A sultan's life

Islam fends off Christianity in this 12th-century saga.

Feb 24, 1999 at 12:00 am

The Book of Saladin is the second in a projected quartet of historical novels in which the author, Tariq Ali, plans to depict key confrontations between the developing Islamic and Christian civilizations, told from the Muslim point of view. The first in the series, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, centered around the Christian expulsion of the Muslims from Spain in the late 15th Century. But here Ali reaches further back, to the 12th century, to tell the story of how Salah al-Din – Saladin to Western ears – expelled the Christians from Jerusalem in the waning days of the Crusades.

One should say up front that this is, rather obviously, a book with an agenda, though it’s neither a sinister nor distorting one. Verso is a publishing house with a well-known left-wing orientation and Tariq Ali is an equally well-known lifelong "agitator," a British-based playwright, filmmaker and novelist who first made his mark back in the ’60s, during his Oxford days, as co-founder of the influential, alternative-radical newspaper Black Dwarf. These simple facts give the novel, even before it’s read, an aura of redress.

A further caveat would be to acknowledge that Americans are notoriously disinterested in foreign affairs, except in cases where our soldiers are likely to hit the ground, and even then our first impulse is to try and figure out which of the indigenous people are the cowboys and which are the Indians.

And while our national hatred of ambiguity is aroused by the internecine struggles of post-Cold War central Europe, a contemplation of the modern Arab world provokes a total shutdown of reason. It is a place, as any listener of radio or C-SPAN call-in shows could tell you, populated by fanatics, homicidal crazies and various lunatics of unfathomable motive.

So Ali, in his attempt to write a novel for the nonspecialist, has his work cut out for him. He does supply a short glossary and a map at the beginning, as well as a brief preface sorting out the main historical characters from those of his own imagining, but he also assumes a certain rudimentary knowledge of the period on the part of the reader. (Incidentally, there is in print and available in trade paperback a very thorough account of the events leading up to and immediately following the period of Saladin’s rule, published by Schocken Books and called The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. One could do worse than read this as a prep for Saladin.)

Ali’s main fictional creation is the Jewish scholar Ibn Yakub who, through his friendship with the Jewish philosopher Ibn Maymun – a real historical personage known in the West as Maimonides whose most famous work, A Guide to the Perplexed, was an influence on Thomas Aquinas as well as subsequent theologians – gains a position as Saladin’s personal scribe. Thus the book we are reading has ostensibly been written by Yakub as a record of his impressions of the Sultan’s court, the various political and harem intrigues and, of course, the words of Saladin as he recounts his life story.

The book begins with Saladin already established as a major Arab leader with his sultanate in Cairo. From his portion of the narrative, we learn of his humble Kurdish origins and his almost reluctant metamorphosis into the leading figure of the jihad against the Franj – as the Western invaders are called throughout Islam. From the book’s "present day" point of view, we follow Saladin from Cairo to Damascus and finally to Jerusalem, and the recapture of the city after 77 years of Franj occupation.

Interwoven with this main narrative are enough separate and self-contained stories to give the novel a no doubt intentional Arabian Nights flavor. Responding to a fact mentioned in his preface – that "women are a subject on which medieval history is usually silent" – Ali gives us two of his most complex characters in Saladin’s first wife Jamila and a later mistress Halima. Jamila is not only a proto-feminist in a milieu where women are considered sentient chattel, she’s also a general skeptic concerning matters of religion and the social order – something which allows Ali to touch on the nascent modern ideas which existed even in this "primitive" time. And her lesbian affair with Halima, which at first seems like no more than a sop to the gods of PC, is treated with psychological subtlety.

Although Ali juggles all this adeptly, judged strictly on aesthetic terms the novel has a few problems. There’s a stilted quality to the writing, especially the dialogue, which may well be a reasonable approximation of how the fictive narrator would compose his story, but which, all the same, becomes plodding over time. And chapter headings which tell you ahead of time what’s going to happen, while stylistically accurate, are still annoying – though I must admit to a fondness for the one that goes: "I arrive home unexpectedly to find Ibn Maymun fornicating with my wife."

Aside from that, this is not only an interesting story but a relevant one. Ali knows better than to make this just a tale of the evil Christians overcome by the saintly Arabs. A large part of the reason that the Franj were able to penetrate the Muslim world as far as Jerusalem was because the Arabs were as busy fighting each other as they were the infidel aggressors.

Saladin had predecessors in the attempt to unify the feuding factions, but he was the one who finally did it. Even today in the Middle East, the invasion of the Franj is remembered and remains an important part of the Arabs’ perception of the West, while Saladin is considered a benchmark figure, a symbol of unity and autonomy. Meanwhile, most Westerners don’t even know the name. This is something worth thinking about.