The OF Blog: Tariq Ali, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tariq Ali, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree

There is something awe-inspiring when cultures (or, as earlier historians used to say, civilizations) clash.  Although one might conjure images of a martial field where cultural combatants duel it out to see whose language, whose religion, whose legal customs, whose views on what constitutes a family, and whose social customs will prevail, there are few true "winners" and "losers" in these clashes; elements of each side are absorbed by the other.  Yes, some cultural elements will come to dominate and whole elements of prior ways of lives will disappear for those who do not gain hegemonic control of a particular religion, but there are always subversive currents that underlay a conquest.  Lip service may be given to a particular ideal (say, a religion or language), but underneath it, tensions may boil within elements of a conquered society, riving friends, neighbors, and even family members as each tries to cope with the changing politico-cultural climes.

Tariq Ali is a British-Pakastani historian and novelist whose works, fiction and non-fiction alike, over the past forty years or so have dealt with these effects of cultural clashes.  Ali in particular has taken an interest in exploring elements of the history of Islam over the course of five novels, starting with the 1992 novel Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.  Much of the international news over the past two decades has been devoted to covering the rise of jihadism in certain sectors of Muslim societies, but not as much has been focused on exploring how the clash of Western cultural values with those of traditional Muslim societies has fueled this torrent of uncertainty, fear, hope, frustration, and hatred.  In reading Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, I was reminded of just how confusing these cultural clashes and their consequences can be for societies, especially on the family level.

The setting for Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree is the region around Granada around a decade or so after its fall to the Spanish conquistadors.  Granada, the last bastion of Al-Andalus in Spain, had preserved the rich cosmopolitan culture of the Cordoba caliphs.  But during the decade following the surrender to the Spanish, the Moors of Granada learned that the Spanish were not keen on keeping their promises of preserving Granada's culture and religious freedoms.  Led by Cardinal Ximénes de Cisneros, Queen Isabella's adviser, the Spanish government quickly overturned the provisions of the 1492 treaty with the Granadan Moors.  The public use of Arabic was banned and the children of the Moors were to be educated by Catholics.  This enforced Christianization led to a century of half-conversions, family members converting in truth in order to advance in society, subtle rebellion against the new customs, disparaging satires of both the conquerors and the vanquished, and so forth.  In this novel, Ali creates a fictional history of the Banu Hudayl family in order to show the devastating effects of the Reconquista's final stages on the remaining Spanish Moors.

Ali utilizes short, to the point descriptions and dialogue to set the stage.  He begins his tale in the year 1500, just as Ximénez is beginning the controversial forced conversions of the Moors (later referred to as Moriscos).  Through the eyes of young Yazid, Ali shows how difficult life became for the Moors and how some, including his uncle Miguel, had chosen to collaborate with the Spanish and become Christians in order to advance while kinsmen were being forced to give up their trades, their language, and (publicly) their religion.  Below is one key passage that illustrates the plight of Yazid's family:

This family, which for centuries had not thought about anything more demanding than the pleasures of the hunt, the quality of the marinade used by the cooks on the roast lamb being grilled that day, or the new silks which had arrived in Gharnata [Granada] from China, was tonight confronting history.

Miguel had dominated the evening.  At first he had sounded bitter and cynical.  The success of the Catholic Church, its practical superiority, he had argued, lay in the fact that it did not even attempt to sweeten the bitter taste of its medicine.  It did not bother to deceive; it was not searching for popularity; it did not disguise its shape in order to please its followers.  It was disgustingly frank.  It shook Man by the shoulders, and shouted in his ear:

'You were born in excrement and you will live in it, but we might forgive you for being so foul, so vile, so repulsive if you sink to your knees and pray every day for forgiveness.  Your pitiful, pathetic existence must be borne with exemplary humility.  Life is and will remain a torment.  All you can do is to save your soul, and if you do that and keep your discontent well hidden, you might be redeemed.  That and that alone will make your life on earth a mite less filthy than it was on the day you were born.  Only the damned seek happiness in this world.' (pp. 124-125)
This cited passage contains the heart of Ali's narrative.  Even the apparent lickspittle uncle Miguel notes the brutality involved with the Christian conquest of Granada.  Ali focuses on the controlling aspect of religion here, just as he notes elsewhere the effects that hegemonic power has on the society's (and family's) public and private life.  Enforced acculturation is a messy, sordid affair and in this novel, Ali uses the fictional structure of telling the family history of the Banu Hudayl to explore the deleterious effects of the cultural clash between the Christian Spanish and the Muslim Moors.

Ali's novel is best read as a historical narrative covered with a thin veneer of fiction.  As characters, Yazid, his sister Hind, as well as the above-mentioned uncle Miguel are more akin to representations of what did transpire for hundreds of thousands of Moriscos during the 16th century than as fully-realized characters.  There is a stark contrast between Moors and the Christians here.  The Spanish are never seen as being anything more than brutal, uncultured louts who have by force of arms and law have seized control and are making the Moriscos suffer for the effrontery of having conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula eight centuries before.  While Ali does a good job illustrating the cracks in Moorish society brought out by the Spanish conquest, his dialectical approach to the situation was a bit too heavy-handed in places.  At times, the novel stopped reading as such and began to resemble more some of the Marxist interpretations of cultural history that I have had to study in the past.  Although there is nothing wrong with this approach (in fact, on several occasions, this made the story more interesting to me), it does bear noting that in places the novel suffers as a result of Ali's polemics.

On the whole, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree was a quick (240 pages), decent read that felt more like reading a history of the times than it did being a historical novel.  However, the story never really rose being above a thinly-fictional account of the times.  The characters existed more to illustrate Ali's interpretations of the early 16th century Moorish-Spanish cultural clashes than anything else; I often was not engaged with the characters at all.  The polemical nature of Ali's work was a bit overwhelming at times, even though I was on the whole sympathetic with most of his arguments presented within the text.  I do not regret reading the novel and I think it provides a fascinating look at the historical period which it covers, but the fictional story itself was a bit too thin for me to recommend it wholeheartedly.   


José said...

Too bad the characterization is unsatisfactory. Still, I would read this book for the subject matter alone. Added to my to-read list.

Larry said...

Yes, it is an interesting subject. I would pair it up with Ildefonso Falcones' La mano de Fátima, since that book covers the latter fate of the Moriscos in good detail.

lawyerjourno said...

Currently, I am reading the novel and so far I have read three chapters..all are interesting and amazing. I mean the narrative is sound. However, what I wonder the most is that those who were converted to Islam later on feel that this was their original religion. I mean how can these people be so narrow. Every one who is a muslim today must have been a christian, a jew or a hindu some centuries ago.

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