‘Living Together in Spite of Our Differences’: A Talk with Amin Maalouf

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair opened this year on April 27, the morning after the International Prize for Arabic Fiction was announced, and closes today. Celebrated “immortal” Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf was there to accept a Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA):

By Chip Rossetti

Photo from the SZBA awards ceremony, courtesy SZBA.

In his multiple careers as a novelist, journalist, and historian, Amin Maalouf has examined and interrogated in depth the meaning of identity, as well as the quieter virtues — tolerance, generosity, and an acceptance of complexity — that serve as an antidote to the toxins of hatred, sectarianism, and exclusion that identity can unleash. This week, Maalouf was in Abu Dhabi to accept the Cultural Personality of the Year award for the tenth annual Sheikh Zayed Book Awards. Maalouf sat down for a conversation ahead of the award ceremony on Sunday, May 1, to talk about history, the global public square, and his childhood memories of Egypt.

Maalouf was born in Beirut in 1949, to parents whose families originally came from the village of ‘Ain al-Qabu, in the mountains of central Lebanon. After attending the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut, he began working as a journalist for an-Nahar newspaper, covering international news. With the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, he was forced to flee country, and since 1976 he has lived in France. There, he continued his career as a journalist and later as an author, starting with his first book, Les Croisades vues par les Arabes [English title: The Crusades through Arab Eyes], published in 1983. Although he began his writing career in Arabic, he went on to distinguish himself as a writer in French: among other accolades, he won the Prix Goncourt for his novel Le rocher de Tanios [The Rock of Tanios], and in 2011 he was elected a member of the Académie française — one of the forty “immortals” charged with defining and defending the French language.

Maalouf’s focus on mutual tolerance is informed by his Lebanese background: “Being Lebanese, I grew up with a concern about how people can manage to live together, in spite of their differences — including religious differences,” he says. “Of course, Lebanon has a mixed record on that subject. But in Lebanese society, there is a degree of intimate knowledge about the other that is very real. Anyone who grows up in Lebanon has this kind of concern. This is a permanent theme that runs through all my essays and novels.”

Maalouf’s family history has itself exemplified themes of multiplicity and difference: one of his great-grandfathers, born into Lebanon’s Melkite (Greek Catholic) community, converted to Presbyterianism — an effect of the wave of American and British Protestant missionaries in 19th-century Lebanon — while his mother came from a family of Maronite Christians that had moved to Egypt for work. “My mother was born in Tanta [in the Egyptian Delta] in 1921,” Maalouf recalls. “She spent her early life in Egypt, but went to school in Lebanon, spending part of the year in Beirut.”

His parents, having married in Cairo, returned to Beirut shortly before he was born. “When I was very young, still a baby, she took me for the first time to her family’s home in the wealthy Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis. I was only two at the time.” This was during the final tense months of Egypt under the monarchy: “Then dramatic events happened in Egypt, including the fire in 1952 [widespread anti-British riots known as the Cairo Fire] leading to the revolution in July,” which established the Egyptian republic. “My one family memory of Egypt comes from 1957, when my mother and I returned to her parents’ home in Heliopolis. It was a sad occasion: we were there to empty out the house, as my grandmother had died the year before.”

If identity is a central topic in his writings, then so is history: many of his novels, such as Leo Africanus, Samarkand, and Balthasar’s Odyssey, have historical settings, involving both real and fictional characters. “I love history. We can take inspiration from it,” he says, “if we want to know where we are going and where have come from.” But he is adamant that history’s meaning is solely what we make of it, rather than something fixed and eternal: “History does not say who we are by itself—we make it say that. Historical events are the clay that we shape according what we need, think, and believe.”

History may be shaped to suit intolerant beliefs, but the source of ethnic and religious violence today lies elsewhere, Maalouf insists. For many, our wired world where borders have disappeared and distances shrunk is deeply destabilizing: “Globalization has put all of us in a huge public square where everybody feels threatened by everyone else. We need to sort it out, to reach a modus vivendi. We don’t have it yet.”

From the ongoing brutality of war in Syria, to the refugee crisis it has caused and the rising voices of intolerance and hatred, the state of the world is bleak, Maalouf feels. He acknowledges ruefully that “we are going backwards everywhere.” However, his ultimate conclusion is realistic but hopeful: “It’s a very sad and difficult moment, but I think one should not be hopeless. We need to try to find ways of changing the course of events and of explaining to people why they should be able to live together harmoniously. We have no choice: this is the task of our generation.”

Rossetti-Chip-243x366Chip Rossetti is managing editor at the Library of Arabic Literature and a translator of modern Arabic fiction, including Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Egyptian sci-fi novel Utopia (2011), Magdy El Shafee’s graphic novel Metro (2012), and most recently, Sonallah Ibrahim’s Beirut, Beirut (2014, 2015 US). He won a PEN America grant for his translation of Muhammad Makhzangi’s Animals in our Days and is a Ph.D. candidate in Arabic literature (specializing in modern Iraqi fiction) at the University of Pennsylvania.

This originally appeared in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair’s Show Daily.