The Lebanese-born and Paris resident explores the notion of being an émigré. As he says, I seldom return to my country of origin, and then only when circumstances compel me to…almost always the death of a loved one.” Correspondingly, he is told “Here, families have sons buried in Beirut, Egypt, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, and the United States. Our fate is to be as scattered in death as we were in life.” This is the experience of every diaspora. Malouf delves into the sense of guilt and remorse that an emigrant encounters as well as what defines one’s homeland.
An ancestral trunk retrieved from his village-home in the Lebanese mountains reveals stashes of letters from his grandfather in Lebanon to his grand-uncle in Cuba – “I now saw looming before me a thousand doors and no keys.” A long journey begins. Maalouf wanders through Lebanon, USA and Cuba in search of lost people, connections and homes – seeking to establish what spurred one brother to emigrate and the other to stay. What prompted the entrepreneur Gebrayel to leave and the other brother Botros to establish a secular progressive village school? Set in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire, Botros sees himself as a “Ottoman citizen.” Yet “convulsions are undermining the dying empire.” What about “patriotism versus nationalism?” In a telling remark, Maalouf sorely laments “Our empire crumbled, like the Hapsburg Empire, into scores of miserable ethnic states whose murderous rumblings have caused two world wars and dozens of local wars, and have already corrupted the soul of the new millennium.” One has only to gaze in horror at the current scenario in the Middle East to feel his pain and ours.
For someone who has lived long years in the Middle East including Lebanon, Amin Maalouf’s biography is a telling read of the internal mechanisms of migration (“émigré psyche”), complex dimensions of far-flung families and the historical complexities of the region. Interwoven through these monumental waves, is a riveting family saga replete with third cousins, great uncles and mother’s best friend’s daughter-in-law.
Maalouf’s grandfather wrote on a loose sheet of paper:
“I am weary
Weary of describing
The state of our countries of the Orient,
Replace ‘country’ by ‘calamity’
Replace ‘Orient’ by ‘malediction.’
You will have an idea of what I am trying to say.”
The lines were written in Beirut in 1923.
Raana Haider is a literary pilgrim.