By unhappy coincidence, Amin Maalouf’s thought-provoking analysis of what is wrong with our lives was published in English shortly after the massively destructive explosion in his birthplace, Beirut, in August. That horrific event served as a bleak reminder of the dysfunctionality not only of Lebanon but of the Middle East as a whole – and, indeed, the wider world – in the early decades of the 21st century.
Maalouf is an acclaimed journalist, novelist and historian who has lived for decades in Paris and writes in French rather than Arabic. He is a member of the Académie Française and a winner of the Prix Goncourt. But his early years, with lasting links to Lebanon and Egypt (where his mother came from and where he spent time as a child), have proved deeply influential.
Beyond the Middle East, Maalouf memorably defines 1979 as ‘a bookmark in the great ledger of time’
Adrift begins with a potted but intensely personal history of what the author calls the Levant – a term that originated in a Europe that viewed the region as the “cradle of civilisation” in its own backyard and which began to influence it from the Crusades, through 400 years of Ottoman imperial rule to the first world war and beyond. “It is from my native land that the shadows spread and engulfed the world,” he writes.
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s charismatic rule in Cairo, the Suez crisis in 1956, Israel’s victory in the war of 1967 (when “Arab despair was born”) and the Iranian revolution of 1979 are all turning points for Middle Eastern geopolitics. Maalouf’s USP is interpreting the events of his lifetime to ponder the links between identity, religion, culture and power – and providing trenchant conclusions in impressively clear prose.
Shortly before Maalouf’s birth in 1949, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, was assassinated in Cairo, heralding a struggle between Islamists and autocrats that continues to this day. Maalouf feels nostalgic for a world that has been lost: the celebrated diva Umm Kulthum, the Alexandria-born Greek poet Constantine Cavafy and the renowned Cairo patisserie Groppi are all reminders of a liberal, cosmopolitan paradise called Egypt.
Maalouf left Lebanon at the start of the civil war in 1975. “It is almost as though we have all suffered a powerful mental earthquake, whose epicentre lies somewhere near the place I was born,” he reflects. “And it is precisely because I was born and grew up on this ‘fault line’ that I am trying to understand how the quake occurred, and why the aftershocks have spread around the world, with the calamitous consequences now familiar to us all.”
Beyond the Middle East, Maalouf defines 1979 as “a bookmark in the great ledger of time”. That was the year Margaret Thatcher was elected in Britain and influenced Ronald Reagan in the US. On both sides of the Atlantic the combined effect was to reduce government intervention, promote free-market economics and increase social inequality. The previous year, Deng Xiaoping had taken over the Chinese Communist party and Pope John Paul II became head of the Catholic church.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was another landmark, exploited by the US to provide Moscow’s equivalent of its own Vietnam war, which fed into the collapse of the USSR – and the rise of jihadi extremism personified by a young Saudi called Osama bin Laden.
Personal experience combines with Maalouf’s privileged professional life: as a young man, he worked for the Lebanese daily An-Nahar and later became editor of Jeune Afrique magazine. He interviewed Indira Gandhi, witnessed the 1974 Marxist coup in Ethiopia, covered the fall of Saigon in 1975 and was on assignment in Tehran when Ayatollah Khomeini arrived home to replace the Shah.
Related: Profile: Amin Maalouf
Reflecting on recent decades, Maalouf addresses global warming and technological changes including the digital revolution and robotics that are likely to cause hundreds of millions of jobs to disappear – mind-boggling social and economic challenges. He links the rise of fragmented identity politics to Brexit – embodying populism and the failure of the European project (referencing separatism in Scotland and Catalonia). He is disturbed by the loss of America’s moral credibility, which has accelerated during the disruptive term of Donald Trump. Global government, embodied by UN institutions, has also suffered.
Inevitably for this English-language edition, an afterword is dedicated to responses to the Covid pandemic, which he defines, with characteristic elegance, as a “stress test for every country on earth” and, more specifically, “a cataclysm that has gravely compromised the moral legitimacy of economic liberalism” – because of the impact of budget cuts on increasingly privatised national health systems.
Maalouf returns repeatedly to the depressingly familiar fault lines of “his” Levant, but thankfully draws universal conclusions: “None of the passengers aboard the ship that is mankind can now ignore the fact that there are icebergs in our path, and that we must avoid them at all costs,” he concludes. Adrift is an insightful and profoundly disturbing interpretation of recent world history – and our uncertain future.
• Adrift: How Our World Lost Its Way by Amin Maalouf (translated by Frank Wynne) is published by World Editions (£12.99)
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