Kamila Shamsie is enchanted by Tariq Ali’s A Sultan in Palermo, a vivid, relevant and necessary tale of Islamic history
In A Sultan in Palermo, the fourth novel in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet, the 12th-century geographer al-Idrisi thinks back on his first encounter with the works of the Greek al-Homa (Homer). Al-Idrisi had been told by his father of the 12 calligraphers who transcribed Arabic translations of al-Homa’s poetry, working under conditions of such secrecy that if they were even to reveal the nature of their work, “the executioner’s scimitar, in a lightning flash, would detach head from body”. But one of the calligraphers, undaunted, copied out parts of both al-Homa’s poems and sent them to his family in Damascus, along with the information that the complete manuscripts were in secret compartments in the library of Palermo. Generations later, al-Idrisi finds himself in the library at Palermo and, of course, discovers the secret compartment.
This story echoes a tale from Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, the first novel of the quintet, which tells of the soldiers in Granada who are ordered by the archbishop to take all the manuscripts from the library and burn them, so that Moorish culture itself may be incinerated. Some of the soldiers deliberately drop manuscripts on the street, where they are gathered up by the Moors and carried to safety. read more