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“I see myself as a weaver of positive myths”

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Amin Maalouf… “Only through the eyes of the present can we see meanings in the past.”
Amin Maalouf… “Only through the eyes of the present can we see meanings in the past.”

A. Rangarajan

We need a functioning world governance structure that is not only participatory but trustworthy and effective at the same time, saysAmin Maalouf

Amin Maalouf is many things rolled into one — novelist, historian and essayist. And, understandably, there is a unifying theme that he explores across all these genres. His The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a scholarly work of history reconstructing the tumultuous events exclusively from the Arab chroniclers of the time. It is the only version we have from the ‘other side’. Hence Arabs consider him to be their historian.

His novels have predominantly historical themes and are set in the Middle East and Mediterranean lands of the 11th, 13th or 17th centuries. In Samarkand (1988), he writes about Omar Khayyam and the ornately illustrated manuscript of the Rubayyiat that goes from one place to another after the death of Omar, passing through the hands of macabre fanatics, incurable romantics, and so on. Accompanying passionate lovers it ends up at the bottom of the Atlantic while making a passage on the Titanic — even as the Persian princess who comes to possess it and her American paramour find solace in reading those magical quatrains aboard the ‘star crossed’ vessel. In Balthasar’s Odyssey (2000), Amin writes about a Genoese dealer of antiques living in 17th century Levant, journeying across the seas trying to regain a mysterious book he had just sold, hoping it could save him from the end of the world in the year of the devil. When he finally catches up with it in London, just before the Great Fire gutted the city, his vision mysteriously fails him every time he opens the book to read it. His characters, often rich in identities, criss-cross various frontiers of belief, faith and cultures, weaving a tapestry of human emotions and interplay of relationship paradigms even as history and fiction tantalisingly blend and merge in the sensitive narrations. While the master storyteller spins the finest of yarns in his novels, his essays on identity are serious reflections on how we coexist with our multiple identities and cope in an increasingly difficult world.

Born in 1949 in a Christian Arab family of Lebanon, Amin Maalouf worked for the Beirut daily an-Nahar as a young man. In 1975, when war engulfed his country and his world, unable to take sides he migrated to France. In Paris he worked for Jeune Afrique, of which he was for a while editor-in-chief, before becoming a full-time writer of his chosen subjects. He won the French literary prize, Prix de Goncourt, in 1993 for his novel The Rock of Tanios. Living in Paris and writing mostly in French now, he has been widely translated and read.

After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to dominate the world scene, is there a renewed interest in your writings that is adding to their popularity?

Well, I do not know if there is a renewed interest in my books in the aftermath of these events…, but I am sure there is an interest in the themes I usually speak about. There is quite obviously a problem in the relations between the West and the Arab-Islamic world. After the fall of the Soviet Union we are left with one super power, which has in some sense taken on the role of the de facto World Government or International Arbiter. Despite all the criticisms against it, had a credible solution of peace been delivered in the region under its leadership, most people would have gone along and may have accepted the reality and settled for something amicable and lasting. But the Iraq war has proved one thing: that this new world order has completely failed to deliver not so much for lack of means or material as for lack of moral credibility.

This is doubly sad because with the advent of globalisation and with mankind facing such insurmountable problems as climate change, we need a functioning world governance structure that is not only participatory but trustworthy and effective at the same time. The need for this is now more than ever.

Turning to your novels and creative writing, I am inclined to ask if you are reconstructing the past with perspectives from the present. Is that not a double-edged sword, pregnant with certain risks?

In my view, history can best be approached this way. People who lived 200 years ago looked at the happenings of the 13th century Middle East quite differently from the way we do today. Only through the eyes of the present can we see meanings in the past. There is no absolute construction of history, nor is there a universal direction for it. I do agree, however, that history can be used or misused to justify any chosen point of view. But then I see myself as a weaver of positive myths. I am trying to look for signposts of hope in the past for our troubled present. I can assure you that there are plenty of them to sustain optimism.

If that be the case, and keeping the current conflicts in mind, is it fair to suggest that Islam in its engagement with the West over the last several centuries has shown great potential for coexistence and multiculturalism than is commonly understood and acknowledged? Some kind of a better ranking on the relative scorecard of tolerance?

If you look at history closely, that observation may not be entirely off the mark. Look at my own family and our antecedents. We have been Christians and our forefathers have been practising their faith with all liberty, in a region completely dominated by Muslims for the last 1400 years. Christians from all kinds of denominations have been in Lebanon from around the 3rd century A.D. I can cite similar instances form Granada, Toledo and so on. And in contrast, when I look at the plight faced by Muslims in Spain or Sicily when Christianity came to dominate in the Middle Ages, I am saddened by the unfortunate turn of events that led to their elimination. Despite this I want to highlight two things. One, the present bears heavily on the situation. To dwell on the past ignoring current tensions is not of much value. Secondly, it is not wise to look at the religion of a people as if it were the cause for them becoming either tolerant and democratic or intolerant and despotic on the see-saw of identity politics. History clearly warns us against such simplistic conclusions.

Then, is the predominant direction that politics has taken in the latter part of the previous century and through the current century, one of a shift from the engagement of ideologies to the engagement of identities?

I am afraid we have faced this downslide largely since the fall of the Berlin wall. It is indeed unfortunate because when it comes to these two kinds of politics, within the engagement of ideologies there can be some discussions at least. There can be none whatsoever when it comes to identities. That is why the situation is getting mired in greater and greater difficulties.

When asked in the past why you keep writing about the 11th, 13th or the 17th centuries, you have replied by saying, “That is because I am unable to live in the present century!” Why is that so? What is it that you find so disagreeable about the present? Or does it spring from some universal human nostalgia?

It actually stems from a very specific nostalgia. You know, in 1975 I left the country of my birth leaving behind my land and the mountains I roamed in my youth, making it a very painful experience for me. It is just that in those centuries my part of the world had greater amity, peace and a paradigm of harmony that I most certainly miss.

Despite the historic canvas that separates your principal characters from the present, be it Balthasar in …Odyssey or Omar in Samarkand, they portray essential human vulnerabilities and frailties that actually transcend temporal and cultural contexts.

No matter what our cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds are, there is an essential fibre of humanness that runs though us all and circumstances can produce great elasticity in our make-up and responses. When we resort to stereotyping and when we pigeonhole people we are being very insensitive and are exhibiting great potential for mischief. Stereotyping is a form of mental laziness, where you don’t want to find out anything yourself beyond the opinion given to you. All of us, you and I, can fall into this trap sometimes. I want to be always cautioning on this score.

In Balthasar’s Odyssey you write that the Great Fire of London started on September 11, 1666. Were you trying to get the past and the present entangled in a strange foreboding of date patterns and thus elevate the underlying drama?

When you take the Orthodox [Christian] calendar as your reference — which you know is very relevant for the storyline of this novel — and apply the necessary correction, the starting date of the Great Fire of London would be September 11. As for the second and more recent September 11 you are referring to, you know I finished the novel one full year earlier, in 2000… There are some interesting coincidences here, I agree.

You interviewed Indira Gandhi for an-Nahar. Could you recall that experience?

It was a marvellous and unforgettable experience for me. I was a young man of 26. In April 1975 I decided to go to Saigon to see for myself the events that were taking shape there. Before my departure from Beirut I placed a request with the Indian Embassy there asking for an appointment to interview Mrs. Gandhi. I did not have a firm answer and I went to Vietnam as journalists and others in Vietnam felt that the fall of South Vietnam was imminent and U.S. foreign policy would be suffering a serious setback… By April 30, Saigon fell. Some days before that…, I received an invitation to come to Delhi and speak to Mrs. Gandhi. I left Saigon for Delhi. …I was led into the longish office of the Prime Minister. … Mrs. Gandhi asked me to first tell her as to what I saw in Saigon. She told me it was difficult to get reliable information after most of the staff had left the embassy there. When I told her all that I saw and heard, she took detailed notes. And at one point she put the pen down and said: “Ask me your questions now.” Her answers were not only well informed they carried plenty of sophistication. I found her to be a very gentle person.


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