Under the global olive tree

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  • Published 20041207
  • ISBN: 9780733314544
  • Extent: 268 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

AFTER A DIVERSION in a genre of grassroots social theorising with his work Identitées Meurtrières, Amin Maalouf comes back to us with what he does best: historically grounded story-telling. In Origines(Bernard Grasset), published in French this year, he once again exhibits his virtuoso skills of infusing life, emotions and personalised drama into what could be, in other hands, nothing more than bland historical documents.

This time, however, his personal emotions are stitched to the historical documents he breathes life into. They are his family archives. This is a family that, more so than any national or regional locality, constitutes to him the most permanent ground of identification he has. The book is really two interwoven stories in one. It is first of all the tale of his grandparents: a voyage through their collective and individual struggles to lead viable lives in the Lebanese Mountain, Beirut, the United States and Cuba. But it is also Maalouf’s own story, researching and investigating this tale. He shares with us the manner in which he interrogates, deciphers and sweats over documents and the way he physically follows the routes and tracks they open up before him, leading him into a transnational voyage of discovery of his own; the delight at finding a name in the migratory records of Ellis Island or the indescribable elation at coming across a surviving but previously unknown close relative in Cuba.

Along the way, Maalouf makes his family archives yield many historical, social and cultural insights into the lives of “his people”: from the varieties of ways they came to relate to the transformation of the Ottoman Empire to their more intimate manners and habits. For example, noting the usage of “with renown intelligence” to describe an ancestor in a document, Maalouf points out that “the very fact of saying ‘with renown intelligence’ is here a coded way of saying ‘illiterate’… My people often express themselves this way; when they are reluctant to expose the failings of a relative; they conceal them under forms of praise that actually hint at them”. (p67) In another instance, criticising his grandfather’s endless desire for recognition and material possessions, Maalouf comments – in a strangely mixed-up but still powerfully critical metaphor – that he had a “thirst the like of which is only experienced by those who have never eaten their fill”. “This is not in itself a damning reproach,” he tells us, “or if it is, it can be equally directed at myself, my compatriots and many others like us.” Good critical social commentary is always like this. It does not necessarily tell us anything new. It just gives words to what is always “kind of known” but remains hidden or unexpressed: what the anthropologist Michael Taussig has referred to as “public secrets”.

Despite such insights and the many themes and historical processes it covers, the book remains above all a masterful description of the formation of the late 19th-century transnational immigrant Lebanese families and of the social worlds they created and inhabited. As he is looking for his grandfather’s tomb in the village, someone reminds him that in this village, like in many others, families do not find themselves buried together in one cemetery.

Here every family has one son buried in Beirut, one son in Egypt, another in Argentina or Brazil or Mexico, and some others in Australia or the US. Our lot is to be as dispersed in death as we have been in life. (p36)

And it is precisely this state of transnational familial dispersal in life and death that Maalouf captures best.

The bloody civil war of 1860 had accelerated people’s migration from the villages to Beirut and beyond. What was prior to the war a timid desire on the part of those who had already benefited from a Western education to move beyond the narrow confines of the Lebanese Mountain was now a fully fledged mass migratory movement. As Maalouf relates:

My future grandparent stayed in Beirut for three years, a city he came to cherish, and where he will return to live on a number of occasions throughout his life. The city was then in full expansion; a development accelerated by the massacres of 1860. Many people who, up till now, dozed lazily in their Mountain villages, thinking themselves protected of the ferocity of the world, have experienced in those events a sudden awakening. The most audacious chose to go beyond the seas it was the start of an immense migratory movement that was hardly ever interrupted since. First, in the direction of Egypt and Constantinople, then further and further afar, towards the United States, Brazil and the totality of the American continent as well as Australia. The less adventurous often those encumbered with a family were content to “go down” from their village towards the harbor city, which bit by bit, began to have the allure of a metropolis. (p82)

There is a funny and revealing passage in the book where the author portrays his grandfather, a man educated in an American-initiated Protestant school, delivering a speech about the virtues of the English language, “the most necessary of all those that one can study”.

This was not only because “books in English contain, let there be no doubt, innumerable forms of knowledge, in all domains, which is not the case of other languages” but, more importantly, because “the poor among us just as much as the rich will have to leave to the United States or towards Australia, if not immediately, at least in the near future, for reasons no one ignores.”

And so the grandfather ends up exclaiming: “Long live the English-speaking countries! Long live English!” (p70)

“I force myself not to smile hearing these pathetic and incongruous exclamations,” says Maalouf – with a hint of francophone chauvinism. But, as he goes on to note, the speech reveals the extent to which the necessity of leaving was already becoming a taken-for-granted fact in the Mountain: “To leave or not to leave” very quickly became then, and has remained so today, the Mountain’s “to be or not to be”.


I HAVE RECENTLY finished four years of intensive research examining the lives of two Lebanese transnational families originating in two very different Lebanese villages and each differently spread across the globe. During that time, I have taken two to three around-the-world trips a year as I spent a week here and a week there with family members in the Lebanese villages, in London and Paris, in Venezuela, in Philadelphia and Boston, and in Sydney and Melbourne. I wanted to get as intimate as possible an idea of how these Lebanese families, spread as they are around the globe, actually maintain an emotional and a practical sense of themselves as a family. Reading Maalouf at the end of such a research and sharing his subtle insights into the Lebanese diasporic condition was for me immensely rewarding. As a reader, I was immensely grateful. As a researcher I was also jealous … particularly because of the “suitcase”.

The “suitcase” is crucial to the unfolding of the story told in Origines. When he begins to get seriously curious about the life of his grandfather, Maalouf’s mother comes to him with a few letters written by his great uncle. She casually informs him that there is a suitcase full of them, along with photos, newspaper cuttings, notebooks. “A suitcase full of documents? At our house!” Maalouf cannot believe his luck. Nor can I.

The immigrants and the villagers of the Lebanese Mountain have a very poor record in keeping their past correspondence when compared with other immigrants of the time. This has greatly affected our capacity to establish a decent social history of Lebanese immigration, despite some very good efforts by historians such as Akram Khater in the US or curators such Alissar Chidiac at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. This lack of written documentation is partly explained, of course, by the relatively low level of literacy among the immigrants. But I think that there is also a lack of desire, and consequently a lack of a tradition, of “keeping” as such. In her work, Inalienable Possessions (University of California Press, 1992), the anthropologist Annette Weiner examines what she calls the paradox of keeping-while-giving that governs the norms of reciprocity among many modern and tribal people. She shows the importance of “what is kept” for the process of collective identity formation. From such a perspective, this Lebanese inability to keep might well be a symptom of the often deeply traumatic identity crisis that the inhabitants of this land have suffered from, and continue to suffer from, in a region defined by continuously stunted and shifting boundaries of national, social and emotional attachment. This inability to keep might also be symptomatic of the related trauma of immigration itself, and the inability, or unwillingness, of the migrant to fully identify with the often painful realities it involves.

But Maalouf has his suitcase and as he goes through it document by document, our knowledge of and insights into the dramas of migration go on multiplying. Why does one brother leave while another stays? Why does one settle successfully while the other finds migration unbearable? It cannot be a matter of class background, which they both share. It can, however, be a question of social formation, of character and of social dispositions. Such was the case of Maalouf’s grandfather Botros and his brother. Gebrayel, less educated and less reflexive, throws himself into the migratory adventure without asking too many questions. Botros, on the other hand, having gone through a better period of schooling and having developed a very early sense of purpose as an educator, asks too many questions and hesitates. In some ways, because of his hesitation, his initial desire to migrate grows stronger and his grandson, 100 years or so later, easily reads through his hesitance and the many excuses he is giving his brother for not going.

I have read and reread these paragraphs … I have the impression of hearing the voice of this grandfather I’ve never known, his voice at the time when he was still young, wondering how not to waste his life, and if it was reasonable to stay in the country, or honorable to leave it; these are questions I had to ask myself three quarters of a century later, though in very different circumstances … But were they really that different? From this land people emigrated since time immemorial for the same reasons; and with the same feelings of remorse. (p91)

Maalouf sees in Botros someone who really wanted to go, who was envious of his brother Gebrayel for having gone, but who did not dare make the ultimate move and who was tying himself with all sort of moral arguments to justify his indecision. (p92)

In fact Botros was quite right to be hesitant. Or, one could say, his hesitance was itself an indication of his unpreparedness to make the migratory move. As it turned out, his voyage to join his brother in Cuba was a disaster. The proud professor, the poet, always a bit of a dandy, found himself subjected to humiliating searches by the Cuban Seguridad, then quarantined and treated like cattle… finally making it into Cuba to sleep in his brother’s attic. (p98) He quickly returns to the Lebanese Mountain.

“No doubt he was not made for migration, after all,” says Maalouf of his grandfather. And, he continues:

The emigrant has to be prepared to swallow every day his ration of humiliation, he has to accept that life treats him informally (il doit accepter que la vie le tutoie), that it pats him on the shoulder and the stomach with excessive familiarity. (p99)

In the course of my research, I have often met these men and women capable of “swallowing every day their ration of humiliation”. They do so at a price of splitting themselves in two: an immigrant self, ready to accept whatever comes his or her way for the sake of making money, and a proud, sensitive self, kept somewhere on the side, often left back in the village, and protected from humiliation. This is how, in the early stages of migration, they become an embodiment of the homo economicus of neoclassical economic theory. The Lebanese rural migrants develop a very narrow conception of what it means to do something useful in life. The idea of enjoying what one is doing but earning less money is considered as a “waste of one’s life”. Sons and daughters who do not go into business or become high-earning professionals are also perceived to have “wasted their lives”. I have met a Lebanese tourist guide in the Venezuelan Amazon, actors in Brazil, Mexico and the US, a green activist in Melbourne – each declared by his or her parents and relatives a “failure”, which is often a shortening of “failure to accumulate money at the cost of having a good life”.

“I am not interested in monetary gain, like my uncle Gebrayel, I also want to lead a good life. This is why I prefer to return and work with my brothers …” (p210) So says one of Gebrayel’s nephews, Nassif, who was initially sent to Cuba to help his uncle’s now prospering business. Nassif did not want to leave his social self behind and be split in two. To be sure, it is a luxurious refusal that not many first-generation migrants can make. Instead, most get caught in the fantasy of “the successful moneymaking immigrant”. They are not able to get out of it, even when it goes sour. Nor do they find it easy to let others know when reality does not live up to the myth. This was the case of Gebrayel who, while ending up a very successful and powerful immigrant in Cuba, begins his migratory adventure by hiding his initial hardship from his family. This is how Maalouf sees it:

But it seems that the emigrant has long wanted to hide his real situation from his relatives. For what reason? I do not know for sure, even though, to say the truth, I can guess it a bit, having known other emigrants, from our family as well as from the rest of the Mountain. The myth of the villager who takes the boat with only two loaves of bread and six olives, and who finds himself 10 years later on top of a massive fortune in Mexico, I have heard it a thousand times, and with all sorts of dumbfounding versions. Such accounts apply a constant pressure, often heavy to carry, on those who migrate. They could well be in the most remote corner of the Sahel or the Amazon, they never escape the gaze of those who stayed in the country, for they are constantly watching and checking on them though their very own eyes. And when they have a touch of pride not exactly a rare commodity among our peoplethey no longer dare to return to the village without having something to show for it, or else they come back only to hide and die. Many, in fact, prefer to die in a faraway land than to return vanquished.(p176)

Thus, Origines keeps moving us along its zigzagging global trajectory. Sometimes we are in the Lebanese Mountain sharing the lives of those family members who stayed behind and their struggle to maintain the viability of a village school or their experience of the dawn of French colonialism. Sometimes we go back to Cuba and to the role of freemasonry in helping Gebrayel to settle. We even briefly go the US to meet the American side of the family that had become Christian fundamentalist in New England.

By the time Maalouf has finished going through the contents of his archival suitcase, we are more than ready to join him in celebrating the virtue of his ancestors when he exclaims:

Homage to the oral tradition, we often hear! As far as I am concerned, I leave this pious sentiment to the repentant colonials. Myself, I only venerate the written. And I bless the sky that my ancestors for more than a century have kept, assembled and preserved these thousands of pages that so many other families have thrown to the fire, or left to rot in an attic … (p68)

To me, both the dramas of Maalouf the researcher and the dramas of his grandparents as he recounts them make the book a brilliant capturing of some constitutive elements of the Lebanese diaspora. Maalouf would probably not favour the use of the term Lebanese. He does not think that the term has enough consistency. Rather, he thinks that belonging to a space such as the Lebanese Mountain generates a certain “fuzziness” of identity that no national/geographic term can capture. Yet I would argue that this very fuzziness is specifically Lebanese. I do not mean here the usual “not the West/not the East” fuzziness associated with Lebanon, or the fuzziness that comes from belonging to a nation-state that is eternally under construction, like those unpainted, unfinished, “one more storey to go and it will be ready”, grey concrete structures that continue to pollute its landscape. I mean a more fundamentally emotional fuzziness. The lands in which we see the light always have a mothering function for us. That is why we often call them “motherland”: they are supposed to symbolically and socially breastfeed us just as our biological mother is supposed to physically breastfeed us. How are we not to feel ambivalence towards a mother(land), like Lebanon, that cannot or does not know how to mother us, its children? Especially when she sends us begging along the international highways of life for a suck at the breast of somebody else’s mother(land). Maalouf tells us that his love for his Lebanese Mountain is a “love from afar” affair. He’d rather not get too close:

Is that to say that I do not miss the Mountain? Yes, of course God is my witness! I miss it. But there are love relations that function this way, in the mode of longing and distance. As long as we are elsewhere, we can curse the separation and live with the yearning to reunite … [but] if we abolish the distance we risk to abolish love. (p33)

To me this ambivalence is typical of the Lebanese diaspora. So is, in the introduction of the book, Maalouf’s elevation of the search for “routes” at the expense of the search for “roots”, at the very moment where he is feverishly seeking to uncover his “roots”. Maalouf denies that this is what he is doing. “Roots” he tells us, is not in his vocabulary:

I don’t like the word “roots”, and the image even less. Roots bury themselves in the soil, writhe about in the mud, and bloom in the darkness; they keep the tree captive from birth, and nourish it at the price of a blackmail: “You liberate yourself, you die!”

Trees have to resign themselves, they need their roots; humans don’t. We breathe light, we seek the sky and when we sink in the earth, it is to rot. (p9)

I think that Maalouf impoverishes his otherwise very rich social commentary by simply “taking sides” in this roots versus routes debate, which is becoming increasingly fashionable in “rhizomatic” theory today. At moments, he, like many theoreticians of the rhizome, seems to mix between the desire to “have roots” and the desire to “be roots”. No one wants to “be roots” when the metaphor of roots is used, except perhaps some types of fundamentalists. Most people who think of themselves as having roots, like to imagine themselves to be branches. And branches, even more so than us on Maalouf’s routes, “breathe the light” and “seek the sky”. Indeed branches themselves are types of routes. Except that they are never already traced but are constantly tracing and spreading themselves in relation to the sun. However, branches as routes cannot be thought of in opposition to roots, for the more well-rooted they are, the better routes they are likely to be. There is no opposition here. Likewise, to see one’s ancestors as only part of a route we are on rather than also part of our roots is a denial of their nurturing and propelling power.

It is also a denial of the social processes that have made us into what we are. I think that there is a deeply political side to this. In his analysis of capitalism, Marx developed a famous and incisive analytical concept, commodity fetishism, to denote the way commodities appear on the capitalist market as if they are totally detached from the process of their production. In much the same way, those who celebrate rootlessness seems to celebrate a form of human fetishism in which humans themselves, like commodities, appear on the capitalist market as if they are totally detached socially and emotionally from the spaces and the socio-historical processes that made them into what they are. Are they not constructing themselves into the ultimate neo-liberal persona of globalised capitalism?

There is a point in Origines where Maalouf, in a moment of identification with his “lost” grandparent, declares both their identities to lie in this state of being “lost”. I have no reason to question this, but one has to say that there are many ways of being and feeling lost in the world. Some are lost and feel weak and scared, and others are proudly and gladly lost. One cannot but say to Maalouf that, for a “lost one”, he sure knows how to confidently move around and search the globe. And where does this confidence to be propelled in the world in such a “lost” way come from if he was not so well nurtured and well rooted by his past?

Attachment theory posits that we all relate in a variety of ways to what is a “secure base”. A good secure base is one that knows how to embrace us and give us confidence to move on in life. If it embraces us too much, it can make us suffer from claustrophobia. If it embraces us too little, it makes us feel brittle and ungrounded. Good roots are supposed to be a good secure base. But in both his “love from afar” and his rejection of “roots” Maalouf exhibits what in attachment theory is called “avoidant attachment’. It is an attachment one forms to a secure base (a mother, a father, a family, a nation) that one believes has also the potential to hurt us. We crave to be close to it and yet we feel that too much proximity can allow it to hurt us, so we also strive to avoid it at the same time. In my experience, most of us in the Lebanese diaspora experience both Lebanon and our extended families in such an avoidant way. They can be empowering and they can be suffocating. They can be the source of pride and they can be the source of shame. When we are near them, we want to leave, and when we are far away we want to be near them. Indeed, we want to be near and far away from them at the same time, so we become forever hanging in a state of in-between-ness, not really knowing what we want. It is precisely this ambivalence, what Spinoza nicely calls “vacillation” of the mind, that Maalouf captures so well in his book.

In general, migration studies are deeply in need of this Spinozist conception, for the simplistic logic of the either/or remains largely dominant within it. Migrants are either assimilated or they are not. They either yearn for their homeland or they don’t. Locals either love their “favorite migrant other” or they are racist, etc … I believe that part of the problem in this conception, at least as far as the social sciences are concerned, lies in the dominance of short-lived encounters and interview techniques where people express “a view” that ends up being eternalised as “their view”. Long-term ethnographic research, as in novels and other longitudinally committed narratives, allows us to capture the constant fluctuations of people’s desires and classifications. People who express “racist” views about others can express very “loving” views the next day. Migrants who will tell you they feel very Australian one day, can say that they feel very “whatever their original homeland nationality is” on the next. And those who profess to love their country of origin can also express a hatred towards it. In fact, more often than not, and in all these situations, love and hatred co-exist in a potential state.

To my mind, Origines is a highly important contribution to the field of diasporic literature; and not just for the dwellers of the Lebanese Mountain, but globally. Part of Maalouf’s literary power lies in his elevation of traditional Lebanese “under the olive tree” story-telling into global literature, and of making the specifically Lebanese of universal importance. In so doing he is both leading and reinforcing a diasporic Lebanese literary revival exemplified in the English world by the work of Rabih Alameddine in the US, as well as the work of Loubna Haikal and Abbas el-Zein here in Australia.

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About the author

Ghassan Hage

Ghassan Hage teaches and researches in the areas of globalisation, migration, nationalism, racism and multiculturalism from a comparative perspective.His teaching and research emphasises the...

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