This footage is from an event Tariq Ali participated in at Cornell in September 2010 on the subject of his acclaimed Islam Quintet.
Tariq Ali has always spoken his mind without the fear that it might raise a storm …
For nearly half a century Tariq Ali has stood a towering figure on the Left who has rallied against the corruption that power breeds. “I am used to being attacked in the Western media,” the writer tells Weekend Review. “It used to happen non-stop and still does occasionally. But I am never really bothered. My advice to others, especially young writers starting to write, is: Never write to please. If you write to please those in power or those who determine literary prizes, it’s not good for creativity or literature. Write what you really feel like, whatever it is, but never write to a pattern. And I have never done that. I write what I want to write. I don’t care if people like it. If they don’t like it, it doesn’t bother me.”
There is an unmistakable aura of defiance surrounding the 66-year-old man sitting next to me at a table covered in a clutter of newspapers and letters, at his home in Highgate, London.
Born in Pakistan in 1943, Ali was still a youngster when he began to show signs of his rebellious nature. One incident in particular should have raised alarm bells about things to come. It happened in 1957, when a black man by the name of Jimmy Wilson was sentenced to death in the US for stealing what amounted to about a dollar. When on the other end of the globe in Pakistan a young Ali came across news of what had happened, he managed to work himself into such a rage he got about 20-30 of his school friends to agree to take a protest letter to the US Consulate in Lahore. read more
It was the late Edward Said who, after reading Tariq Ali’s 1992 historical novel of the fall of Muslim Spain, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, prodded his friend to expand the scope of the project into a panoramic series on Islamic civilizations. With the publication of Night of the Golden Butterfly, Ali has satisfyingly and entertainingly concluded his Islam Quintet, a brilliant project unearthing the intellectual, sexual, artistic, and political histories heretofore kept out of mainstream conversation by both conservative Islamists and their former allies, and current enemies, in the West.
Unlike the historical fiction that constitutes the rest of the quintet, Night of the Golden Butterfly is a (mostly) contemporary tale. It’s a testament to Ali’s skills as a storyteller that a novel replete with such up-to-the-second concerns as iPods and disillusionment with Barack Obama fits so well into the sweep of a series that has otherwise featured medieval map-making and Saladin’s liberation of Jerusalem. While the new book fits nicely into the firmament of the Quintet, it can also be read as a stand-alone work.
The protagonist, Dara, shares much of Ali’s biography: he is a well-connected, London-based writer, a Punjabi atheist and left-wing critic from a privileged family in post-Partition Pakistan. When we meet him, he is an author in his 60s, and has been contacted by an old friend from his student days in Pakistan—a wildly intelligent, bawdy, anticlerical painter named Plato. Plato has a favour to call in, and wants his life story written by Dara; the project reunites their old circle of friends, long since broken up by the vicissitudes of history, politics, and immigration. read more
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.
Night of the Golden Butterfly reviewed by Razeshta Sethna for the Herald (Karachi), July 6, 2010
In his latest novel, Tariq Ali traces the relationship between Islam and the West through tumultuous times. The story in Night of the Golden Butterfly begins in present-day “Fatherland”—an unmistakable reference to Pakistan—and travels through China and Europe.
The central theme of the novel, which is Ali’s latest offering as part of his Islam Quintet, revolves around four friends: Dara, Zahid, Plato and Confucius. With a shared passion for poetry, they are comrades in Lahore in the 1960s. Forty years later they are brought together when Plato gets Dara—possibly named after Dara Shikoh, the Mughal-prince-turned-sufi-poet—to write his biography.
A renowned painter but deeply scarred, the reclusive Plato acts as the catalyst in the novel: he sets the pace of events and brings about forced reconciliations in relationships turned sour and awry.
Research for his story brings to the surface the “four cancers of Fatherland”: America, the military, the mullahs and the corruption of politicians. This brazenly political theme continues until the gripping end of the book, which reads almost like a scene from a short documentary film. It narrates how the characters congregate in Lahore to view Plato’s last great triptych, at the centre of which he has depicted “the first dark-skinned leader of the Great Society” with stars and stripes “in a state of cancerous decay” tattooed on his back.
That Ali is an open critic of Barack Obama’s politics is already well known. “The newest imperial chieftain was wearing a button: ‘Yes we can … still destroy countries’”, is how he described Obama’s assumption of power. But in the novel he has gone a step further and poured scorn on American society through the triptych.
Besides such political overtones, the novel explores the place of women in Fatherland. The women we encounter in the book—from Jindie to her ultra-religious daughter, Neelam, married to a general murdered by his compatriots, and
‘Naughty’ Lateef, the wife of another general and hailed as the “Diderot of the Islamic world”—all share a singular quality: resilience in the face of adversity. Without such resilience, life for women in Fatherland would be unbearable.
‘Naughty’, the housewife encouraged by her husband to sleep with powerful men, is “masquerading as a wronged Muslim woman”. She pays a price for her success but earns a fortune on her way to perdition. Zaynap, who Plato is in love with, is married to the Quran in accordance with her family’s feudal tradition. But despite this, when we meet her in the novel she is a vivacious woman in her fifties who is surprisingly politically aware: she doesn’t want to “fan the flames of prejudice” by speaking about her plight in the West. And then there is Jindie. Of Chinese origin and brought up in Lahore, she is historically connected to a mighty rebellion of the Huis in the nineteenth century.
Among the male characters, Dara has the attributes of a clever storyteller. He comments unrelentingly on ‘honour killing’, gender discrimination, corruption and betrayal but, as Ali explains, not for the same reasons the western world does.
Whether Ali is writing about the Muslim rebellion in Yunnan, the current war in Swat or the murder of a disobedient general, politics is deeply embedded in every page of the book. “Fiction, thinly disguised as fact”, is what the writer successfully attempts, often in acerbic language meshed with dark humour, but not at the cost of exuberant and mischievously entertaining characters.
Ali pays perfect attention to detail, reminding the reader of the merits of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Whether describing the bonds of friendship, the sights and sounds of Lahore or the state of Fatherland in the throes of a military dictatorship, the writer’s grip on detail never slackens.
Read Razeshta Sethna’s interview with Tariq Ali here