Friday, 8 August 2008

Book review: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali is a very well known left-wing historian of Pakistani origin based in the UK. The first four books of Ali’s Islam Quintet tell the story of how Islamic Empires rose and fell in a non-Eurocentric manner. All the books are unrelated and can be read independently from the others. The fifth book, to be set in the modern world, is yet to be released.

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree is set in Granada after the Re-Conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella. The Moors are defeated but not out. When Granada surrendered without a fight, the last Moorish bastion to fall to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Moors living there were promised the freedom to practice Islam, speak in Arabic and live as they had always done for generations. Archbishop Talavera who is responsible for Granada is a tolerant man who releases an Arabic-Latin dictionary and tries to win over the Muslims by the force of his argument. Yes, the Catholic Church does desire the conversion of all Muslims even then, but it is to be done in a peaceful manner. Talavera does not make much headway. And so, a few years after the re-conquest, Talavera is replaced by Archbishop Ximenes de Cisernos, a fanatic if ever there was one.

The book opens with a heart-rending scene in which Ximenes orders the burning off all books in Granada in order to destroy Moorish culture. The Moorish populace is shocked and sickened, but helpless. The books contain advances in medicine, science and astronomy that European Christians have no clue about. A few hundred medical books are kept aside by Ximenes who is aware of what he is doing. Individual acts by Christian soldiers save a few more books. But most books are burnt.

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree revolves around the Hudayl clan, migrants from Damascus, who have lived in a village on the outskirts of Granada for many generations. The Hudayl’s are portrayed as good, fun-loving people, with all the vices that ruling aristocracies normally possess. They drink, womanise and philosophise – not necessarily in that order. The only problem here is that the Moors are no longer in power. Also, the Inquisition is in full-swing in Granada. Ximenes uses every trick in the book to convert Muslims and Jews to Christianity. Many Jews convert, as do a few Muslims. However, Ximenes does not trust the converts. He knows that many have converted to save their lands. Such converts are persecuted by the Inquisition.

The Hudayls and other Moorish nobles are aware that their time is up. There is vain talk of an insurrection, but the Moors have gone soft and they are incapable of martyrdom. In all probability, this is an accurate description of all empires in their twilight. The Romans and the Mughals are unlikely to have been much different in their respective periods of decline. They make various plans, including a plan to assassinate Ximenes, but one does not see any action. However, towards the end, Ximenes puts them in a situation where they have no choice but to revolt. The revolt is doomed from the start, individual acts of bravery notwithstanding. As the history books tell us, the surviving Moors leave Granada for various places in northern Africa.

There are so many things about this book that I liked. Te begin with, Tariq Ali’s non-Eurocentric approach means that the focus of the story is very much on the Moors and not on the Europeans. Ali uses Moorish names throughout. Therefore, Granada is Gharnata, Cordoba is Qurtuba, Spain is Al-Andalus, Seville is Ishbiliya and the like. The names give the reader a feeling of authenticity. Ali is a historian and story-teller par excellence, of a calibre not much inferior to William Dalrymple. In fact, sections of this novel showing how Moors, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony until Ximenes arrived in Granada reminded me of the White Mughals, whilst the bits about the decline of the Moors have a lot in common with the Last Mughal.

There is one aspect of the book that disappointed me. Ali’s description of Moorish knights invariably shows them with red beards and blue eyes. It is well-known that the Moors in Spain were a mix of Berbers and Arabs who came in replenishing waves from Africa. For example, the Almoravids came to Spain in 1086 and they ruled an empire which extended well into sub-Saharan Africa. They were followed by the Almohades who arrived in Spain after conquering Libya. That being a case, it would have helped to have a few characters with swarthy features. I was actually looking forward to a few descriptions which showed a world where white skin was not a sign of superiority, a world where people of colour mingled on equal terms with those of fair skin. Unfortunately, this I did not find. In fact, there’s a scene where the characters say (this is not necessarily Ali’s view) that whilst Jews look different from the others, Moors and Christians look the same. True, there were Moriscos - Moors who had converted to Christianity and Marranos - Jews who had converted to Christianity, who must have been identical to the Moors and the Jews. And there were many Muwallads, native Christians who had converted to Islam. But to project a picture of a homogenous looking population is suspicious to say the least.

While reading this book and afterwards, the main question that struck me was, is this book an accurate depiction of Moorish Spain? Not only are the men highly educated creatures of pleasure, the women are not much far behind. For example, one of the daughters of the Hudayl clan is shown to be having sex with her betrothed a day before her wedding with the semi-approval of her parents. Later when the Moors revolt, the women fight alongside the men, and they fight to the death. Did the Moors of Spain subscribe to values that would be called ‘modern’ even in today’s world? This is something I am not in a position to pass judgement on. However, I do wish that Tariq Ali had inserted a few citations of authority or directed his readers to his sources of information.

Also, in the various references which the Moorish nobles allude to their past history, the picture painted is a mainly rosy one. There is no mention of the persecution of Christians or Jews, though Wikipedia tells me otherwise. It is an accepted fact that Jews were treated better in Muslim Spain than in the rest of Europe, but that doesn’t mean they were not persecuted. For example, in 1066, a Muslim mob slaughtered over 1,500 Jews in a single day, an event referred to as the Granada massacre. Islamic rules on blasphemy meant that the Christian faith could not be practiced freely most of the time. In the mid-10th century the great Al-Mansur started to lead expeditions into Christian territory. In 997 the Moorish army captured Santiago de Compostela. They destroyed the shrine and prisoners took the basilica doors and bells to Cordoba where they would be placed in the Mezquita. When the Christians re-captured Cordoba in 1236, they re-consecrated the mosque as the cathedral of Cordoba. Captured Muslims were made to carry the bells, stolen by Al-Mansur two centuries earlier, back to the cathedral in Santiago.

There are a few instances where the characters in this story talk of Moors fighting each other, but these references do not project a clear 3-D image. From what I know, infighting amongst Moors was rampant. For example, the ruler of Granada co-operated with Ferdinand in his capture of Moorish Seville in exchange for Granada’s independence.

But hey! This is a work of fiction, and fiction is something to be enjoyed without too many questions being asked, isn’t it?

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