Tuesday, 12 August 2008
Book review: The Book of Saladin by Tariq Ali
In the Book of Saladin, Tariq Ali goes back a few centuries from his first book, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. This second novel in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet is set in the 12th Century and is narrated by Ibn Yakub, a Jewish scribe retained by Saladin to pen his memoirs.
As the name suggests, the Book of Saladin revolves around Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty and the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. As most people know, Saladin’s biggest achievement was the recapture of Jerusalem from the Crusaders and its defense against subsequent invasions. Tariq Ali has done an excellent job in portraying Saladin’s character. Saladin is not your average, run-of-the-mill brave King who dashes off into danger without a second thought. Instead, Saladin is shown as a schemer and a planner who has only one objective in mind – the re-capture of Jerusalem from the crusaders. A Kurd from the mountains, Saladin lives by the Kurd’s code of honour. He will do anything to honour his word. A simple man, he leads a non-ostentatious life, eats simple food and gives away most of his wealth to charity. He leads by example, albeit in a calculated manner. He avoids giving battle unless the conditions favour him. He is cruel only when necessary and treats his defeated adversaries generously.
Ali does not gloss over Saladin’s weaknesses. Saladin can be indecisive at times, taking his caution to an extreme. Many a time, especially towards the end of his life, Ali shows how Saladin failed to seize the moment.
At the beginning of the novel, Ali uses Halima’s story to tell us the sort of man Saladin is. Halima is a beautiful women sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. Saladin manages to save her from the jaws of death, but uses her for his own ulterior needs. I’ll leave it to you to read the book and find out what exactly Saladin does with Halima.
Unlike in the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree where Ali mentions only the Arabic versions of place names, in this book Ali uses English names, slipping in the Arabic version (such as Al-Kuds for Jerusalem) occasionally. I do think that Ali ought to have followed the practice of using Arabic names as he did in his first book, for they helped create an ambience which is lacking in the second novel from his Islam Quintet.
In addition to portraying Saladin’s character, Ali gives his readers a feel of the sort of society that prevailed in the Damascus and Cairo of those days. Not only are the ruling elite and the nobility shown to be extremely promiscuous, the multitudes are also shown as having a very relaxed attitude towards prostitution and homosexuality. Ali’s female characters are strong-willed, just as in the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. As I had mentioned in my review of the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, I do wish Ali has given some indication of the sources from which he has obtained his back-ground information.
A few things in this book, I didn’t like at all. Saladin is a Kurd and Ali depicts how tough it was for an ‘outsider’ to climb the sleazy ladder of power in an overwhelmingly Arab world. However, Ali refers to the Kurdish language as the ‘Kurdish dialect,’ implying that Kurdish is a dialect of Arabic. This I find to be totally unacceptable. Kurdish is a language in its own right and not a dialect. It is a part of the Iranian family of languages, while Arabic is a Semitic language. A historian of Ali’s calibre should not, nay, cannot make a mistake of this nature.
Even though this novel is very much non-Euro-centric and looks at the re-conquest of Jerusalem solely from Saladin’s point of view, Saladin does introduce to his readers, two crusaders, namely Raymond of Tripoli and Reynald of Châtillon. According to Ali, the former is the good guy, whilst the latter is pure evil. In order to emphasise how evil Reynald is, Ali says that Reynald ‘led a raid on Mecca and desecrated our Holy Shrine. His horses defecated in the Mosque.’ Raymond and Reynald are both historic figures. It is widely accepted that Reynald was quite evil (though quite successful in many of his endeavours) and that he did launch ships on the Red sea that sought to threaten Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holy cities, a sort of tit-for-tat response to Saladin’s attempt to retake Jerusalem. However, to make the case that Reynald desecrated the Mosque in Mecca is taking fiction too far. There are no records of Mecca ever having been desecrated by any crusader, let alone by Reynald. If such an event had happened, I’m sure it would be talked about and never forgotten. In fact, the narrator of the tale, Ibn Yakub himself doesn’t know about this desecration until he enquires why Saladin hates Reynald so much and finds out.
Tariq Ali does something very similar in order to show Saladin’s high regard for Raymond, the good guy. On his way to Jerusalem, Saladin captures various coastal towns held by the crusaders. However, at Tyre, Saladin hesitates and he eventually by-passes it. When his emirs press him, Saladins tells them that the cost to human life would be too high to be worth it. Ibn Yakub tells us the real reason for Saladin’s behaviour - that Raymond is holed up in the castle at Tyre and, if there’s a fight Saladin will have to kill Raymond (whose sense of honour will not let him surrender). If Ali wanted to show Saladin as a man who put friendships above his mission to capture Jerusalem, he does succeed. However, this story doesn’t ring true and it is an accepted fact that Saladin, wily man that he was, preserved Raymond’s life in order to encourage in-fighting among the crusaders.
Tariq Ali’s depiction of battles in this novel is not very good. Even after making allowances for the fact that the narrator is a scribe who is not present at the battle scene, I was disappointed at the way the actual battles are described. In a book of over 360 pages, just a small chapter is devoted to the battle of Hattin in which Saladin destroyed the crusaders as a prelude to taking Jerusalem. The siege of Jerusalem and its capture gets done in a few pages. I do wish Ali had taken a page from Andrew Wheatcroft’s book Infidels which describes battles between crusaders and Muslim armies in an exemplary fashion.
A lot has been written about the mutual admiration and appreciation that supposedly developed between Saladin and Richard the Lion-hearted who never met. Ali however does not take the beaten path. Saladin is shown to view Richard with contempt.
As a final comment, I ought to mention that Tariq Ali has devoted some space (in the initial part of the book) to the destruction of the Fatimid Empire by Saladin as he consolidated his power in Egypt. The Fatimid Empire was in its final stages of decay when Saladin finished them off. The most important aspect of the Fatimid dynasty is that it was Shi’ite. Saladin hated the Fatimids for splitting up the Caliphate (and thus contributing towards disunity amongst the Ummah). He is also shown as viewing the Fatimids as heretic Shi’ites. This portrayal of Saladin’s approach to the Fatimids is not exactly in keeping with Saladin’s character as shown in the rest of the book, where he is (very rightly) shown as an extremely tolerant ruler for his time. At the height of their glory (much before Saladin’s time), Cairo under the Fatimids was a centre of learning and culture. The Fatimids were very tolerant of other faiths, including that of the Sunnis. But alas, Tariq Ali’s description of the Fatimids does not show them in a positive light. After Saladin extinguished the Fatimid Empire, Shi’ites never held any real power in the Arab world (other than in Syria where the Shi’ite Alawi sect is in power) until very recently when George Bush’s largesse has allowed them to acquire power in Iraq.