Salvaging the shipwreck of humanity in Amin Maalouf’s Adrift

15 September, 2020

Adrift: How Our World Lost Its Way by Amin Maalouf
ISBN: 978–1‑64286–075‑7
World Edi­tions (2020)


Sarah Mills

On Aug. 4, two explo­sions rocked the port of Beirut, caus­ing hun­dreds of fatal­i­ties, leav­ing thou­sands home­less, result­ing in unprece­dent­ed dam­age to the Lebanese cap­i­tal and fur­ther com­pound­ing a volatile sit­u­a­tion already made unbear­able by the twin woes of Covid-19 and a crip­pled econ­o­my. In the wake of the dis­as­ter, it was as though some­thing had irrev­o­ca­bly shift­ed. Gone were the street par­ties and cheeky slo­gans of the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion, the san­guine spir­it of the protests that had moved me to poet­ry and brought us in the dias­po­ra to the Lebanese embassies of our host coun­tries in sol­i­dar­i­ty. Lebanon is bone-tired now, and she is livid. At Mar­tyrs’ Square, activists have hung noos­es des­tined for the politi­cians whose cor­rup­tion and neg­li­gence they blame for the tragedy. How far back in his­to­ry would we have to go to pin­point the root of the prob­lem? This lat­est cat­a­stro­phe seemed to be only the cul­mi­na­tion in a long series of misfortunes.

“I did not know the Lev­ant in its hey­day,” writes the 71-year-old Amin Maalouf, Beirut-born and win­ner of the pres­ti­gious Prix Goncourt for his 1993 nov­el The Rock of Tan­ios, which weaves per­son­al and polit­i­cal, fact and fic­tion togeth­er in a tale of 19th cen­tu­ry Lebanon. “I arrived too late, all that was left of the spec­ta­cle was a tat­tered back­cloth, all that remained of the ban­quet were a few crumbs. But I always hoped that one day the par­ty might start up again, I did not want to believe that fate had seen me born into a house already con­demned to demolition.” 

His words will be aching­ly famil­iar to gen­er­a­tions of Mid­dle East­ern­ers who have had to endure hard­ships in their coun­tries of ori­gin or watch them unfold from afar, sigh­ing for bygone times. I myself was raised star­ry-eyed on an idea of pre-Civ­il War Lebanon, as it was passed down to me by my moth­er and aunt, both in the dias­po­ra, both wist­ful for a home­land or their child­hood or both. I learned that my fam­i­ly had had an olive grove and an apple orchard; that, as kids, they would drink from crys­tal-clean brooks in the Kadisha Val­ley; that my grand­fa­ther would make reg­u­lar trips to Tripoli and bring back sweets, their rose­wa­ter fra­grance fill­ing the house. They would try to recre­ate recipes in their new coun­try, but the taste of pars­ley and zuc­chi­ni was nev­er quite the same. Lebanon became a par­adise for me, and only the real­i­ty of its recent years — and an ill-timed vis­it dur­ing its 2016 trash cri­sis — would chal­lenge this notion. And even then, I still loved it. 

Amin Maalouf was born in Beirut to Chris­t­ian par­ents from Melkite and Maronite back­grounds. He was the direc­tor of the Beirut-based dai­ly news­pa­per An-Nahar until the out­break of the Civ­il War in 1975, at which point he moved to Paris, where he’s lived for near­ly 50 years. Although his first lan­guage is Ara­bic, Maalouf chose to write in French. He has won sev­er­al awards and hon­orary degrees from uni­ver­si­ties world­wide. His work has been trans­lat­ed into over 40 lan­guages. His non­fic­tion, most notably In the Name of Iden­ti­ty, Dis­or­dered World, and most recent­ly Adrift, often explores themes relat­ed to the junc­tion between East and West, iden­ti­ty, and what he deems the uni­ver­sal­ist val­ues of tol­er­ance and pluralism.

Maalouf spent his ear­ly years in Egypt. In Adrift he writes, “I am not try­ing to prove some­thing,” sum­mon­ing exam­ples that tes­ti­fy to the cul­tur­al rich­ness of an Egypt he fell in love with through his own fam­i­ly’s sto­ries. “I am sim­ply try­ing to con­vey the impres­sion I got from my par­ents: that of an excep­tion­al coun­try expe­ri­enc­ing a priv­i­leged moment in its history…Of course, a part of this was the com­mon­place nos­tal­gia any­one in the twi­light years of life might feel when recall­ing their gild­ed youth. But there was more to it than that; my moth­er’s word was not my only evi­dence. I have lis­tened to so many peo­ple, read so many accounts that there is no doubt in my mind that — for one shin­ing moment, for a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion — there was a par­adise called Egypt.”

Nos­tal­gia, how­ev­er, that sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty that bathes the past in a soft glow, is too rosy a word to describe the qual­i­ty that char­ac­ter­izes Adrift: How Our World Lost Its Way (first pub­lished in 2019 by Gras­set as Le naufrage des civil­i­sa­tions and trans­lat­ed by Frank Wynne). The author grieves for a Lev­ant lost to con­flict and the many vicis­si­tudes of a tur­bu­lent twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. So sig­nif­i­cant was the tur­moil that set the region on a “descent into hell” that Maalouf sees in it the ori­gin seeds for the entire world’s malaise. He is not unjus­ti­fied in his assess­ment of the grav­i­ty of those events, either. 

Maalouf deft­ly draws a line from what he deems to be piv­otal years in Mid­dle East­ern his­to­ry to some of the most press­ing dilem­mas cur­rent­ly fac­ing human­i­ty. From the humil­i­at­ing Arab defeat in the June War in 1967 and the crit­i­cal year of 1979 — which saw the Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, the Siege of Mec­ca, and the Sovi­et inva­sion of Afghanistan — to the con­ser­v­a­tive ‘rev­o­lu­tions’ of Rea­gan and Thatch­er and the fall of com­mu­nism, he pins cause to effect all the way down to the present year and its host of ills: the frag­men­ta­tion of soci­ety, the threats to pri­va­cy in the name of secu­ri­ty, and the dam­age wrought by unchecked cap­i­tal­ism, among oth­er trou­bles. The scope is very large, indeed, and might have ben­e­fit­ted from a tighter focus to allow for room in explor­ing the details of major events that, indi­vid­u­al­ly, mer­it their own books. Maalouf has tak­en on an ambi­tious task in cov­er­ing so much ground and trac­ing a gen­er­al con­di­tion of the entire con­tem­po­rary ‘world’ back to a mul­ti­tude of deci­sive moments in his­to­ry. And yet, it all coalesces.

Read­ing Maalouf, one has the impres­sion of sit­ting com­fort­ably in a room beside him. This sto­ry is a deeply per­son­al one for the author. Indeed, at cer­tain points when he cir­cles back to reflect on where he was on one momen­tous occa­sion in his­to­ry or anoth­er, it is almost like read­ing a poignant nov­el. “The vagaries of my life as a jour­nal­ist meant that dur­ing the Iran­ian rev­o­lu­tion I was once again wit­ness to one of the great upheavals of my age,” he writes under the sec­tion “The Year of the Great Rever­sal,” in which he elab­o­rates on 1979, its sig­nif­i­cance, and the change in the Zeit­geist of the time. “I use the term ‘wit­ness’ in its most lit­er­al sense: when the foun­da­tion of the Islam­ic Repub­lic was announced, I was in a small the­atre in Tehran; on the stage in front of me, sit­ting in a large arm­chair before the cur­tain, was Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni. It was Feb­ru­ary 5, 1979, and this strange pic­ture is for­ev­er imprint­ed on my memory.” 

His eye­wit­ness accounts imbue Adrift with an inti­mate feel oth­er­wise absent from ordi­nary his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives; they bring scenes to life. Ear­ly in the book, he writes: “I was eight years old when I vis­it­ed our old house in Heliopo­lis for the last time,” refer­ring to his moth­er’s house in Egypt—which the fam­i­ly would be forced to leave on account of mount­ing pres­sure on minor­i­ty Egyp­tians in the 1950s. Refer­ring to that era’s Egypt­ian leader, Gamal Abdel Nass­er, Maalouf sug­gests that his poli­cies caused a mass exo­dus of the so-called “Egyp­tian­ized” com­mu­ni­ties, some of which had been estab­lished for sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions, even cen­turies, on the banks of the Nile; Maalouf defines these “Egyp­tian­ized” exiles as “Syr­i­an-Lebanese, Ital­ian, French, Greek, Jew­ish or Mal­tese.” It was no coin­ci­dence that all or most of the “Egyp­tian­ized” men­tioned by Maalouf in Adrift were non-Mus­lims. Much of the book laments how eth­nic­i­ty and reli­gion have brought about the down­fall of Lev­an­tine nations that were known for their tol­er­ance and pros­per­i­ty until the 1950s. 

Maalouf seam­less­ly weaves per­son­al detail into the his­toric fab­ric of his tale: “My moth­er took me to help pack up some things before we final­ly aban­doned the place for good. My grand­moth­er had just passed away from can­cer. The house had been in her name, as was typ­i­cal at the time, and she sold it on her deathbed to an Egypt­ian army offi­cer. For a frac­tion of its val­ue, need­less to say, although she made the buy­er promise to keep the stat­ue of Saint Tere­sa that adorned the façade…The offi­cer was true to his word, as were his heirs. As far as I know, Saint Tere­sa is still there.” 

Adrift is pleas­ant­ly con­ver­sa­tion­al through­out; Maalouf engages in give-and-take with the read­er, pos­ing ques­tions in antic­i­pa­tion of poten­tial rebut­tals to his claims, the tone pater­nal with­out being pedan­tic. He writes sin­cere­ly, and his heart­felt desire to see the world restored to a state in which the ideals he cham­pi­ons — among which uni­ver­sal­i­ty and plu­ral­ism fig­ure most promi­nent­ly — is clear­ly evi­dent on every page. In this regard, Adrift bears quite a strik­ing resem­blance to his oth­er work of non­fic­tion, Dis­or­dered World, in which he address­es sim­i­lar themes and posits that the world is, as the title sug­gests, “dis­or­dered,” debased. Inter­est­ing­ly, the Eng­lish edi­tion of Dis­or­dered World came out in 2011, and Maalouf was afford­ed the chance to com­ment on the nascent Syr­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion and Arab Spring, which had promised so much potential.

“If there is a les­son to be drawn from the events of 2011, it is that the future does not allow itself to be con­tained with­in the lim­its of what is fore­see­able, plau­si­ble or prob­a­ble. And it is pre­cise­ly for that rea­son that it con­tains hope,” he wrote then. With the bru­tal repres­sion of the Syr­i­an upris­ing, Maalouf would suf­fer a dis­ap­point­ment that, in addi­tion to the dis­ap­point­ment expe­ri­enced by any­one who had hoped that from these events would emerge a bet­ter world, seems almost unique to writ­ers with the courage to spec­u­late on the future for all to see. By the time Adrift was writ­ten, he would have had ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect on the extent to which the out­come devi­at­ed from that earnest hope he expressed on the writ­ten page for pos­ter­i­ty: The Syr­i­an Civ­il War is now near­ing its tenth year. “I remem­ber watch­ing the nascent Syr­i­an upris­ing in April 2011, footage shot at night in which demon­stra­tors marched, and chant­ed: ‘We are going to heav­en, mar­tyrs in our mil­lions!’ A slo­gan soon echoed in oth­er coun­tries through­out the region. I watched these men with as much fas­ci­na­tion as hor­ror. They showed great courage, espe­cial­ly giv­en that they were unarmed while the sup­port­ers of the regime opened fire at every demon­stra­tion,” he writes in Adrift. Rather than the over­throw of a bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship, Syr­ia would go on to see swathes of its ter­ri­to­ry absorbed into the ret­ro­grade Islam­ic State, and the world would suf­fer the reper­cus­sions of this in the ter­ror attacks that swept across it, prov­ing one of Maalouf’s cen­tral tenets: that human­i­ty is inex­orably unit­ed, for bet­ter or worse. The phe­nom­e­non of ISIS would also sober­ing­ly recall his words in his oth­er non­fic­tion title, In the Name of Iden­ti­ty: “When moder­ni­ty bears the mark of ‘the Oth­er’ it is not sur­pris­ing if some peo­ple con­fronting it bran­dish sym­bols of atavism to assert their difference.” 

Although he affirms that he is “not one of those who likes to believe ‘things were bet­ter in [his] day’,” Maalouf does employ rather strong lan­guage that would lend to just such an inter­pre­ta­tion of his per­spec­tive. “On the Road to Ruin” and “A Decay­ing World” are just a cou­ple of the phras­es he uses to set off sec­tions with­in the book. Per­haps hyper­bol­ic lan­guage is a nec­es­sary fea­ture of a tome that attempts such a grand under­tak­ing as that of diag­nos­ing the whole world. Nev­er­the­less, he would be cor­rect in say­ing that human­i­ty is now fac­ing unique chal­lenges, espe­cial­ly with regard to inva­sive tech­nol­o­gy, the rise of AI, and cli­mate change — threats the entire world faces.

Despite the uni­ver­sal nature of his mes­sage, there are moments in which it would seem that Maalouf writes for a west­ern audi­ence, as evi­denced by attempts to per­suade the read­er that Arabs are not all that they are often made out to be. Hav­ing in the pre­vi­ous chap­ter expound­ed upon the phe­nom­e­non of Marx­ism in the Mid­dle East, he writes: “This brief digres­sion about the check­ered his­to­ry of Marx­ism was prin­ci­pal­ly intend­ed as a reminder of the ‘nor­mal­i­ty’ of the Arab world, a way of under­scor­ing that it long cher­ished the same dreams and the same illu­sions as the rest of the plan­et. I felt the need to empha­size this point, since the pre­vail­ing view of the Arab world today is pre­cise­ly that of fun­da­men­tal ‘Oth­er­ness.’ ” 

While mine is hard­ly a crit­i­cism of Maalouf’s deci­sion to speak to a west­ern audi­ence (if that is indeed the case and his inten­tion), it is nonethe­less trag­i­cal­ly telling of the sus­tained effect of west­ern media expo­sure, rarely show­ing any­thing oth­er than war footage from the region and stereo­typed por­tray­als of Arabs, that an author of Lebanese ori­gin would feel the need to counter this. 

Adrift large­ly suc­ceeds where it show­cas­es Maalouf’s extra­or­di­nary abil­i­ty to estab­lish, through his­to­ry, the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of human­i­ty. To build on his extend­ed metaphor of sea, ship­wrecks, and sail­ing and to bor­row an oft-quot­ed line from John Donne, no man is an island, iso­lat­ed from the rest. We are inex­tri­ca­bly linked, as Maalouf abun­dant­ly demon­strates by fol­low­ing his­to­ry’s trail and rop­ing togeth­er its many upheavals to con­struct a com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of the present, there­by also offer­ing a way to reach a solu­tion; know­ing how we got here and where it all went wrong is, after all, half the bat­tle. While the book does touch upon some con­tentious points — the invec­tives on iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics can be prick­ly for those who believe in its mer­its — it also rais­es many per­ti­nent ques­tions. What are the real bench­marks for progress on a plan­et where infi­nite growth is sim­ply unsus­tain­able? What are the effects of con­tin­ued frag­men­ta­tion, even as expressed in the emer­gence of nation-states? How can Arab coun­tries learn from oth­ers that have recov­ered from dev­as­tat­ing con­flict, such as Ger­many or Japan?

Adrift presents a digestible way to approach these issues, while also serv­ing as a time­ly warn­ing to steer a bet­ter course togeth­er, as it is our col­lec­tive future that is at stake.


Sarah AlKahly-Mills is a Lebanese-American writer. Her fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays have appeared in publications including Litro Magazine, Ink and Oil, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michigan Quarterly Review, PopMatters, Al-Fanar Media, Middle East Eye, and various university journals.