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Amin Maalouf's "Origins": An Investigative Memoir of Lebanon and Cuba

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Amin Maalouf's

"Origins" is Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf's third book of non-fiction.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Origins: A Memoir
By Amin Maalouf
Translated from the French by Catherine Temerson
404 pp., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

In a few words: Amin Maalouf is Lebanon's preeminent writer. He lives in France and writes in French, though virtually all his books are a dialogue between East and West. "Origins" is memoir about Maalouf's grandfather and an uncle--one an enlightened idealist in Lebanon, the other a fast-living entrepreneur in Cuba. More than a family memoir, "Origins" is a meditation on the individual's sense of place and belonging, and on the meaning of family and culture in 20th century in Lebanon.

Danger and Felicity

A family’s genesis can be a dangerous trail to hike. It tempts unhappy surprises, dead-ends (some of them forcibly literal: people die), reckonings with more painful truths of a past previously sanitized and mythologized. It awakens the dead, who usually prefer their eternal rest to live up to its billing. The hike can also be felicitous, a discovery of beginnings family histories tend self-servingly to corrupt, depending on who got to set the tale, to the detriment of the reality’s more honest fullness.

Amin Maalouf’s “Origins” is one such hike through a family’s history from the mountains of Lebanon to the plantations of Cuba. The thread between the two continents is also the tension that makes the book an unlikely page-turner. It is primarily the story of Maalouf’s grandfather, Boutros Maalouf, a brilliant, self-doubting, secular intellectual who’d have been as comfortable dining with Voltaire as debating tobacco agriculture with Thomas Jefferson. He had in fact, mighty designs to be a tobacco planter in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, just as he had designs to bring the Enlightenment to Lebanon. Like many of his designs neither project was to succeed.

Portrait of Lebanon

It is also the story of Maalouf's uncle, Gabriel, who escaped the clutches of a tyrannical father in Lebanon to establish himself in business in Havana, became briefly rich, then legally embroiled in a mysterious scandal from which Boutros had to bail him out. Boutros’ trip to Havana in the early 20th century becomes Amin Maalouf’s reason for turning detective and finally following in his grandfather’s footsteps, to Havan, in the 21st century. The story is in turns dangerous and felicitous, although the reader is grateful that the memoirist assumes all the dangers while conveying, in the intimate prose of a close family friend, all the pleasures and sorrows of the discovery. “Our ancestors,” he writes, “are our children; we peer through a hole in the wall and watch them play in their rooms, and they can’t see us.” He lets us see them, because the truth “is rarely buried; it is merely lying in wait behind veils of modesty, pain, or indifference; the one necessary prerequisite is a passionate desire to lift the veils.”

“Origins,” of course, is a lot more than a family tale. It is a portrait of Lebanon in the dying and famine-days of the Ottoman Empire, of which Lebanon was an irascible part, and of Lebanon under the French mandate — in many ways more imperious and brutal a period than the preceding imposition. It is an exploration of Lebanon’s sin of sectarianism, which surely must have something to do with the title of the book: It’s not an original sin so much as an enduring one.

Mythology and Idealism

“Origins” is also a literary experiment as Maalouf reconstructs, through letters and shards of family writings discovered in a big trunk, what truth there is behind the family’s competing mythologies. Maalouf is a reporter and a historian by training (he was a newspaperman in Beirut before the Lebanese civil war forced his move to Paris). His skills show, though in the end the book is more a meditation on what might have been, what should have been, rather than what, in fact, was. The reality betrays the dream. Boutros’ life bears out Maalouf’s painful discovery:
His dream was not to abolish religion or churches; his dream was to live in a free country one day, surrounded by free women and men and even free children—a country governed by the rule of law and not by arbitrary power, controlled by enlightened, uncorrupt leaders, who guaranteed its citizens education, prosperity, freedom of belief, and equal opportunity, regardless of people’s denominational allegiances, so that people would no longer think of emigrating. A legitimate but unattainable dream that he pursued doggedly to his dying day. And which often led him to bitterness, rage, and despair.
Reading hat passage with Maalouf’s previous books in mind, one is tempted to see in Boutros’s desires a projection of Maalouf’s own. Maalouf's 1993 novel, The Rock of Tanios, won France’s leading literary prize. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1986), was a work of history at war with Orientalist assumptions.

Tolerance Is Not Enough

His underrated 1998 essay was given a clunky title in its American translation that doesn’t do the original justice (Les identités meurtrières turned into In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, though it is better translated as Murderous Nativism.)

Maalouf, who was born in 1949, had known Lebanon at its mythologized best—the mostly fabricated golden era of the 1960s and 70s, before the civil war, when Lebanon’s Christians imagined themselves custodians of an oasis of European culture and tolerance in a seethe of Arab resentments and arrested development. It was all, or mostly, a self-delusion, its wishful nobility fouled by a fundamental intolerance and condescension toward immediate neighbors. Ironically, it’s the kind of condescension Maalouf’s grandfather suffered from most of his life, the kind of condescension Lebanon’s Christians have been reduced to suffering again today.

“Boutros didn’t want to be tolerated,” Maaloud writes, “nor do I, his grandson. I demand that my prerogative as a citizen be fully recognized without my having to disown the many affiliations I possess. This is my unalienable right, and I turn away haughtily from societies that deprive me of it.”

“Origins” is, in the end, an explication of that turning away that has plagued Lebanon, whose sons and daughters are more than twice as numerous in exile than at home. Amin Maalouf is one such exile. His grandfather was, too, though he was an exile in his own country.

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