My goodness how time flies. I can’t believe it’s been over three years when I featured a little paperback entitled Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with Tariq Ali. In that post, I called Ali a bit of a renaissance man, thanks to his decades of political activism, but also his works of fiction and nonfiction. While I’ve explored a couple of his nonfiction offerings, his fiction has escaped me. Until now.
Recently, thanks to my public library, I was able to secure a copy of his 2005 novel A Sultan in Palermo. I’d been wanting to read it for years, not just based on Ali’s literary reputation but the historical reputation of King Roger of Sicily. One of history’s rare “enlightened despots” during most of his reign he treated his subjects be they Christian or Muslim with equal respect. Enamored with the island’s culture, he quickly “went native” referring to himself as Sultan Rujari of Siqilliya (Sicily) and keeping a harem of lovelies. But I qualify everything by saying “most” because towards the end of his reign things went a bit downhill – and quickly. Like predators surrounding an aged, infirm or wounded animal Sicily’s Christian nobles and knights sensed the elderly Roger was not only physically weak but politically as well. Realizing he was in the twilight of his life and his son’s reign just around the corner, Roger needed longterm Christian support from the power brokers on Sicily as well as abroad. Tragically, the only way to do that was to sellout the island’s Muslim inhabitants who for years benefitted from Roger’s friendly rule. In doing so he would also betray his most trusted confidant and lifelong friend, his royal cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi.
I found A Sultan in Palermo to be an enjoyable read. Ali writes well and the pace of his novel never slackened. Even though he’s an atheist, who was raised by atheist parents, in A Sultan in Palermo the Muslims are the “good guys” and the Christians, for the most part, are the villains. But for me to say that is an oversimplification. It’s really a novel about power and the abuses of power. And how decent people, when caught in the middle, always seem to suffer.