Origins focuses on the life of Maalouf’s grandfather, a liberal who lived in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. As in much of his writing, Maalouf — who lives in Paris — conveys a sort of jaded nostalgia, acutely conscious of its futility, for an Ottoman world where a kaleidoscope of cultures and religions once lived side by side.
As always, Maalouf is careful not to describe this time as one of peace, plenty and trustful coexistence. But in those days when many Eastern cities — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Salonica — were significantly (sometimes equally) Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, and when talk of constitutionalism and democracy was still novel and inspiring, the Ottoman lands held a special promise. Were those ideals upheld, those lands around the Mediterranean could have been a model for coexistence and citizenship that stood in stark contrast to the ethnically exclusive nation-state system that Europe promulgated. That these ideals failed is a tragedy whose enormity is hard to grasp. Maalouf recognizes that, one big reason I admire his writing.
This is the background for the passage on patriotism and nationalism:
All too often we tend to equate the two attitudes, with the assumption that nationalism is an acute form of patriotism. In those days–and in other eras as well–this could not have been further from the truth: nationalism was the exact opposite of patriotism. Patriots dreamed of an empire where diverse groups could coexist–groups speaking different languages and professing different beliefs, but united by a common desire to build a large modern homeland. They hoped to instill a subtle Levantine wisdom into the principles advocated by the West. As for the nationalists, when they belonged to an ethnic majority they dreamed of total domination, and of separatism when they belonged to a minority. The wretched Orient of our day is the monster born of the two dreams combined.
It’s a warning that has relevance for many places in the world–I sure wish some of the American activists claiming patriotism would examine the possible meaning of the word. (And I guess I’ll probably keep wishing.)