By Carine Bourget
Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature, Vol. 30:2 (2006)
Abstract: This paper analyzes the narrative strategies that shape Maalouf’s rewriting of the history of the Crusades, examines why considerations of the problems inherent to the historiographical act are relegated to the background, and how Maalouf links his text to politics contemporary to its writing. I argue that while Maalouf brilliantly deconstructs the Western image of the Crusades as a heroic time by documenting the barbarity of the Crusaders without falling into the pitfall of simply inverting the terms of the dichotomy, the agenda driving his rewriting of this historical period leads him to partially repeat what his book is supposed to undo, witness the erasure of women in a book whose goal is to unearth a neglected perspective. Moreover, I contend that while most of the book painstakingly details the power play between and among the Crusaders and the Arabs that debunks the ideology of clash of religions and civilizations, the very brief epilogue, which draws parallels between the past and contemporary Middle Eastern politics but omits to mention key events of the nineteenth and twentieth century, tends to fall back in the very essentialism that the main narrative opposes.
Introduction: Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese writer who won the prestigious Goncourt prize in 1993 for his novel Le Rocher de Tanios, has received little attention from scholars of Francophone literature in the United States. As a Christian Arab exiled in France since 1976, Maalouf occupies a pivot point between his country of exile and his region of origin. In his “examination of identity” in the essay Identites meurtrieres, Maalouf underlines the paradox of being a Christian with Arabic, the sacred language of Islam, as his native tongue.’ These “multiple belongings” that characterize “border people” afford him a singular vantage point from which to take a fresh look at the historical period of the Crusades from 1096 to 1291.
The title of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes problematizes the notion of objective historiography, and makes explicit Maalouf’s intent: to adopt the perspective of those who underwent the Crusades, which in Western eyes are still seen as a great epic. Indeed, the term “crusade” in today’s English, is used, as is croisade in French, to refer not only to the historical military expeditions to the Near East, but also to denote any well-intentioned though possibly overzealous campaign for a worthy cause, and as such often carries a positive connotation. Maalouf’s objective in his book is not simply to set the historical record straight: his rewriting of history is also intended as a commentary on contemporary politics. In this paper, I explore three questions: how narrative strategies shape Maalouf’s counter-history; why considerations of the problems inherent to the (re)writing of history are relegated to the background; and what motivates the rewriting of history in The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, given that the historiographical act takes place within a specific context and can be politicized.