A chance remark serving as catalyst for a profound journey of self-discovery sounds more becoming of postmodernist author Paul Auster than historical novelist Amin Maalouf. Yet the Lebanese writer of such acclaimed novels as Leo Africanus (1986), The Rock of Tanios (1993), and Balthasar’s Odyssey (2000) took inspiration for his latest book from an unexpected question about a Cuban Maalouf, and Origins, a memoir-cum–family history, is the product of the author’s plunge into his Orthodox/Catholic/Protestant clan’s recent past.
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.”
Naturally, the true story proves more intriguing than the legend. Botros, who emerges as an ambitious man “plagued . . . by scruples and indecisiveness,” did visit Gebrayel in Cuba at the beginning of the twentieth century. He even contemplated going into business with his younger brother, dreaming “of freedom and prosperity, of America and Australia.” But Botros possessed a “persnickety sense of responsibility. Rather than leave his country for another, where life would be better, why not work at making his own country better?” Botros returned to Lebanon to teacheven founding a coeducational school—and to propagate liberal ideas. “He proclaimed proudly that he was an ‘Ottoman citizen,’” Maalouf reports, “and his dream was to see a large state made up of many nations, in which all men would be equal, regardless of religion or language, and would exercise their rights under the leadership of an honest, benevolent sovereign.”
Meanwhile, Gebrayel, who made his fortune in Cuba, died young. Shortly thereafter, a mysterious rift occurred between the Lebanese and Cuban sides of the family; ties were severed. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the author finally journeys to Cuba, where a tireless genealogist locates Gebrayel’s nephew William and arranges a visit. Maalouf’s description of the encounter is deeply moving: “William was waiting for us in front of the door to his house. How many hours had he been waiting? How many years? . . . He is eighty years old, and this is the first time in his life he is meeting a member of his ghostly family.’”
Origins ultimately is about the transience, if not the wholesale illusion, of “roots” and “homelands.” Maalouf, who has been writing about such thorny subjects in novelistic form for decades, introduces Origins by musing: “Is a family name a homeland? Yes, that’s the way it is. And instead of religious faith, an old-fashioned faithfulness.” He has a fascination with death, about which he pontificates much too often, but his ruminations on politics and religion are sensitive and nuanced. And then there is the fascinating question of emigration and self-definition. Nothing encapsulates the hybridity of Christian-Arab identity better than the decision by Gebrayel, a Christian from the Levant, to decorate his Cuban home with Andalusian Islamic art.
Interestingly, while discussing his grandfather’s enlightened views on religion, Maalouf expresses a wistful reverence for the Dönme of the Ottoman Empire. A Salonikan community outwardly professing Islam but privately practicing a heterodox form of Judaism, the Dönme melded a patriotic Ottoman sensibility with Western sociopolitical influences. Though Maalouf exaggerates in calling them “staunchly secular,” the Dönme did play a major role in diffusing liberal notions of governance, education, and religion toward the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.
What is the attraction? For secular and liberal Arabs today—whether Muslim or Christian, like Maalouf—the greatest threat to political stability, and even to basic human rights, emanates from political Islam. Small wonder, then, that Maalouf should fondly recall a cosmopolitan group that shunned religious dogmatism and spearheaded progressive political reform in the region. Likewise, the author’s attachment to the concept of citizenship comes through especially forcefully in this memoir. Rebuffing the traditional Islamic approach to religious minorities, Maalouf proclaims, “Botros didn’t want to be tolerated; nor do I, his grandson. I demand that my prerogatives as a citizen be fully recognized without my having to disown the many affiliations I possess. This is my unalienable right, and I turn away haughtily from societies that deprive me of it.”
Consider the connection between the two men. The maverick grandfather spent his life in Lebanon struggling valiantly—but largely in vain—against outmoded education and Christian sectarianism, as well as opposing Islamic paternalism and nationalism’s corruption of patriotism. His grandson, a journalist who emigrated to France, has penned historical novels into which are woven the very causes espoused by a grandfather he never met and about whom he knew very little. Origins plumbs the bittersweet legacy of this intellectual and genealogical kinship, while obliquely suggesting that many of the cultural and political injustices Botros struggled against continue to bedevil Lebanon and the Arab world.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer based in Beirut.