10 February, 2009

Tariq Ali

I LOVE Tariq Ali. He is one of the people on my new list of people to write to and tell them how great they are before they die and I regret not telling them. (Susan Sontag, Stephen Jay Gould and Linda Smith all died before I could do this, hence this project).

Tariq Ali was on Private Passions the other week which inspired me to read his autobiography Streetfighting years. It's good fun and much less self-regarding than a lot of autobiographers, especially considering some of the amazing things he's done (including being mistakenly arrested in Bolivia when someone took him for one of Che Guevara's companions). It's also very funny in places. I like that Tariq Ali takes some things very seriously but seems to having a pleasing disregard for the way he is portrayed in the press.

The other thing I really loved about this was the introduction, which is a long discursive essay about the changes to the political climate since the sixties, interspersed with beautiful, loving tributes to Derek Jarman, Paul Foot, and Edward Said. I thought it was a wonderful summary of the way the sixties movements in politics and culture have influenced so much since then. [9]

Anyway, that sent me on to one of Tariq Ali's novels, Shadows of the pomegranate tree which is set in Moorish Spain during the Inquisition, when the Arabs in Spains were being persecuted by Catholic fanatics. It's a lovely book - I love all the detail about the cooking and the habits of the Arab characters (the bathing and sleeping arrangements - even recipes!) and draws such an alluring, beautiful picture of life in Moorish Spain. It also works much better as a novel, I thought, than the only other novel of Ali's I've read*. The story is about a family living near Granada who have been there for generations, and now have to choose between conversion to Catholicism or exile from their homeland. It goes into the family history

It's impossible not to draw comparisons between the Arabs in Spain and the pre-1948 Palestinians - both groups pinning their hopes on assurances of fair play from the ruling governments, but in the end having to make the decision between conforming to the ideologies of others, or retreating to another part of the Arab world, where they will share a religion, but not really a way of life. This is particularly poignant when it comes to the story of the eldest son of the family, who decides that he must resist along with a small group of his friends. They are all killed.

The last thing I liked about this was that it was an interesting look at a bit of Islamic history I don't really know much about (well, I don't know anything about Islamic history, but you know what I mean). You hear about other bits of Islam, and it was interesting to read about the way Spanish Muslims lived alongside Catholics, and the way Islam was interpreted in a fairly laid back sort of way, in sharp contrast to the Inquisitorial side of Catholicism. [10]

* Fear of mirrors, which I really enjoyed, but which hangs together quite clunkily as a novel. I like all the detail about left-wing politics throughout the twentieth century, and the cameo appearances by people like Kim Philby, and the message of the book is wonderful.

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