Why Amin Maalouf wants his latest book to act as a wake-up call: 'The world is on the wrong track'

The celebrated French-Lebanese author reflects on the pandemic and Beirut's port explosion ahead of his talk at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, MAY 1, 2016.  Lebanese-born French Novelist Amin Maalouf wins the Cultural Personality of the Year, at Sheikh Zayed Book Award. Photo: Reem Mohammed/ The National (Reporter: Roberta Pennington / Section: NA) ID 72832 *** Local Caption ***  RM_20160501_ZAYEDAWARD_16.JPG
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Even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Amin Maalouf says it was clear the world was “going to hit an iceberg of some kind".

"Of course, nobody could have expected this kind of event," the French-Lebanese author tells The National ahead of his talk at the 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. "I didn't know the iceberg was going to be a pandemic. But I was expecting a huge event of that kind to show us all that something is wrong."

Maalouf's latest work, Adrift, has no mention of the pandemic in its original French version, published before Covid-19, but its English translation, which was released in the thick of the pandemic, does.

Adrift by Amin Maalouf. Courtesy World Editions

To leave out such an event in a work that sought to pinpoint transformative global events would have been a glaring oversight. So Maalouf insisted on addressing it in the book's postface.

“We can say without fear of contradiction that the events of this year will not be soon forgotten; that, for many years to come we will speak of a pre- and a post-2020; and that the future of the planet will be profoundly and permanently affected," he writes in the book's final pages.

Adrift, Maalouf says, is a warning to a world that is "on the wrong track". It pensively weaves personal history with landmark events that the author believes contributed to the political dysfunction of today's world.

A month after the book’s publication, Beirut witnessed an explosion that left Maalouf’s native city devastated. It was another calamitous event that the writer had been anxiously anticipating, even if he did not specifically know what to expect.

“For many years, I’ve had this feeling that things have gone very wrong in Lebanon,” he says. “And I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this feeling. It was obvious that things were not getting any better. The explosion that occurred on August 4 was a very unusual event, but you’re never totally surprised when a catastrophe happens in Lebanon.”

While Adrift highlights a number of key events that have reshaped regional geopolitics, Maalouf identifies two particular defining moments.

One is the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which, Maalouf writes, was when “Arab despair was born”. The other is the period between 1978 and 1979, when a series of significant events – including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution – “changed the atmosphere of the world".

“Maybe there were other landmark moments,” he says. “But I don’t remember them as well. I was 18 during the Arab-Israeli War and remember exactly how I felt at the time, how those around me felt. I have seen in the last 54 years how that event and the events of 1978-1979 changed the region and impacted the rest of the world.”

Maalouf says he barely had to do any research to write Adrift, relying instead on his own memory. The Samarkand novelist and veteran journalist says he can remember global events that struck in his youth remarkably well.

“I was maybe 10 years old when I started following what’s happening around the world. I wouldn’t say I remember everything but all that has struck me, I remember well," he says.

"I did, however, have to verify a few things to be sure I didn’t get anything wrong.”

Maalouf hopes the pandemic and Beirut's port explosion will serve as a wake-up call that forces us to question where the world is heading. That is also his intent with Adrift: to prompt readers to re-examine the globe's current state of affairs.

"Adrift is a book that has been on my mind for many, many years," Maalouf says. "And, at one point, I finally began writing it."

Amin Maalouf will speak at the 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Thursday, February 4; 8pm-8.30pm at InterContinental, Dubai Festival City.; emirateslitfest.com

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