Lectures on love from Mr Ali


IN 12TH-CENTURY Cairo, the Kurdish-born emperor, known to posterity as Saladin, summons a Jewish scribe, Ibn Yaqub, to tell the story of his life. Or rather its stories, as the biographer, like all committed practitioners of his craft, befriends a cohort of Saladin's companions "so that he might present a full portrait".

Tariq Ali's novel uses the resultant polyphony to present an arresting tapestry of Saladin's times, interweaving imaginative reconstruction, fictionalised history and Arabian Nights-style erotic fantasy. The world he depicts, though politically chaotic, is one of considerable cohesion, with men and women both given to pleasurable pursuits. Often, we forget that a multinational war between Europeans, trapped in their darkest age, and Muslims is being waged in the Near and Middle East.

Yourcenar, Graves and Vidal have all given voices to emperors of old, in search, perhaps, of modern resonances. But Ali is closer to the redoubtable Mary Renault, who told Alexander's great story from the marginal perspective of a eunuch lover. With Ali, the story's the thing; or rather, the many interwoven stories here. Invented characters seem to be the real subjects of the scribe's pen: Saladin's wife, Jamila, and his adulterous concubine, Halima, who becomes his wife's lover, and then her adversary; Ibn Yaqub's wife, who cuckolds him with the philosopher Maimonides; and Saladin's hoary hero of an illegitimate uncle, whose feats on the battlefield seem to be lifelong repentance for a youthful act of rape.

The Book of Saladin parrots the faults of its models, in this case a random structure. Incidental pleasures - metaphysical discourses about love, personality and melancholy, for example, which account for some of the novel's felicities and score a point about the sophistication of medieval Muslim philosophers - often overcrowd the already diffuse canvas. Events of magnitude are retailed in a flash. Non-sequiturs abound: a courtesan's untold tales about Saladin's youth; Jamila's "blasphemous" manuscript, the contents of which are never divulged. Women, symbolising the secret power of sequestered femininity and the crime of segregation, are all too often (albeit creditably so) the mouthpieces for universalising ideologies.

And, for a novel that spends much time on the subjects of love and passion, there's a terrible lack of them in its encounters. Ali treats us to lectures about love, but we experience only his protagonists' lust for power. Even the narrator's adoration for the subject of his chronicle is staged more as statement than as sentiment. Saladin the man, sketched in pale ink, is rarely more significant than a fading motto on a banner.

Perhaps our good-natured, didactic story-teller intends to commemorate fallible heroes, who exist as mere answers to their era's demands. For a colourful overlay of Muslim (and Jewish) hedonism and blasphemy never quite obscures the novel's bloody backdrop of barbaric, literally cannibalistic, Crusader warfare.

Ali erases all traces of heroism from the Frankish marauders out of Western Europe: Saladin's adversaries, intent on destroying a magnificent cosmopolitan civilisation. As in his previous novel, In the Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree, Ali aims to uncover the deep taproot of current animosities between the domains of Islam and Christendom, perhaps inviting the reader to draw parallels with the present-day Middle East. His attempt to reassemble the fictions of history, the complexity of political and philosophical debates, and the richness of social exchange in the Middle East during the years of its cultural ascendancy, is a challenging project. And he shares with many others in today's beleaguered Muslim countries an abiding delight in tales of wit and ribaldry.

Nabil Saleh's second novel, Outremer, is set in the period immediately following the reign of Saladin, when Baybara, a less far-sighted and tolerant leader, had emerged as the region's dominant power. Like Ali, Saleh is a good-natured story-teller, whose work resembles an imaginative reworking of Amin Maalouf's pioneering chronicle, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

Saleh, however, adopts the perspective of a Frank, and his focus is on the effect of internecine warfare on the lives of the ordinary people who inhabit the region. Aimeric, a Cathar, is dispatched to Outremer (the Levantine territories under European control) to take his revenge on the scion of the dynasty responsible for the persecution of the family. Here he becomes involved in the fortunes of a part-Druze, part-Maronite family. His mission of vengeance is carried out without his participation; he finds his vocation as a physician. He observes fanatical and sectarian struggles at home and abroad, but love and domesticity teach him to reject the bigotry of belief for a position of sceptical tolerance.

The novel is slowed down by passages of undigested history and wooden verbal exchanges. But Saleh succeeds in evoking the polyglot nature of the region and in dramatising the theological differences that at one point threaten to split the Maronite community. His message of harmony and tolerance is relevant for the region and for our times.

Aamer Hussein

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?