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• Saturday, December 21st, 2019

Amin Maalouf was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1949, the second of four children, from a family that originated in Yemen. He spent the first years of his childhood in Cairo, Egypt, before returning with his parents to Beirut a few years later. He studied at the French Jesuit school, Collège Notre-Dame de Jamhour, followed by the Université saint Joseph in Beirut, where he read sociology and economics.

Following his university degree, Amin Maalouf became an editor for the leading Beirut daily newspaper, El Nahar International, and covered many world events. In 1976, fourteen months after the Lebanese civil war, Maalouf flew to Paris with his wife and three young children, where he worked for the weekly, Jeune Afrique, and became editor in chief while resuming his trips and reporting from all over the world for his weekly.

His career changed as a result of the big success of his first novel, Leo Africanus, published in1986. He consequently dedicated himself full-time to writing. Maalouf’s mother tongue is Arabic, but all his books are written in French. He has written fiction, non-fiction, as well as opera librettos and his books, have been translated into several languages. He presently continues to live in Paris with his wife and three grown-up sons.

In 1993 Maalouf won the oldest and most famous French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. In 1998 he received the European Award of the Essay and in 2010 the Prince of Asturias award of Letters for all his work. In 2011 he was the first Lebanese to become a member of the prestigious Académie française. Some universities in Europe have awarded him honorary doctorates.

Maalouf has proven himself to be a gifted storyteller. More often, the stories he writes are in a historical context: Leo Africanus, Samarkand, The Gardens Of Light, The Rock Of Tanios and Balthasar’s Odyssey.

Leo Africanus is an imaginary autobiography based on a true story written like a memoir by the knowledgeable and perspicacious Leo, addressed to his son, Giuseppe, born in Rome. He tells his son: “Many men are discovering the vast world just trying to make a fortune. As for you, my son, it is by seeking to know the world that you will stumble on a treasure”.

Leo Africanus is a historical story about the travels and adventures of Hassan Ibn Mohamed Al-Wazzan, born in Granada, Spain in 1485 and died in Tunis in 1554. Hassan was a traveller, a merchant, a diplomat and a geographer. Most of what is known of his life has been gathered from autobiographical notes in his notable work: Description Of Africa, published in 1550.

The BBC produced a documentary about the life of Hassan Al Wazzan in 2011 called “Leo Africanus: A Man Between Worlds”. The film follows Al Wazzan throughout his travels from Granada to Fez and Timbuktu, going all the way to Rome.

At the age of thirty-one, Hassan is abducted by Sicilian pirates. One of them, a sixty-year-old called Pietro Bovadiglia, who committed several murders and was afraid of dying before redeeming his sins. Therefore, he decided to give Hassan as a gift to the representative of God on earth, Pope Leo X, the great Pope of the Renaissance.

Fascinated by Hassan’s intelligence, fast learning and adaptation to his new surroundings, the pontiff gave him his freedom after a year and strongly encouraged him to adopt the Christian faith. He had him baptised in 1520 as Johannes Leone de Medici, who became Leo Africanus, referring to his origins. Despite that, it is believed that Leo died a Muslim.

The novel is divided into four parts or books, as the author calls them. The story follows every year’s events as well as the main cities that Leo lived in for a time: Granada, Fez, Timbuktu, Cairo, Constantinople and Rome. Readers accompany Hassan from the day of his birth in 1488 in Granada to Rome where his story ended in 1527.

At an early age, Hassan witnesses the fall of Granada in January 1492, the Moors only remaining bastion in Spain. His family moves to Fez where most of the Arabs and Jews from Granada found refuge escaping from the Spanish Inquisition. Then Hassan travels to cosmopolitan Egypt, ruled at the time by the Ottoman Empire. The story draws to a close in Rome during the Renaissance period.

Leo Africanus is a multi-branched account vividly described and minutely detailed. It is a colourful tale told during several journeys and significant events that took place between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in different parts of the world. The fascination of this story relies on the exciting places visited, the regions and countries in Africa and Europe with their different cultures, religions, beliefs, languages and food.

Sagacious and wise, Leo transcends countries, continents and all boundaries. He is a link between these different worlds, bridging gaps between East and West and between the three monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He says: “From my mouth, you will hear Arabic, Turkish, Castilian, Berber, Hebrew, Latin and Vulgar Italian, for all languages, all prayers belong to me. However, I belong to none. I belong only to God and the earth and it is to them that one day I will return”. An invitation by Leo from the heart for respect, leniency and tolerance.

The story of Leo Africanus is about constant readaptation to new surroundings when exile is not an option and how a bright, resourceful person profits from his present condition turning it to his benefit by making it a success.

Leo Africanus is a delightful tale that must have required intensive research. It is skilfully written – I read the original French version. The various events encountered transport the reader on a magic carpet to a spellbinding world, akin to the tales of One Thousand And One Nights – a charming escapade made of wonder in distant worlds of a bygone era filled with upheavals and unrest.

Category: Book Reviews
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