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The immortality of a great, if flawed, historian
Source: The Independent
How many of the Nato admirals fighting the beast of Tripoli realise the origin
of their title?
"Admiral" comes from the French amiral, which comes from the Arabic amir al-
bahr which means "Master of the Sea". Our own "First Sea Lord" captures
the original rather well. Then there's the Spanish hero El Cid which comes
from the Arabic el-sayed ("the Lord"). We eat lemon sorbet which comes from
the Arabic charbat. We lie down on a mattress which originates with the
Arabic matrah. And so on.
Amin Maalouf is promising an extensive study of etymology when, as a new
member of the "Immortals" – he has just been elected to the Académie
Française in Paris – he puts his Arab-European culture to good use at its
Thursday meetings. If the French have banned the burka, they might as well
know that matraque (truncheon) comes from the Arabic matraq. Maalouf is
better known in France than Britain, although many will have admired his
wonderful novels, among them The Rock of Tanios, a grim, painfully accurate
account of sectarian life in Lebanon's Chouf mountains and colonial
interference in the Levant.
However, I believe his finest work is The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, a non-
fiction account of the first "war of civilisation" drawn mostly from Arab rather
than European documents. It revealed how the starving knights of
Christendom ate their dead Muslim victims near the Syrian city of Homs.
Even Assad's lads haven't quite resorted to this.
Now Maalouf returns with more non-fiction, Disordered World, Setting a
Course for the 21st Century, and I fear for his reputation. The New York
Times puffed him as "the clear, calm, cogent and persuasive voice from the
Arab world that the West has been waiting for". Well, not quite. Maalouf, a
Maronite Christian who has spent the past 30 years in self-imposed exile in
Paris, admits that "I am not a specialist on the Muslim world, still less an
Perhaps for this reason, his view of the Middle East-Western world is
dizzying yet deeply flawed. When he says that "the end of the balance of
terror has created a world obsessed with terror", I can only agree. Yet when
he tells us that "rich or poor, arrogant or downtrodden, occupiers or
occupied, they are – we are – all aboard the same fragile raft and we are all
going down together", I can only say that this is nonsense.
The Palestinians who are occupied by the Israelis and the Israelis who are
occupying the West Bank are not in the "same fragile raft". One lot have won
(for now). The other lot have lost. The real question – in the case of Palestine
– is whether the Israelis will stop stealing Palestinian land that does not
belong to them, upon which they are building colonies for Israelis, and
Israelis only, against all international law.
It is worth reflecting – as Maalouf does not – that back in 1983, he was part of
a Lebanese delegation which visited Israel for Amin Gemayel, when the
Lebanese president was going along with America's hopeless desire for an
Israeli-Lebanese peace agreement. Maalouf inspected the damage caused
by Palestinian Katyusha rockets to the Jewish town of Kiryat Shmona. I can
see why he has buried himself in the idea of "both sides losing", but there is
a moral, ethical side to this which seems to be missing from Maalouf's
writing. In 1982, the Israelis in Lebanon had inflicted infinitely more suffering
(17,500 dead, mostly civilians) than the Palestinians had caused in Israel.
When it comes to democracies, Maalouf tells us that he doesn't "know many
which function better" than America's. Really? And when he asks himself
whether "in the course of the past few decades have the Americans and
Israelis not borne a more specific responsibility" for the world's decline, the
answer "probably" is not good enough.
But he is a friendly soul. I met him many years ago, just after the publication
of The Rock of Tanios, at a Maronite monastery high in the fog-covered early
summer hills of the Metn, where monks offered the most devastating arak
with breakfast. A slightly chubby, humorous man, Maalouf looked like what he
was and is: a great author. As a political animal, however, he sometimes
sounds like a boring prelate. "My profound [sic] conviction," he tells us, "is
that too much weight is placed on the influence of religion on people, and
too little on the influence of people on religion." This may impress
"Immortals" but not, I suspect, us ordinary folk. But let's not be too hard on
the great man.
"No serious observer," he writes, "who has combed through the accounts of
meetings at which the decision to go to war [in Iraq in 2003] was taken has
reported the slightest evidence to suggest the real motive was to install
democracy in Iraq." Instead, the US created a system of political
representation based on religious or ethnic origin. "That the great US
democracy brought the Iraqi people this poisoned gift of sacrosanct
communitarianism is a shame and an indignity."
And then the Maalouf "coup". He is astonished to find "the leader of the
Western democracies wondering at the dawn of the 21st century if it might
not be a good idea after all to support the emergence of democratic regimes
in Egypt, Arabia, Pakistan... But this fine idea was soon forgotten... the
country of Abraham Lincoln reached the conclusion that all this was much
too risky... free elections would bring the most radical elements to power...
Democracy would have to wait."
Let's hope the other "Immortals" listen to that.