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from the March 2008 issue

from “Origins”

In Origins, Amin Maalouf recounts the family history of the generation of his paternal grandfather, Botros Maalouf. Maalouf sets out to discover the truth about why Botros, a poet and educator in Lebanon, traveled across the globe to rescue his younger brother, Gebrayal, who had settled in Havana.

Wednesday evening

Here I am in Cuba to find Gebrayel; in my diary is his last known address: the Colon Cemetery in Havana. I know I'll recognize his residence among all the others and decipher its inscriptions easily. A name engraved on stone isn't much, I have to admit, but it is the name of my relatives and the missing proof of their transatlantic dream.

We nomadic souls have a cult for vestiges and pilgrimages. We may not build anything durable, but we leave traces. And a few persistent noises. On the advice of all my friends who know this island, I resolved to stay far away from tourist routes and official channels, in order to move about, ferret around, and live as I pleased. I found accommodations in Vedado, a large neighborhood in the northwest of the city, at the home of a woman whose name is Betty. Her house is slightly less posh than some others in the area, but also markedly less dilapidated. On the colonnaded veranda are a welcoming table and plastic chairs. The legs of the chairs are attached to the legs of the table, so the chairs won't be tempted to run away with just any old petty thief. In the evening the smell of gasoline and jasmine hangs in the air. In the small courtyard, two bougainvilleas, a gardenia, and, under a sheet metal carport, a nice green car manufactured in the days of the Soviet Union.

Looking at the map of the city, I discover that the cemetery is just a few streets away. I had no idea I would be that close to my great-uncle—assuming his grave is really there. I shall go there tomorrow, first thing in the morning, on foot. "A ten-minute walk at most," my landlady assures me. This pilgrimage to the cemetery was supposed to be first on my list, but I arrived in Havana more impatient than tired, and there is another place that beckons to me. I confess I never was able to dislodge from my memory the ever so prosaic sentence found in Gebrayel's letter:

Soon I plan to buy the home that the government built eight years ago for General Máximo Gómez. It is located at the corner of Prado and Monte avenues.

These words had instantly aroused the longings for a treasure hunt that date back to my earliest childhood reading. Longings that I believe I share with many of my kind, but that adulthood, jealous of our childhood dreams, tries to stifle. I don't think I'll be able to fall asleep tonight without having set eyes on this house, which Gebrayel called "the Gómez palace" in some of his letters and which used to be ours.

According to the research I did on the day before leaving on this trip, the Monte Avenue mentioned by my great-uncle is now called Máximo Gómez, no less, while Prado Avenue bears the name of Jose Martí. As I write these names, now familiar and practically like family, I have the usurped feeling of being among relatives in an America that my ancestors secretly rediscovered and reconquered.

It must be the euphoria of travel, the same euphoria that always makes me feel that my first hours and days overseas thicken like lava and flow at an infinitely slow pace. Midnight

My nighttime exploration has been a sobering experience. I didn't see the Gómez house. Or if I saw it, I didn't recognize it. Yet I scrupulously followed the procedure I had set for myself in Paris.

At the beginning of the evening I took a short walk in the neighborhood to a main road I had located on the map. I hailed a taxi and self-confidently asked the driver to take me to the center of the city, "Avenida Máximo Gómez." First surprise, the man hesitates. Did I mispronounce? I repeat the words, articulating clearly. How can a Havana taxi driver not know one of the main thoroughfares in the city? I unfold the map and point to "Maximo." The man looks. Thinks. Pouts. Finally, he smiles with relief. "Claro, si, si! Avenida Monte!" I should have suspected as much: as often happens, in all climes, it is the old name that the natives still use . . .

After starting up the car, the man asks me to tell him the exact spot where I wanted to be dropped off. I say, "At the corner of Prado and Monte." He says nothing, but I sense that we still don't understand each other. And as soon as he has to stop for a traffic light, he swivels around with his entire upper body and points at the map with all five fingers: "What corner? There is no corner!"

In fact, there is no real intersection between Prado and Monte. Not that the two avenues are parallel. One crosses the city from north to south and the other from west to east; it is therefore not "geometrically" absurd to speak of a corner. Except these are two huge thoroughfares that connect at one point, or rather merge, like two rivers flowing into the same lake, in this instance a square so vast and with such irregular contours that a person standing in the middle of it could never encompass its different sides simultaneously in one glance.

I had to face the facts: Gebrayal's aim in writing wasn't to provide an address; he just wanted to blow his own trumpet and let his relatives know that he had acquired a sumptuous building in the heart of the city. As for the exact location, he didn't give it to "us"; it was up to me to find it. But not tonight. I didn't find anything tonight. I just wandered in the area and studied several old buildings that might originally have been conceived as residential palaces. I tried to convince myself that it might be the astonishing chalet with brown and bright red walls, which is now a hotel; or the white building there at the corner; or the one across the street, even though the initials engraved on it, J and E, don't match any of my relatives' names—they might have been added at a later date.

No, what was the point of speculating or coaxing the facts? When I looked around, it seemed to me that this part of the city hadn't undergone too many barbaric renovations. There are still, thank God, countless old buildings; though tonight I still don't know which one was Gebrayel's property, I'll know tomorrow or the next day. It was best not to dig my heels in.

I climbed back into my waiting taxi and finished my evening in front of a glass of rum on the terrace of my temporary residence. I can't help but be moved by the fact that—after my great-uncle and my grandfather—here I am, feeling very much at home in Havana too, if only for a transient moment in my life, my face inviting the caresses of the Caribbean breeze. All around me in the dark I hear all sorts of cries, especially the barking of thousands of dogs near and far, but also, from the neighboring building, every three minutes, a shrew's surly voice yelling the name "Lazaro!" ***

JANA SUM PACIS, says an inscription at the top of the monumental entrance to the Colon necropolis: "I am the gateway to peace."

With a glance I assessed the immense size of the mortuary city, the endless rows of proud and flat tomb structures crisscrossed with paths, walks, and avenues as far as the eye can see. I also assessed the impact of the Havana sun beating down on my brow and immediately rejected the idea of strolling about. I walked straight over to the administrative buildings, where, in the most prosaic way possible, I asked for the information that had led me to cross the Atlantic Ocean: "A member of my family was buried here in 1918 . . ."

I am handed a notebook in which I write down Gebrayel's full name in block letters.

A good sign: they don't seem to be at all fazed by the remote date of death; nor does my initiative seem at all incongruous to them. The official at the reception desk opens a register, recopies the names and dates in the appropriate columns, then closes the register and invites me to take a seat.

I hardly wait. She appears almost instantaneously. She is my heroine of the day—I feel like calling her Black Angel. Not only because of the location, where everywhere you look there are stone angels; not only because of her African origins, which she shares with over half the Cuban population; not because of her name, Maria de los Angeles, but because of her wide, cunning, reassuring smile, which instantly convinces me that a miracle will occur.

A miracle? The word is probably too strong. In boarding the plane to come to this island and in visiting this necropolis, I suspected that I had a good chance of finding traces of Gebrayel, particularly his grave. But not necessarily today, on the very first day after my arrival!

I began by explaining to Maria in my labored Castilian Spanish that my great-uncle had died in Cuba. "Su abuelo?"

I almost corrected her to clarify things and explain that he wasn't exactly my grandfather. But what was the point of going into detail? It was better to simplify matters. Yes, my grandfather . . . Gabriel M. . . . Yes, in 1918. No, I didn't know the month: no earlier than June 16, and no later than December. Maybe, at the very latest, in the very first days of the following year. Should we look in the 1919 register? No, actually, it seemed very improbable to me. Nineteen eighteen should suffice . . .

She asked me to follow her and wait outside the door of the archives office. I sat down on a window ledge. At times I watched the comings and goings of visitors in the cemetery paths; at times, through the half-open door, I watched the comings and goings of Maria and the two other archivists—elderly men in overalls who climbed up on stepladders and reached for tan leather registers.

This dance lasted only a quarter of an hour, after which my heroine returned, smiling like a huntress and holding one of the ancient registers I had seen. It was open at a specific page, and she put it right under my nose. Since I couldn't decipher the handwriting of the clerk of old, she read out loud while I took notes:

Book of burials number 96, page 397, registration number 1588. On June 21, 1918, burial was given at this Cristobal Colon Cemetery, in crypt number thirty-three, acquired by Alicia, Widow M., to the body of Gabriel M., native of Syria, 42 years of age, married, deceased as a result of the traumatism of crushing, according to the certificate delivered by Dr. P. Perdomo. He was sent to us by the parish of Jesus del Monte, with permission from the municipal judge of the San Miguel del Padron district . . .

I listen reverently and then take the register in my moist hands to read it myself and get some abbreviations and opaque figures explained to me. I experience a filial emotion that brings tears to my eyes, but also, simultaneously, a researcher's joy hardly appropriate to the event recorded in the register, or to the place where I am, even if, for me, this sunny cemetery summons a mood of serenity rather than desolation, and permanence rather than death.

What particularly strikes me in this short, dry text is the date. If Gebrayel was buried on June 21, he must have died a day or two before, yet the last photo I have of him was taken during the great Masonic meeting for Alice's "coronation," which was held on the sixteenth. There was a four-day interval at most between the moment of triumph and the moment of death.

I ask Maria if I can see the tomb. She replies that there were actually two successive graves; the first, rented in haste, where "su abuelo" rested temporarily; the second acquired in September of the same year, a permanent burial plot located in the most expensive section of the cemetery, where national figures and wealthy Havana merchants are buried.

Actually, the first is an anonymous, rectangular, gray slab in the midst of dozens of other identical numbered slabs—its particular reference number is 333—whereas the second is a veritable mortuary residence, not quite the sumptuous mausoleum described by the Orator, but nevertheless a beautiful white marble structure.

The name engraved on it is not my great-uncle's name, but as soon as I bent down, I was able to read, as on a palimpsest:


Apparently our vault at the Christopher Columbus Cemetery has been used for many other mortal remains throughout the last century. There are epitaphs for several individuals, some clearly of Levantine origin, others bearing Hispanic or Slavic family names. On the marble rooftop are funerary statuettes—seven or eight, that look like the Tables of the Law, or lecterns, or angels' wings.Not far from the grave is a bush that I can't identify, with wine-colored flowers; it was either planted or grew there on its own. A bit farther away, there is a kind of midget cypress tree. Then, a few steps away, in the same section, there is a mausoleum, a real one, the sanctuary for the ashes of Jose Martí's parents—a proximity that would have flattered Gebrayel. As we sat at the foot of the vault in the only triangle of shade, I took the time to tell Maria who Gebrayel was, what I had heard about him in my childhood, and what I knew about him now. She asked me whether he has descendants in Cuba, adding that she is a trained genealogist and would be glad to help me track them down. I gladly provided her with the few pieces of information and family rumors I have, and she jotted them down diligently. I mentioned Alfred's name, and also the puzzling name of Arnaldo, whom my friend Luis Domingo said was an influential person here. No reaction on her part . . .Before I set off, she asked me if I would like to have a word-for-word transcription of the register entry, duly signed by the cemetery authorities. I said yes, of course. She promised to take care of it in the course of the day and told me I could have the document tomorrow if I stopped by to see her.It wasn't quite noon when I left the cemetery. Giddy, I must admit. Giddy from having been able to commune at Gebrayel's grave less than twenty-four hours after landing on this island.In the wake of this miracle, why not try to find General G6mez's house again, since I had been frustrated last night? I therefore set off for the city center, toward that elusive intersection of "Prado" and "Monte," and I started to wander, building up convenient theories. But this time no angel came from heaven to guide me, and I discovered nothing to justify adding more lines to this paragraph. I returned to Vedado, to my landlady's house, to rest from the sun and take a few notes. But two hours later, egged on, as so often, solely by my impatience, I decided to set off again for the center of the old city with a completely different idea in mind. Instead of groping in the dark for a house whose exact address I didn't know, why not go to the one address that is explicitly mentioned in the family letters? Hadn't Gebrayel had "Egido 5 and 7" printed on his 1912 envelopes and stationery? This was where the La Verdad stores were located before he bought the Máximo Gómez residence and expanded his business. This is also where Alice and he had their Havana apartment, as proved by the christening announcement of their eldest son in 1911. It is even probable that it was at this address that my grandfather Botros had lived during his stay in Havana, when he had to sleep in an attic.You might wonder why I didn't go there first thing, last night. There are two reasons why, though I am aware of them only now as I write these lines. The first is that I was eager to see the palace before anything else, for in my imaginative world it best represents the fulfillment of "our" Cuban dream. The second reason is that Luis Domingo had warned me that this address was going to be hard to find.

Before taking off for Cuba, I had had several exchanges, by phone and mail, with my diplomat friend—who, as I think I mentioned, had been posted to Cuba for a long period of time—and he had lavished advice on me. Among other things, I had mentioned Egido Street to him, and he had kindly asked one of his good friends in Havana, a historian, if he could go by that street one day and report to us what the facades of numbers 5 and 7 looked like—and possibly even take a photo.

I received no picture from him; just the e-mail message that I hereby reproduce and that merely added to my confusion, as might be imagined:

My Cuban friend tells me that small numbers don't exist on Egido, for the simple reason that since the thirties, this street has become an extension of Las Misiones Avenue, which runs from the Malecon, the seafront, and of Monserrate, which runs to the train terminal, facing the Martí house. By a town-planning quirk that he can't explain—nor can I!—the Egido numbers take up where the Monserrate numbers end, and the Monserrate numbers take up where the Las Misiones numbers end—go figure! The only possible hypothesis: the numbers 5 and 7 where your grandfather lived are presently the 5 and 7 on Las Misiones Avenue . . .

It is easy to see why I didn't feel encouraged by this muddle to rush to that address first thing last night. However I did go there today and was very conscientious. First I went to Egido Street and found that sure enough, the lowest number was 501. In the 400 range, the name of the street changes to Avenida de Belgica; then, at 200 and some odd, to Monserrate; and finally, for the lowest numbers, to Avenida de las Misiones. Meanwhile, I had already walked for three-quarters of an hour. There, a few steps away from the sea, I see a building bearing the double number "5 y 7" on its front, as if to cut short any further hesitation. Watchmen are on patrol at the door, which discourages me from lingering nearby. In any case, there is nothing to see. Instead of the old building resembling the drawing on the 1912 letters, there now stands a very recent building whose dominant color is electric blue, probably one of the least aesthetic structures in this beautiful capital. It is the headquarters of revolutionary youth, or some such thing. On the wall there is a long quotation from the Great Leader: "Eso es que lo queremos de las futures generaciones, que sepan ser consecuentes"— "What we ask of future generations is that they know how to be consistent." I should like to take advantage of the serenity of nighttime to clarify a point I left unexplained in recording the events of the day. When I reproduced the tombstone inscription, I wrote only "Gabriel M. M." These initials, which I've already used time and again instead of real names, warrant an explanation.

No one will be surprised if I mention here that my family name, like the village of my origins and my country, is both identifiable and fluid. Identifiable because all of us who bear the name feel a kind of tribal solidarity at the mention of it that reaches beyond languages, continents, and generations. Contrary to most family names, it is not derived from a profession, a geographical location, a moral or bodily characteristic, or a first name; it is a clan name, which links us all, at least in theory, to a common trajectory, originating somewhere near Yemen and whose traces are lost in the night of legends.

An identifiable family name, therefore, and yet, as I said, fluid. First of all, because of the very structure of Semitic languages, in which only the consonants are stable and the vowels unstable. Though the M, the central l, and the final f are found in all the transcriptions, there are countless variants. I know of about thirty: double or single a in the first syllable, or e sometimes and more rarely o; ou, 0, or oo in the second syllable; as well as some more unexpected permutations resulting in Slavic, Greek, or North African sounds. To be thorough, I should also mention an added difficulty: my family name includes another consonant, ayn, the secret consonant of Semitic languages, the one that is never transliterated into other languages. In Arabic, this consonant precedes the A in the word "Arabi" and the I in "Ibri"—"Hebrew"; it is an imperceptible guttural consonant that nonnatives have difficulty pronouncing, let alone hearing. It was already present in my country's oldest name, between the two twin a's in "Canaan," and it is also hidden between the two a's in my family name, making all transcriptions approximate.

I hardly dare mention the added complication, which is that no one in my village ever called me by that family name. Neither I nor Botros nor Gebrayel, nor any of my relatives. I don this family name, so to speak, to go into town or out into the world, but I don't use it in Machrah, or in any of the neighboring villages, and no one uses it to refer to me. This is easy to understand: when most of the inhabitants of a village share the same family name, it is of no use. Some other, more specific name is needed. To refer to the different family branches, the term "ajebb" is used, which has the literal meaning of "well," or, more simply, the term "beit," which means "house." Thus, Botros and his brothers belonged to beit Mokhtara, a branch of the family whose name derives from a grandmother with that first name. Nowadays, when my grandfather is recalled in the village, he is never referred to by any other name than Botros Mokhtara.

People who never left the small world of the village had no reason to ever use another name. In our day, this is seldom true, but in the past this was most often the case. Sometimes, when they were asked to give their family name by an Ottoman, French, or Lebanese official, they spontaneously gave the name of their branch, and that name was recorded on their identity papers. Today, more often, the opposite occurs: the everyday name isn't included on official papers, only the name of the large "tribe." As might be expected, this can give rise to comical situations, such as the one of the elderly cousin waiting in line whose "official" name was called out ten times in a row without his realizing it referred to him. No one had ever called him by that name . . .

As for Botros and his brothers, they had become accustomed to using the two family names simultaneously. Especially when they were "in the American countries," where it is common to insert a middle initial between the first name and last—Mokhtara being transformed into a discreet, cryptic M.

After this lengthy digression, I can finally reproduce in full the inscription I read this morning on my great-uncle's tomb in the Havana cemetery:


From Origins . Copyright 2004 by Editions Grasset & Fasquelle. Translation copyright 2008 by Catherine Temerson. Published 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

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