Sunday, 26 November 2017

#43 A memoir

Origins – Amin Maalouf

I do admit that I came across this book utterly by chance. The book cover looked appealing and I am all for digging up the past through letters and stories – so I had to read this one. In the end, I am surprised that the author is relatively unknown in our suggested readings. His writing, though a translation (expertly translated from French by Catherine Temerson), is exquisite.

The cover I have has a picture of trunk overflowing with letters
Amin Maalouf was originally a journalist in Lebanon until the civil war broke out there in 1975. He moved to Paris with his family and has been residing there since. In this lovely, complex memoir he traces the past when he chances upon a trunk of family letters given to him. Originating in the mountains of Lebanon this inter-generational saga, spanning various continents and historical events gives voice to an identity that is conveniently obscured by the times we live in – the idea of a liberal Arab in a Muslim world torn apart by political uprising and decades of revolutions.

He begins  with a heartfelt tribute to his family and his ancestors who were Lebanese Christians:

“I come from a clan that has been nomadic from time immemorial in a desert as wide as the world….is the family name a homeland? Yes, that’s the way it is.”

He recalls a time forgotten in the annals of history, nearly a hundred years ago, when Arab liberalism was briefly at its zenith. Enlightenment ideals of rationality, liberty, and progress were zealously championed by schoolteachers and scientists, freemasons and poets, across the planet—and not least in the Arab world, where many of the leading reformers were, like Maalouf and his ancestors. Writing as a detective-historian, Maalouf has ransacked old chests and the fading memories of relatives to tell the story of a forgotten man of the Enlightenment—his grandfather Boutros.   

His grandfather was a revolutionary idealist and schoolteacher who having failed in business lives instead “between notebooks and inkwells”. The other person who comes into focus is his brother who is a study in contrast – Gebrayel, who left for the United States and later settled in Cuba. Whereas, Botros runs away from his home and gets a western education, scandalously refuses to have his children baptized and opens up a ‘Universal School’, his brother is a successful retail entrepreneur in Cuba. One an intellectual and the other, a businessman.

Maalouf is passionately devoted to fill the gaps in his ancestors’ stories. And he does that by piecing together fragments of the letters they exchange, by interviewing living relatives and visiting the places his ancestors lay buried – to glean as much of truth as he can. In some exquisite lines he explains how a quest for this origin can also be faulty and riddled with troubling questions.

“I realize that it is always tricky to suggest a beginning for things. Nothing is born of nothing, least of all knowledge, modernity, or enlightened thought; progress is made in tiny surges, in successive laps, like an endless relay race.”

You simply can’t state the postmodern condition better. I loved some of his observations for such insights. So, in many ways, this search and piecing together of his ancestors’ past is a telling analogy of how we ourselves put history together – in fragments, never as a whole as we believe it to be.  

His grandfather had attempted to bring in a new age of liberal education through his school , but political ideologies that strongly stood against such establishments proved to be his undoing. Though his grandmother kept the school running for another decade, she too had to shut it down. From then, their family have been largely scattered across the globe – traveling or even escaping from their beloved homeland due to circumstances beyond their control. 

“Here, families have sons buried in Beirut, Egypt, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and the United States. Our fate is to be scattered in death as we were in life.”

Amin Maalouf explores the "labyrinth of identity” through the search for the stories of his ancestors. It's a journey showing how we - especially Europe and the Middle East - are one multiple entity. And that our identity cannot be reduced to a single affiliation. Amin recognises that identity is a complex process, and he's not willing to subject himself to categories others impose.

His views and recollections of the past were enlightening since I knew next to nothing of the background in Lebanon.  Using a trunk of letters and the stories of his ancestors he masterfully creates a memorable niche of his own.  His voice is very persuasive and a highly relevant one.

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