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Amin Maalouf (1949 - )

 

Lebanese journalist and novelist, whose native language was Arabic but who writes in French. Most of Maalouf's books have a historical setting, and like Umberto Eco, Orhan Pamuk, and Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Maalouf mixes fascinating historical facts with fantasy and philosophical ideas. In an interview Maalouf has said that his role as a writer is to create "positive myths". Maalouf's works, written with the skill of a master storyteller, offer a sensitive view of the values and attitudes of different cultures in the Middle East, Africa and Mediterranean world.

"Is not one of the virtues of writing to be able to set down the trivia and the exceptional on the same flat sheet of paper. Nothing in a book seems any more profound than the ink in which it is written." (from The First Century After Beatrice, 1992)

Amin Maalouf, a Catholic Arab, was born in Beirut, Lebanon, into a cultured family, which had a tradition of business, too. His father, Ruchdi Maalouf, was a writer, teacher, and journalist. Odette, Maalouf's mother, was from a Maronite Christian family. In Origins: a Memoir (2004) Maalouf tells of his grandfather Botros, a schoolteacher and failed businessman, and his younger brother Gebrayel, who built up a successful retail enterprise in Havana. Maalouf attended French Jesuit schools in Beirut and after studying sociology and economics, he continued the long family tradition and became a journalist.

At the age of 22, Maalouf started to work for the leading Beirut daily an-Nahar and travelled in India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Yemen, and Algeria, often covering wars and other conflicts. In 1975, frightened by Muslim and PLO strength, Christian militias attacked Muslims, which led to civil war. The horrors of war entered Maalouf's own homeland and in 1977 he emigrated with his wife and three children to Paris, where they have lived ever since. After moving to France Maalouf has travelled little. In 1994 he visited Lebanon -- for the first time since the 1970s. Part of the year Maalouf has spend on one of the Channel Islands where he writes his novels in a little fisherman's house. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Maalouf continued to work as a journalist, writing for Jeune Afrique and An-nahar Arabe et International. Maalouf's first book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, appeared in 1983. Although Western research has scrutinized the religious zeal, and political and economic maneuvers behind the Crusades (1096-1291), Maalouf's book, in which he used Arab accounts, brought to the clash of Eastern and Western cultures a fresh and lesser examined perspective. In the first chapter Maalouf quotes Saladin who said: "Behold with what obstinacy they fight for their religion, while we, the Muslims, show no enthusiasm for waging holy war." Maalouf argued that from the Crusades the west became identified with the forces of progress and Arabs became identified as victims after their traumatic encounter with an alien culture. Maalouf's views have been reviewed by a number of writers dealing with the theme of crusades and the conflict between Islam and Christianity.

Maalouf's characters often find themselves in conflict with the beliefs of their surroundings and time, as the Mesopotamian prophet Mani (c. 216-276) in The Gardens of Light (1991), who preached his tolerant doctrine of 'The Gospel of Light', or the restless traveller Hassan Al-Wazzan from Leo the African (1986), a geographer who roamed Africa and the Mediterranean lands in the 16th-century. Actually very little is known of the real person behind his myth. Leo's narration of his life, from Granada, his birthplace, to his residence in Fez, echoes Maalouf's own years in exile and the fate of his own native country: "Before Fez, I had never set foot in a city, never observed the swarming activity of the alleyways, never felt that powerful breath on my face, like the wind from the sea, heavy with cries and smells. Of course, I was born in Granada, the stately capital of the kingdom of Andalus, but it was already late in the century, and I knew it only in its death agonies, emptied of its citizens and its souls, humiliated, faded, and when I left our quarter of al-Baisin it was no longer anything for my family but a vast encampment, hostile and ruined." In Rome, Leo completed his magnum opus, the famous description of African geography. It is believed that he wrote the work first in Arabic. In 1550 it was published in Italian under the title Della descrittione dell'Africa et delle cose notabli che ivi sono.

In 1993 Maalouf received the Prix de Goncourt for his novel Le rocher de tanios (The Rock of Tanios). The acclaimed story-within-a-story was set in the 19th century Lebanon. Its central characters are Sheikh Francis, a Christian Arab, and the sheikh's illegitimate offspring, Tanios. Through their fates and legends Maalouf creates a historical romance filled with local myths, worldwide political games, treachery, and love. The title of the book refers to a peculiar rock formation, looking like a great stone chair, that dominates the Lebanese village of Kfaryabda.

In Samarkand (1989) Maalouf spins fact and fiction around the history of the manuscript of the Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam, created in Samarkand in 1072 A.D. The manuscript is claimed to have vanished on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Maalouf gives the reader an exotic and vivid picture of 11th-century Persia, with assassins and intrigues, and returns to it 900 years later through the eyes of an American academic searching for the manuscript.

Maalouf has regularly used fantasy elements in his novels, but The First Century after Beatrice (1992) was his first full-length futuristic tale, in which female birth has become increasingly rare due to a new fertility drug. The scarcity of girls and women upsets the balance of sexes, and baby girls are kidnapped to be sold in countries where there is a shortage. Maalouf touches on several themes - the antagonism between the rich, technologically advanced Western countries and the poor South, corrupt science and sexual discrimination. "And the journalists? Where does his passion lie? Is it solely in the observation of human butterflies, human spiders, their hunting and their love affairs? No. Your job becomes sublime, incomparable, when it allows you to read the image of the future in the present, for the entire future is to be found in the present, but masked, coded, in a dispersed order." (from The First Century after Beatrice) Ports Of Call (1999) was a bittersweet love story which dealt with the troubled history of the modern Middle East. The protagonist, Ossyane Ketabdar, travels in the 1930s to Paris to study. When World War II reaches France, he abandons his passivity, and becomes a Resistance hero, fulfilling his family traditions. After returning to Beirut, he marries Clara, a Jewish woman. But now the wars tear families apart.

Behind the story of Balthasar's Odyssey (2000) is the number 666 and the year of 1666, the "year of the Apocalypse", which Maalouf explores through the experiences of Balthasar Embriaco, an Italian bookseller. With his companions he tries to track down a book, Abu-Maher al-Mazandarani's The Unveiling of the Hidden Name, which may contain the hundredth name of God. In Islam there are 99 names for God. To know the 100th, the name that may be missing from the Koran, is to ensure one's salvation. Balthasar is a Catholic but he views organized religion sceptically, and with his observations he comes close to a modern intellectual. Balthasar finds the book and loses it, twice, and almost perishes in the Great Fire of London. "What is common to Maalouf's wide-ranging works... is his apparent belief that through examining and understanding a particular historical period we can gain a better understanding of our present time." (Ian Sansom in The Guardian, October 12, 2002)

The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho based her first opera L'amour de loin (Love From Afar) on Maalouf's libretto about a distant love of a 12th-century troubadour, Jaufré Rudel, for a countess in Tripoli. The opera was produced in Salzburg (2000) and in Paris (2001) at Chatelet theater, directed by Peter Sellars. "Idealized love is a well-worn theme," wrote Anthony Tommasini in his review, "but Mr. Maalouf has found a fresh way to revisit it. Mr. Maalouf's words invite music, and Ms. Saariaho has provided a lushly beautiful score, structured in five continuous acts lasting two hours." ( The New York Times, August 17, 2000) Maalouf has also written lyrics to Saariaho's songs, 'Quatre instants', which were performed by the opera singer Karita Mattila in April 2004. Saariaho's second opera, based on Maalouf's libretto Adriana Mater, premiered in 2006 in Paris. Set in a civil-war torn country, it tells of a mother, who is a victim of a rape, her child, and the choice between violence and nonviolence. Maalouf was also commissioned to write the libretto for Saariaho's opera Émilie, drawing on the colorful life of Voltaire's mistress, the physicist and astronomer Émilie du Chatelet (1706-1749), who translated Newton's Principia Mathematica into French. The opera openED in March 2010, in Lyon, with Karita Mattila singing in the title role. "The immediate problem is that Saariaho's score and Amin Maalouf's libretto fail to develop any dramatic momentum or conflict", said Rupert Christiansen in The Daily Telegraph.

For further reading: World Authors 1990-1995, ed. by Clifford Thompson (1999); 'The Rewriting of History in Amin Maalouf's The Crusades Through Arab Eyes' by , C. Bourget, in Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature, Vol 30; Numb 2 (2006); Transnational Spaces and Identities in the Francophone World, edited by Hafid Gafaïti, Patricia M.E. Lorcin, and David G. Troyansky (2009); Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of "the Middle Ages" Outside Europe, edited by Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul (2009); Postcolonial Memoir in the Middle East: Rethinking the Liminal in Mashriqi Writing by Nobert Bugeja (2012) -

Selected works:

  • Les Croisades vues par les Arabe, 1983
    - The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (translated by Jon Rothschild, 1984)
  • Léon l'Africain, 1986
    - Leo the African (UK title: translated by Peter Sluglett, 1988) / Leo Africanus (US title: translated by Peter Sluglett, 1989)
    - Leo Afrikkalainen (suomentanut Anna-Maija Viitanen, 2011) 
  • Samarcande, 1988
    - Samarkand (translated by Russell Harris, 1992)
    - Samarkand (suomentanut Annikki Suni, 2009)
  • Les Jardins de lumière, 1991
    - The Gardens of Light (translated by Dorothy S. Blair, 1996)
    - Valon puutarhat (suomentanut Anna-Maija Viitanen, 2014)
  • Le Premier Siècle après Béatrice, 1992
    - The First Century After Beatrice (translated by Dorothy S. Blair, 1993)
  • Le Rocher de Tanios, 1993
    - The Rock of Tanios (translated by Dorothy S. Blair, 1994)
  • Les Échelles du Levant, 1996
    - Ports of Call (translated by Alberto Manguel, 1998)
  • Les Identités meurtrières, 1998
    - On Identity (UK title: translated from the French by Barbara Bray, 2000) / In the Name of Identity (US title: translated by Barbara Bray, 2001)
  • L'Amour de loin, 2000 (opera libretto, music by Kaija Saariaho) = L’amour de loin: opera in five acts
    - Kaukainen rakkaus (suom. Jukka Havu, 2004)
  • Le Périple de Baldassare, 2000
    - Balthasar's Odyssey (translated by Barbara Bray, 2002)
  • Adriana Mater, 2004 (opera libretto, music by Kaija Saariaho)
  • Quatre instants, for soprano & piano, 2004 (music by Kaija Saariaho)
  • Origines, 2004
    - Origins: a Memoir (translated from the French by Catherine Temerson, 2008)
  • Le dérèglement du monde, 2009
    - Disordered World: Setting a New Course for the Twenty-First Century (translated from the French by George Miller, 2011)
  • Émilie, 2010 (opera libretto, music by Kaija Saariaho)
  • Les désorientés, 2012

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