Interview: Tariq Ali on Writing Novels


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Maniza Naqvi: You have spent a lifetime leading political, anti war and socialist activism through demonstrations, protest marches; political articles, books, lectures, interviews, and speeches . You have spoken out in all sorts of forums ranging from university settings to the streets during anti war demonstrations. You are noted as the leader of the Left in Europe. You’ve been a hero and example for many of us. So, in all of this, where does writing novels fit in? You have now written five novels, two of which I absolutely loved reading: The Book of Saladin and Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.

Tariq Ali: I started writing fiction in 1990. Why? I don't know. I felt like it but recently on a trip to Pakistan I came across a letter I'd written my mother in 1966 or '67, soon after leaving Oxford. I was quite surprised because I'd written that I was thinking about writing a novel. I have no memory of what I might have been thinking of…then 1968 happened and swept our generation away into the utopian wilds. It was the end of that period that started me thinking of fiction again. I had written plays and film scripts in the 80's and early 90s. So a full-scale novel was not such a huge leap forward. 

Maniza Naqvi: What draws you to fiction? Can you place the role of fiction writing in your life?

Tariq Ali: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree was begun in 1991 after the first Gulf War. I wanted to excavate the history of European Islam and went, naturally, to Spain. Here I saw the Great Mosque in Cordoba, went to Granada, wandered round Seville and imagined the ruins whispering to me…stories of their past and those who had built them. So I imbibed the atmosphere and wrote the first novel of the Quintet. Edward Said read it and liked it and said: 'Don't stop now. Tell the whole bloody story.' He meant the whole bloody story of the clash between Western Christendom and Islamic Arab civilization. So I did and it was Edward who first started referring to it as the Islam Quartet, which soon became a Quintet. Writing these historical novels became the centre of my intellectual life till 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reality dragged me back to non-fiction which I had more or less given up. Now I do both, but to write fiction I have to cut myself off completely from everyday life which isn't easy. Had the US agreed to the bombing of Iran I might not have been able to finish the Quintet.

Maniza Naqvi: I have to ask again: Can you place the role of fiction writing in your life? You said you just felt like writing fiction. But what was its intellectual or emotional draw for you. Is it of any significance that you wrote to your mother that you were thinking of writing fiction? You were in London and she was in Lahore? Was there a sense of homesickness or a longing–or a fear of losing a world or one that was missing? Was it a way to make yourself more at home in this world? Or was it just that process of sitting down to write a letter–by hand–write to someone dear, make sense, chronologize for them your thoughts, activities, context and story that actually started the desire for fiction? Can you place it?

Tariq Ali: Writing fiction is an emotional business because the process raids the unconscious and many feelings or memories long repressed or hidden come to the surface. It plays a different role than writing history or essays because it’s much more intense, but apart from that there is nothing all that special, at least for me. I think when I wrote to my mother all those years ago I was vaguely thinking of writing a family saga set in Northern Pakistan, but that idea and others simply evaporated.

Maniza Naqvi: What role did your parents play in your way of inducing art and creativity into your ideology.

Tariq Ali: It was the milieu. Our house in Lahore was filled with Urdu and Punjabi poets and critics and radical intellectuals and journalists, etc. Faiz was a family friend and the Progressive writers used to meet in our garage in the Fifties. Add to that the fact that my father had a huge library which was an amazing resource. I grew up when the only medium was radio. Television came to Pakistan after 1963 and the web wasn't even a twinkle in any eye since the people who created it had yet to be born. So books became vital to one's existence and that habit has stayed. Just like this week I caught up on a late 19th century Portuguese master that I had not read before: Eça de Queirós . His work is astonishingly good and for three days I was in a daze reading The Maias and now all his work. I feel exactly the same excitement I used to when I was young and had just discovered Balzac and later Stendhal. There really is no substitute for going to bed with a wonderful novel.

Maniza Naqvi: And your relationship to Pakistan? Is it Lahore or Wah or the land or is it also somehow the idea of Pakistan? Or is Pakistan a fact which is more acceptable as fiction that grabs you?

Tariq Ali: It’s the people and Lahore and memories of Wah and Nathiagali, but essentially the people: gifted, inventive, desperate for a chance to show their worth in various fields, but held back by a venal elite. The idea of Pakistan I have never taken seriously as readers of my books would know. However it exists and that's that.

Maniza Naqvi: Was there a reason that your fictional work was located in Europe?

Tariq Ali: Yes. It was to show that there was a time when different cultures co-existed in Europe and it was normal to be a European Muslim or Jew. The new mono-cultural identity in Europe was built on the ashes of Islamic civilization, literally. Books were burnt, people were burnt by the Catholic Inquisition. The Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal and sought and were given refuge in Muslim lands in the Maghreb and the Ottoman Empire. In A Sultan in Palermo, chronologically the first of the Quintet, the Muslims have been defeated militarily, but Arab culture dominates the Norman court and Arabic is the language of learning for another hundred years. It was worth exploring these themes. The last novel, Night of the Golden Butterfly, which will be published in April is set largely in the Fatherland and its cities, principally Lahore, but through this city we travel to China and there is a historical section on a famous Muslim uprising in Yunnan in the mid-19th century, of which few people are aware. It’s different to the others because it’s set in the present and, in fact, should have been written in Punjabi, the mother-tongues of mother-tongues, but I wasn't up to it.

Maniza Naqvi: You said you started writing fiction in 1990s–was it only the Gulf war that motivated this or were there other things beginning to happen in the 1990s in Europe itself and beyond that got you going enough to write these novels.

Tariq Ali: It was some idiot on BBC TV saying during the Gulf war something like 'The Arabs are a people without a political culture…' This enraged me and that's why I started thinking of the tormented history of Islam in Europe.

Maniza Naqvi: “….then 1968 happened and swept our generation away into the utopian wilds. It was the end of that period that started me thinking of fiction again.” Isn't this somehow a contradiction in terms? How did writing fiction not fit in with utopian wilds or do you mean this was a time of you know of too much seriousness–Vietnam–Dictators—Or was it sex, drugs and rock n'roll and therefore a blur?

Tariq Ali: How could it be a contradiction in terms. The central fact about 1968 was POLITICS, not sex, drugs and rock'n roll. Wherever you looked the young were heavily engaged in politics and finding a solution to the problems created by capitalism. The Pakistani 1968 was the most successful. The students and workers toppled a military dictatorship after three months of continuous struggle….fiction was not an option for me.

Mania Naqvi: Thank you so much for responding to my questions. I have many more but for now I have just one more question. Is it true that you were the inspiration for John Lennon’s song, Power to the People, and The Rolling Stones’, Street Fighting Man?

Tariq Ali: Yes, it’s true

More Writing by Maniza Naqvi here