Amin Maalouf: “I was born healthy in the arms of a dying civilization”

World-renowned writer Amin Maalouf is awake to the dangers of “the secret call of events that are about to happen”, according to the words of the poet Constantin Cavafy, as quoted in his latest book. Twenty years ago, the French-Lebanese author wrote of his concerns about the rise of “Murderous identities”, the French title of his book “In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong”, (Arcade 2012). Ten years ago he was worried about the “Disordered World” (Bloombsbury USA, 2011). In his new essay “Le Naufrage des Civilisations” (The Wreck of Civilizations), published last March in France (Grasset) and not yet translated, Maalouf writes of a global “sinking” that is affecting all of civilization. “The lights of the Levant have gone out. Then, the darkness spread across the planet,” he says. The text, broad and dense at the same time, crosses through the 20th century to the present day, mixing narrations and reflections, sometimes recounting major events to which the author found himself in the rare position of being an eyewitness. An informed follower of world affairs, the author analyzes the basic foundations of its successive drifts and its destruction at various times.
Back from Brussels, where he has just received the Royal Belgian Academy of French Language and Literature’s Nessim Habif International Prize for his life’s work, Maalouf, who joined the French Academy in 2011, agreed to discuss some issues covered in his latest book, his reasons for writing it, and his journey into the world of writing.

Amin Maalouf. Photo AFP

How does your recent work relate to the previous one, “Disordered World”?

I would say there is a continuity between the three books, “In the Name of Identity”, “Disordered World”, and “Le Naufrage des Civilisations” (The Wreck of Civilizations). Every ten years or so, I publish an essay, in which I pursue the same train of thought. I grew up in the shadow of my father who was a journalist. I have been observing the world ever since my childhood, and in my latest book, I review the events of the last few decades, trying to understand the situation we are in today, a situation which I find extremely worrisome.

“I was born safe and sound in the arms of a dying civilization”. The beginning of your essay refers to the mix of identities you grew up with: Levantine parents from Lebanon and Egypt. Until now, why haven’t you written more about your family background?

My paternal family comes from the Lebanese mountains. My maternal grandparents are both originally from Lebanon, but like many families at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, they immigrated to Egypt, where they got married and spent their lives. My mother was born in Tanta, and spent her childhood in Heliopolis, of which she has great memories, which she transmitted to me. When I speak about my childhood, I have to speak about these two Levantine countries, equally endearing to me, but very different from one another.

Does the relationship between your essay and overall genre of the memoir seem pertinent, in the way it makes us relive the important moments of history, ones that you have witnessed?

There is a part of the book that is similar to a memoir: when I talk about my childhood, about what I have observed, and also when I mention the period when I was a journalist, and the countries I traveled to in order to cover various events. But I would say that this is only one aspect of my book. I only refer to the observations of important events I have been a direct witness to. There are writers who talk about the world around them only so that they may talk about themselves. I am a little on the opposite side of this spectrum: when I talk about myself, it is mostly a pretext to talk about the world around me. In my book, the storytelling of intimate and personal history is at the service of global history.

In your analysis of the facts, you present historical feedback, and sometimes also projections of how events might have unfolded. How do you envision the role of imagination in your approach?

I wouldn’t speak of imagination per se, but rather of a reflection on different possibilities. The story unfolds in a certain way, but we can assume other developments, other sequences of events. There are always historical crossroads, or decisions that were taken, which have changed the course of events. For example, how could Egypt and the Arab world have evolved, if Nasser had avoided the 1967 war, and if he hadn’t died at the age of 52? Certainly our world would have been different.

According to you, Lebanon has paid the price of having been “incapable of building a nation”. How would you justify this failure?

I believe that my native country had a lot of assets that could have allowed it to play a leading role in its region, and even on a worldwide scale. The country has high quality people, a high level of education and skills, and a unique experience in coexistence between people from different backgrounds and beliefs. Because of these factors, the nature of Lebanon could have brought together all these communities within one nation, modern and democratic, and led the wider region on the path to real progress. But instead, it allowed itself to become weakened by factionalism. We must always hope that it will overcome this dark phase of its history, but the past few decades will always appear to me as missed opportunities.

Regarding your assessment of the Lebanese situation, you speak of a “sadness from which I can no longer heal.” How would you recommend stopping religious sectarianism?

No decree can eradicate sectarianism. Overcoming such an issue requires lucid, courageous and voluntary actions, taking place over several decades. It would have been necessary to insure that belonging to the same national community transcended denominational affiliations in peoples’ minds. Unfortunately, apart from a few years of work in this direction, we have not fully committed to see it through. Today, sectarianism is more ferocious than it was at the time of independence. I do not feel that my country of origin is currently able to be the master of its own destiny. It is too often the victim of everything that is happening around it.

Your geopolitical analysis of the twentieth century highlights links to older civilizations that have disappeared. Would you suggest a cross-sectional reflection on the theme of decadence?

I am not sure that I talk about decadence in my book. It is not a word that spontaneously comes to me when I write, especially because it is a process that is a part of the evolution of all civilizations. What I essentially meant in this book, is that all civilizations are affected with what I call “sinking”, and I try to understand and explain how the world -all civilizations included- got to this point.

Does your book have the aim to serve as a warning signal, a call for an awakening?

Indeed, it is a warning signal. I believe that our planet is drifting towards major crises that could harm all societies. We can still avoid the worst, but the time we have to do so is not unlimited. Everyone needs to be aware of the existing risks. This is the book’s ambition. My role as a writer is to try to understand and to explain the workings of the world.

When you mention certain key political figures, you speak of a “pantheon of Janus”. Can you explain this allegory? How is it significant to your approach?

Indeed, this vision corresponds to my way of thinking about events. What I refer to as “the pantheon of Janus”, is this idea that there are figures who have played a very important role in history, a significant role for their people as well as for the rest of the world. But, at the same time, they also had a less glorious facet. I quote for example Winston Churchill, whose commitment was crucial during the Second World War, but who then played a damaging role in Iran, where he conspired to overturn the legitimate and respectable regime of Mossadegh.

In the same way, Nasser was the bearer of immense hope, and I think that he was a profoundly honest man. But he had a devastating vision for the political and economic governance of his country, and he was unable to stand against the pressures that led him to a war with Israel in June 1967, when he fully understood that he wasn’t ready for such a confrontation. He gave way to the escalation, which ended up being a disaster for him, as well as for all the Arabs.

To what extent is the current theme of the “myth of homogeneity” one of the foundations of contemporary vice and evil?

I believe that throughout history, every time a country tried to expel minorities in order to become more homogeneous, it paid a high price. The historical example which I first mention, is that of the France of Louis XIV who, after having tolerated the presence of Protestants in his kingdom, decided one day, due to his bigotry, to expel them by revoking the Edict of Nantes. It was a disaster for the country, and it benefited the big European capitals such as Berlin, London, and Amsterdam, where the “Huguenots” of the kingdom of France took refuge.

There are several examples of countries who wanted to drive out those who seemed foreign to their concept of the nation, thinking that by getting rid of their non-native members, they would become stronger. But, history shows us that by seeking this illusory and false homogeneity, we not only get weaker, but we also end up losing our soul.

In regard to the European project, which you admire, and for which you had a lot of hope, you describe it as mired in bureaucratic procedures. What would it need to give it a certain dynamism, a role you would have wished for it?

I think that the European Union is going through a very serious crisis, which threatens everything that has been done so far. It is possible that the people and the leaders will become aware of it, and that they will attempt to change the institutions. Many actions could be taken, but it is difficult, because in Europe, the belief is that everything must be decided unanimously by the member countries, which is a problem, especially when it comes to making daring decisions. The process of crisis resolution will be complex, and very lengthy.

You seem to disapprove of the loss of universal ideas. Is this linked to the failure of communism?

Communism promised a lot of changes. It has attracted a lot of very capable people in every society, but it has not been able to keep its promises. And today, we can see that capitalism is also doing the same. What I am personally sorry about, is that the intellectual debate, which was prevalent during a good part of the twentieth century, has disappeared today, only to be replaced by exacerbated, and often fierce, identity-based claims. It’s an unfortunate evolution which is fragmenting all human societies, and which in my view represents a moral and an intellectual deterioration.

For you, “visionary and pragmatic” leaders who espouse ideas that go beyond personal interests are very rare. For you, which political figure most embodies this idea?

If I were to name someone, who has appeared to me as a visionary, and who had the qualities I find to be indispensable in the leader of a nation, it would be Nelson Mandela. He fought with great courage, persistence, and stubbornness when he had to liberate his country from racial segregation. And when he won, he showed tremendous generosity, reaching out to his opponents, and forgetting all the harm they did to him over the decades. He is a remarkable person, worthy of being an example for other regions of the world.

In your book, some passages convey a certain nostalgia, even sadness. What fuels your emotions as you reflect?

It is true that I quite often speak about sadness, especially when I am observing the evolution of the countries to which I am attached; when I see them drifting, when they previously carried so much potential... I think that sometimes, you have to report the feelings that you are experiencing. But we also have to rise above our own sentiments, so we can calmly analyze events without being blindsided by nostalgia and sadness.

What are you currently reading?

I read a variety of books: texts sent to me by writers, friends, books that are nominated for the literary prizes given by the French Academy. Often, my readings are about the research I am doing for my own books. I am more interested in themes rather than particular authors. For some time, I have had a preference for historical works, essays, biographies...

Which specific work of art moves you?

There are many! I like Dali’s “Le Crucifie”, I think it’s beautiful. I don’t have a particular fondness for the painter’s personality, but I find his talent to be extraordinary.

Can you tell us about your relationship with writing?

I write every day, it is the core of my daily life... I wake up, go to my office, and I start working, which doesn’t necessarily consist of writing in the literal sense of the term. Sometimes I read, I do research, or I correct a text written the day before... The job of writing is an everyday activity. I don’t have any other.

How do you deal living the life of a renowned writer?

I am honestly not concerned about it at all. I live to the rhythm of the books that I write. When I am done with one, I publish it, and talk about it a little in order to give it some visibility. And immediately after, I isolate myself in my office to start on another one. The public side of my work is really secondary...

(This interview was originaly published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 24th of April)

How does your recent work relate to the previous one, “Disordered World”?I would say there is a continuity between the three books, “In the Name of Identity”, “Disordered World”, and “Le Naufrage des Civilisations” (The Wreck of Civilizations). Every ten years or so, I publish an essay, in which I pursue the same train of thought. I grew up in the shadow of my father who was a...