Travellers between cultures in the clash of civilisations: Amin Maalouf’s first three novels (Column: Bookends XLII)

By Vikas Datta (10:16)

Every age throws up a number of quintessential “outsiders” – people who don’t fit in their society and its (outdated) norms or whose non-conformity is anathema to the powers that be. Not surprisingly, the fate of such free thinkers is seldom very happy – or features a long, unfettered life. At best, they can look to a long exile, becoming impoverished, itinerant voyagers between lands, languages and religions. But they are not forgotten – especially by Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf, who brings some of them and their turbulent but exciting times to vivid life in some of his works.

A member of the Académie Française since 2011 (replacing late anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss!), Maalouf has seven novels and four non-fiction works to his credit since he left his hometown Beirut and moved to France after the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975.

His first published work was non-fiction: “Les Croisades vues par les Arabes” (1984; Eng. “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” (1986), an Arab perspective on this “clash of civilisations” but it was with his first novel “Léon, l’Africain” (1986/Eng. “Leo Africanus (1992)) that he hit his stride.

The fictionalised account of Andalusian Berber diplomat and traveller al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi alias Joannes Leo Africanus’ (1494-1554) eventful life is divided into four sections, each named after the city where he then was. It begins from Granada – where he was born, Fez – where his family fled to after the Spanish Reconquest, Cairo – where he is as the city falls to the Ottomans, and Rome – in its Medici age where he meets (and is employed) by the pope, becomes a Christian and observes the first stirrings of the Protestant reformation.

Presented as the musings of an elderly Hasan on his return to North Africa (where he returns to the Islamic faith), the account encompasses the relentless movement of the wheel of fortune for him and is peopled by great figures of the time – Western monarchs, Medici popes, Ottoman sultans. It not only offers a vivid description of the various Mediterranean cultures of this creative but also treacherous and violent era, and their clash as well as the understanding that can be reached between them.

“Samarcande” (1988, Eng. “Samarkand” (1994)) deals with a more well-known figure – the Sage of Naishapur, poet-mathematician Omar Khayyam himself, in an evocative, exotic portrayal of 11th century Persia and Central Asia. It also has the era’s two other famous figures – Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk, whose theory and practice of administration has scarcely been bettered, and fanatical cult leader Hassan Sabbah, who commands a devoted and effective army of assassins from his mountain fortress of Alamut.

The book is based on the imagined fate of Khayyam’s personal manuscript of the “Rubaiyyat”, which itself comes as the poet, being tried for mocking religion, finds a sympathetic judge, who spares him, but gives him a small, blank book, advising him to confine his thoughts to it alone. The book is purportedly stolen by Sabbah and then lost after the Mongols sack Alamut in the next century.

Nine centuries later, a young American comes to a restive Persia in the first decade of the 20th century to trace the manuscript. Howard Baskerville, based on the famous American participant of the first Iranian revolution, strikes a blow for the people, finds his objective as well as Persian princess Shireen and takes them back to his home in near triumph. This is because the ship he chooses is the Titanic.

In his next novel, Maalouf stays in the same area but goes back in time. “Les Jardins de Lumière” (1991, Eng. “The Gardens of Light (1996)) is the story of one of the most tragic proponents of a religion, the Persian mystic Mani (216-274).

Almost parable-like in its depiction of the third century world in all its vivid and volatile splendour (but unthinkable cruelty too) as the mighty Roman and Persian empires collide and Jews and Christians, Buddhists and Zoroastrians fight for ascendency, it tells the story of the Manichaean religion’s founder.

We follow Mani from his repressed childhood in a men-only ascetic Christian community, his voyages including to India, support from the great Sassanian monarch Shapur I to eventual execution for “heresy” after Shapur’s successor proves more amenable to the machinations of the state religion’s priests.

The book not only tells Mani’s largely untold story but also of Manichaeanism, which is not – as commonly thought – a simple struggle between good and evil but a unique synthesis of the teachings of Jesus, Buddha and Zoroaster to stress humility, tolerance and love, the role of human choice and good works.

Maalouf has written four more novels since then, but while they are as richly-layered and atmospheric, they are not inspired by historical figures. But it is his first three that have cemented his reputation as an inspired and imaginative story-teller, giving a fresh lease of life to some unfortunate but outstanding paladins of human nature, creativity and resilience at its best!

(30.11.2014 – Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


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