Every time when I happen to catch the American public radio program Alternative Radio (which in reality isn’t that often) it seems like host David Barsamian is interviewing Tariq Ali. So after hearing his radio interviews and having read his 2008 book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power let’s just say when I happened to grab his collection of interviews entitled Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with Tariq Ali during one of my weekend library visits I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. Besides being a novelist, political activist and editor of New Left Review, legend has it Ali was the Rolling Stones’ inspiration for their hit song “Street Fighting Man.” Holding neither political office nor a tenured university-based teaching position, I consider Ali to be a rare public intellectual. With his politics leaning considerably to the left, many label him a socialist or at least an anti-imperialist of sorts. So, with all this in mind, I quickly burned through the slim paperback while at the same time accessing it with a somewhat critical mindset. Regardless of any political disagreements I might have with Ali, when it came to this book for the most part I found it surprisingly interesting and readable, thanks to Ali’s ability to communicate directly and intelligently.
Published in 2005, Conversations with Tariq Ali is a collection of interviews not just from Alternative Radio, but also from progressive publications like Z Magazine and the Progressive in addition to a few interviews that were previously unpublished. With Barsamian as his interviewer, Ali weighs in on a number of subjects, chiefly the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, the conflict in Afghanistan, the sad state of affairs in his native Pakistan and America’s role in the world.
My main gripe is throughout the assembled interviews, Ali, while speaking directly and thoughtfully, makes bold claims without providing any supporting evidence. Sadly, Barsamian never questions these claims, and as a result his role as interviewer is reduced to that of a sounding board. To paraphrase Hume, Sagan and Truzzi, since extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, I’d respect both Ali and Barsamian if they would have taken a more thorough approach with their presentation of their arguments.
But, as I said before, there’s much about this book to admire. Compared to the writings of many political theorists which are downright unreadable, Ali’s direct style employing approachable language I found considerably refreshing. Not only is he incredibly erudite but he’s also well-versed when it comes to Pakistan’s history and politics. This book has also inspired me to read other books by Ali. The novels of his Islam Quintet look particularly intriguing as does his nonfiction books The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity and Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope. Of course whenever a book inspires one to read more, it’s never a bad thing.