A Tree Needs Roots; a Human Being Doesn't

Amin Maalouf left Lebanon for France when the civil war broke out in his country. The writer, who has won many prizes including the Prix Goncourt, talks to Brigitte Neumann about his latest novel

Amin Maalouf (photo: dpa)
For Amin Maalouf, there is no place like home - neither in his native Lebanon, nor in his new country of residence, France

​​His latest book "Origines" is a homage to the poets, thinkers and teachers of the Maalouf family in the Lebanon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially to the headstrong but dignified Botros, headmaster of a school in the Lebanese mountains for children from all the religions.

At the same time, this book is a witness to Amin Maalouf's distance from his family. He may have spent years following up their traces throughout the world, deciphered suitcases full of half rotten letters and poems written in school exercise books, spent nights in mildewed Lebanese village huts just because Uncle Botros once stayed there, but he never really developed a feeling that he really was linked to them.

The family is home only in a literary sense

"As far as literature is concerned, my family is my home," says Maalouf, who was born in Lebanon in 1949 and has been living as a journalist and writer in Paris since 1976. "As far as the reality of my existence is concerned, it doesn't pay much of a role.

"I don't really belong to a family. It's true; I like the idea of this family which lives scattered all over the world. It's an idea which pleases me intellectually and emotionally, but I don't feel as if I belong to it. I tend not to go to the big family gatherings. For me it's rather a matter of anecdotes. The family has a small place in my scheme of things, but no more than that."

The tone is set from the first page of this family chronicle: "A tree needs roots; a human being doesn't. A human being has feet so that he can leave." Amin Maalouf left: shortly after the start of the Lebanese civil war, he moved from Beirut to Paris with his wife and three children.

"Origines" is a hard read; it's defined by the sobriety with which an exceptionally talented storyteller regards those from whom he stems. The stories he tells are those of an author who doesn't want to belong to any group.

"It's just not possible for me to look at a society with its networks of corruption, its games, its lazy compromises, and then to say: What's wrong with that? That's how people are! No, I just can't accept that," he admits. "So I've always tended to prefer to stay outside. It's not a pleasant feeling. It's painful.

"Sometimes I feel I would love to feel the same as the majority, I would love to be right in the middle of things. But I know that such a thing will never happen to me. So I stay a stranger, everywhere, in Europe, and if I were to go back to Lebanon, I'd be a stranger there.

"I try to deal with it by saying to myself: we live in a world in which, in the end, everyone feels like a stranger, like a member of his own minority. And anyone who decides to be a writer is certainly outside the mainstream. That's why literature is really for me the only home I have."

Barriers between the cultures

Amin Maalouf is recognised here in Germany as a specialist for issues relating to the Arab world and the relations between the west and the Middle East. He is critical of these relations.

"My grandfather had the same attitude as Atatürk: you only have to give people a slight impulse and improve the laws, and modernisation will come automatically. But it hasn't happened. People have underestimated the barriers which there are between the occident and the orient.

"In addition there's the fact that at a certain time the Arab-Islamic elites felt themselves very drawn to the Soviet model of society. That was not so much because they were absolutely convinced by its ideology, but out of opposition to the colonialists. They tried like this to get their revenge on the west.

"In the event, all those elites who wanted a secular society, from Morocco to Indonesia, fell into the communist trap. Now the Soviet regime has disappeared, and the modernising elites of the Arab-Islamic world have gone with them. And what has emerged to replace them? The Islamists."

Amin Maalouf dismisses with an astonished laugh the idea that he could perhaps in some way mediate between the fronts. His task is to think and to tell stories. He's not the right man for a struggle with a reality which is out of control.

Brigitte Neuman


Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Amin Maalouf was editor of the Lebanese weekly magazines Al-Nahar International and Jeune Afrique; during the Vietnam War and the Islamic Revolution he worked as a war reporter.

Amin Maalouf has so far published seven novels; his works have been translated into 25 languages. His first book, "The Crusades through Arab Eyes," which appeared in 1983, has become a standard work on the subject. He won the Prix Goncourt for "The Rock of Tanios" and the Prix Mediterranée for "Origines."


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