It was late in the day but still early in the genocide of August 2014 as the sun began to set over the horizon in northern Iraq. The BBC cameraman Duncan Stone and I were standing by a tarmac road that cut through sandy dunes far into the distance, still shimmering slightly from the day’s slowly receding heat. We had been up since dawn filming with Yazidi families forced to flee their homes in terror as the militants of the Islamic State group burst from the tangle of existing jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria, and using extreme violence sought to create their own caliphate and cleanse it of all other religious or ethnic groups.
For the first week there, it had been hard for us to believe or even to start to comprehend the stories of inhumanity that we heard, hour after hour, day after day. Stories of the multiple violation of girls who were still children, the burning alive of Yazidi men who had dared to remain. The ‘ethnic cleansing’ of so many villages by IS fighters trying to impose their joyless vision on the Yazidi minority while creating an IS hell on earth.
Their mission had begun some weeks before with the ‘cleansing’ of Christian villages in the region, but the news editors had not been interested in that story. ‘What were Christians even doing there in the Middle East?’ I was asked by one young news planner, apparently unaware of some two thousand years of history. Not until dramatic photographs of Yazidi families with their young children trapped on top of Sinjar mountain appeared in one newspaper did British editors agree to send their journalists to northern Iraq to find out more.
As Duncan and I stood next to our car, weighing up whether to carry on a little further into contested territory, an Iraqi policeman pointed down the road and shook his head vigorously, to warn us not to drive any further. The Islamist militants were just a hundred yards or so away, and to get any closer simply for the sake of more pictures would be a suicide mission, an idea the policeman made clear with an eloquent throat-slitting gesture.
I still remembered the Iraq I’d reported from decades earlier, in the 1990s: a very different place. Though most of its people lived through a different kind of terror then, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, it had been (nominally, at least) a secular one, in which Sunni, Shia and Christian all had their place in the hierarchy, as long as they supported the Ba’ath party. Iraq’s Jewish community had by then, for the most part, already had to flee.
Reading Adrift: How the World Lost Its Way by Amin Maalouf brought back vivid memories of a Middle East already very different from today’s, and it illuminates the puzzle of how a world that once seemed to be on a path towards progress, thanks to technology and scientific and medical advances, again risks being torn apart by the human forces of violence, division and tribalism, fanned by populist leaders and chancers keen to cash in on the spoils as empires and political systems rise, fall and compete.
After more than quarter of a century spent reporting from across the world, I’m all too aware that news reporting only ever skims the surface, if that. For TV, three minutes is a lifetime for a report; radio might (if you’re lucky) allocate a more generous five. A few of the very best practitioners – foreign correspondents such as Allan Little, Jeremy Bowen, Christina Lamb or Patrick Bishop – can throw light on the headline of the day by interweaving vital context and a dash of history within their allocated slot. But for those who really want to know more about the rise and fall of empires and how the Middle East has fared in its relationship with the West (and vice versa) over the past seventy years or more, Amin Maalouf offers a unique personal perspective as a novelist, historian and public intellectual born in Lebanon to Christian parents in February 1949.
In his adopted home country of France, Maalouf is a literary giant, who won the coveted Prix Goncourt in 1993 for Rock of Tanios. His body of work – fiction and non-fiction – spans cultures and continents, examining themes of identity and inclusion, and the complexities of the Arab and Western worlds, always circling back to what makes us include or exclude others from our humanity, nation or religion. All are ideas amplified here in what Maalouf terms an essay, although at 280 pages, British readers might well think of it as a fairly hefty book.
It’s a meditation on the world we find ourselves in today and how we got here, as seen through the eyes of a writer who grew up speaking Arabic in an era of hope for the region. It is also a lengthy and discursive philosophical contemplation of where we risk going next if we give in to those forces of division, or accede to politics that force us to pick out and defend to the death one single identity out of the multiplicity we each contain.
Published in France last year, and now in English with a translation by Frank Wynne, Maalouf takes a long, often bleak look at a fragile world that feels in acute danger of breaking further apart, and at a fissiparous era where rage and impotence often seem to divide us more comprehensively than ever. He begins by taking us back to a Levant that was fading into memory even when he was born, and through the Arab and world history of his lifetime. He explores his family’s stories and the global upheavals he witnessed, as so many of his friends and relatives left Egypt or Lebanon for safer shores, and the Arab-Israeli conflict flared and deepened.
Maalouf notes how some years are fault lines in history: 1979 among them, with the siege of the US Embassy in Tehran, while thousands of miles away, a conservative revolution was being triggered by Margaret Thatcher. On Iran he writes:
‘Nor is it a coincidence that one of the first acts of the Iranian revolutionaries was to flout the diplomatic immunity of the American Embassy and take hostages. This, it goes without saying, was a flagrant violation of international norms. But it was primarily an act of rebellion against a “world order” that had prevailed for centuries, and which – explicitly or implicitly – established a pecking order among peoples and cultures, with the West enthroned at the top.’
Maalouf considers that British election of 1979 a crucial factor in what he terms the ‘great reversal’ the world has since experienced, with Thatcher’s questioning and reshaping of the role of the state – an area of politics on which France and the UK have rarely seen eye to eye.
He is bleak on the prospects of peace in the Middle East now:
‘Though Israel may not be suffering a catastrophic debacle on the scale of that currently suffered by the Arab world, in both cases, we are witnessing a moral and political breakdown that is particularly disturbing. And disheartening. When the heirs to two great civilizations, the custodians of universal dreams, are reduced to a couple of vengeful, vicious tribes, how can one not expect the worst for the future of humanity?’
So many of the world’s best writers over the centuries have left or been forced to leave their own countries and write with fresh eyes in new languages, from Milan Kundera to Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov and Stefan Zweig. That émigré sense of multiple identity makes many of Maalouf’s novels, such as Balthasar’s Odyssey, fascinating reading and often more viscerally engaging than this essay, steeped as it is with that deep sense of pessimism beloved of so many French thinkers and writers.
In the brief but delightful four years I spent as BBC Paris correspondent, I fear I lost count of the number of books by French intellectuals yearning (with an almost joyful sadness) for either a disappearing world of yore or for a better future, forever just out of reach, enduringly luminous in its stillborn possibilities. This is not to discount the beauty of Maalouf’s writing or the depth of much of his thinking in Adrift, nor to diminish his undoubted ability to tell a multi-stranded global history interwoven with personal narrative, especially when it resists what many British readers might find that fatal French flaw – writing too philosophically and at too great length.
There are many images that have stayed with me – as here:
‘Often, minorities are pollinators. They fly, they flutter, they gather pollen, and this can make them seem like profiteers, even parasites. It is only when they disappear that one becomes aware of the vital role they play.’
In the postscript, Maalouf concludes with sadness that in a world in which ‘entrenched and aggressive identity politics has prevailed for decades’, the economic crisis that will follow COVID-19 is unlikely to bring people closer together, nor foster mutual consideration and solidarity. There is though, at the very end, one small note of hope for the future. Maalouf writes that because:
‘a writer is a watchman; when the house is on fire, it is his responsibility to wake the residents, not leave them to sleep and wish them sweet dreams. Even so, I refuse to give in to despair, to disillusionment, to resignation.’
As I prepare to press send on this review, I notice that today’s newspaper has a headline over a photo of a Beirut street, its shops on fire, and in the foreground, a couple kissing passionately as they cling to one another while their nation burns. The headline above: ‘While warlords and tycoons bicker, Lebanon falls apart at the seams’. I turn the page to seek out more congenial news, but find only articles on the new ‘cancel culture’ and why the West needs to stand firm against China, while Kabul’s newborn babies are slaughtered by Taliban militants in a maternity ward in one of the worst atrocities of Afghanistan’s decades-long war as America continues to pull out its troops.
Perhaps Amin Maalouf is right to be a pessimist.
Reviewed by Caroline Wyatt
ADRIFT: HOW OUR WORLD LOST ITS WAY
Written by Amin Maalouf
Translated by Frank Wynne
Published by World Editions (2020)
Caroline Wyatt is a BBC journalist and a presenter of Radio 4’s Saturday PM and World Service’s The World This Week. She covered Germany in the 1990s and Russia in the noughties, and has reported from various war zones including Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
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