Historical documents are rarely as interesting as the novels they inspire. Without the animation of fiction they are usually marginal, bureaucratic and incomplete. So it is a tribute to the writer Amin Maalouf's talent that he has taken a trunk full of old letters, lists and land deeds and turned them into an engaging narrative that is loyal to fact rather than fiction. Maalouf's memoir Origins, newly translated from French to English by Catherine Temerson, is the work of a reluctant genealogist who interprets a questionable coincidence and a casual question as signs that the time has come to dredge up some family history. Maalouf is initially hesitant. Aside from the apocryphal stories his relatives have told him over and over again since he was a boy, he knows little about his ancestors and doesn't want to disrupt their legacies or dismantle their legends. But a mysterious rift between his grandfather Botros and his great-uncle Gebrayal burrows into his brain and grabs hold of his curiosity.
Is it true that Gebrayel ventured to Cuba, got himself in trouble and then begged his brother Botros to come and save him? Is it true that Botros boarded a ship, mastered Spanish on his trans-Atlantic passage and then brilliantly defended Gebrayel in court? What transpired after that to cause a sharp, permanent split between the Cuban and Lebanese branches of the family? What about the circumstances of Gebrayel's untimely death led family members to insist he was assassinated? And what if things had turned out differently? Would Maalouf be retreating to a grand Havana mansion to write his books instead of seeking research-friendly refuge in a former village schoolhouse in the mountains high above Beirut?
Maalouf begins asking questions. His inquiries yield three turn-of-the-century letters from Gebrayel to Botros and a barrage of old documents. From there, the writer refashions himself a literary detective leading the reader through an intricate maze of clues that may - or may not - solve his own story. Maalouf, 59, is one of Lebanon's leading literary figures. A descendant of folk poets, educators and self-styled intellectuals, he followed in his father's footsteps and began working as a journalist for the Arabic daily newspaper An-Nahar in Beirut. But with the outbreak of Lebanon's civil war in 1975, he moved to Paris and became editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Jeune Afrique. He made his home in France, traded reportage for historical fiction, switched from Arabic to French and to this day returns to Lebanon, like so many members of the large and far-flung diaspora, only for summer respites and family obligations such as weddings and funerals.
His novels have earned considerable international acclaim, and their enduring popularity rests in Maalouf's skill in excavating volatile stories from the past that shed tender light on conflicts raging in the present. The Rock of Tanios, which won France's prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1993, considers the sectarian tensions that turned Mount Lebanon into a tinderbox during Ottoman times. Samarkand, Maalouf's best book, revives the adventurous romps of Omar Khayyam, beloved poet of woman and wine, through 11th-century Persia. Leo the African reimagines the history of Hassan al-Wazzan, or Leo Africanus, a quintessential migrant who crisscrossed the Mediterranean and converted from Islam to Christianity and back again for the sake of escaping religious persecution in 16th-century Spain. Ports of Call tells the tragic, mid-20th-century story of Ossyane and Clara, who meet as members of the French resistance and quickly become lovers. They separate in Europe and reunite in the Levant, only to be torn apart again - he in Beirut, she in Haifa - by Israel's declaration of statehood. The division plunges Ossyane into 23 years of madness.
Maalouf's two nonfiction tomes, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes and In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, have transformed him into a ready-made spokesman on minority and immigration affairs, particularly in Europe, where his opinions on the tricky relations between East and West are routinely sought out by cabinet ministers, members of parliament and other policymaking officials.
Yet all of his writings, in one way or another, concern the complicated, multi-confessional conundrum that is Lebanon. Because he takes a long view of history, Maalouf revives the possibility of peaceful coexistence without sounding sentimental or deluded. He champions internal contradictions as productive rather than deadly. He portrays minorities flourishing rather than lashing out in fear. He insists on religion being a personal affair. He is a cosmopolite who is comfortable in the hinterlands. He is loyal to Lebanon on many layers - the village, the mountain, the metropolis - but he writes fondly from a distance. His books resonate strongly in the country of his birth, and Origins is his most intimate, affectionate and Lebanon-specific project yet, directly pinpointing the most painful dilemma in the country's collective psyche - whether to stay or go, whether to emigrate or endure. The irony, of course, is that Maalouf's research reveals the idea of Lebanon to be a rather recent invention.
In his cache of crumbling papers, for example, Maalouf finds letters to his ancestors in "Beirut, Syria, Turkey," not as serial locations but as a singular address. He discovers an Ellis Island immigration card on which his grandfather identifies himself as a Turkish national, an Arabic speaker and an ethnic Syrian. He finds several missives in which his forebears assert themselves as Lebanese Ottomans. He puzzles over a death announcement his great-grandfather placed in a Jewish newspaper - until he remembers that once there was a time when such an action would not have aroused suspicion. In Cuba, his great-uncle Gebrayel establishes a cultural organisation for Syrian progress, refers to his fellow immigrants as "the sons of Arabs" and describes his longing for "the bracing air of Lebanon".
"Barely a hundred years ago," writes Maalouf, "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 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."
On the surface, Origins is a compelling narrative punctuated by tumult, tragedy, war, famine and financial ruin. It is also a doubled portrait. Gebrayel emerges on one side as dashing, charismatic and entrepreneurial. Botros emerges on the other as stubborn, quixotic and admirably committed to social progress and a never fully realised Levantine enlightenment. He founds a school that brazenly cuts across religions and genders. He refuses to baptise his children. He insists on the importance of self-reliance, individual responsibility and most of all education, only to witness the death of his own nephew, who starvs himself until his heart gives out after his father forbids him from studying literature.
But underneath, the book is a polemic that simply extends the argument Maalouf began with In the Name of Identity: that to staunch the blood that is being spilt all over the world for the sake of national and religious causes, identity must be reconfigured as mixed up and mutable. Maalouf may convincingly portray national and religious affiliations as shallow, yet a reader can't help but notice that the conflicts agitating his characters are deeply entrenched. They haven't changed since the Ottoman era, before the region's nation states were formed. Maalouf's ancestors confront the same archaic laws regarding land, love, employment and personal status that bedevil the residents of Lebanon today. The concept of citizenship remains woefully stunted if not definitely stillborn. And community still trumps individuality on any given day.
Maalouf offers a farcical take on Lebanon's one and only national census, which was taken in 1932 and effectively shredded his family into Protestant and Greek Catholic fragments. Several years later, when Maalouf's father Rushdi reversed his designation from the former to the latter, it had nothing to do with religious belief and everything to do with him falling in love with a girl from a strict Maronite family that would begrudgingly accept a Melchite son-in-a-law but never a heretical Protestant. Since the times of Gebrayel and Botros, the bureaucratic headaches they inherited from their Ottoman overlords have only been magnified, rather than streamlined or reduced, by the imposition of national borders.
Still, there is something unfinished or underdeveloped about Origins. It puts forth a detailed account of Maalouf's research methodology and his travels in France, Lebanon and Cuba. But it gives readers a bit too much of Maalouf palming his aged documents, fingering their ragged corners and flattening them onto his desk to read and reread. At one point, he accidentally rips an archival newspaper. A reprimanding Havana librarian pricks his pride - as a Levantine male and a Europeanised adult, no less - and he responds like a petulant child.
In a sense, one wishes that Maalouf had let his material simmer in his mind for longer, or that he had mobilised his considerable powers of imagination to transform his historical documents into fiction, as the novelist Siri Hustvedt has done, using her father's Depression-era diaries as the backbone for The Sorrows of an American, a book about characters who are vividly and completely invented. Also, on a more material level, Maalouf tells his readers about his family photographs at length, but he never shows them. Why not? Why not include them in the book or better yet, embed them into a fictional narrative, as novelists from W. G. Sebald (in The Emigrants and Austerlitz, among others) to Javier Marias (in part one of his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy) have done with great sophistication in their works delving into history and memory.
Unfortunately, Origins ends with a clear indication that Maalouf will continue his work as a memoirist to write a sequel about his father. The most poetic passage the book may be the prelude, in which Maalouf describes his distaste for the term "roots", preferring "origins" instead. "Tributaries must be taken into account," he writes. "I come from a clan that has been nomadic since time immemorial in a desert as wide as the world. Our countries are oases that we leave when the spring goes dry; our houses are tents clad in stone, our nationalities a matter of dates and ships. The only thing connecting us to one another, beyond the generations, the seas, and the Babel of languages, is the soft sound of a name." Maalouf explains his own fickle, taciturn relationship to religion and nationality, and then he says:
"Like the ancient Greeks, I ground my identity in a mythology; I know it is fictitious, but I revere it as though it reveals truth." One wishes he had followed his own lines a little further. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.