Newsmaker: Amin Maalouf

The Lebanese-born French novelist has been named the Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s 2016 Cultural Personality of the Year, the latest accolade of a decorated literary career.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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There are some memories in our lives that are so profound that they keep coming back, manifesting themselves in different ways. For the renowned Lebanese-­born French novelist Amin Maalouf, it came while taking refuge in a basement one night after fighting broke out earlier in the day beneath his window on April 13, 1975 – the beginning of one of Lebanon’s bloodiest chapters. He feared for the lives of his then-pregnant wife, Andrée, and young son. Known for being a timid, calm character, he was shocked by the profound effect terror and ethnic tension can have on a person.

Maalouf has revisited the intense feelings and questions raised from this experience in his writing. The question of identity, "them" versus "us", and what makes a person, their past and their present were fed into one of his most powerful novels, On Identity, which was originally published in French in 1998.

"Every individual is a meeting ground for many different allegiances, and sometimes these loyalties conflict with one another, and confront the person who harbours them with difficult choices," he wrote in On Identity.

The concept of identity struck a chord with readers, and remains relevant today with the overwhelming effect of globalisation and the unprecedented influx and outflux of migrants and refugees in the region.

This ability to convey to the world some of the key moments in the history of Arab and other Eastern peoples is among the reasons for him being named the Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s 2016 Cultural Personality of the Year, which he will accept this Sunday in Abu Dhabi.

During the 15 years of civil war in Lebanon, which ended in 1990, thousands of Lebanese became refugees, among them Maalouf. Born in Beirut in 1949 as the second of four children to a Christian family, Maalouf was working for the Lebanese daily newspaper An-Nahar when war broke out. He, like many citizens during the war, struggled with the question of whether to stay or leave. After a year of holding onto hopes of peace, he fled with his family by boat to Cyprus, then on to Paris.

Since 1976, Paris has been Maalouf's permanent home, where he worked for the weekly newspaper Al-Nahar Al-Arabi, then the French-language weekly news magazine Jeune Afrique.

He left journalism to focus on novels, but continued to travel back to Lebanon, across the region and around the world. Migration has often been a theme of his novels, in which characters travel between lands, languages and religions – often based on historic characters or inspired by historical events.

“It’s the relationship I have with the world: always trying to escape from reality. I’m a daydreamer; I don’t feel in harmony with my epoch or the societies I live in,” he once described his work.

His literary work, written mainly in French and translated into more than 40 languages, includes more than 10 novels, numerous essays, articles and four opera librettos. Maalouf’s writing is made universal by themes of identity, self-­reflection, origins, migration and loss, voyages – sometimes historical, sometimes fictional, with characters and settings that span across cultures and continents – and an exploration of the East and West, cultural tolerance, bridging and breaking barriers, humanity and its struggles.

“A life spent writing has taught me to be wary of words. Those that seem clearest are often the most treacherous,” he lamented of his writing.

Maalouf, who has a degree in sociology and economics, is a master storyteller, something he may have inherited through a long family tradition of storytelling, poetry, writing and journalism. His father, Ruchdi, was a poet, scholar and journalist who would tell his children classical Arab stories and poetry from the greats such as the 10th-century Arab poet Al Mutanabbi, the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, and Antara ibn Shaddad, the sixth-century pre-Islamic poet who was a slave who earned his freedom through bravery in battle, and became a model for the warrior poet.

“All of these stories ­influenced me greatly,” Maalouf told the writers’ association Pen ­International, something that is evident in his work.

Maalouf's history-inspired characters find themselves in conflict with the beliefs of their surroundings and time, such as the Mesopotamian prophet Mani in The Gardens of Light (1991), who preached his tolerant doctrine of The Gospel of Light; or the restless traveller Hassan Al Wazzan from Leo the African (1986), a geographer who roamed Africa and the ­Mediterranean lands in the 16th century.

While his writing takes readers to new places, Maalouf is a creature of habit, and told Pen ­International that he can only write in certain places, such as his study at home, and has always written on computers – his first was an Apple II. “I write in the mornings, every day, starting usually around 8am, or whenever I wake up. I can’t stand alarm clocks. I write until mid-­afternoon, and then force myself not to think again about the book until the next morning,” he said.

Maalouf married Andrée, who was a teacher at an institute for deaf children, in 1971. Their three sons all live in Paris.

"[My wife] is my first reader and [is] very severe," Maalouf once told The Guardian.

His work has won him numerous awards, including Spain's Prince of Asturias Award for literature in 2010; and the Prix Goncourt – the most prestigious French literary award – in 1993 for Rock of Tanios, which is set in Lebanon during the 1830s and 1840s. Origines, published in 2004, won the Prix Méditerranée. In Origines, Maalouf digs into his own origins to create a biographical book about his family, writing about his grandfather Boutros, who stays in Lebanon and opens the first co-ed school, and uncle Gebrayel, who emigrates to Cuba and makes a fortune before dying in a car accident.

One of his proudest moments was in 2012 when Maalouf became “an immortal” by being the first Lebanese to join the elite ranks of the French ­Academy, the foremost authority on the French language. He ­succeeded the renowned anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The man with many milestones, who doesn’t believe in “simplistic identities” or how “the world is a complex machine that can’t be dismantled with a screwdriver,” adds another prestigious award to his portfolio in Abu Dhabi this Sunday.

“He shed light on distinguished personalities dedicated to promoting harmony and dialogue between the East and the West,” said an official statement by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, naming him their Cultural ­Personality of the Year.

One of the books the award highlights is Maalouf's first. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, published in 1983, garnered international interest for his take on an important chapter in history as experienced by the Arab community. The book revealed his fundamental interests: history and narrative writing. Back then, the Crusades were a central theme in French historical studies, and many literary texts were historically based, but they were rarely presented from an Arab perspective. More than a story of religious war, The ­Crusades Through Arab Eyes explores the cultural clashes that he says planted the seeds of mistrust between the East and West that remain today.

“It seems clear that the Arab East still sees the West as a natural enemy. Against that enemy, any hostile action – be it political, military or based on oil – is considered no more than legitimate vengeance. And there can be no doubt that the schism between these two worlds dates from the Crusades, deeply felt by the Arabs, even today, as an act of rape,” he writes in the book.

It’s not the first UAE award Maalouf has been presented. In 2011, he won the Sultan bin Ali Al Owais Award for cultural and scientific achievement for representing “a bridge between the East and West”. Organised by the Sultan bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation in Dubai, the award is in honour of the acclaimed Emirati poet Sultan bin Ali Al Owais, and aims to honour, encourage and support Arab scholars, literateurs and intellectuals.

Until 2010, Maalouf maintained a blog, which provided an interesting insight into the man behind the words, showing a reflective, academic writer, nostalgic yet thorough in his research – still asking questions; still the traveller of words.

He wrote on his blog: “Though, like many people, I take a keen interest in Arab words adopted into European languages, this linguistic crossover alone isn’t enough to quench my thirst for knowledge. Sometimes it even runs counter to the point I’m trying to make. For Arab civilisation is more than just one of western civilisation’s wellsprings; it is not just a waypoint, still less a mere conduit. Arab civilisation, first and foremost, is daughter to the same ancestors as the West, and is much inspired by Greece and Rome. Furthermore, she has borrowed plentifully from the Persians, Indians, Turks, ­Arameans and Hebrews, as well as from Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. And she has given abundantly in return to all of these, or to their heirs.”

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