(Interview conducted during the Writers Unlimited Winternachten festival, January 2014)
You grew up speaking Arabic at home but chose to write (fiction, at least) in French – who, if any, were your role models in writing early on?
I’m not sure I had role models, but I was always interested in Arabic poetry. My father was a poet and a scholar, with a great knowledge of classical Arab poetry. He used to tell me about the greats - usually not known outside the Arab world - like Al-Mutanabbi, ‘The One who Pretended to be a Prophet’, this fascinating figure who early in life had failed to attract a following as a prophet, and later tried to get into politics, travelling to various courts in search of a position. In the middle of this life of adventure and delusion he wrote some of the most beautiful poems in Arabic, which have become a benchmark in classical Arabic poetry.
And it was principally your father who introduced you to such writers?
Yes, he told me such stories and of other poets like the Persian Omar Khayyám (who wrote in Arabic as well as Persian), and Antara, the sixth century pre-Islamic poet who started out a slave then earned his freedom through bravery in battle and became the model for the warrior poet and classical lover – there’s a whole cycle of stories about him well known across the Arab world. But I was also discovering writers such as Camus and Stefan Zweig, and a bit later Orwell and Hemingway, all of whom – if not exactly role models – certainly influenced me. If I had to select one abiding influence over this whole period, it would have to be Zweig, who described the end of a world, the end of his own Mitteleuropean existence and the collapse of Austro-Hungary. I also felt I was living in end times: the end of the Levant.
Most of the writers you mention here led itinerant, colourful lives. Did interest in stories such as theirs lead you towards an interest in historical novels?
Maybe. I think it’s a natural approach when coming to authors from the past. In my youth I was fascinated by writers’ engagement with ‘Great Causes’ (like Hemingway and Orwell in the Spanish Civil War) or fighting against tyranny. Maybe this is because my own life has been uneventful. I’m just an observer, trying to understand and interpret the world; my writing doesn’t come out of life experience.
Is this position unique to you, or do you feel the observer’s role is the natural one for most novelists?
No, it’s not the natural role for a novelist, it’s just how it’s been for me on account of my background and temperament. There are all kinds of writers. Proust, who barely left his home, and Conrad, who travelled the world: both wrote wonderful works. A writer shouldn’t worry about the content of her life, but should be concerned with what she can write and must write.
In your autobiography Origins you tell how most of your ancestors departed for far-flung countries. You’ve lived in Paris since 1976. Would you ever call yourself an exile? Or is emigration simply part of the Lebanese condition?
I never describe myself as an exile, but never refute it when I’m labelled as one. It’s like you said, it’s a Lebanese tradition, and I was just doing what my ancestors did before me. When I was young I never planned on living abroad, but then there was a war and I had to take that decision. People have had to leave Lebanon for over 3000 years, from the time when the Princess of Tyre left in 800BC to found Carthage due to conflict with the Mesopotamians. We grow up with the knowledge that so many before us have left, and so it’s easier to accept when it comes to you.
Your novel The Rock of Tanios (1993), which was awarded the Prix Goncourt, takes place during sectarian conflict in Lebanon of the 1840s. I wondered if, at the time of writing, you wanted to highlight analogies between that time and the present…
I always felt that one day I had to write a book about the beginnings of the communal divide in Lebanon, when many factions sought refuge in that tiny area (usually Christians persecuted by other Christians, and Muslims by other Muslim denominations). There were tensions, but these didn’t really erupt until the 1840s; unfortunately, learning how to live non-peacefully is irreversible – the clock cannot be turned back after a war. So I wasn’t trying to explain the war that began 40 years ago, but to interpret the state of Lebanon for the last 150 years.
Disordered World, your last non-fiction work, was written before the Arab uprisings. What, if anything, surprised you about them; and what hope do you see right now for countries such as Libya, Egypt and Syria?
First of all, the word you use, ‘uprising’, is the accurate one. The use of a term such as the Arab Spring was short-sighted. I had great hopes in the early days, and felt that a place such as Tunisia badly needed change. Even though I think these were important historical events, three years later the promises have not been kept, and I feel disappointment. Leaders in those countries were not able to build on the genuine aspirations (mainly of marginalised youth) for change, for modernity and open societies. The old regimes kept religious fanaticism at bay – or persuaded the West they were doing so – but when they were ousted these religious factions felt it was their moment too; personally, I don’t believe any religious movement is capable of running a modern state. In Egypt people were so scared by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood they willingly handed control back to the military – but an opportunity was lost here – there had been space, at least in the beginning, for a third option, a secular alternative. It’s extremely disappointing, and in Syria now it’s worse than disappointing. I can’t see any modern Syrian state coming out of this civil war, and the hatreds stirred up by the war won’t end with it. I’m afraid I don’t feel hope on any level for Syria – it’s a complete tragedy.
Can you name any books that have already dealt with these events? Do you believe a writer has any duty to reflect or portray current realities?
It’s too soon to say – I haven’t been keeping up with things. But I know for sure, by instinct, important works of art and literature will come out of these tragedies. When a nation is on the brink, there will be an accompanying artistic movement, of great force.
So, in spite of what you said before about not needing lived experience yourself, you’re certain others will be driven to write important works?
Periods of uncertainty usually produce marvellous literature. Look at Russia, that period when the old system was collapsing but the new hadn’t begun – from Gogol to the early Gorky. So many names: it was a wonderful time in the history of world literature. Europe between the two wars was the same – one could sense the impending tragedy, but it was a great period for books.
Moving back in time, your book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes seems to want to redress the balance of historical accounts of the crusades. Was this how you felt or was this simply a period that interested you?
My aim wasn’t exactly to re-establish the reality of the crusades, it was more to say that all events can be viewed from different perspectives. The crusades were the founding event in the complicated relationship between the West and the Arab world. I wasn’t saying this is how we should interpret and remember the crusades, just that I thought them a good example of history that can be viewed many ways.
As a young journalist you would write in Arabic, but all your novels have been written in French. Are you able to express different things in each language? Are there differences in your reading tastes between Arabic, French and other languages?
It’s a simplistic caricature, but I’d say that I speak Arabic, I write French and I read English. English to me is a passive language: I read it well, speak it reasonably well, but am uncomfortable when I write in it. I see English as a language of knowledge and learning – I read a huge amount in it. For roughly the last 37 years I’ve mainly written in French, it’s the language I write most fluently in, even though in Lebanon I would barely ever speak it; today, with my wife, children and friends I mainly speak Arabic. But, as you say, as a journalist for a Lebanese newspaper, I worked in Arabic. Until my mid-20s I held the conviction that if I were ever to become a writer it would be in Arabic – but this changed the moment I left the country and resolutely began to write in French.
Why though? I’m interested that you use the word ‘resolutely’ here…
Well, a writer needs to write in the language that is understood by those around him. If not, writing becomes a very disturbing experience. At one point I was asked to write a regular column for an Italian newspaper, which they’d translate. I found it very difficult to write regularly for an audience that I could not imagine.
But what about your books, which are widely translated?
It’s different. The mindset and approach of the journalist who writes a column is different – he needs to know the audience and what they expect, as when delivering a lecture. In France, it would have been an additional stress for me to write in Arabic, even though in Lebanon it has never even occurred to me to write in French – I guess I was lucky to have been schooled in both languages and to have the choice. Had I remained in Lebanon I probably would have continued to write in Arabic.
In 2007 you signed a petition advocating for Francophonie and the importance of French away from mainland France. Around the same time you withdrew your candidacy for the Académie française, which you are now a member of.
I signed that petition to express reservations about the use of the notion of Francophonie. Some of the concerns in the petition I only half-agreed with, but I found the definition of Francophonie a deviation from the original concept, which was for all the French-speaking peoples to come together under a common language. But the word was transformed, so that it came to denote ‘foreigners’. People would start to ask, perversely, whether someone was a ‘French writer’ or a ‘Francophone’ one. At first I made light of it, but came to view it as more serious when a writer from Guadeloupe or, say, Martinique whose grandparents were already French citizens, would be labelled ‘Francophone’ because he or she was black. I’ve argued that it’s all right to use the word within diplomacy and policy (les pays francophones, for example) but not to apply it to literature, where it’s become a term of discrimination. So instead of littérature francophone we should talk of littérature de langue française. As you said, at the time I was applying for the Académie française, but when I encountered a few raised eyebrows over my statement on Francophonie, I decided (under some other pretext) to withdraw my candidacy. Four years later I reapplied and was elected.
In the past you’ve described yourself as a highly solitary person. Do you have any particular writing habits, or a routine for writing?
I certainly have my habits, and I can’t just write anywhere. There are two places I write. One is my study at home in Paris, where I have all my books and computer…
You write directly onto a computer, even the first draft?
Yes, I’ve always written on computers. My first one was an Apple II, which I had while working on The Crusades over thirty years ago (I think I was one of the first French writers to work on a computer, in fact). Over the summer I usually spend three or four months with my wife on Île d'Yeu in the Atlantic, where I also have a writing room. I write in the mornings, every day, starting usually around 8 a.m., or whenever I wake up: I can’t stand alarm clocks. I write until mid-afternoon, and then force myself not to think again about the book until the next morning. In the evening I read and listen to story tapes, which I love; if I’m on the island I go for long walks by the sea.