syrians looked to Mecca for king, Jews in the Holy Land called themselves Palestinian… and my grandfather Botros liked to think of himself as an Ottoman citizen. None of the present-day Middle Eastern states existed, and even the term “Middle East” hadn’t been invented. The commonly used term was “Asian Turkey.”
Since then, scores of people have died for allegedly eternal homelands, and many more will die tomorrow.
Before the rise of nationalism, the Maalouf family’s various allegiances were compartmentalized in a way difficult to summarize: their state was Turkey, their province Syria, and their homeland, the Lebanese Mountains. They practiced various forms of Christianity, but spoke Arabic, the holy language of Islam; they were educated in French and American schools. The paradoxical influences shaping the identity of the author and his clan “did not coexist in harmony,” Maalouf writes, “proof being the many massacres.” Maalouf rejects exclusively religious affiliations as “tribal.” In the introduction to Origins, he writes that his homeland resides only in his family’s name, in their history and legends. “Instead of religious faith, [the author embraces] an old-fashioned faithfulness.”
If shared legends, history, and experience are what allows members of the Maalouf clan to feel a degree of cohesion as opposed to marginalization, the English translation of Origins offers the reader (particularly the Western reader) a tangential experience of familiarization, through the characters’ actions and reactions to the attitudes and events of their time and place. The author educates in ways both powerful and subtle, leaving the reader to absorb the ramifications of each lesson—for example, that remote and obscure events fueled by religious fervor and nationalism are anything but.
At the same time, the personal stories of Maalouf’s ancestors are connected to many historical experiences of migration: escape from famine, oppression, war, ignorance, and intolerance, and alternately the work of those ancestral pioneers who sought to establish paths to universal education, economic success and political stability. As far apart and foreign as East and West may in actuality be, Maalouf builds bridges with his deeply personal and affecting books.