Dr. Nathalene Reynolds
Published Date: Jul 24, 2020
Amin Maalouf and a lesson on identity
There is a short book, In the name of identity, by the French-Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf that merits regular rereading. It examines the question of identity.Indeed, the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First centuries have seen disturbing tensions, running counter to the prediction that globalisation would usher a world in which cultural differences, far from stoking racism, would bea symbol par excellence of inclusivity and broadening prosperity. Amin Maaloufstarts with his own background. Born in Lebanon where he spent the first twenty-seven years of his life, Arabic was his mother tongue, through which he discovered classical French literature. But if one asks him today how he defines himself (half Lebanese, half French), he would answer that “identity cannot be compartmentalised”. For a long time this question amused him.But in 1996 (the date of the publication of his essay in French), he considered that the recurrence of such a question served to demonstrate a refusal to grant space to aminority in Western Europe that enjoys “a complex identity”. The author writes:
“a young man born in France of Algerian parents clearly carries within him two different allegiances or “senses of belonging” and he ought to be allowed to use both. For the sake of argument, I refer to two “senses of belonging”, but in fact such a youth’s personality is made up of many more ingredients. Within him, French, European and other western influences mingle with Arab, Berber, African, Muslim and other sources, whether with regard to language, beliefs, family relationships or to tastes in cooking and the arts”.
“This represents an enriching and fertile experience if the young man in question feels free to live it fully, if he is encouraged to accept it in all its diversity. But it can be traumatic if whenever he claims to be French other people look on him as a traitor or renegade, and if every time he emphasises his ties with Algeria and its history, culture and religion he meets with incomprehension, mistrust or even outright hostility”.
Maaloufemphasises that he comes from a family that”originated in the southern part of the Arab world and which for centuries lived in the mountains of Lebanon”; the latter”takes pride in having always been at once Arab and Christian, and this probably since the second or third century AD -that is, long before the West was converted to Christianity”. He notes a paradox which has shaped his identity: that of belonging to the Christian faith, even though his”mother tongue” is “Arabic, the holy language of Islam”.This language also allowed him “in central Asia” to speak with “an elderly scholar outside a Timurid madrasa”;
“you need only address him in Arabic for him to feel at ease. Then he will speak to you from the heart, something he’d never risk doing in Russian or English”.
When the conflict broke out in Lebanon, Maalouf settled in Paris, rather than in “New York, Vancouver or London”. And he also became a French-speaking writer
The fact remains that Maalouf’sidentity as an Arab and a Christian makes him a minority.His identity is further narrowed when he thinksthat he was born “into what is known as the Melchite or Greek Catholic community, which recognises the authority of the Pope while retaining some Byzantine rites”. This is, he underlines,”a defining aspect of my identity”.
“In a country like Lebanon, where the more powerful communities have fought for a long time for their territory and their share of power, members of very small minorities like mine have seldom taken up arms, and have been the first to go into exile”.
However, if anybody looks into”the administrative records”,”they would find” him “mentioned not among the Melchites, but in the register of Protestants”. There were, in his family, “two rival… traditions”. He was, thus,”sent to the French school run by the Jesuit fathers”, because his mother, “a determined Catholic, wanted to remove” him”from the Protestant influence prevailing at that time” in his”father’s family, where the children were traditionally sent to British or American schools”. When the conflict broke out in Lebanon, Maaloufsettled in Paris, rather than in “New York, Vancouver or London”.And he also became a French-speaking writer.
“Shall I set out even more details about my identity? Shall I mention my Turkish grandmother, or her husband, who was a Maronite Christian from Egypt? Shall I go back as far as the great great-great-uncle who was the first person to translate Moliere into Arabic and to have his translation staged in 1848 in an Ottoman theatre?”
Such an exercise is, concludesMaalouf, futile.There is a fundamental question behind the point he is trying to demonstrate.
“I’ll merely ask: how many of my fellow men share with me all the different elements that have shaped my identity and determined the main outlines of my life? Very few. Perhaps none at all. And that is what I want to emphasise: through each one of my affiliations, taken separately, I possess a certain kinship with a large number of my fellow human beings; but because of all theseallegiances, taken together, I possess my own identity, completely different from any other”.
The introduction to the essay concludes with the author’s declaration that he long hesitated to refer to his own case, even to write such a book. However, he came to the idea that “anyperson of goodwill trying to conduct his or her own”examination of identity “would soon, like me, discover that that identity is a special case”.
“Mankind itself is made up of special cases. Life is a creator of differences. No “reproduction” is ever identical. Every individual without exception possesses a composite identity. He need only ask himself a few questions to uncover forgotten divergences and unsuspected ramifications, and to see that he is complex, unique and irreplaceable. That is precisely what characterises each individual identity: it is complex, unique and irreplaceable”.