When I was a kid we referred to Lebanon as "The Lebanon." Like Argentina--"The Argentine"--we thought of Lebanon as more of a region than a country. Looking back, I can see that this served to deny each country its nationhood and self-determination. In Lebanon's case, it also echoed its diversity and its history under Ottoman rule.
Amin Maalouf has written in Origins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 404 pages, $26)an account of four generations of his family's history. This is also a story of Arab and Lebanese identity and emigration. As such, it holds a part of modern Lebanon's history and a plea for cultural diversity and peaceful coexistence in its pages. Maalouf is a skilled writer and an intellectual who has made his plea for respecting the world's diversity based on our shared and complex histories his life's work.
"Barely a hundred years ago," Maalouf writes, "Lebanese Christians readily proclaimed themselves Syrian, Syrians looked to Mecca for a king, Jews in the Holy Land called themselves Palestinian...and my grandfather Botros liked to think of himself as an Ottoman citizen. None of the present-day Middle Eastern states existed, and even the term 'Middle East' hadn't yet been invented. The commonly used term was 'Asian Turkey.'Since then, scores of people have died for allegedly eternal homelands, and many more will die tomorrow." This short passage occurs at the book's halfway point and the author could stop here, his point having been made. We are fortunate that he continues on with the story of his family and other similar observations.
The author's family spread from "The Lebanon" to Europe, the Americas and Australia. Maalouf's enigmatic grandfather, Botros, remained at home in order to fulfill his familial responsibilities and also in order to have some role in crafting an independent country. At times he remained at home as much out of spite as out of love, it seems. The family experienced great losses and divisions wherever family members settled and much of the book revolves around how Maalouf has been affected by this as he seeks to better understand himself and others. What stops this book from becoming merely one man's search for his identity and roots is the author's mixing of historical fact with family legends and his self-conscious push, articulated in the first pages of the book, beyond nationalism and identity politics. Maalouf is holding up a mirror, but in it we see ourselves as well as the author.
Maalouf is a humanist and he reminds his readers that he comes to his humanism through a family and a nation divided along barely-forgiving confessional and political lines. Rarely in his books will the reader feel that she is being preached at, although there is this constant reminder of the author's origins and world view. Much of Maalouf's argument is against fanaticism, particularly religious fanaticism, but in Origins he seems to finally fold in the face of it within his own family. He can be sentimental, but it is difficult to imagine anyone writing a family history without sentimentalism and nostalgia. He is more evocative than nostalgic or sentimental in any case. Maalouf also maintains a petty-bourgeois intellectual's studied skepticism of revolutionary movements and governments even when the reality before him contradicts this skepticism.
It is Maalouf's tremendous ability to put people and events in historical perspective, and then to forgive, which wins the reader over. There is no vanity in his analysis or forgiveness. Moreover, Maalouf is so anti-dogmatic that even his humanism provides a basis for self-criticism and critique by others. Maalouf is at his best when he pushes this forward with full-throttled eloquence and through good story-telling and it is then that he steps somewhere beyond his class position and towards a more revolutionary humanism.
This is not a book that the left should ignore. Maalouf's reading of history and his intellectual fight for diversity, free expression and self-determination in the face of globalization should not be left to the liberals. We should take up Maalouf's challenges to be better thinkers and better people in light of our historical experiences.