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