Add to researchTariq Ali

Tariq Ali

Jonathan Cape

Lahore, India
Non-Fiction, Fiction
Writer, journalist and film-maker Tariq Ali was born in Lahore in 1943.

He was educated at Oxford University, where he became involved in student politics, in particular with the movement against the war in Vietnam. On graduating he led the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. He owned his own independent television production company, Bandung, which produced programmes for Channel 4 in the UK during the 1980s. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio and contributes articles and journalism to magazines and newspapers including The Guardian and the London Review of Books. He is editorial director of London publishers Verso and is on the board of the New Left Review, for whom he is also an editor.

His fiction includes a series of historical novels about Islam: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992), The Book of Saladin (1998), The Stone Woman (2000), A Sultan in Palermo (2005), and Night of the Golden Butterfly (2010). These five books are collectively known as 'The Islam Quintet'. 

His non-fiction includes 1968:Marching in the Streets (1998), a social history of the 1960s; Conversations with Edward Said (2005); Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad, London, Terror (2005); and Speaking of Empire and Resistance (2005), which takes the form of a series of conversations with the author. The Leopard and the Fox (2007) is the script of a three-part TV series commissioned by the BBC and later withdrawn, and includes the background to the story. His books of essays include The Clash of Fundamentalisms (2002), and The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom (2009).

Tariq Ali's latest book is The Obama Syndrome (2010).

Critical Perspective

Tariq Ali is a vocal political commentator and prolific creative writer.

Although he published his first novel, Redemption (a political satire set in contemporary Europe and America) in 1990, and has published three acclaimed works of fiction since, Ali is still perhaps best known for his work with the New Left and his non-fictional works of political biography, autobiography, history and politics. The reader trying to get to grips quickly with the scale and ambition of Ali's voluminous work, as well as his dual interests in literature and politics could do worse than buy a copy of his recent collection, The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom (2009). In 300 or so pages, this book exposes the reader to his public and personal thinking over the past 40 years, including incisive discussions of some of the world's leading contemporary authors, from Joyce, to Roth, Solzhenitsyn and Rushdie.

Ali's political activism is inspired by the revolutionary years of the 1960s and he returns to this decade in several of his volumes. Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties (1987) documents some of the key moments and movements of the decade. The book follows a chronological structure and is at once an autobiographical account of the author's political life and an intimate biography of a crucial period of post-war world history. Street Fighting Years, which develops out of a book Ali published a decade before (1968 and After: Inside the Revolution, 1978), includes passionate accounts of Vietnam, Che Guevara, Paris in 1968 and the Black Power Movement in the United States. In his more recent book, 1968: Marching in the Streets (1998), Ali takes a closer look at that pivotal year of the 1960s. Co-written with his partner, Susan Watkins, and combining incisive commentary with photography, the book offers among other things a stunning, evocative visual narrative of the period. Moving through 1968 month by month, it also offers a meticulous re-vision of a momentous year. What is arguably most significant about Street Fighting Years and 1968: Marching in the streets (1998), though, is their attention to the transnational dimensions of the 1960s. To read Ali's work is to have challenged those easy associations of 1968 with street protests in Paris, Washington or New York. Moving adroitly between Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Mexico, China, Greece, Sweden, the Soviet Union, Germany and Brazil (the list goes on) these books expose the global conditions of 1968 and their ramifications outside the over developed West. Like Street Fighting Years, which was written 30 years after the events it describes, his latest work, The Idea of Communism (2009) is published to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both books do more than record history, they seek to refresh it, make it newly relevant: Communism, along with revolutionary politics are given a new breath of life by Ali.

Of course Ali's explosion of the myth of '1968' (or '1989') as a singularly Western discourse is at least partly informed by his own post-colonial background as a Pakistani migrant living in London. South Asian history and politics are never far from Ali's thoughts, as books like Can Pakistan Survive? (1983) and The Nehrus and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty (1985) and The Assassination: Who Killed Indira G? (2008) suggest. Other books, such as Masters of the Universe: NATO's Balkan Crusade (2000) deal with the neo-colonial implications of European and U. S. policy. Most recently The Clash of Fundamentalisms (2002) provides a provocative, polemic response to the events of September 11th 2001. Ali’s political writing carries a new urgency and relevance following 9/11 as can be evidenced in the searing critiques contained within Bush in Babylon (2003), Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad, London, Terror (2005) Speaking of Empire and Resistance (2005) and The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008). The latter is a particularly stimulating account of Pakistan's new intimacy with the US following the collapse of the twin towers, as well as the tensions this intimacy has provoked both within Pakistan country and between nations. Meanwhile, in Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope (2006), Ali ventures into less documented territory with a meditation on the significance of the revolutionary Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez Frias.

Where Ali's political writings centre on the divisions and tensions between East and West, Ali's fiction also explores their crossings, overlaps and mixings. Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992) is the first of Ali's quintet, which also includes The Book of Saladin (1998), The Stone Woman (2000), and A Sultan in Palermo (2005). These award-winning historical novels explore the encounter between the Christian West and the world of Islam. Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree is an enthralling account of Spain (the Iberian Peninsula) and the fall of Muslim Granada to Christendom. Ali manages to bring a warmth and intimacy to his tale by refusing to offer the distanced, panoramic, 'objective' perspective of formal history. Instead fiction is skilfully combined with and allowed to bleed into fact. Ali's talent is in evoking the local colour and detail of al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) through the eyes of a single family. The tragic, tenebrous survival of this family following the collapse of their world at the end of the fifteenth century casts a long shadow. The novel is much more than an historical fiction, it is an uncanny parable about the uncertainties facing late twentieth century Europe. As Ali puts it at the end of his prologue, 'Over the embers of one tragedy lurks the shadow of another'.

The Book of Saladin takes us even further back in history to the twelfth century. As with Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, the second novel has eerie implications for present day society, returning, as it does, to the conflict between Christianity and Islam. Set in Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem the book is a fictional memoir of Saladin, the Kurdish liberator of Jerusalem. The narrative is told by Ibn Yakub, Saladin's Jewish scribe, but the resulting tale is ultimately more than that of one man. As it progresses Saladin's narrative is forced to sit alongside those of others (Saladin's favourite wife, Jamila, the beautiful Halima, Amjad the eunuch, even the scribe himself!) in a tale of multiple voices and perspectives. Through these 'minor' voices, Ali allows marginal history to take centre stage. The same is true of Ali's most recent work in the quartet The Stone Woman (2001). A fictional account of the decline of the Ottoman Empire at the close of the nineteenth century, it centres on the aging figure of Iskander Pasha, descendant of the Sultan's favourite courtier and himself now a wealthy man. It is a story of masters and servants beset by the insecurities and neuroses that are symptoms of the fall of Empire. Like the best of Ali's work, The Stone Woman refuses to allow the Western reader a comforting, because distant narrative of 'other' cultures. It is a book that demands a re-interrogation of the West itself. It is perhaps unsurprising within this context that Ali was a close friend of the late intellectual, and author of Orientalism (1978), Edward Said (see Ali’s Conversations with Edward Said, 2006).

In A Sultan in Palermo, these connections between East and West, past and present are most poignantly visible. If A Sultan in Palermo goes back to the year 1153 it was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Iraq. Here the closing vision of the protagonist – a geographer - appears bitterly ironic to the contemporary reader: ‘He would go to Baghdad, the city that will always be ours. The city that will never fall. The city that will never fall.’

The topical and polemical qualities that mark all of Ali’s fictional and non-fictional work recently courted censorship when the BBC refused to put into production a three-part script it had commissioned Ali to write. The Leopard and the Fox (2007) concerned the life and death of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It will be interesting to see if the BBC revisits this decision following the assassination of Zulfikar’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007.

Dr James Procter, 2009


On History: Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone in Conversation , Haymarket Books
The Obama Syndrome, Verso
Night of the Golden Butterfly, Verso
The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom, Verso
The Idea of Communism, Seagull Books
The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, Simon & Schuster
The Assassination: Who Killed Indira G?, Seagull Books
The Leopard and the Fox, Seagull Books
A Banker for all Seasons: Crooks and Cheats Inc., Seagull Books
Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, Verso
Conversations with Edward Said, with Edward Said, Seagull Books
Speaking of Empire and Resistance, with David Barsamian, The New Press
Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad, London, Terror, Verso
A Sultan in Palermo, Verso
Bush in Babylon, Verso
The Clash of Fundamentalisms, Verso
The Stone Woman, Verso
Masters of the Universe: NATO's Balkan Crusade, Verso
Fear of Mirrors, Chatto & Windus
Ugly Rumours, with Howard Brenton, Nick Hern Books
Trotsky for Beginners, Icon Books
The Book of Saladin, Verso
Revolution from Above: Where is the Soviet Union Going?, Hutchinson
Fear of Mirrors, Arcadia Books
1968: Marching in the Streets, Bloomsbury
Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, Chatto & Windus
Necklaces, Bourne Associates
Redemption, Chatto & Windus
Moscow Gold, with Howard Brenton, Nick Hern Books
Iranian Nights, with Howard Brenton, Nick Hern Books
Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, Collins
The Nehrus and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty, Chatto & Windus
Who's Afraid of Margaret Thatcher?: In Praise of Socialism, In Conversation with Ken Livingstone, Verso
The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact on 20th-Century World Politics, Penguin
Can Pakistan Survive?: The Death of a State, Penguin
Chile, Lessons of the Coup: Which Way to Workers' Power?, with Gerry Hedley, IMG Publications
1968 and After: Inside the Revolution, Blond and Briggs