Friday 29 November 2019

Amin Maalouf: From writing historical fiction to political commentary

Amin Maalouf (*1949)
Since the 1980s, Lebanese-born but France-based author Amin Maalouf has built up an impressive reputation as a writer of captivating historical novels and fictionalized biographies set in the Middle East. Books like Leo the African (1986),  Samarkand
(1988), and The Garden of Light (1991) put Maalouf on the map as a literary writer highlighting evocative episodes from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, featuring an Andalusian Muslim who converted to Christianity only to revert to Islam again; a lost manuscript of Omar Khayyam; and the story of the founder of Manicheism respectively.

However, The Rock of Tanios (1993), for which Maalouf was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt, had a more overt political purport. Set in his native Lebanon, it narrates the rivalries between competing religious sects in the nineteenth-century, obviously pointing at the Lebanese Civil War that had erupted in 1975, and that saw clan leaders with the same names at each other's throats again. It ravaged what was once considered the 'Switzerland of the Middle East', resulting also in Amin Maalouf seeking voluntary exile in France.

Aside from historical fiction, Maalouf has also written a history of the crusades through Arab eyes (1983), and a lengthy essay on identity and violence (1993), and a family history of relatives who settled in the Caribbean (2008). His intellectual stature was further affirmed by his election to the Académie Française in 2011 (Chair 29 to be precise, which was once held by Ernest Renan, the Orientalist and philosopher with notoriously negative views of Arabs and Muslims).

In his most recent book The Sinking of Civilizations (Le Naufrage des Civilisations), he engages with the shift from cultural traditions to economic interests as the determining factor in the formation of mentalities which seem to colour not only regional politics in the Middle East, but global affairs. While the rise of populism is often explained as a nostalgia for cultural purity in response to a sense of crisis in new identity formations in an increasingly interconnected world.

Speaking to the Qantara Website about his new books, Maalouf observes:
In the Arab world, petrodollars gave certain traditional societies influence and took it away from others. Saudi Arabia has gained more influence than any other, while Egypt, which did not have any oil, but played an important intellectual and political role, saw its significance dwindle. The instability that the petrodollars brought to many countries in the region – such as Iraq – had an impact on the rest of the world. What's more, the oil crisis of the 1970s was a decisive factor in the development of a new mentality in the West, which found expression in another economic policy, Thatcherism. [...] Pan-Arabism, which was seen as the most promising ideology during the presidency of Nasser in Egypt and raised expectations and motivated people, was utterly swept away by this defeat. Nasser died shortly after the war; there was nobody to fill his shoes. Instead, the door was opened for a form of nationalism that had a strong religious component. However, the radical Islamism that spread out from the oil-producing states caused tension and divisions within Arab societies. This was clearly illustrated by the Arab Spring. 
Read the whole interview here