Marseille, FRANCE // The Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf was received with solemn ceremony yesterday into the elite body of members, known as immortals, of France's most eminent cultural institute, the Académie Française.
Maalouf, 63, whose highly acclaimed works include The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, published in 1983, and his first novel, Leo the African, which appeared three years later, devoted part of his induction speech to an impassioned message of East-West conciliation.
The nature of his honour is reflected in the institute's membership, which numbers only 40 and conducts its own elections on prospective candidates for status as immortals.
The list of literary giants who were never admitted to the academy includes Molière, Sartre, Zola and Flaubert.
It was Maalouf's third attempt to be accepted. He will occupy the seat numbered 29 and vacated by the death of Claude Lévi-Strauss, a revered figure in modern anthropology.
Born in Beirut to Christian parents, Maalouf is one of Lebanon's most renowned journalists and authors, citing Camus, Dickens, Tolstoy, Arab poetry and the philosopher and scholar Omar Khayyam among his influences.
He was the director of the Beirut-based daily newspaper An Nahar until the start of the civil war in 1975. Moving to Paris, he edited the magazine Jeune Afrique (Young Africa), covering events including the Iranian revolution and the end of the Vietnamese war.
For the past 25 years, he has concentrated on writing novels, essays and historical works.
Among awards for his work, he won France's Goncourt book prize for his novel, The Rock of Tanious, in 1993 and the Spanish Prince of Asturias literary laureate in 2010 for his impact as "one of the contemporary writers who has most deeply explored Mediterranean culture, represented as a symbolic space of coexistence and tolerance".
Although the academy only occasionally opens its doors to those from outside France, Maalouf is not the first candidate with links to the Arab world to gain election.
Recognition of dual French/Arab culture was pioneered in 2006 with the admission of the Algerian novelist and filmmaker, Assia Djebar.
The status of immortal reflects the lifelong tenure of membership. A member can be removed for misconduct. The wartime collaborationist leader Philippe Pétain, a hero of the First World War, was forced to resign in 1945.
For his ceremonial entry, Maalouf chose robes and accoutrements expressing both the French and Arab elements of his life and work. He wore a green cloak and the decoration of his academy sword included Marianne, the republican emblem of France, and a cedar, the tree that symbolises Lebanon.
In keeping with academy tradition, he dealt at length in his speech with the life and legacy of the member whose death made his election possible, Mr Lévi-Strauss.
He described his entry into the academy as a source of immense joy but also a daunting ritual. He concluded his remarks by setting out his commitment to mutual tolerance between civilisations.
"When privileged to be accepted into such a family [as the academy], one does not come empty-handed," he said.
"Out of gratitude towards France and also Lebanon, I bring everything my two homelands have given me: my origins, my languages, my accent, my convictions, my doubts and most of all perhaps my dreams of harmony, coexistence and progress.
"This wall of hatred - between Europeans and Africans, between West and Islam, between Jews and Arabs - my ambition is to undermine it, contribute to its demolition. This has always been my reason for living, my reason for writing and I will pursue it within the academy."