Maalouf and Lydon: An Audio Postcard on Tyranny

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with
Amin Maalouf (4 min, 2.4 meg)

PARIS — On the way to Tunis tomorrow, a thoroughly ecstatique Parisienne dimanche. Our long gabby review of the Arab Spring with Amin Maalouf — he calls it “the upheaval” — turned to a tasty lunch with his wife of many years from Lebanon and two of their grown mid-30s sons. And then Parc Monceau in the cool bright green afternoon is full of Paris’ extra dimension, the feeling of an extreme cosmopolitanism: young Africans, North Africans, Middle Easterners, Russians, other Northern Europeans, even a few Asians and Americans out and about among the Proustian Parisian elders.

In our conversation the Prix Goncourt novelist Maalouf (of Leo Africanus and others) is confirming an important suspicion of mine from reading the Cairo novels of the late Naguib Mahfouz. The suspicion is this: that the engrained habit of patriarchy in the Arab home is in every way related to the habit, now crumbling, of tyranny in public life. “It’s true,” Amin Maalouf observes with a rueful smile, “that the society in most countries of the Arab world was based on the principle of tyranny — until now. Now it is beginning to change on the political level… But it’s still a long process, and it’s not enough because there are aspects of social life that are not solved only by giving people the right to vote. There are deeper problems, but the political process is a good way of beginning.”

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  • Robert Zucchi

    Amin Maalouf says that even an open political process that includes the right to vote will not in itself sort out the competition for power in the Arab world; that the problems these societies face are not purely political anyway but also social (patriarchy at home and hierarchy in the street propend towards tyranny in government); but that “a political process is a good way of beginning.”

    Mr. Maalouf’s appraisal is unexceptionable, even sage, and I think it applies to America as well, despite our pride in the longevity of our democracy and our conviction that it sets an example for the world. Because here as elsewhere, the ecology of personal belief and practice, and group affinity as a subset of the national culture, can inflict terrible injury on democracy if the competing belief system is antithetical to the values of fairness, tolerance, inclusion, respect for individual rights, and a measure of concern for the welfare of fellow citizens.

    It seems there’s no escaping culture as defined above, no matter how broad the franchise, and no matter how securely our liberties have been institutionalized by the Constitution, the juridical interpretations of same, and the accretions of custom that supposedly give popular sanction to democratic values. A viable democracy requires that a majority of its citizens be broadly sympathetic to democratic norms, even as above religious sectarianism, sectionalism, and racial and other prejudices … not to the point of unanimity, which is humanly impossible, but preponderantly so.

    But while not quite yet dominant, an antinomian, I would say antidemocratic strain has been infecting our political culture for a long while. This movement has affinities with fundamentalist Islam and Arab patriarchy as impediments to attaining (and in America’s case, keeping) a democratic state.

    Amin Maalouf is acutely aware that the vote and a responsive government are not enough to ensure that the Arab Spring eventuates in liberty for Arab Peoples. It is not only by analogy that I apply his assessment to the fate of my own country.

  • nother

    It’s gotten to the point that vigilantes must protect the dignity of these women. On one hand that’s a welcome relief; on the other hand it’s another example of street level tyranny that you’re talking about, Chris.

    Please find out who the female heroes are of the Arab Spring? Who is the Betsy Ross or Abigail Adams, who can stand up as a kind of national mother and thus decry the status quo? Because we both know these men would not treat their mothers this way.

  • Potter

    male hormones? cultural reinforcement? A good racket until pressures from the rest of the world intrudes.

    A good place to start… and it will be good to read Mafouz to get a sense of the world I hope we are leaving….