Maalouf, Amin 1949-
MAALOUF, Amin 1949-
PERSONAL: Born February 25, 1949, in Beirut, Lebanon; immigrated to Paris, France, 1976; son of Ruchdi (a writer, teacher, and journalist) Maalouf and Odetta Ghossein; married; children: three.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Arcade Publishing, 141 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
CAREER: Author. Former director of An-nahar Arabe et International (newspaper), Beirut, Lebanon, and editor of Jeune Afrique (magazine), Paris, France.
AWARDS, HONORS: Prix des Maisons de la Presse, 1988, for Samarcande; Prix Goncourt, 1993, for Le rocher de Tanios.
Les croisades vues par les Arabes, [France], translation by Jon Rothschild published as The Crusades through Arab Eyes, Al Saqi (London, England), 1984, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1985.
Léon, l'Africain (novel), J. C. Lattès (Paris, France), 1986, translation by Peter Sluglett published as Leo Africanus, Norton (New York, NY), 1989.
Samarcande (novel), J. C. Lattès (Paris, France), 1988, translation by Russell Harris published as Samarcand, Abacus (London, England), 1994, Interlink Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Jardins de lumière (novel), J. C. Lattès (Paris, France), 1991, translation by Dorothy S. Blair published as The Gardens of Light, Quartet (London, England), 1996, Interlink Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Le premier siècle après Béatrice (novel), Grasset (Paris, France), 1992, translation by Dorothy S. Blair published as The First Century after Beatrice, Abacus (London, England), 1994, George Braziller (New York, NY), 1995.
Le rocher de Tanios (novel), Grasset (Paris, France), 1993, translation by Dorothy S. Blair published as The Rock of Tanios, George Braziller (New York, NY), 1994.
Les echelles du Levant (novel; title means "The Scales of the Orient"), Grasset (Paris, France), 1996, translation by Alberto Manguel published as Ports of Call, Harvill (London, England), 1999.
Les identités meurtrières, Grasset (Paris, France), 1998, translation by Barbara Bray published as On Identity, Harvill (London, England), 2000, published as In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, Arcade Publishing (New York, NY), 2001.
Le périple de Baldassare, Grasset (Paris, France), 2000, translation by Barbara Bray published as Balthasar's Odyssey, Arcade Publishing (New York, NY), 2002.
L'amour de loin, Grasset (Paris, France), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Amin Maalouf is a Lebanese author whose native language is Arabic but who writes in French. Most of his books have been translated into English, as well as thirty other languages. Maalouf comes from a family that has produced twenty writers since the eighteenth century. He was born a Catholic and attended Jesuit schools in Beirut, where he studied economics and sociology, but like his father he became a journalist and traveled throughout the Near and Middle East and Africa, covering various conflicts. When war came to Lebanon, Maalouf took his wife and children to Paris, France, where they have remained. He writes in a small fisherman's house for part of each year.
Although most of Maalouf's books are novels, he has published nonfiction, including his history, The Crusades through Arab Eyes. Most of what is known about the Crusades was documented by Western writers who tended to portray the incursions of Christian Europeans as a romanticized rescue of the Holy Land. In this volume Maalouf has collected writings that reflect the unprovoked brutality suffered at the hands of the invaders. He also notes that, for the most part, the Turkish and Kurdish generals led the charge against the Christians, and the Arabs were often merely low-rank volunteers or observers. "Maalouf's account is partisan for the Muslim side," wrote Robert Irwin in the Times Literary Supplement, "but this may be welcomed as a counterbalance to the older classic narratives. . . . One is made aware that the Crusaders were not facing an oriental horde of inscrutable 'Saracens,' but individuals with individual aims and legitimate ambitions." A New Yorker reviewer called Maalouf's account "an against-all-odds story of how Muslims in time overcame their rivalries and united long enough to win a holy war."
Leo Africanus is an historical novel about Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, born in Granada in the fifteenth century. In 1492, when he was four, Hasan fled Moorish Granada with his family to escape the Inquisition and settled in Fez, Morocco. A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that "the childhood chapters here are rich and evocative, woven through with vivid sensory detail and real relationships."
Hasan traveled on diplomatic missions across Africa and the Near East and was captured by corsairs who took him to Rome. His patron, Pope Leo X, baptized him and gave him his own name, and in 1526, Leo completed Africa, a guide to the places he had visited as Hasan and which would provide an important source of information about the geography of the countries described. He eventually reverted back to his Muslim religion when he returned to North Africa, where he died. Leo's words were translated by John Pory in 1600, and Pory was amazed at the dangers Leo had faced and escaped, from both man and beast, in his many years of adventures.
In writing Leo's fictional autobiography, Maalouf had a great deal to draw from, including the murders and tortures of the Egyptian Mamluks, the Maghribi treasure seekers, and the lesbian witches of Fez. Maalouf includes long descriptions of Fez, outlining its customs, geography, architecture, food and drink, baths, shops, inns, marriages, and funerals.
Because Leo followed the Arab tradition of revealing little about his personal life, Maalouf had an empty canvas on which to paint the fictional women of Leo's life, including his black slave Hiba, his cousin Fatima, who he was forced to marry under family pressure, the princess Nur, and Maddalena, a Jew who fled from an Italian convent. There are mentions of Leo's father's Spanish mistress and of his seeing Christopher Columbus in a drinking establishment. Leo was in Granada before it was seized by the Christians, Cairo during the Ottoman occupation, and Rome when it was taken by Charles V in 1527.
"The author deftly weaves into Hassan's account a score of the traveler's more famous contemporaries," noted L. M. Lewis in Library Journal. In addition to Columbus, they include Martin Luther, the Medicis, Suleiman the Magnificent, the artist Raphael, Francis I of France, Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim, Florentine historian Francesco Guiccardini, Barbarossa the corsair, and Tumanbay, the last sultan of Egypt.
Irwin, who also reviewed Leo Africanus in the Times Literary Supplement, wrote that "it is possible that a fourth city, never mentioned, presides over Maalouf's tale of urban destruction and exile—modern Beirut." Irwin noted that "Maalouf's Leo offers us pleasant lessons about the intellectual and material culture of the medieval Arabs, and his travels are a tour d'horizon of the Mediterranean world on the turn. Leo is a privileged witness to the impact of gunpowder, printing, tobacco, and Lutheranism on Europe as well as the beginnings of European colonial expansion in Africa and the Indies." Irwin felt the book "combines excitement and instruction in an attractive novel which reads easily in its English translation."
Anton Shammas wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Leo Africanus "is a beautiful book of tales about people who are always forced to accept choices made for them by someone else. For the American reader who is familiar only with the Columbus side of the story, it is a 'back at the farm' of sorts. It relates, poetically at times and often imaginatively, the story of those who did not make it to the New World."
Samarcand is an historical novel that spans 900 years, beginning in the eleventh century, with Persian poet, mathematician, and astronomer Omar Khayyam, author of The Rubaiyaat. The story follows Khayyam and the fate of the manuscript, which is eventually secured by the narrator, American Benjamin O. Lesage, whose middle initial is his father's tribute to Omar Khayyam, and who is obsessed with the Orient. Lesage travels the paths taken by Khayyam centuries earlier, through Turkey, France, and Persia, and marries a Persian princess who has obtained the manuscript. They return to America on board the illfated Titanic and survive when the ocean liner goes down, but the manuscript disappears into the sea.
Jamal En-nehas wrote in World Literature Today that "Maalouf's real achievement in Samarkand, however, is the brief part dealing with the legendary Hassan Sabbah and the Order of the Assassins, in which he rebuts some of the unverified and disparaging views about the Assassins held by historians, travelers, and explorers, Marco Polo being one of them."
Philip Gambone wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "throughout the novel, the reader is treated to lovely set pieces that evoke medieval and early modern Central Asia." A Kirkus Reviews critic felt that in Samarkand, "mysteries and their solutions are deployed with masterly authority . . . by one of the best European writers to have emerged in the last decade." "This is an enjoyable and readable tale," observed David Morgan in the Times Literary Supplement. "Considered as a whole, Samarkand is an example of the best type of historical fiction: a book in which, even if you know something about the historical background to the story, it is not always easy to say exactly where fiction takes over."
The Gardens of Light is Maalouf's fictional saga of the life of Mani, a third-century prophet who lived in Mesopotamia. A preacher of tolerance, Mani's spiritual movement, later to be known as Manichaeism, was a blend of Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism. In Maalouf's account, Mani is raised in an ascetic Christian family but rebels when his father joins the very conservative Nazarene sect, and Mani and his followers travel across many lands, preaching his doctrine of religious tolerance and pacifism. He eventually becomes counsel to Persian King Shapur I, but with the succession to the throne of Shapur's son, he is persecuted and killed.
Booklist's Bonnie Johnston felt The Gardens of Light "illustrates the interaction of earthly desire and heavenly inspiration that takes place in the birth of a new religion." En-nehas wrote that "thematically, readers will probably find the story flat and less than engaging, but they will certainly not fail to discern the subtlety and smoothness of the narrative, the craft of storytelling, and the free interplay of fiction, history, and mythology."
In the New York Times Book Review, David Guy commented that he would have liked to know more about Mani's "inner life, some insight into how his liberal convictions were formed at a time when so much religious belief was marked by extreme factionalism and rigidity." Still, a Publishers Weekly critic called the story "an absorbing historical novel and a compelling parable for our time" and said that Maalouf "imaginatively fleshes out the essence of Mani's life from scant biographical clues, rendering a portrait of a martyred visionary whose tale has gone largely untold."
Maalouf moves forward in time with The First Century after Beatrice, a near-future novel that explores social and ethical issues of the mid-twenty-first century. David K. Bruner, who reviewed the French-language version in World Literature Today, wrote that Maalouf "mixes story and essay, fantasy and myth to deal with a current world question: the definition of women with respect to powers and rights. Just how patriarchal society has been for centuries, with what degrees of ignorance, callousness, and cruelty in various places, is at the center of world debates."
The unnamed, eighty-three-year-old narrator of The First Century after Beatrice begins his story in 2044. He is an entomologist whose specialty has been the scarab beetle and who spent most of his professional life working at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. When he was in his thirties, the narrator attended a conference in Cairo, where he bought beans in which a substance derived from the scarab was the main ingredient. He forgets about his purchase for another decade when he discovers them in his bathroom. He is living with a younger woman named Clarence, a journalist who is fascinated by the story that the powder in the beans guarantees only male births. She is so intrigued that she begins to write about discriminatory Third World birth practices.
They marry, and she agrees to have the baby girl the narrator has always wanted, and who he has already named. Beatrice, born in 2000, will be one of the few women born during the next several decades, since the bean, which sees its first use in overpopulated areas, is eventually employed by couples in developed countries. In effect, technology is being used to reenforce longstanding prejudices against females as women in some cases agree to have the sons their husbands long for, while in others, the bean is used strictly as a form of population control.
Eventually the developed countries of the North see the folly of their ways and ban the use of the drug, but in the South, or undeveloped countries, its use is intensified and combined with the killing of baby girls. Soon females are in such short supply that men become dissatisfied, and often violent, because of their lack of mates and inability to have normal families. Economies collapse, and women are sold on the black market. Wars erupt, and baby girls from the North are kidnapped and sold. Chaos reigns. At thirty, Beatrice and her husband, both of whom are scientists, move to Geneva to work and live, and the narrator and Clarence relocate to their converted shepherd's cottage in the Savoy Alps. Ironically, when Beatrice decides to have a child, she wants it to be a boy.
"Most of the novel takes place in Paris," noted Richard Burgin in Washington Post Book World, "but there is very little sense of the city and, except for the infamous drug itself, the author describes no new invention or change in society that makes life in the future any different from how it is today. Happily for the reader, the narrator eventually retreats from world affairs to study his insects and to concentrate on his love for Beatrice, and accordingly, his character becomes more engrossing."
Barbara Wright wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that the subject of this novel "is grim, but far from fantastic." Wright noted that in 1993, the year of her review, there were 2.03 million more males than females in the Guangxi province of China, and also commented on a gender clinic that had opened in London. Wright wrote that The First Century after Beatrice "is a serious tract for our times, and he [Maalouf] has written it very seriously. He has also made it very readable." A Publishers Weekly critic felt Maalouf's "choice of a narrator is perfect, for his writing is most eloquent in those passages in which the aging entomologist, accustomed to the study of insect species, expresses his hopes for his own."
The Rock of Tanios is loosely based on historical fact and begins in present-day Lebanon, where an elder relates the story of Tanios, born in 1840 of the beautiful Lamia, the result of a rape by Sheikh Francis, a Christian Arab who ruled the fictional village of Kfaryabda. Rumors abound that Tanios is the child of the sheikh, and he is provided with the best of everything, including an education. The Lebanon of the time is beset with political and religious upheaval. When Gerios, husband of Tanios's mother and a member of the court, murders the patriarch for taking Tanios's girlfriend for his own nephew, Tanios and Gerios flee to Cypzus.
Adrian Tahourdin wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that "in the best part of the book, Maalouf vividly conjures up the atmosphere of a nineteenth-century Mediterranean port: rumours and counter-rumours about troubles on the mainland circulate; double agents loiter in the coffee-houses by the quayside. For Tanios, who is seduced by a beautiful Georgian fruit-seller, Cyprus represents something of an idyll."
Gerios is lured back to the village and is hanged by agents of the Emir of the Mountains, and Tanios, who becomes sheik by acclamation, deals with the emir leniently, as an act of mercy and as an attempt to end the violence which has had his village in its grip for so long. The novel's title refers to a chair-shaped rock formation that overlooks the village and is said to be the last place Tanios sat before disappearing forever. The Rock of Tanios was awarded France's prestigious Prix Goncourt.
Booklist's Gilbert Taylor felt that the novel is "intended, possibly, as a commentary on the origins of Lebanon's murderous recent history." "Magical and compelling, the novel is the work of a master stylist, rendered in a subtle and supple transition," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. A Publishers Weekly contributor called The Rock of Tanios a "seductive, exotic novel."
Ports of Call is a contemporary novel narrated by an unidentified person who says only that he loves history and who tells how in Paris he saw Resistance hero Ossyane Ketabdar and convinced him to tell his life story over the four days until what Ossyane says will be a big event is to occur. Ossyane, an Ottoman prince, describes his family, his sister, his evil brother, and his liberal, revolutionary father who wants him to follow in his footsteps, but who Ossyane disappoints when he leaves Lebanon for France to study medicine. In France Ossyane joins the Resistance and meets Clara, a young Jewish woman. Although they fall in love and marry, they are separated and forced to live apart with the onset of the Arab-Israeli War. Their separation has a devastating effect on Ossyane, who is, for a time, institutionalized for insanity. A Kirkus Reviews writer felt that Ossyane's "pacifism and his passivity seem unfortunately generic, and his plight never fully engages our emotions."
En-nehas, who reviewed the French-language version of Ports of Call in World Literature Today, commented that Maalouf "has created a semidemented character, a 'lost generation' hero committed to fighting a losing battle. This is a story of defeat and disillusionment in which personal endeavor clashes with collective will." Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Lucy Dallas felt that the theme of people being ripped apart during times of war and racial bigotry needed further development and the issues that deal with religion would have benefited from further resolution. Dallas said there is "only a hazy picture of the conflict; more crucially, although the Arab-Israeli War separates the lovers initially, they are really kept apart by individual apathy and greed. Yet despite all these obstacles, Ports of Call manages to evoke a simple and touching love story, and it is limpid and delicate in the telling."
Ports of Call ends with the couple reunited, but, as William Ferguson wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "Their future can only be imagined: will they take up their life together again, or are the scars too deep?" Donald A. Austin, who reviewed the novel in French Review, wrote that "Maalouf gives a poignant voice to a rarely celebrated heroism as Ossyane combats the mundane but all-powerful forces of fate, including family, illness, and race. His battle and fragile victory seem far more heroic than the usual accidents that thrust men into celebrity and wealth and are so often remembered with great fanfare." Booklist's Holly Cooley wrote, "Lyrically written and deceptively simple, Maalouf's tale is a parable for the human spirit's capacity for endurance."
"The question of identity is one of the main preoccupations of Maalouf's work, fictional and nonfictional," wrote En-nehas in World Literature Today. "In Les identités meurtrières, however, Maalouf problematizes identity by articulating its politics and by placing it within a complex contemporary context dominated by such concepts as religion, race, ethnicity, and language. He points out that identity is intricately fluid, discursive, and composite and, by virtue of being so, it resists containment. To contextualize his assumptions, the author draws on his personal experience by refusing a half-Lebanese half-French status, defining his identity as rather cosmopolitan and cross-cultural."
Peter Vansittart, who reviewed the first English-language translation of On Identity, felt that "this short, lucid, dispassionate book ignores . . . individual aberrations, concentrating on the significance of nationality, beliefs, language, the pressures of largely misunderstood history; on whether Islam, a blanket term dangerous in journalistic assumptions, is compatible with modernity and female rights, whether 'Christianity' has fostered democratic toleration."
A second translation of Les identités meurtrières was published in the United States as In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. Library Journal's Leslie Armour wrote of this work that "a cruel puzzle of our times, identity is something imposed by race, gender, nationality, and religion." "Maalouf offers a philosophical exploration of what a culture without entrenched identities would be like," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor. Booklist's Hazel Rochman noted that Maalouf offers "fascinating discussion sure to spark debate." In a New York Times Book Review article, Jonathan Lear called the work Maalouf's "heartfelt meditation on identity that begins inside his soul. For Maalouf, identity is usually deployed to create a false sense of self. It does so by proclaiming that one of our many allegiances is who we really are. This primary allegiance is not determined by introspection but typically in relation to which allegiance is most under attack. Our identity is thus often formed in relation to our enemy."
Maalouf notes that throughout history, Christianity has been extremely intolerant, while Islam has been notably tolerant. He looks at how changes have occurred in each, and in particular how Muslims have embraced fanaticism, which Maalouf believes is an expression of outrage at being oppressed and humiliated. Lear noted that Maalouf wrote his book before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: "this book . . . was written in Paris before the world changed, but it makes compelling reading in America today. For it argues that a politics of identity based on a sense of victimization—which reduces identity to a single affiliation—facilitates the creation of 'identities that kill.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, October 15, 1994, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Rock of Tanios, p. 402; February 15, 1999, Bonnie Johnston, review of The Gardens of Light, p. 1040; November 15, 1999, Holly Cooley, review of Ports of Call, p. 604; August, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, p. 2060; November 1, 2002, Kevin Canfield, review of Balthasar's Odyssey, p. 474.
Choice, November, 1999, W. L. Hanaway, review of The Gardens of Light, p. 531.
Christian Science Monitor, July 24, 1989, S. J. Tirrell, review of Leo Africanus, p. 13.
Economist, January 19, 1985, review of The Crusades through Arab Eyes, p. 91.
Far Eastern Economic Review, November 5, 1992, Ahmed Rashid, review of Samarkand, p. 42.
French Review, December, 1998, Donald M. Austin, review of Les echelles du Levant, pp. 365-366.
History Today, September, 1985, Francis Robinson, review of The Crusades through Arab Eyes, p. 54.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1988, review of Leo Africanus, pp. 1631-1632; July 15, 1994, review of The Rock of Tanios, p. 940; March 1, 1996, review of Samarkand, p. 334; November 1, 1999, review of Ports of Call, p. 1672; September 15, 2002, review of Balthasar's Odyssey, p. 1338.
Library Journal, December, 1985, J. Anthony Gardner, review of The Crusades through Arab Eyes, p. 104; January, 1989, L. M. Lewis, review of Leo Africanus, p. 102; August, 1994, Susan M. Olcott, review of The Rock of Tanios, p. 131; August, 1995, Peggie Partello, review of The First Century after Beatrice, p. 118; March 15, 1996, Edward B. St. John, review of Samarkand, p. 96; November 1, 2002, Leslie Armour, review of In the Name of Identity, p. 97.
New Statesman, December 23, 1988, Michael Moorcock, review of Leo Africanus, p. 32.
New Yorker, November 25, 1985, review of The Crusades through Arab Eyes, pp. 163-164.
New York Times Book Review, March 12, 1989, Anton Shammas, review of Leo Africanus, p. 13; August 20, 1995, Rose Kernochan, review of the First Century after Beatrice, p. 14; July 7, 1996, Philip Gambone, review of Samarkand, p. 15; March 14, 1999, David Guy, review of The Gardens of Light, p. 23; January 23, 2000, William Ferguson, review of Ports of Call, p. 20; November 25, 2001, Jonathan Lear, review of In the Name of Identity, p. 20; February 9, 2003, review of Balthasar's Odyssey, p. 18.
Population Studies, July, 1997, Gigi Santow, review of The First Century after Beatrice, p. 234.
Publishers Weekly, October 21, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of Leo Africanus, p. 48; September 5, 1994, review of The Rock of Tanios, p. 92; June 26, 1995, review of The First Century after Beatrice, p. 87; December 7, 1998, review of The Gardens of Light, p. 51; August 6, 2001, review of In the Name of Identity, p. 76; September 23, 2002, review of Balthasar's Odyssey, p. 48.
Spectator, October 28, 2000, Peter Vansittart, review of On Identity, p. 53.
Times Literary Supplement, November 16, 1984, Robert Irwin, review of The Crusades through Arab Eyes, p. 1300; August 26, 1988, Robert Irwin, review of Leo Africanus, p. 928; July 31, 1992, David Morgan, review of Samarkand, p. 19; December 17, 1993, Barbara Wright, review of The First Century after Beatrice, p. 20; October 28, 1994, Adrian Tahourdin, review of The Rock of Tanios, p. 24; December 13, 1996, Jon James, review of The Gardens of Light, p. 22; October 8, 1999, Lucy Dallas, review of Ports of Call, p. 23.
Washington Post Book World, June 14, 1987, review of The Crusades through Arab Eyes, p. 12; October 1, 1995, Richard Burgin, review of The First Century after Beatrice, p. 25.
World Literature Today, spring, 1993, David K. Bruner, review of Le premier siècle après Béatrice, p. 324; summer, 1996, Jamal En-nehas, review of Samarkand, p. 755; spring, 1997, Jamal En-nehas, review of Les Echelles du Levant, p. 341; autumn, 1999, Jamal En-nehas, review of The Gardens of Light, p. 811; winter, 2000, Jamal En-nehas, review of Les identités meurtrières, p. 110.