Amin Maalouf


“A single identity with limits should not be rejected” said Amin Maalouf who has the following philosophy: “Instead of objecting to global culture we can all learn from it or present something to it” as he is a literary master who combined Mediterranean culture with global ingredients. In order to preserve Istanbul which he portrays in many of his work he keeps it separated from his real life, the writer of multinational and multiple identity says: “For me Istanbul is one of my homelands that holds my roots.” 

“Who am I? Where do I belong? Are I Eastern or Western? How much do cultural specialties make me who I am? How much does social structure define me? How independent can I think despite the social and cultural conditioning and how much freedom of movement do I have? The mirrors I look at keep cracking and breaking. Are I really the person I think to be or are I struggling within an illusion?” In fact the one asking the questions as well as their answer keys are Amin Maalouf. In his book “Deadly Identities” the versatile writer provides us with answers to questions that will lead to rich content in terms of psychological, sociological, historical and physical conditions.

Born in 1949, Lebanon, Amin Maalouf studied Economy and Sociology, worked as  journalist  until 1976 then moved to France and started writing and became a literary figure. Maalouf states the following: “My grandmother was born in Istanbul according to my mother she could speak Turkish. My father, born in 1915, was a subject of the Ottoman Empire. I am the first generation in our family that is not Ottoman”. He is an author who combines Asia and Europe with what he lived, read and experienced in countries with shores to the Mediterranean to create the human portrait based on the belief system and roots he knows.

There are so many choices for the questions asked at the entrance; Christian, Muslim, Turk, Kurd, Armenian, he has so many qualifications and French and European on one aspect. He is the embodiment of the East and the West! His historical novels, review and essays are a result of the rich culture of the geography he was born to. Especially when he sugar coats it with his appealing “literary style”. His rich character is the reflection of his work life as executive and columnist in several French publications. His début in the literary world is with  The Crusades from the Arab Perspective published in 1983 which was translated into several languages. The French-Arab Friendship Award rewarded novel African Leo published 3 years later has a lot to relay. His 1988 novel Samarqand was translated into different languages then Tanios Rock was awarded the Goncourt award in 1993. He is also the composer of several librettos in the world of music.

May be the reason behind the international attention the author receives is because he relays Middle eastern history to the Western World in their own languages (French and other languages). He may have achieved fame through historical novels but the strong synthesis was among factors for their appeal. He mentions the details of the Mediterranean culture with originality. There is outstanding observation, cultural patterns and research ability that should be highlighted in his work. Can one talk of the Mediterranean but skip out the Ottomans? Surely no Amin Maalouf does talk of the Ottomans however not very objective but more in an Orientalist point of view. In African Leo, Amin writes about the dismissal of the Arabs from Andalusia, and in Samarqand he writes about the democratic constitution revolution in the break of the 20th century. The important element in his work is the: revolutionary disengagement times he covers. Technology related changes and new relationship transitions within society are handled. Amin Maalouf explains it as follows: “Instead of objecting to global culture we can all gain from it, add to it, contribute to it, rather than trying to stop it we can shape it the way we like it to be. In this context the past will have great contribution to universal history. Honest people need to question themselves as to how they can have access to modern culture without destroying their own identity. Identity does not consist of the single element of belonging. Man’s identity is very complicated. Some are connate yet some are gained in time. These are a whole. It’s not good to lose any. Having single identity with limits should be objected to.” In one aspect man should hang on to his cultural values in the universal world however being an integrated profile in other countries. Reminding Napoleon’s quote “If the world were a single country its capital would be Istanbul” let’s have a look at his opinion of the city… “In order to preserve it, I kept the city outside the real world” said Maalouf who added: “For me Istanbul, or as I passionately refer to it as Constantinople is among the homelands that my root lies. Once some people told me that the city which I have mentioned in all my novels without exception was Constantinople.  To me Constantinople is the first home I left behind”. Maalouf informs that Yunus Emre was the figure that triggered his interest most in of the Turkish Culture and added: “I have read so much about him, if I knew Turkish I would surely write about Yunus Emre”. Istanbul is one of the first homelands of his family, and when he writes about it, he mentions it as if it was a part of him. The hero of his novel Harbors of the East is Isyan and his life begins in a house ashore the Bosphorus. He remembers Turkish tunes about Istanbul girls strolling the strands of Uskudar.

Istanbul is in African Leo as well… The capital city of different cultures is described as; “Istanbul is a different city, heavier with history yet new on one aspect. It is new in terms of its stones and people. Although it hasn’t been seventy years since its turn over to Turks it has completely changed. Surely the Santa Sophia stands where it is hemmed with mosque. The Sultan conducts his Friday prayer there. However new residents of the city have new buildings erected everywhere; which continue to increase by the day. New mosques, madarasahs, moreover the tiny wooden houses of nomads who left the steppes to live in Istanbul.  Although so many left the city, the conquerors of the city have fallen to minority among the others in their capital city; what’s more many are not so influential than the others except for the members of the dynasty. The most beautiful houses, the richest stores in the market place belong to the Armenians, Greeks, Italians and Jews. Some of the Jews have moved up here from Andalusia following the fall of Granada. The incoming Jews are no less than forty thousand. They all praise and chant about the equality lover Great Turk. The turban of Turks, the kippa of Jews and the coif of Christians are all around without enmity or rage. Most streets of the city are so narrow and muddy that the elite can only pass through stepping over the backs of others. Thousands who come to the city for a living but fail to find a job makes a living carrying others on his back.” As he writes and describes the city such, he embeds tastes into the minds, enabling a view of the past through his lines.

Amin Maalouf’s titles
The master novelist who bases sympathy in the starting point of his novels is called “Mr. East”, “Modern Day Thousand and One Nights Novelist”, “Mr. Scheherazade”, “Mr. Clemency”.

Union of History and love
The binder of his work is the combination of reality to the past and history integrated with love. This way he introduces a liking of history for love story readers and unite history lovers over love. His vivid and fluent style becomes informative in whole.

Maalouf, organizes long tours from the Middle East to Mesopotamia and from there to Europe and Africa, in his work.  All his books are like stories of a foreign land and exile. He works his imagination to carry his readers to the unknown mysterious world through historical events. The reason he is read so widely is the cultural riches and historical information in his work.

The work of Amin Maalouf

  • The Crusades from the Arab Perspective
  • Samarqand
  • African Leo
  • Gardens of Light
  • First year after Beatrice
  • Tanios Rock
  • Harbors of the East
  • Hundredth Name – “Baldassare’s Journey “
  • The beginning of roads
  • The world gone wild
  • The story of seat 29
  • Love from a distance
  • Adriana Mater


By: Burçak Öksüz Doğan

*This article was  published in the  September – October issue of Marmara Life. 

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