Legend of the Levant

Legend of the Levant

Amin Maalouf’s investigative memoir, Origins, traces the history of two people from the mountains of Lebanon to the island of Cuba with one combining factor — their roots

By Raziqueh Hussain

Published: Fri 25 Dec 2009, 9:55 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 8:17 AM

To what extent does Origins address identity issues? It’s a novel in the form of a family saga. Thus, it’s a first person narration. So, it’s imperative to know who the author is.

Amin Maalouf is a Lebanese-born journalist who immigrated to France in 1975 to escape his country’s civil war. He is also a renowned author of novels such as Samarkand, Leo the African and The Rock of Tanios. These stories talk about Omar Khayyam in 11th-century Persia, the Christian Inquisition in North Africa, and the imperialist changes of 19th-century Lebanon.

Virtually all his books are a dialogue between the East and West. Origins is a memoir about Maalouf’s grandfather and an uncle — Botros, a remarkable figure who started the first coeducational school in the mountains, and the other — Gabrayel, a proud and successful businessman in Havana. The book glances at the roots and ties which trigger an individual’s sense of belonging and the meaning of family and culture in 20th century Lebanon.

Tracing one’s roots is a dangerous trail to hike. It unearths unhappy surprises, dead-ends (people die), painful truths of the past that have been cleansed and glorified. The hike can also be adventurous, a discovery of new beginnings of family history and getting to know where you come from.

Maalouf grew up hearing that his grandfather Botros had sailed to Cuba in order to defend his emigrant brother, Gebrayel, against a lawsuit. Having learned Spanish en route, the brilliant Botros got Gebrayel duly acquitted and promptly returned to Lebanon. No longer content with family lore, Maalouf decides to probe deeper and is heartened to discover that his mother kept a trunk filled with Botros’s writings: “This trunk contained his life, his entire life, haphazardly deposited inside, with the years all mixed up, in the hope that one day, a descendant would come along and sort it out, reconstruct it, and interpret it — a task I could no longer shirk from.”

Maalouf, himself undertakes a trip through time, in search of his grandfather Botros. Maalouf reads up old letters kept by his grandmother, meets people and gathers testimonies and is on the lookout for any and every trail from the past. He makes an investigation, a quest, just as a journalist might do, but with a lot of emotion. He assembles a reliable, yet fantastic and riveting tale that spans centuries and continents.

The book revolves around the theme of two trends that are represented by Botros and Gebrayel — staying or leaving home. There lies the origin, but also what determines the very way we lead our lives. What is at stake here is a choice of life, the relationship we have with our country of origin. The opposition between the West and the Middle East is the background of the story, and how the patterns of society in both regions are different. The idea of exile is permanent. Gebrayel left and never came back. Botros dreamt of doing so all his life, but never managed to leave his home for real. Gebrayel believed others in the family should participate in his flourishing business. He wasn’t nostalgic, whereas Botros could never bring changes in society, as he so much wanted to do.

Through this saga, the author draws a portrait of Lebanon in the dying and famine-days of the Ottoman Empire and of Lebanon under the French mandate. It is an exploration of Lebanon’s divide through sectarianism, which surely must have had something to do with the title of the book.

The Maaloufs have led very ordinary lives, but the portrayal of their lives and the branching out and stretching throughout various continents is what makes it an extraordinary story. Moreover, the author’s personal journey, both emotional and physical, to trace the lives of great-uncles and great-grandfathers relying solely on surviving letters, saved by family, gives the narrative an intense edge, transforming it into a scintillating cinematic spectacle in front of the reader’s eye.

The biggest impression on the reader is how he describes the mentality of many of us, in a different time and setting. We learn things from our grandpa and grandma, mom and dad, and are ready to go and face the outside world. Maalouf finds that there is also a world within. That world is what he explores through the lives of his family members, their good and bad, knowing friends and others who shaped each of their lives. Through his journey of investigation, we learn about his family’s culture, though draw our own conclusions about his family members.

When you feel a strong and intimate bond with the village of Macrah, that’s when you realise that the author, through his own unique story, has been successful in reminding many migrants of their own family histories.


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