Saturday, 30 August 2008

Book review: A Sultan in Palermo by Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali’s fourth novel revolves around the world renowned cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi who lived in the twelfth century and served the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. The Arabs had taken over Sicily in the ninth century from the Byzantine Empire and ruled it for the next two centuries. Under the Arabs, Sicily flourished. Its population burgeoned. Palermo, the main city in Sicily, became a centre of Arab culture on the lines of and almost on par with Baghdad and Cordoba. The Normans, with the support of the Popes, took back Sicily from the Arabs. Roger II’s father Roger I was one of the Kings involved in the re-conquest of Sicily. Known as Rujari to his Arab subjects, the “arabised” Roger II was a very tolerant King who spoke Arabic and maintained a harem. Arabs were allowed to practice their religion and speak their language. Muslim scholars such as Al-Idrisi flourished in his court.

Tariq Ali has done a particularly good job in portraying al-Idrisi’s character, which is as good as his portrayal of Saladin’s character in the Book of Saladin. Al-Idrisi is shown as a brilliant cartographer and physician with a weakness for women. A man with enormous contempt for his wife (who dies towards the end) and his two daughters (for being stupid), he acquires two more wives and a few children in the course of the story. As mentioned in this review published in the Independent, there is a fair amount of bed hopping, someone of which involves one of the Sultan’s concubines and an Amir’s wife (who are half-sisters), with the full knowledge of both the Sultan and the Amir. I am not sure how much of this is historically true or even realistic. It seems inconceivable that either Roger II or an Amir would knowingly allow Idrisi to have affairs with their women. Al-Idrisi hates the two daughters born to him through his first wife so much that he is friendly with their husbands even after the husbands have deserted their wives. Idrisi is also shown to neglect his first born son who is mentally challenged.

Ali’s Idrisi does not hesitate to challenge anyone. Ali has Idrisi muttering that the Koran may be wrong in certain respects, when his research findings don’t tally with the Koran’s language. Towards the end of the story, Idrisi realises with regret that his first wife was not so stupid or bad after all (please read the book to find out how).

After Roger II’s death, there are minor revolts by the Arabs and al-Idrisi is shown to be sympathising with and even supporting the rebels. The chief rebel, Al-Farid, the Trusted One, is cast in the mould of Robin Hood. I doubt if such a character actually existed, but what the heck, this is a work of fiction. The story comes to an end with the death of al-Idrisi who outlived Roger II by nine years. In the epilogue of the novel, Ali explains how Roger-II’s grandson slowly extinguished Arab culture in Sicily and expelled all Muslims from Sicily.

As in the other books in his Islam Quintet, Ali’s main character Idrisi analyses the reasons for the decline of Islam, in this case, in Sicily. According to Ali, the first Muslims were willing to innovate. The subsequent waves of puritans who came from the desert were not. More importantly, the Believers were always divided.

There were a few things in this book which I did not like. Just as in the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, Ali uses mostly Arab names in this novel. Siquilliya for Sicily, Siracusa for Syracuse, Ifriqiya for North Africa, Balansiya for Valencia, Djirdjent for Agrigento etc. However, Palermo’s Arab name Bal'harm does not find a single mention in this book.

Al-Idrisi was (in real life), not an Arab. He was a Berber born in Ceuta, a city on the North African side of the Strait of Gibraltar and now an autonomous part of Spain. Just as in Moorish Spain, a substantial chunk of the Muslims in Sicily were Berbers and not Arabs. Ali makes no mention of this in this book. Further, Ali has al-Idrisi excelling as cartographer and a physician. The real al-Idrisi was well known as a cartographer, but I couldn’t find any sources praising him as a physician

Ali claims in this novel that, unlike other Arab Sicilians, the people of Qurlun (Arabic for Corleone) are too much tied to their land and other worldly possessions to be willing to revolt against the Normans. Ali has a few choice words of abuse for the people of Qurlun. I am not sure this bit is true. Corleone was a strategic town and was on the frontline of almost all wars fought in Sicily. It was actually known as “Courageous Civitas”. I guess Ali is trying to show that the Corleone (from where so many mafia families have emerged in recent times) always had the seeds of evil in it. But Ali’s version doesn’t ring true.

One of the key characters in the novel is Philip al-Mahdi, the Chief Amir of Roger II, whose death triggers off an Arab revolt against the Normans. Ali shows Philip al-Mahdia to be born a Muslim, sold to a Greek merchant, forcibly converted to Christianity, but continuing to be closet Muslim. Roger II agrees to execute Philip in order to placate a few monks and Ali’s Philip allows himself to be burnt at the stake after a lot of scheming and plotting by Christian Bishops in order to trigger off a revolt by the Muslim population of Sicily. The real Philip of Mahdia was not born a Muslim, though he was actually accused of converting to Islam and was executed by Roger II a year before his death. I think Ali is stretching history a bit too much, especially when he says Philip allowed himself to be burnt at the stake, even though he could have escaped.

Which brings me to my main criticism of this book and Ali’s earlier novels in the Islam Quintet. Ali has stated in an interview that his main objective in writing these stories was to “challenge the myth that Islam is incompatible with the West.” If so, one would expect Ali’s works to be historically accurate. Instead, one finds Ali taking too many liberties with accepted versions of history and not offering justifications or explanations for his deviations. Also, I think that at times Ali flies the banner of secular Islam too high, as alleged in this review by the Hindu.

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