After I finished my interview with British-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali, he took out one of his books and stopped at a quote by Goethe: "The world moves in virtue of those who say no." It is a quote that Ali uses to summaries the message of his writing, one that urges people to commit to change and belong to the future.
Ali visited Cairo earlier this month to participate in a workshop sponsored by the British Council on social participation and citizenship. During his visit, Ali also spoke at an open seminar organised by Al-Kotob Khan, his publisher in Egypt.
Ali was born in Pakistan in 1943. He studied philosophy and economics at Oxford University, where he became leader of the student union. He was also the editor of the New Left Review – a prominent leftist political magazine – and was part of the protests that erupted in Europe in 1968, which he considers the most important event in his life.
Ali began writing literature relatively late due to his political activism [he was a member of the International Marxist Group], yet he had dreamed of writing since he was young. He remembers a 1990 trip to Lahore, the city of his birth. He was carrying his first book, and inside the pages he found a letter he'd written to his mother in 1967 in which he describes meeting a publisher who told him, "You can write a novel."
A year after he wrote the letter, Ali was drawn into politics and soon found himself "at the heart of a completely exceptional event" – the 1968 protests, which first made him wonder if he should participate in events or write about them. His answer: "I preferred to be a part of making history."
And so Ali's first writings were political, reflecting his interest in Pakistan and the political left in Europe and America.
Describing his political writings as "incitement" does not bother Ali, who says his goal is always "to incite people towards critical thinking and challenge established and traditional ideas." This is why his criticism has always been blunt and strong and not undertaken to satisfy anyone, including representatives of the left.
He was against Marxism as an absolute given, against how it turns into a religion and its figures into prophets. This attitude was shocking to his readers as he dared to question established ideas and ideologies.
Ali is known for his friendship with the late Palestinian thinker Edward Said, a friendship that Ali detailed in his book Conversations with Edward Said.
Ali and Said had been friends since 1972, first meeting in New York. Ali not only celebrates his friendship with Said but also his discernment between two types of intellectuals – one who is critical and one who serves power.
"I belong to the model of the committed intellectual. I can’t function as an intellectual who serves authority, and represents the interests of power and works with it, which is a common model now. This model is represented by someone like the French public intellectual and author Bernard Henri Levy, whose only task now is to justify killing and defending the wars launched by Israel and US. I call this kind of person the "TV intellectual," because they have no clear job other than whitening the page of the regimes on behalf of which they speak,” Ali explained.
When asked if wished he had lived his life in a different way, he answers “no, I’m very satisfied with how I've lived, and none of it deserves regret. I lived as a leftist in my own way, and I’m proud of this affiliation. Though, I see the mistakes that have been committed under the name of 'the left' in the world. It’s not important to belong politically to something -- more important is how you practice this belonging.”
Said had a shaping hand in Ali's five-part literary series, The Islamic Quintet. Ali dedicated the first volume – The Pomegranate Tree – to Said, who read the novel with great admiration and told him that it should develop into several volumes. "You have to tell the story of this damn tale."
Following this, Ali received praise for his work from literary magazines and critics, so he decided to continue investigating the relationship between Islam and the West. In his books, he continued to reflect on spaces of conflict, co-existence and enmity.
Interest in Islam was triggered by 9/11, events which prompted hundreds of works which satisfied a “quick demand for research about Islam.”
Tariq say most of these books will be easily forgot but they opened the way for his quintet. Right after his books were released many literary magazines considered him an Islamic historian, which was not a job he sought.
I asked Ali if his writings are a way of dealing with a split identity.
"I don't live a crisis between my Pakistani identity and the one I gained through living in Britain because I'm a world citizen. I don’t have wounds related to my old identity. I departed from Pakistan to pursue my studies when I was about 20. When you ask me about my religious identity, sure I was born in an Islamic society but I'm not religious and there are many cases like mine in the heart of Islamic societies.”
Tariq Ali admits that when he started writing Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, which tells the story of the Arabs leaving Granada, he was not aware of any literary works written by Arab writers on the same topic, such as works by Amin Maalouf and Radwa Ashour. Lately, he read Ashour's Granada Trilogy translated to English.
Ali did not want to read any of the literary works about the fall of Granada or the Crusades because he did not want to be influenced by their style and conclusions. He preferred to raise his own questions starting from what the historical texts and manuscripts offered to him.
In reviewing the writings of Tariq Ali, we find an insistence on the coexistence of civilizations.
"One of the most important things that preoccupied me during my research on Islamic history was to form a novelistic conception that would point to the success of the idea of coexistence.”
He looks into a time when Islamic civilization was dominant and celebrated different identities and coexistence. He believes this is when Islamic civilisation was closer to the idea of the open society. Fears of different identities -- related to their ethnicity, religion or race -- did not exist.
As an author concerned with history, Tariq Ali looks into the relationship between literature and history in his novel The Book of Saladin. In it, the literary imagination is fully dependant on the actual biography of Saladin, from his early years until his death. Ali says the novelist should commit to the truth, without manipulating history but at the same time, he or she can 'play' with it by adding some characters or reinterpreting some historical events, as long as this does not create alternative facts and events.