Tag Archives: Book Reviews

Tariq Ali reviews Gilbert Achcar’s excellent new book ‘The Arabs and the Holocaust’

Tariq Ali reviews The Arabs and the Holocaust by Gilbert Achcar for the Guardian, June 26, 2010

Tariq Ali applauds an attempt to analyse the Arab-Israeli conflict

“Since the fourth century after Christ,” wrote the late Raul Hillberg in his masterwork, The Destruction of the European Jews, “there have been three anti-Jewish policies: conversion, expulsion, and annihilation. The second appeared as an alternative to the first, and the third emerged as an alternative to the second.” What this suggests is that “Judeo-Christian civilisation” is a relatively new and an essentially ideological construct.

If anything, from the eighth to the 19th centuries, there can be said to have existed an Islamo-Judaic civilisation that spanned the Iberian peninsula, the Arab world proper, Persia and the Ottoman lands. The Christian reconquest of Portugal and Spain led to forced conversions and expulsion of Jews and Muslims. Tens of thousands of Jews were given refuge in Muslim North Africa and the Ottoman empire.

It was not until after the first world war that relations between the communities began to deteriorate seriously. The reason for this was the Balfour declaration (opposed by Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the British cabinet) that offered a homeland in Palestine to the Zionist Federation, without any consultations whatsoever with the people who lived on the land. Hitler and the judeocide of the second world war further cemented the foundations of the settler-state and led to the nakba for the Palestinian Arabs of the region. Hardly surprising that this led to the “war of narratives”.

In a systematic and scholarly refutation of the simplistic myths that have arisen following the formation of Israel, Gilbert Achcar, the Lebanese-French historian, who is currently professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, has provided us with the best book on the subject so far. Achcar has little time for Arab pieties. He makes no bones about the fact that Holocaust denial is not uncommon in the Middle East and that charlatan historians (Roger Garaudy is one of many examples cited in the book) have received a warm welcome from many in power in the Gulf states. He could have added that the late King Ibn Saud of the kingdom that bears his name was in the habit of presenting visiting western leaders with copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There is no recorded instance of any US President or western European leader refusing the gift. read more

‘The Life and Death of Trotsky’

‘The Life and Death of Trotsky’ by Tariq Ali for The Guardian, October 31, 2009

Tariq Ali on Trotsky by Robert Service and Stalin’s Nemesis by Bertrand M Patenaude

For over half a century, Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky, a literary-historical masterpiece in its own right, was regarded as the last word on the subject. Many who were deeply hostile to the Russian revolution and all its leading actors nonetheless acclaimed these books: in 1997, asked to nominate his favourite book for National Book Day, the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair, nominated the trilogy. Twelve years later the culture in this country has become so overwhelmingly conformist that any alternative to capitalism is considered outlandish.

The Service industry has now produced a stodgy volume on Trotsky to add to a collection that includes Lenin and Stalin. Unlike Deutscher, as he tells us, Service is hostile to the revolution and its leaders, but he is irritated by the fact that Trotsky has had such a good press in the west (news to me). He was just the same as the others except that he wrote very well and this appealed to New York intellectuals. The Service view can be summarised in a sentence: Trotsky was a ruthless and cold-blooded murderer and deserves to be exposed as such. read more

Re-reading Anthony Powell: ‘Come dancing’

‘Come dancing’ by Tariq Ali for The Guardian, January 26, 2008

Anthony Powell’s 12-book series A Dance to the Music of Time is often seen as the epitome of the English novel. Tariq Ali finds some surprising European connections

Anthony Powell was the most European of 20th-century British novelists. We need to dispense with the blinkered view that his A Dance to the Music of Time is a novel sequence that can be enjoyed only by English “toffs” or readers of the Daily Telegraph. It’s a prejudice that has dogged Powell for far too long.

What is on offer in the 12 novels that constitute the Dance (published between 1951 and 1975) is not the nuances of class snobbery, but a reflection of the social history of five crucial decades of the last century, beginning with the end of the first world war and ending with the turbulence of the 60s. There is nothing quite like it in English letters. Some years ago I encountered one of our leading literary critics at a party and the following conversation took place:

“What do you think of the Dance?”

“Oh, you’ve read it?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Well, I didn’t like it. You obviously did?”

“I did. Why didn’t you?”

“Closed world.”

A closed world it is not. The sequence contains the most entertaining accounts of bohemian life in London from 1920-58, decades during which Powell not only mingled with that world, but also often enjoyed it more than coming-out parties in Belgravia. One of his jottings in A Writer’s Notebook (published posthumously in 2001) is apposite: “You can’t be a creative artist if you are in any restrictive sense an intellectual snob.” read more

The Saudi Kleptocracy: ‘In Princes’ Pockets’

‘In Princes’ Pockets’ by Tariq Ali for The London Review of Books, July 19, 2007

The day after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, a Saudi woman resident in London, a member of a wealthy family, rang her sister in Riyadh to discuss the crisis affecting the kingdom. Her niece answered the phone.

‘Where’s your mother?’

‘She’s here, dearest aunt, and I’ll get her in a minute, but is that all you have to say to me? No congratulations for yesterday?’

The dearest aunt, out of the country for far too long, was taken aback. She should not have been. The fervour that didn’t dare show itself in public was strong even at the upper levels of Saudi society. US intelligence agencies engaged in routine surveillance were, to their immense surprise, picking up unguarded cellphone talk in which excited Saudi princelings were heard revelling in bin Laden’s latest caper. Like the CIA, they had not thought it possible for him to reach such heights.

Washington had taken its oldest ally in the Arab world for granted. In the weeks that followed 9/11, the Saudi royal family was besieged by a storm of critical comment in the US media and its global subsidiaries. Publishers eager to make a quick dollar hurriedly produced a few bad books with even worse titles—Hatred’s Kingdom, Sleeping with the Devil—that set out to denounce the Saudis. read more

On al-Qaida: ‘The spectacle is all’

‘The spectacle is all’ by Tariq Ali for The Guardian, September 9, 2006

Tariq Ali admires Lawrence Wright’s reconstruction of the lives of the main characters in the 9/11 horror show, The Looming Tower

Forty years ago, in a scathing and prescient manifesto against consumer capitalism and celebrity culture entitled The Society of the Spectacle, the French situationist philosopher Guy Debord described everyday life as “a permanent opium war”. Modern capitalism was an “immense accumulation of spectacles” and what was once “truly lived has become mere representation”.

This is helpful. We can better understand the impact of the sensational counter-spectacle of 9/11, described by its principal inspirer as an “America struck by Almighty Allah in its vital organs”. Vital, of course, only because of their symbolic importance. Might Allah have been reading Debord? The events transformed Osama bin Laden into a global celebrity, a sinister Darth Vader figure who is an object of fascination for friend and enemy alike. Even though al-Qaida itself is clearly in decline, the world is preoccupied by wars and occupations old and new and a new triumvirate of Muslim leaders has emerged (Ahmadinejad in Iran, Nasrallah in Lebanon and Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq), while the global publishing empires continue to produce books that take us back to the events of 9/11. Another example, perhaps, of ways in which the military-ideological-cultural dominance of the United States can provincialise the rest of the world. read more

From the archive

  • ‘Operation Enduring Disaster’

    November 16, 2008

    ‘Operation Enduring Disaster’ by Tariq Ali for TomDispatch, November 16, 2008

    Afghanistan has been almost continuously at war for 30 years, longer than both World Wars and the American war in Vietnam combined. Each occupation of the country has mimicked its predecessor. A tiny interval between wars saw the imposition of a malignant social order, the Taliban, with the help of the Pakistani military and the late Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister who approved the Taliban takeover in Kabul.

    Over the last two years, the U.S./NATO occupation of that country has run into serious military problems. Given a severe global economic crisis and the election of a new American president—a man separated in style, intellect, and temperament from his predecessor–the possibility of a serious discussion about an exit strategy from the Afghan disaster hovers on the horizon. The  …

  • Tariq Ali and Anthony Arnove: ‘The challenge to the empire’

    October 20, 2006

    ‘The challenge to the empire’, an interview with Tariq Ali and Anthony Arnove for Socialist Worker, October 20, 2006

    After Hugo Chávez’s United Nations (UN) speech in September, the U.S. media either denounced him or treated him with derision. Does Chávez deserve to be dismissed as a madman?

    Tariq Ali: In a world deep in neoliberal sleep, any person who tries to disturb this sleep and to wake people up is denounced and traduced. Hugo Chávez, who I have met and talked with on several occasions, is an extremely intelligent and enlightened political leader. In the public arena, he uses a language that is no longer considered acceptable by the proponents of the Washington consensus. The U.S. media has, in the main, been so slavish toward the Bush regime that Chávez appears extreme.

    What he says, in fact, is the  …

  • Tariq Ali—Jottings on the Islam Quintet

    November 16, 2011

    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  …