The French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf has been elected permanent secretary of the Académie Française, an appointment that is for life. He succeeds Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, who died in August after having held the post since 1999.
Maalouf, a 74-year-old novelist and journalist who has lived in France since 1976, has for long been a prominent voice of historical novels inspired by the Arab world. His works focus on the convergence of civilisations and have been translated into many European languages.
A member of the Academy since 2011, Maalouf was elected to its top post on Thursday. The only other candidate in the election was his close friend and fellow Academy member Jean-Christophe Rufin, who told reporters he only entered the race to ensure a democratic process.
Rima Abdul Malak, France’s minister of culture, described Maalouf as “an immense writer, a man of fraternity, of dialogue, of appeal.” His election as the Academy’s permanent secretary, she said, is a “magnificent symbol for all French-speakers in the world”.
The former permanent secretary, Carrère d’Encausse, a historian who specialised in Tsarist and Soviet Russia, did not name anyone to succeed her, but Maalouf was seen as the most likely candidate. The news agency Agence France-Presse said Maalouf was well liked and had been highly active in the Academy since he was elected to it in 2011.
‘An Excellent Choice’
It was Rufin who gave the welcoming speech when Maalouf first joined the Academy 12 years ago. Addressing Maalouf, he said: “You are indeed a man of exquisite politeness, who on all occasions shows great consideration for those to whom he speaks.” Like Maalouf a winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary award, Rufin added: “I sometimes have the impression that our dreams have made of us more than friends. Brothers”.
France’s Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malak, who is also French-Lebanese, called Maalouf’s appointment “an excellent choice.” Describing him as “an immense writer, a man of fraternity, of dialogue, of appeal,” she said his election was a “magnificent symbol for all French-speakers in the world”.
The permanent secretary heads the Académie Francaise, whose job is to defend and promote the French language. Only 32 people have previously held the post since the institution’s founding in 1634.
The Academy has 40 members, who are called as “the immortals” after the institution’s motto, “To immortality”. Currently, it has 28 male and seven female members; the remaining five seats are vacant, pending elections.
The Academy is always keen that only worthy candidates should don the “green coat,” but Hélène Carrère d’Encausse was not always successful in her attempts to encourage the candidacies of younger, popular writers. Michel Houellebecq did not answer her calls, and the 57-year-old Frédéric Beigbeder and 62-year-old Benoît Duteurtre were rejected last year.
One of Maalouf’s most critical tasks will be to ensure the Academie’s financial sustainability, which is not assured, according to a 2021 report by the Court of Auditors, which oversees the Institut de France and its five academies.
From Lebanon to France
Maalouf was born to Christian parents in Beirut’s cosmopolitan Badaro neighbourhood in 1949. According to RFI (Radio France Internationale), Maalouf’s first language was Arabic, he spoke English at home, and he attended a French Jesuit school. He later earned a degree in sociology at the francophone Saint Joseph University of Beirut.
After graduating from Saint Joseph University of Beirut, Maalouf became a journalist, travelling the world to cover international news for An-Nahar. He witnessed the overthrow of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie in 1974 and covered the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Maalouf’s family has a long history in Arabic poetry and literature. The Guardian newspaper, in a 2002 interview with Maalouf, reported that a great-great-great-uncle of his had translated Molière into Arabic, and that relatives in the Lebanese diaspora included an Australian novelist, David Malouf, and a Brazilian poet, Fawzi Maalouf, who has been called the “Arabic Rimbaud”.
Amin Maalouf’s father, Ruchdi Maalouf, was a journalist, broadcaster and poet who presented a radio programme about Western classical music. He also owned a newspaper and wrote articles about parliamentary democracy.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Maalouf himself became a journalist after university. He began working for An-Nahar, a leading Arabic-language newspaper published in Lebanon, when he was 22, and began travelling the world to cover international news, visiting 60 countries. He interviewed the late prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, witnessed the overthrow of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie in 1974, and covered the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975.
He and his wife, Andrée Maalouf, a teacher of the deaf and mute, were living in Beirut when the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975. One of its initial clashes, an exchange of gunfire between a group of Palestinians and members of a Christian militia, occurred practically beneath their windows. “We saw 20 bodies”, Maalouf told The Guardian. He stayed with his pregnant wife and young son in the basement of their building that night.
Unwilling to take sides in the conflict, Maalouf held out in Lebanon for a year, then boarded a ship that took him to Cyprus before he moved on to France. He settled in Paris, where his wife and three children joined him two months after.
A Passionate, Creative Career
In Paris, Maalouf initially worked the newsweekly Jeune Afrique, writing in French for the first time in his life, and later becoming the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Between 1979 and 1982, he was the edition director of An-Nahar, which was then published in Paris, before returning to Jeune Afrique.
In 1983, Maalouf published his first book in French, “The Crusades through Arab Eyes”. It was translated into most European languages and remains popular.
Maalouf was passionate about writing novels from the beginning, he told The Guardian, seeking to chronicle a troubled relationship with the world. He described that relationship as “always trying to escape from reality. I’m a daydreamer; I don’t feel in harmony with my epoch or the societies I live in.”
Maalouf’s first novel, “Leo Africanus”, published in 1986, begins with the fall of Muslim Granada to Catholic Spain in 1492. It follows the adventures of the real-life diplomat, traveller and geographer al-Hasan Al-Wazzan, known in the West as Leo Africanus.
The first of his nine novels, “Leo Africanus”, published in 1986, was based on the biography of the 16th-century traveller, diplomat and geographer al-Hasan Al-Wazzan, who was born in Granada, Spain, sometime around 1492, the year it surrendered to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Maalouf’s novel begins with the fall of Granada and follows Al-Wazzan as he flees to Fez, Morocco, to escape the Inquisition, makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, and converts to Christianity, before reverting to Islam.
In 1988, Maalouf published “Samarkand”, a novel woven around the biography of the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Three years later, he published “The Gardens of Light”, which traces the life of Mani, founder of the Manichaean religion in Persia in the 3rd century AD.
Several others among Maalouf’s novels center on more recent times in Lebanon and the Arab world. They include “The Rock of Tanios” (1993), which won him the Prix Goncourt, and “The Disoriented” (2012), which is set in Lebanon’s civil war.
Besides “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes”, he has written several other works of non-fiction, a memoir, and four librettos for musical works. A 2016 work, “Un Fauteuil sur la Seine”, recounts the lives of the 18 “immortals” who preceded him in seat no. 29 of the Académie Française.
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