BEIRUT: Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf has been awarded the prestigious National Order of Merit for his contributions to French culture by President Emmanuel Macron in a ceremony last weekend.
This adds to a number of awards from a variety of European countries and Lebanon the modest author has received for his vivid historical fiction, which brings the past of the Middle East and the Mediterranean to life, along with his non-fiction such as the “The Crusades through Arab Eyes.”
"In that year, the news began to trickle in about the appearance of the Franj troops, coming down from the Sea of Marmara in an innumerable multitude. People took fright. This information was confirmed by King Kilijj Arslan, whose territory was closest to the these Franj," and thus begins the Crusades.
His body of work focuses on locations ranging from Byblos to Samarkand, with the more recent fictional ”Ports of Call” recounting the love affair of two characters during WWII which follows their relationship from Paris to Beirut.
Samarkand chronicles the life of Omar Khayyam, Sufi poet, sage, astronomer, mathematician, and author of the Rubaiyaat.
"Omar Khayyam mourned his disciple with the same dignity, the same resignation and the same discreet agony as he had mourned other friends. ‘We were drinking the same wine, but they got drunk two or three rounds before me.’"
Maalouf is an Annahar alumnus, whose journalistic eye helps to inform his writing with color and detail. Like many thousands of Lebanese, he reluctantly, along with his wife and children, left their home country during the war years.
"During my youth, the idea of moving from Lebanon was unthinkable," he said in an interview with the Guardian. "Then I began to realize I might have to go, like my grandfather, uncles and others who left for America, Egypt, Australia, and Cuba."
The Guardian noted the writer's novels, "are marked by his experience of civil war and migration, the feeling of being 'poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions.' ”
Sunday, Prime Minister Hassan Diab congratulated the author.
“Despite the difficult conditions that Lebanon is going through on financial, economic, living, and social levels, the news of the Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf being awarded the National Order of the Merit by French President Emmanuel Macron on behalf of the French Republic reflects the true and civilized image of Lebanon.”
The PM added: “As we express our pride following the news and congratulate Mr. Maalouf, we reiterate that this award only makes us more determined to work hard to face the challenges and restore the bright image of Lebanon that all Lebanese are proud of.”
Maalouf, 71, now holds the title of “grand officer, the second-highest status of the merit, just one rung below the Grand Cross.”
Macron said during the ceremony, "Mr. Amin Maalouf, in the name of the French Republic, we elevate you to the dignity of a Grand Officer of the National Order of Merit." The president embraced the author during a round of applause with Maalouf bowing in appreciation.
The award recognizes persons who "represent the civic spirit of France," honoring acts of merit, commitment, and devotion to serving France.
Maalouf's novels, originally written in French, have been translated into over 40 languages and his work includes his debut story “Leo the African” and later “The Rock of Tanious,” “Samarkand,” “Balthazar’s Odyssey,” the “Gardens of Light,” and "The First Century after Beatrice."
Leo the African is the fictional biography of Hasan of Granada, driven from Spain along with his family at the time of the Inquisition, following him from his boyhood exile to Fez, Hasan journeys take him through Timbuktu, Tunis, Constantinople, and Cairo, among other locations.
"'Wherever you are, some will want to ask questions about your skin or your prayers. Beware of gratifying their instincts, my son, beware of bending before the multitude! Muslim, Jew or Christian, they must take you as you are, or lose you. When men's minds seem narrow to you, tell yourself that the land of God is broad; broad His hands and broad His heart. Never hesitate to go far away, beyond all seas, all frontiers, all countries, all beliefs," reads a key passage from Leo the African, resonating the kind of cultural and religious conflict that continues to current times.
Maalouf's nonfiction works include the celebrated “The Crusades through Arab Eyes,” and “On Identity.”
Maalouf also evolved into a librettist and has written several works for the stage that have been produced and performed, including L'Amour de loin, Adriana Mater, La Passion de Simone, and Émilie.
“Ports of Call” has been optioned for movie production by LA/Beirut company Symply Entertainment headed by Samira Kawas and Ron Senkowski who both praised the work as representing the power of romance to cross divided cultural boundaries.
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