Amin Maalouf - Leo the African

I just finished reading this seminal work by the great Amin Maalouf, who is a fellow Lebanese. See before reading this book and researching into the other books that the man has written, I used to think that one of the greatest things to come out of Lebanon of Gibran Khalil Gibran (he of ‘The Prophet‘ fame). I’ve read ‘The Prophet’, and honestly I wasn’t all that enamored. I remember clearly the first time I heard talked in depth about ‘The Prophet’ was in the most unlikely places with the most unlikely person. That’s a story for another time. After completing Leo the African, I can easily say that Amin Maalouf is the heir apparent for the best literary voice to have come out of that tiny little country.

One of the most important things that elevates a writer to becoming truely exceptional in his readers eyes, at least this is how I see it, is educating the reader. Not trying to show the reader how many longer words he knows, but showing him the depth of knowledge he pocesses in a way that doesn’t insult the reader. The obvious outcome is that the reader comes away actually having gained something more than simple entertainment.

Amin Maloouf writes historical fiction. However this isn’t the history I learnt at school. I would have killed to have these books when I was in school or in University. To study the time period discussed in this book would have been a dream.

Leo the African is written as though it’s the autobiography of Hasan al-Wazzan. This is a true story, with the obvious embellishments by Maalouf. Hasan was born in Granada during the fall of the Muslims from Spain. It tracks his life as he goes from one country to the next, experiencing the wonders and the horrors of the world in front of him. Leo the African is the story of travelling and discovery. It’s a story about religion in the hands of man.

Reading this book you get attached the characters in such a profound way. You feel his pain, and Maalouf uses a trick I only noticed clearly in storytelling terms when I was watching Babylon 5. The most interesting part of a story isn’t what happens, but rather the path or road to get there.

Even though the writer has already told you what the final outcome is, you can’t help but feel like you’re hoping the characters come out of it unscathed. Maalouf uses this technique to great effect during the entire book.

This book was not published in 2005, and even though it’s still relatively early to be thinking about Book of the Year type of thing, Leo the African is the one book I think I’ll remember in years to come as the stand out book I read this year.

I wrote this about ‘After the Empire’ and while both deal about completely different subjects I’m extremely lucky to have read them, and I honestly believe that everyone should at least have them on their shelves, with the full intent of reading them some day. You owe it to yourself.


  1. Duly noted.

    1 Chris
  2. “Iâ��ve read â��The Prophetâ��, and honestly I wasnâ��t all that enamored.”

    What? I have read it thousands of times, and with each repetition, I find more valuable insight into our most profound questions. I have a 1st edition copy (and an english translation) that I brought back with me from Lebanon and I must say it has become one of my most prized posessions.

    I do agree with you on the merits of Maalouf (ma3louf? I never figured out that system) , and I’ll probably take a closer look later today.

    2 Thame
  3. Thame, that’s the thing I had this massive conversation with several people who effectively swear by the book. I met this guy once who never travelled anywhere without actually taking it with him.

    I understand how it’s one of those books that is very personnal to many people, but for some reason I really couldn’t see it. I knew what he was trying to say, just wasn’t all that interested in the way he said it.

    Reading it in arabic didn’t really change my views either. I might need to give it another go some time down the line.

    3 Khaled
  4. That is true, its merits to me fluctuates according to different situations I’m experiencing in my life. Be careful when you approach the book though, it requires a great deal of concentration. Do not let it’s relative simplicity fool you; the language belies it’s true complexity.

    “Reading it in arabic didnâ��t really change my views either.”

    That’s true, I “got” the same in both my original version and my english one.

    4 Thame