There's just too much sex in Tariq's vision

The Stone Woman by Tariq Ali (Verso, £15)
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The Independent Culture

This is the third of Tariq Ali's planned tetralogy of novels that has, as its aim, a revision of Muslim-Christian confrontations. In particular, he aspires to correct history in favour of Islam, a culture and tradition seldom understood in the West. The first novel, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, recounted, through a family saga, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 15th century. The second, The Book of Saladin, related the life of Salah ad-Din, the liberator of Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

This is the third of Tariq Ali's planned tetralogy of novels that has, as its aim, a revision of Muslim-Christian confrontations. In particular, he aspires to correct history in favour of Islam, a culture and tradition seldom understood in the West. The first novel, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, recounted, through a family saga, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 15th century. The second, The Book of Saladin, related the life of Salah ad-Din, the liberator of Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

The Stone Woman brings us to relatively recent history: the Ottoman Empire in 1899, a mere 19 years before its demise at the end of the First World War. It relates through Nilofer, the daughter of Iskander Pasha (a retired notable and quondam ambassador to France), the events of a summer the family and its entourage spend in a villa by the Sea of Marmara, just outside Istanbul.

Summer rolls on; ostensibly, not a great deal happens. Iskander Pasha suffers a stroke, but eventually recovers. Sons and daughters, friends and relatives, come and go. On occasions, a band of army officers, members of the Committee for Union and Progress - a clandestine organisation seeking to depose Sultan Abdulhamid II - visit Nilofer's brother Halil to discuss the decline of the empire.

Beneath the surface, however, emotions spume. All the family members, and their friends and servants, have turbulent pasts. Nilofer has returned home eight years after her impetuous marriage to a Greek teacher. Illicit love affairs, even a murder, that have long remained secret are disclosed by other characters, often covertly. They make their confessions to the lady of the title, a mysterious statue that stands in the villa's grounds.

Here, one expects, is the perfect vehicle to discourse on Islam and Christianity. Indeed, one thinks, who better than Ali - a sharp intellect not only perfectly at ease in both camps, but also a passionate polemicist - to conduct this particular disquisition?

We still live in an age when Christianity professes to be the beacon of civilisation. We still live in an age when countless reputable artists, historians and politicians are either ignorant of the glories of Islamic culture, or wilfully defame its long history of enlightenment and its racial and religious tolerance. Which Western nation today pays homage to the Ottoman Empire - or to modern Turkey - for opening its gates, respectively, to the victims of the Spanish Inquisition and the Third Reich? Why are there so few voices to constrain those who damn Islam as the aberration that will destroy Christian values and, with it, civilisation itself? (Values, one should not forget, that have been responsible for the wholesale murder of millions.)

Conversely, who will dare analyse objectively the conditions that led to such horrific chapters of history as the Armenian genocide by the Turks and Kurds, or the present-day fundamentalism of armoured mullahs that profanes a noble religion with unrestrained oppression? Who better, then, than Tariq Ali?

But, alas, Tariq Ali offers us only crumbs. The murder, in distant Konya, of Nilofer's Greek husband points en passant to the nationalist tensions that still exist today between Turkey and Greece. An echo of Abdulhamid's brutal repression of the Armenians in 1894-96 serves as a prophecy for the genocide of 1915-16. The unmistakable portrait of the young Atatürk as one of the unnamed officers of the Committee for Union and Progress signposts both Abdulhamid's eventual deposition, and the creation of modern Turkey from the ashes of the empire.

The rest of The Stone Woman is devoted to matters of the heart and, more pertinently, of the loins. The imperative for sublime coition becomes such a dominant theme that one might be inclined to think that virility and sexual fulfilment, in mythic dimensions, have been Islam's principal gifts to mankind. This is a missed opportunity for a masterpiece.

The reviewer's novel, 'Children of the Rainbow', is published by Saqi Books

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