Next Sunday afternoon, I’ll be sitting in Paris recording the first conversation with our Arab Artists in a Revolution, with the Lebanese-French novelist Amin Maalouf. He is a rare spirit and a marvelous writer. Child of a Lebanese Christian village and survivor of the civil wars in Beirut in the 1970s, Amin has written many books in a range of forms and voices — including The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, also a marvelous study of how Identity becomes lethal, and my favorite, a novel called Leo Africanus. It’s the life and times of a young Arab born in the 15th Century in Southern Spain who grows up (after the expulsion of the Moors) in the Maghreb, Egypt and Jerusalem; eventually he turns up in Rome as a counsellor to the Pope after Martin Luther’s revolt. Amin Maalouf — an omni-Mediterranean student of love, life, religion, politics and history — calls Leo Africanus his fantasy autobiography.
I got to know Amin Maalouf almost a decade ago, on the introduction of Peter Sellars, the theater wunderkind. I’d asked Peter to help me find the strongest antidote to the reigning logic of a “clash of civilizations.” It wasn’t just that Amin Maalouf had the answer, Peter said; he embodies the answer; he lives the answer. And so, on the eve of the Bush invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, we recorded two days of conversation. So many pithy fragments still run through my mind — not least: Amin Maalouf remarking by the way: “I love to hear Arab and Jew debate. As long as Arab is taking Jewish position, and Jew is taking Arab position. Otherwise, is just tribal lies and bullshit.”
In the near background this time, of course, are the Arab Spring of 2011 and Disordered World, Amin Maalouf’s last examination (Paris edition, 2009; with revisions in English, 2011), of “this century without a compass.” In his new book, as usual, Amin Maalouf seems well beyond anybody’s camp or category, beyond anybody’s East or West, or church or cheering section. And still he is dead set against the temptation to see our troubles as a crisis of cultures.
“Contrary to the received idea,” he writes, “the perennial fault of the European powers is not that they wanted to impose their values on the rest of the world, but precisely the opposite: it is that they have constantly renounced their own values in their dealings with the people they have dominated… Whether in India, Algeria or elsewhere, they have never accepted that the indigenous peoples they govern should celebrate liberty, equality, democracy, the spirit of enterprise or the rule of law; indeed they have constantly repressed them whenever they have demanded these things…”
Mark Fonseca Rendeiro, an inspiring young and independent podcaster, is my professional colleague in this venture. We’ve admired him for nearly a decade as the tireless traveler and listener known as “Bicycle Mark.” He’s a Portugese-American who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, lives in Amsterdam and publishes his multi-media journalism at Citizen Reporter. Together we’ve assembled a billowing file of leads and prospects we want to meet in Tunis, Cairo and (let’s hope) Beirut. We’ll keep you posted here, and we’ll be tickled to hear your encouragement, your pointers, questions, arguments and rebuttals.