Sicily, Spain, Istanbul, Jerusalem. For over a quarter-century, Tariq Ali has been transporting readers to Muslim lands through the historical novels of his Islam Quintet. In them, the staunchly leftist British-Pakistani filmmaker and historian marries tales of art, political intrigue, and sensuality with his particular blend of invective, highbrow intellectualism and bawdy humor.
Though Ali’s writing is always a commentary upon the present day, the Quintet’s previous four novels are set in a different historical era when the bright lights of cosmopolitan and intellectually curious Islamic civilizations still shone but had begun to fade. In each, the fortunes of the West are inextricably bound to those of the waning East, a narrative theme commenting upon the preposterousness of an inherent rift between civilizations.
Ali’s fifth and final book in the series, Night of the Golden Butterfly, is a departure from the others. Not only is it set in the present, but it differs radically from the others in structure, genre and tone. While the strong opinions and authorial voice that characterize Ali’s work still thunder across the page, this novel is marked by a deep sense of nostalgia, like that of a man looking back on the halcyon days of his youth:
“Was it old friends I was mourning or an old city,” Ali writes, “an old world that had since changed so much and for the worse, a world in which expectations for a better future were always high and in which the ultra-Wahhabi beard, gangster politics and cancerous corruption had yet to appear and drown all hope.” read more