Tariq Ali—Jottings on the Islam Quintet

Lahore: Fifties

When I was growing up in Lahore the last thing that interested me was the history of Islam. No. That was for dullards, for wooden headed patriots, for boys in the grip of religious parents or mullahs. One of my young uncles had begun to sport a beard. He sought refuge in religion to atone for some sin he had committed. Imagined or real? I didn’t care.  He would arrive at our house. My parents who found him a complete bore would disappear to play tennis. I had to walk with him in the garden for long hours or so it seemed at the time. With a glow in his eyes, he used to tell tales of early Islam and the greatness of the first Caliphs. Not a word about the assassinations and why they happened or the feisty character of Muhammed’s youngest wife, Aisha who, according to tradition, was the only one who occasionally mocked him. That came later. My uncle made the history sound so boring (like Christian tales of the saints) that I used to switch off completely and think of more pleasurable things. I blame him for causing me to lose all interest in the origins of the culture in which I was  living. My parents were communists and our house was filled with poets and artists and peasant leaders, trade-unions, literary critics. Who needed religion?

Oxford/London: Sixties and Seventies

Revolution was in the air. We Shall Fight, We Shall Win: Paris, London, Rome, Berlin. The victories came in Asaia:  Vietnam and Pakistan. The Americans defeated. Their ignominious withdrawal: the joyous sight of US helicopters talking their people away. What bliss to be alive.  Radical students in Pakistan fought against the military rulers. They chanted socialist and anti-religious fundamentalist slogans. They are joined by workers and lawyers, magistrates and shopkeepers,  doctors and prostitutes! They confront the military for three whole months. They lose their fear of death. The military dictatorship totters and falls. I’m still not thinking of the history of Islam or Christianity. Very few people are…

1990-92: The First Gulf War

I’m watching television when a Professor who was once on the left appears as a defender of the war and demands that Saddam Hussein be removed, etc. When asked about the politics in the region, he replies ‘Islam is bereft of a political culture.’ I fling a book at the TV screen and curse this renegade sonofabitch. I will reply to him.  I begin to ask myself questions about the rise and decline of Islamic civilization. I read Albert Hourani, I re-read Maxime Rodinson. I’m lost now in the histories of Islam in Europe.  Histories of all kinds: scholarly, popular, fiction. I will go to Spain , talk to people, see the sights and write a long essay on what happened here and why. I travel and not just to Andalusia and I smell the earth and watch the sunset and visit the remnants if the Grand Mosque in Cordoba and note the Arab words in the Spanish language and place names and so much else. What was it like then, what happened in the last days of that civilization. I’m  possessed by an urge to imagine this past and write a novel. Years later in Lahore I’m looking through old letters I wrote home from Oxford sand come across one to my mother in 1967: ‘I will write a novel, but now. Too much else to do. Perhaps later, but I will…’  I had completely forgotten that letter and the thought of writing fiction.

When ‘Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree’ is published the reception is positive, especially in Spain (which pleases me enormously) and a commercial success in Germany (which pleases my bank manager enormously).  But there was a hiccup, too, in Germany. In those days publishers sent an advance copy to bookshop managers who, in many cases, actually read the book before deciding on how many copies to order.  One of them, from Stuttgart, excitedly rang the publishers. He liked the book but there was a historical error that needed to be corrected. In one of the recipes I had used ‘potatoes’. But these did not exist in Europe at the time!  Panic. I was rung up. My advice was not to worry too much, but in the next edition to change potatoes to root vegetable. The problem was solved.

1993: Fragments of a conversation in New York.

Edward Said and I  are lunching at an Italian place he patronises, not far from Central Park. He’s impeccably dressed… as always. I think dandyism was his religion.

‘Do you never wear a suit?’

‘Very rarely and never with a tie.’

‘Why? I can’t understand.’

I shrug my shoulders.

‘By the way, I liked the novel very much.’

‘I’m pleased. Anyway it’s over. I can return to other things.’

‘Really? Why.’

‘What else is there to say?’

‘Don’t stop now. Tell the whole bloody story.’

He means the story of the clashes between Western Christendom and Islamic Civilization. I groan. He insists it must be done. I think and think and slowly the idea of the Quintet emerges. Why not?

2000: Istanbul Book Fair

Arrive in this wonderful city that I love because of its history and its location and its mix of architecture and people and the wonderful fish restaraunts on the Bosphorus and the hot Kurdish kebabs and its beautiful women (more beautiful than in Izmir)… I have many friends here. The ‘Book of Saladin’ has been published and I’m here again to present it at the Book Fair. I’m accosted by a nervous publisher. ‘Many Islamist intellectuals will be present. Some might ask you very critical or even hostile questions. Please be tactful.’  How could I not be? Isn’t it in my character to be permanently diplomatic and tactful and please all? He looks at me nervously.  After I read from the novel, the questioners question. A young man of medium height, delicate features and a smart beard asks:

‘In this novel you write of women having love affairs with other women. This is not permitted in Islam and it never happened. So why did you write about it?’

‘ As far as I know Islam, like the Old Testament, punishes male homosexuality. The female equivalents is not mentioned. In any case I can make up whatever I want in a novel.’

‘But’, he persists, ‘this is a historical novel and you write of two of Saladin’s wives making love to each other. This is wrong.’

‘Listen’, I reply, ‘ Let us suppose you had four wives and fifty concubines and dozens of children. Tell me honestly, do you think you would be able to satisfy the emotional and physical needs of all the women in your haram?’

At this point the women in the audience burst out laughing and the discussion moved to less controversial aspects of the book. Given what else is in there, I felt I had got off lightly.

A month later I came back to the city without telling a soul and walked everywhere on my own, breathing the air, inspecting the palaces and some of the old villas on the Bosphoros. I actually hired a boat to cross the Bosphorus, but in reality just to see if a couple could make love comfortably in such a boat. They could on cushions. Having ascertained that there was no need to go the whole way. That night I began to make notes on The Stone Woman, which is set in that region. The Economist critic hated the book and one of his reasons was that since Muslims didn’t worship idols, my conceit of making the characters talk to a stone woman was arrant nonsense. A few weeks later I got a letter from Senada Kreso, my wonderful Bosnian translator: ‘It is a great pity you didn’t set it in Bosnia. Here we have a long tradition of talking to stones and still do in some areas.’  A stone woman as a silent therapist. That was the whole idea.

2001-2003:

9/11/ Bush goes to war. First Afghanistan, then Iraq. I blame him for the long interruption. Like a politician’s wife, the poor Quintet was seriously neglected as I concentrate on political essays combating the Euro-American mainstream view of the Arab world and its discontents.

2004:

Letter from an Italian friend: ‘…Am reading your novels which come as a surprise. Why have you ignored Sicily. I assume the next novel will be set there.’  She assumed wrong, but it was a good idea. A huge problem existed. There is hardly anything published on the Maghrebian Arab rule in Sicily. I go to the island. Unlike Spain there is not much to see except fragments. The earthquakes have destroyed the Arab Noto. It was rebuilt as a baroque city. In Palermo there are a few signs, but not many, but I see Arab faces all over the island. In a Palermo bookshop I find a six-volume history of Arab rule by Michele Amari.  Some of it I read with a dictionary. But afe months later allah sends help in the shape of an Egyptian scholar. We meet at a conference and she knows Italian very well and is, in fact, helping the Egyptian  Ministry of Culture to translate Amari into Arabic for the first time. ‘What do you need?, she asks. ‘Food, clothes, streets, music’, is my response. I give her the volumes as a gift and she send me translated excerpts. Thank you. When the Italian edition of a Sultan in Palermo is published I’m strangely moved by its warm reception in Sicily. People come and say ‘Thank you.’ Signing copies in a Palermo book store I l;ook up to see a beautiful young couple. She could be a Damascene. He looks like a Norman warrior: tall, blond, blue-eyed. Unable to resist I ask. She smiles. ‘My family is Arab. They came here hundreds of years ago.’ And him?  He laughs. ‘I am of barbarian Norman stock.’

2008:  Poor Fatherland

How to end the Quintet? Had to be modern, had to be now. Had to be Fatherland. So many mails and letters and complaints over the last two decades.. Why don’t you ever write about your own city. I do, I do, but not in fiction. I’ve written three books on the bloody country.  Fatherland’s history is more original than the best fiction. What to do? Slowly it takes shape. But other histories carry on knocking on the door and a Chinese Muslim rebellion in Yunnan distracts me for a while. I could do a novel on this amazing event alone, but intimations of mortality determine the structure of Night of the Golden Butterfly. Fatherland and China are close. My novel will reflect this in different ways. And ghosts long vanished come back to life as I write. ‘Why did you kill Naughty Lateef’, a reader asks. ‘She was the best thing in the book.’ Did I kill her or was it Fatherland?