In the Name of Identity
Violence and the Need to Belong
Amin Maalouf, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, New York, Arcade Publishing, 164 pp. (translated by Barbara Bray).
This is a beautiful meditative essay on identity by Goncourt Prize-winning French novelist Amin Maalouf. Its main question is central to life after the attack on the World Trade Center. What about how we create identities in a globalized world would lead someone to purposely slaughter thousands of innocent human beings?
In exploring this question, Maalouf shows the power of the humanist, literary or philosophical essay to open us to new imaginative possibilities and perspectives, to enter the mind, thoughts, soul of one deeply feeling individual so as to see ourselves and the world in a completely fresh way.
I’ve called Maalouf a French prize-winning novelist, but I am misleading, distorting here because the point of this simultaneously soothing and stimulating work is the complexity and fluidity of identity. Maalouf begins by asking how many times he has been asked since he left Lebanon in 1976 whether he feels more Lebanese than French? By the time he carefully describes the many, many layers of his own constantly evolving identity as a writer, a Christian Arab, a member of the EU, as someone who has incorporated the history and culture of a number of places into his being, you will be deeply engaged. His almost lyrical prose (masterfully translated from the French by Barbara Bray), his literate, non-judgmental style soon make it seem palpably obvious that simple labels constrict us, create an inevitable and dangerous sense of the other and of alienation, and, hence, the potential for violence.
It was this first half of Maalouf’s essay that so transfixed me and forced me to look at myself and others anew. The conclusion, which calls for a kind of universalism and understanding while incontrovertible, is uncompelling. How we get to Maalouf’s sensibility and inclusiveness worldwide is where the messy details and politics come in. In this he is a bit of an idealist, though a radical one. But his vision, his writing, his personal revelations, his observations and his humanism are so beguiling that this lovely essay deserves a spot high up in that pile of paperbacks on your night table that must be read.
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