Tariq Ali Critical Essays

Introduction

Tariq Ali 1943-

Pakistani nonfiction writer, novelist, editor, playwright, historian, and journalist.

The following entry presents an overview of Ali's career through 2002.

Ali has been recognized as an important political and social commentator, establishing a reputation as a left-wing activist and journalist during the 1960s and 1970s. His work as an activist, journalist, editor, historian, playwright, and novelist has made him a familiar figure in British political and literary circles. In recent years, his writings have focused on the turbulent relationship between the countries of India and Pakistan and on British policies in the Middle East.

Biographical Information

Ali was born on October 21, 1943, in Lahore, India, a region that is now part of Pakistan. In 1963 he received his B.A. from Punjab University, and then attended Oxford University in England. During his college years in England, Ali developed his talents as a writer and served as the president of the Oxford Union. He gained attention for his activities as a left-wing political activist, protesting British involvement in the Vietnam War as well as its policies toward the Soviet Union. After graduating from Oxford, Ali began working as a journalist, writing about a variety of political, social, and cultural issues while also serving as a member of the editorial board of the New Left Review. During the 1980s, he owned his own independent television production company, Bandung, which produced programs for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). He has been a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio and has also contributed articles and journalism to magazines and newspapers including The Guardian and the London Review of Books. Ali resides in England and continues to expound on current political conditions, such as the cultural conflicts in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions.

Major Works

Ali has written a broad range of nonfiction, publishing first-hand accounts of life in the Soviet Union and in post-Soviet Russia, memoirs and studies of the student movement in the 1960s, explanatory texts on Stalinism and Trotskyism, and modern political histories of India and the Balkan crisis. 1968 and After: Inside the Revolution (1978) and Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties (1987) both delineate events of the 1960s and comment on the turbulent political and social climate of the era. In Revolution from Above: Where Is the Soviet Union Going? (1988), Ali displays his investigative talents in an exploration of the socio-political conditions in the Soviet Union before and during the fall of communism. Turning his focus toward his homeland, Ali presented his personal analysis of the political relations between India and Pakistan in Can Pakistan Survive? (1983). Ali continued his examination of Indian culture with An Indian Dynasty: The Story of the Nehru-Gandhi Family (1985) which traces the history and influence of the Nehru-Gandhi family in Indian politics. As a response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Ali published The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity (2002). The work explores the history of spiritual fundamentalism, arguing that the September 11 attacks were caused by a conflict between religious dogma and modern imperialism.

During the 1990s, Ali began to write and publish fiction that explores his interest in Muslim history and culture. Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1993) is his first novel in a planned quartet detailing confrontations between Islamic and Christian civilizations. The book chronicles events surrounding the Banu Hudayl—an aristocratic Muslim family—in late fourteenth-century Spain. The novel opens with the burning of all Muslim books by Ximenes de Cisneros, Queen Isabella's confessor, and relates the misfortunes of the Hudayl family, including the struggles of patriarch Umar Hudayl, his son Yazid, and the fall of Islam in Spain. Ali's 1999 novel, The Book of Saladin, the second novel in the quartet, is a fictitious memoir of the ruler Salah-al-Din, who wrested Jerusalem from Christian control in the twelfth century. The work seeks to dismiss the stereotype of Saladin as a ruthless and godless conqueror, employing a modern sensibility in its depiction of European Crusaders in a distinctly negative light. The third installment in the series, The Stone Woman (2000), focuses on the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century as viewed through the eyes of one family, and in particular, through the eyes of its patriarch, Iskander Pasha. Iskander suffers a stroke, which leaves him partially paralyzed. As his lengthy rehabilitation progresses, many of his friends and family members come to visit. Over the course of the novel, Iskander seeks answers to the reasons behind the decline of his empire and attempts to reconcile his past behavior with his present emotions. Much of the narrative also focuses on his daughter, Nilofer, her relationship with Iskander, and the feelings and opinions of their other relatives. Ali's novel Fear of Mirrors (1998) is written in an epistolary style, taking the form of a letter from Professor Vladimir Meyer to his estranged son, Karl, in an attempt to explain the family history. The novel moves back and forth in place and time, covering several generations of Vladimir's family as well as the development of the early communist movement. Ali intersperses fictional characters with well-known historical figures, creating a narrative that recounts the rise and fall of communism and the reunification of Germany.

All of Ali's dramatic works have been written in collaboration with Howard Brenton, focusing strongly on the genre of “Instant History” plays—plays which are composed quickly to address timely social and political issues. Written in just over five days, Ali's play Iranian Nights (1989) was intended to act as a metaphorical response to the Islamic furor surrounding the release of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. The plot utilizes several characters from Arabic folklore, including The Caliph and Scheherezade, in a tale about religious blasphemy and the nature of storytelling. Moscow Gold (1990) deals with the history of communism in the Soviet Union, following three women—Zoya, Katya, and Lena—as they experience and are affected by some of the major events in Soviet history, including the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the election of Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Ugly Rumours (1998) satirizes the British New Labour movement, taking its title from the band that British Prime Minister Tony Blair formed while attending Fettes College. The play centers around Blair as he struggles to deal with national politics while being haunted by the ghost of Margaret Thatcher who lives in the attic of No. 10 Downing Street. Ali and Brenton have also joined with Andy de la Tour to produce Collateral Damage (1999), which concerns the Serbian-Croatian conflict, and Snogging Ken (2000), a satire about a London mayoral election.

Critical Reception

Ali's fiction and drama have met with mixed reviews, with critics generally favoring his plays over his novels. The plays Iranian Nights and Moscow Gold have been particularly singled out for their provocative political themes and nontraditional structures. His novels, in contrast, have received harsher criticism with some reviewers deeming them unimaginative and stylistically inferior. Several critics have faulted Ali for inadequate characterizations in his novels, while others have criticized his fiction citing such faults as overabundant metaphors, overuse of political jargon, and heavy-handed exposition. However, many commentators have applauded the pacing of Ali's storytelling as well as his humor and concern for authenticity in his historical novels, arguing that his later work appears more confident and mature. Critical consensus regarding Ali's political and historical studies has generally been favorable, with scholars noting his knowledgeable and intelligent treatment of Soviet and Middle Eastern politics. Nevertheless, some critics have found Ali's nonfiction to be needlessly polemic and marred by exaggeration, superficiality, and a lack of original information. In addition, several commentators have made similar observations regarding Ali's fiction, claiming his prose is predictable and overly driven by his own political beliefs. Julian Ferraro, for example, has stated that despite Ali's gripping subject matter, his writing often displays a “leaden touch.” In general, reviewers have praised the epic historical detail in many of Ali's novels, but have conversely panned the author's abilities with narrative and prose. In his review of Fear of Mirrors, Ferraro continued, “The dialogue is either turgid with political analysis or wooden to the point of bathos. … and the trite conclusion provided by the final scenes seriously undermines the bleak complexities of the rest of the book.” Overall, many commentators have agreed that Ali's unique background provides him with a valuable and intriguing perspective regarding world affairs.