Origins: A Memoir, by Amin Maalouf, translated by Catherine Temerson
The Lebanese Amin Maalouf is best known as a writer of historical novels in French, such as Le Rocher de Tanios, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1993. Yet before moving to Paris during the Lebanese civil war of the mid-1970s, Maalouf was a newspaper journalist in Beirut like his father before him. These two elements in his character, romancier and reporter, come together in this fine essay in family history.
First published in French by Grasset as Origines in 2004, it is based on a trunk of family letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, receipts and title deeds preserved by the author’s mother in the family house in a part of Mount Lebanon known as the Northern Metn. In piecing together these documents, and quizzing old and far-flung relations, Maalouf casts a clear, provincial sidelight on certain important processes of the early-20th-century Levant: the death throes of the Ottoman empire, the emigrations of Syrians and Lebanese to the Americas and Australia, the Great War, the rise of Arab and Turkish nationalism and the French mandate over Syria and Lebanon.
The Maaloufs of 100 years ago are a fractious and affectionate mish-mash of Greek Catholics, Maronites, Freemasons, freethinkers and, under the influence of the admirable American missionaries of that place and era, Presbyterians. Amin makes a study in contrasts between his grandfather, Botros (sometimes Peter or Pierre), and his younger brother, Gebrayel (or Gabriel). While the poet and teacher, Botros, stays at home, determined to lift the country now known as Lebanon out of its oriental torpor, the energetic Gebrayel emigrates in 1895, first to the United States and then Cuba, where he sets up a successful department store in Havana, La Verdad.
Botros is a man of strong and innovative principle. At his ‘Universal School’, the boys and girls sit together. He does not wear a hat, rejecting both tarboush and shapo and their political entanglements. He refuses to baptise his children, which means that another brother, a Catholic monk, Theodoros, is for ever sneaking round with oil and water. (In the census of 1932 — the foundation of Lebanon’s extremely fragile confessional constitution to this day — a Protestant cousin happens to open the door and tells the silly French offical that they are all Protestants, every one of them.) Subject to violent political crazes, during his Ataturk phase, Botros names a daughter Kamal. Yet all his projects end in frustration. ‘I look back in bitterness,’ he writes, ‘on all those years lost between notebooks and inkwells in a country of futility and superficiality.’ He dies in 1924.
Gebrayel’s Cuba is also tinged with failure. He buys the best house in Havana, moves in the high Masonic circles of the great José Martí, only to die in a motor accident in 1918 with no heir to protect his famous and vulnerable business. The book’s Cuban interlude is essentially perfect. Bowled over by the charm and good manners of the poor people of Havana, Maalouf yet keeps his eye firmly on the vestiges of his great-uncle: there is none of that indiscriminate local colour that so bedevils topographical writing in English and French.
As he traces on the façade of a slum the lower half of an A of La Verdad and a portion of the final D, we might be reading Dickens. About to return to Paris, Amin is brought face-to-face with a surviving cousin, William Jefferson Gabriel Maluf, a kind old man living in a divided room, with only a single word of his mother tonguel: laben, which is the Lebanese Arabic for curd or yoghurt.
The women of the family are shown in a sort of perpetual battle between hard lives and warm hearts. A young aunt, letting down her hair at bedtime, is called down by her excited father: ‘Zalfa, do up your hair again; we’ve married you off!’ Another only permits herself to kiss her daughter when the child is asleep. These male and female characters, however strong and attractive, are somewhat blurred, not just by time and the serial translation from Arabic to French and French to English, but by something like tears: the author’s regret for a Levantine world not yet torn apart by colonial bad faith, pseudo-nationalism and religious bigotry.