Amin Maalouf, perhaps the most famous and popular member of the French Academy, is a best-selling author and known as an intellectual whose works “honored” the French language. Perhaps none of the Academy’s current members can rival Maalouf’s worldwide fame, even though he follows a distinguished line of intellectuals like Eugene Ionesco, Marguerite Yourcenar, Alan Rob Gray, and of course, Levi Claude-Strauss who bequeathed Maalouf his seat. Maalouf, the Lebanese-French author of “Deadly Identities,” who is currently the subject of intensified debate in Lebanon and the Arab world over an interview he gave to a French-Israeli TV station, spoke with Carol Corm about his 2009 book ‘Origins,’ which was published 12 years ago in Al Jadid magazine — E. Chalala
Never has Amin Maalouf revealed himself as much as in his latest novel, “Origins,” recently released in France but not yet translated into English.
In a historical investigation that takes us from Ellis Island to Cuba and back to Lebanon, Maalouf tries to see through his ancestors’ tangled rivalries. And although the Maalouf story is unique, it will remind many Lebanese readers of their own family histories, full of the adventures particular to migrant people. The following is an interview by phone with Amin Maalouf. I conducted the interview in French later translated it into English.
Corm: Have your ties to Lebanon changed with writing this novel?
Maalouf: This book is certainly closer to Lebanon than most of my other books. In my novels I talk a lot about Lebanon, either directly or indirectly, the country is rarely completely left out. But “Origins,” along with “The Rock of Tanios,” is the book in which Lebanon is the most vivid.
Corm: “Origins” is particularly focused on two characters: Gebrayel, your great-uncle, who emigrates to Cuba and makes a fortune before prematurely dying in a car accident, and Boutros, your grandfather, who stays in Lebanon and opens the first co-ed school. What made you chose these two characters as the backbone of your novel?
Maalouf: I always wanted to talk about my grandfather, who was an important figure in the family. Especially since we did not know much about him. A few scattered details on his character had reached me as well as some vague anecdotes. As for my great uncle, I had heard a few stories that may be more or less credible. Yet I was tempted to find out their real stories.
Corm: You managed to do this thanks to your grandmother who had kept a trunk full of letters written by your ancestors.
Maalouf: I had no idea my grandmother had kept all these documents. I had resigned myself to creating them through a few childhood memories. That changed when my mother discovered these papers. Out of the blue, in the beginning of December 2001, my mother arrived in Paris with three letters dated 1910. These letters came as a total surprise. Thanks to her, I was holding in my hands letters postmarked from Cuba, which were still in very good condition.
Corm: Do you identify yourself in any way with your two ancestors?
Maalouf: Naturally a little bit. With my grandfather for instance, there is a certain continuity, even though I never met him.
Corm: His dandyism?
Maalouf: I find that side of him very likeable. Boutros never wore a hat and always went out with a large black cape. I must admit to being a little more classical though.
Corm: One has the feeling that your characters are constant migrants, even those that stay in Lebanon and distance themselves from the received ideas of the times.
Maalouf: I wouldn’t exactly use the word “migrant.” Boutros had given himself for the mission to improve the country, and in that sense, he might have been a little naïve. He constantly had the feeling of being able to change things. Gebrayel, on the other hand, who left at a very young age for Cuba, never seemed to have any second thoughts about the whole thing. He believed the others should come and see him, help him in his flourishing business, but not the other way around. He never thought of coming back; for him emigration was a one-way thing. He wasn’t nostalgic.
Corm: It is fascinating to see that the dilemmas your ancestors were confronted with when it came to emigrating are exactly the same today among the Lebanese youth. Nothing has changed.
Maalouf: Yes, very little has changed. The kind of debates present in the book could take place today. Is the country going to change or will it be the same 50 years from now? Is it better to stay or leave? For the past six generations, the question of emigration has been on the minds of the Lebanese.
Corm: Is migration a fundamental part of the Lebanese way of life?
Maalouf: Emigration is a Lebanese characteristic but we find this tradition in other countries. The Lebanese have been migrating for a very long time, but there are also the Irish, the Greeks. I would say that it’s the relationship with the homeland which is unique in Lebanon. First, Lebanon is a country of emigration as much as of immigration. A lot have come and a lot have left. Secondly, the Lebanese people have a great capacity to learn languages and adapt to different civilizations. Finally, they have a positive attitude towards migration. They do not see it as something associated with having failed in one’s own country. People don’t have the feeling that they must justify their decision to leave. There is no guilt. The migrant is part of the landscape and he often has a positive connotation. This is not the case with the Japanese, for instance.
Corm: Is the geographical distance from Lebanon a necessary condition for you to write?
Maalouf: Honestly, I don’t know. If I had not left, would I have wanted to write as much? Probably yes, but I am not absolutely sure. I think I would have talked of Lebanon differently.
Corm: Do you identify yourself with other writers who have lived abroad for a long time?
Maalouf: There is a long tradition of Lebanese writers in the diaspora. And if we look back in history, so many writers have left their countries, and sometimes even changed languages. Milan Kundera, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig… the list is so long. The reasons are usually quite varied. If we think of the Soviet bloc, they left by constraint. But there are also those that left without anyone forcing them to, like Ernest Hemingway. Between the two groups, a lot of writers have spent their lives crisscrossing the globe.
Corm: Your books often revolve around East-West relations. Your characters go from one world to another without the slightest difficulty. A wonderful example in your novel is the way your ancestors’ names are anglicized once they reach Ellis Island. In the same way, they switch from Arabic to English in their letters without a hesitation. Is the idea of cosmopolitanism important for you at a time when the idea of a “clash of civilization” is used to describe East-West relations?
Maalouf: My characters pass from one world to another without me having to make any efforts. Cosmopolitanism comes instantly because it’s the way the Lebanese function. We have an intimate knowledge of both the East and the West. Our relation with the two worlds is a close one. In a way, it mirrors my own trajectory.
This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 10, Nos. 46/47 (Winter/Spring 2004)
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid