Tariq Ali interviewed by Razeshta Sethna for the Herald (Karachi), July 6, 2010
Tariq Ali has taken many chances in his work and life as a writer-activist. His teens in Lahore were full of unrelenting opposition to Pakistan’s first military dictator and he was involved in political demonstrations and anti-war protests of the sixties. Even as the years go by, he does not sit still. His calling as a writer and his passion for activism keep him close to the centre of political and literary activities.
Ali has travelled all over the globe, from Cordoba to Istanbul, from Cuba to Vietnam and lately to Yemen to check out al-Qaeda’s presence there. He knew Che Guevara as well as he does Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez and he has exchanged notes with academic heavyweights such as the late Edward Said and Noam Chomsky.
After having written more than two dozen books on world politics and history, Ali has not lost the urge to critique neo-liberal economic policies, American interventionism and other pressing socio-political concerns. To top it all, he has to his credit seven novels and numerous scripts for screen and stage.
Earlier this year, he was awarded the Granadillo 2010 by the Cultural Festival of Granada for his Islam Quintet, that took more than 20 years to write. Mick Jagger aptly wrote “Street Fighting Man” for him and Ali later responded to this gesture by calling his autobiography Street Fighting Years.
He is associated with the New Left Review, a neo-Marxist journal published in London, and is presently writing a short, scathing book on the American President Barack Obama. Constantly on the move, giving lectures—despite having declared that he hates the grueling lecture circuit—Ali has a home in North London with his partner of 35 years, Susan Watkins, and their two children.
The following are excerpts from a conversation Ali had with the Herald on his latest novel and how his inspirations mould his work.
Q. I’m curious, when did your fiction writing begin and how was the Islam Quintet conceived?
A. Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (the first novel in the Quintet) began in Granada. It was 1991, after the first Gulf War. An ignorant remark on BBC television enraged me. [It was] something like “the Arabs are a people without a political culture…” And that was why I started thinking of the history of Islam in Europe. Initially, I wanted to write an essay and I travelled to Spain to excavate the history of the Arab presence in Europe.
There I saw the Great Mosque in Cordoba, went to Granada and travelled round Seville. Looking at the architecture I was astonished by the monuments and how the Spanish language was derived from the Arabic [language]. When I wrote the first novel of the Quintet, the late Edward Said said: “you can’t stop now. Tell the whole bloody story.” He meant the whole story of the clash between Western Christendom and Islamic Arab civilisation. So I did and the process took 20 years. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan kept interrupting, taking me back to non-fiction.
Q. As a writer how do you structure your thought process?
A. The act of writing a novel is a solitary activity. I disappear to a writers’ retreat or a tiny hotel by the sea. I read and make notes for a year and let the novel mature in my head. To write fiction, I have to completely cut myself off from everyday life which is not easy. I finished the last three quarters of Night of the Golden Butterfly in Sardinia.
Q. In your new novel Night of the Golden Butterfly you return to and reminisce about Fatherland, especially Lahore in 1960s, with the central narrative focused on four friends—Dara, Zahid, Plato and Confucius. Can we say Dara is Tariq Ali, the political writer?
A. My own cultural and political formation took place in Lahore where I was born and raised. So the life of that city is dear to me. I knew that the fifth novel in the series would be set in modern times and Fatherland is a place I know very well. Obviously, some of my attributes can be found in the narrator, Dara, but it is fiction after all and most [of it] is imagined and created.
Q. But it appears that you deliberately want Dara’s account to be a reminder of how social and sexual politics have evolved in Pakistan. Wouldn’t you say some characters in the novel are based on friends you knew or have?
A. Yes, part of this novel is based on the friendships I had and the early memories of Lahore but most of it is created and developed as I wrote. When you write fiction about a particular place and time you know well, some people will recognise a bit of themselves [in it]. You draw on experience. The closest to real life in the novel is the postmaster in Nathiagali, but he is dead.
Q. Naughty Lateef, a brilliantly constructed character, is almost like an overwhelming Punjabi actress, all about kiss-and-tell when she escapes from Fatherland. I wonder why she appears so late in the narrative because her story is a stark reminder of gender exploitation and you aptly link her story to Pakistan’s establishment in many ways. How did you conceive this character?
A. Naughty is my favourite character too. I think her appearance [in the novel] is all about good timing when writing. It was totally deliberate to bring her in later in the novel. That is also the way I construct my narrative. Fiction should be about springing surprises as the reader proceeds. Naughty Lateef was not in my head at all but in the midst of writing she sprung out of nowhere and I had a good laugh at myself at that point. I was tempted to put her at the start but I let her remain a minor character.