Adonis Diaries


Posted on: October 21, 2008

February 15, 2007

“Origins” by Amin Maaluf


I enjoyed the anecdote of Tannous, the great grand father of Amin Maaluf, in the French book “Origines” by Amin Maaluf.  Tannous walked six hours from Kfar-Yaqda to see his sweet heart Soussene in Zahle and claimed that he had business in that city for an entire week.  Tannous would walk back home about eight hours in the dark on dangerous dirt roads and then come back the next day to Zahle.  After several days of these gruesome trips Tannous did not look well and had lost weight.  His future father-in-law investigated with him and discovered the truth and said to him: “Listen boy, tonight you sleep with my boys; then you never come back to Zahle but to attend to your engagement with my daughter”.  Tannous and Sousene had ten off springs.

The “Origines” is becoming very interesting; Botros, the future grand father of Amin, had spread the tale that he immigrated to Havana to come to the rescue of his younger brother Gebrayel who was in trouble with the law.  It is turning out that Botros wanted to emigrate but felt hugely humiliated once he arrived in Cuba; he was probably quarantined and lived in an attic above his brother’s shop.  Botros never mentioned in writing his Cuba adventures because he had not the stuff of an emigrant willing to accept a few inconveniences or harassment, he who lived like a dandy in Lebanon. 

Thus, Botros’ lofty narrative of the reasons for going to Cuba and aiding his brother out of troubles was a way for him to counter his disastrous trip and somehow tarnish the name of his brother who showed acumen for business and an enterprising spirit. It appears that Botros visited New York for seven months and that Gebrayel had paid him more than $1000 when he left him in compensation; this sum could be valued to at least $30,000 nowadays.  All in all, Botros was out of Lebanon for five years and returned more resolved to teach and change society from its ignorance.

I am reading a section from “Origines” where Botros, the grand father of Amin, refused since 1913 to baptize any of his children so that they might decide which confession to affiliate with when they get of age.  Botros named his school “The Universal School” so that all students from any confession could enroll and get an education; girls and boys sat in the same class and his educated wife Nazeera was a teacher in the school. The commotions consequent to Botros’ decision not to baptize his children is still remembered with passion in the neighboring villages of Machrah after a century. 

The abbot Theodoros, brother of Botros, tried once to baptize Botros’ eldest son in his absence but was refrained to do so when Botros barged in after getting winds of his brother’s muscled method. At that time, around the town of Zahle, there were Greek orthodox, Greek Catholics or Melkites, Maronites and Protestant Presbitarians who were indoctrinated by the schools of Von Dyke in Abey and Souk El-Gharb.  In the spirit of “universality” the students were to recite only the “Our Father” prayer because its contents do not mention, Christ, Marie, the Holy Ghost, the Trinity or the Church.  Botros went as far as giving his children names not related to saints or any religious connotations.

I have finished reading “Origines” and I can categorize this book as “give me a good book; time will vanish and I am content”. Botros was expecting the French mandate authority to aid his school financially but discovered that the French were intent on helping only the Catholic religious schools and thus aided his arch rival Malatios. He consequently appreciated the laic positions of the Turkish leader Kamal Ataturk and decided to name his last son Kamal; the new born turned out to be a girl and he insisted on naming her Kamal anyway. Botros died at 56 of age of cardiac arrest leaving a wife (Nazeera) of 29 years of age and six children ranging from 11 to barely 2 years of age. Nazeera and her stoic mother Sophia raised the children in the Presbyterian moral severity.

Nazeera continued to direct the “Universal School” and barely managed to make ends meet; her brother-in-law priest Theodoros had destroyed all the signed papers due to be paid by the people who had borrowed from Botros on account that she doesn’t need more troubles and animosities from her relatives and neighbors.

The author had to travel to Cuba to investigate the documents he had about his great uncle Gebrayel, visited his mausoleum in the main cemetery of Christopher Columbus and went around to get visual appreciation of the renowned commercial centers “La Verdad” which had vanished.  He paid a visit to Gebrayel’s residence up on a hill, as Levantines love to locate when they can afford it. 

Gebrayel had hit it big in commerce and had vast connections with the new political leaders of the new republic that was established in 1909 after the Cuban revolution kicked out the Spanish colonists.  We discover that Amin’s grand father and grand uncle were free-masons, as were Jose Marti and the Cuban revolutionary leaders located in New York, as were the leaders of the revolutionary “Young Turks” who deposed the Ottoman Sultan Abdel-Hamid, and later Kamal Ataturk.  Amin’s father and his grandfather died both of them at the age of 56, on the same month and on a Sunday.

Amin’s eldest uncle joined a Catholic monastery in the USA after marrying and begetting five children; he came to Lebanon with the intention of being consecrated a priest instead of a simple “brother” but the attempt failed when the Archbishop of Boston disagreed with the decision of the Archbishop in Lebanon; he would not receive anyone who was not Catholic and his mother Nazeera reluctantly converted to Catholicism just to see her son; the wife of this uncle also became a nun.

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October 2008

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