Saturday, 23 August 2008

Book review: The Stone Woman by Tariq Ali

The Stone Woman is the third book in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet. Set at the turn of the twentieth century as the six hundred year old Ottoman Empire slowly flickers out, the Stone Woman revolves around the family of Iskander Pasha, who live in a remote palace ‘not too distant from Istanbul’. Iskander Pasha is a retired diplomat who had once graced the French court and the salons of Paris and is the descendent of Yusuf Pasha, a courtier at the Ottoman court.

The novel derives its name from an ancient rock in the palace garden, roughly shaped like a veiled woman, probably once worshipped by pagans as a goddess. Ali has each of his main characters make their way to the Stone Woman and pour out their feelings and emotions. In that sense, the Stone Woman is a collection of various personal tales of the various members of the cast. Unlike the first two books in the Islam Quintet, the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree and the Book of Saladin, there is no single strand of storyline that runs from beginning to the end.

The Stone Woman gives its readers a feel of Ottoman society as it existed then. Iskander Pasha’s family cannot be classified as commoners, and just as in the case of the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, aristocrats and their servants form the main cast. Ali tells us of a dying empire where the Sultan and the mullahs or the ‘beards’ are in control and where innovation is frowned upon. Not just the printing press, but even clocks have been banned. The muezzin’s call to prayer is the only means of knowing the time. The reader is forced to wonder, can this be the same Ottoman Empire which in 1453 captured Constantinople (or Istanbul) from the Byzantines using the most advanced cannon of those times? The Ottomans were definitely the masters of innovation then. Tolerant Sunnis, they managed to run an inclusive empire where Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Bedouins, Greeks and Slavs were all invited to the party.

In the course of telling his tale, or rather collection of tales, Tariq Ali makes references to various historical events. The increasing animosity between the Kurds and the Armenians (which would later lead to the massacre of 2 million Armenians during the First World War) is brought out very well. To start with, it’s a simple case of the Armenians having some of the best land and the Kurds coveting the land. The inception of the Young Turks movement is also built into the storyline. A young officer named Kemal Pasha makes a few cameo appearances. The Young Turks have contempt for the decadent Ottomans. They want to create a pure Turkish state where there will be no place for Armenians or Greeks. Some of the minor stories are not really relevant to this story, but they are interesting as well, such as the rivalry and differences between the Ommayads and the Abbasids and the reasons for the defeat of the Ottomans at Vienna in 1683.

The main or rather only the problem I have with this story is the same problem I had with the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree and the Book of Saladin. In this story, Ali’s cast lead a life that would be called ‘liberal’ by even modern-day standards. Iskander Pasha’s brother Mehmed and his gay partner, a German Baron, have an open relationship. Iskander’s third wife is Sara, a Jewish woman. Sara was in love with Suleman, another Jew, but could not marry Suleman. After she was betrothed to Iskander, she made sure she became pregnant with Suleman’s child before marrying Iskander. Iskander eventually gets to know of this, but does not really mind, because he is a man for whom ‘blood relations don’t matter in the least’. Iskander loves Sara’s daughter Nilofer as much as any of his biological children. For the same reason, when Iskander gets to know that woman he had an affair with in France (during his diplomat days) had his child, he does not particularly want to meet that child.

Nilofer is allowed to marry Dmitri, a Greek school teacher. Nilofer’s love for Dmitri cools after a few years and she abandons him for her father’s palace. When Nilofer is at the Palace, she has an affair with Selim, the family barber’s son. At that time, Dmitri who is alone in Konya, is killed by Turkish fanatics. Very soon, Nilofer marries Selim (who made an officer in the army by her brother, a senior army officer) and they seem to be all set to live happily ever after. One of Nilofer’s brothers marries a Coptic Christian in Cairo and another brother marries a Shia Muslim. Also, in the course of the story, when Iskander Pasha loses his voice (please read this book to find out how and why) and later regains it, he thanks August Comtẻ and not Allah.

I am not too sure if families as liberal as the one described in this story ever lived in the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. May be they did. If they did, Ali would have done well to have told his readers the source of his information.

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