This was a book that I have been wanting to read for atleast four years!!! This and the whole Islamic Quintet…and it has been unbelievably tough to get hold of it…
But this quest ended with the finding of the treasure a few months back!!! and what a treasure it is…
It needed the calibre and passion of someone like Tariq Ali to meld together history and fiction in such a beautiful mixture. The story not only holds itself faithful to the historical facts but also weaves fiction in ways that it does not affect the narrative, only enhancing it.
The story revolves around Salah-ul-din, more popularly known as Saladin (in occidental literature that is), the liberator of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was sacked and brutally occupied by the First Crusade in 1099, with all its muslim and jewish occupants killed in the most barbaric manner imaginable. Islam, then at the height of its civilization, was shocked at the acts of the barbarian hordes from Europe. It gave them a body blow from which they took almost a century to recover.
It needed Saladin to unite the warring factions in the Arab world and present a united Islamic army to the crusaders. Jerusalem was liberated by Saladin’s army in 1189, for which he till today remains a role model in the Arab world with various leaders wanted to co-opt him, Saddam Hussain being one of them (in fact the eagle on the flags of Egypt, Yemen and Iraq was the flag standard of Saladin).
The book is not only about this historical event and all the incidents leading upto it but is equally about the person that Saladin was. Written by a fictional biographer Ibn Yakub employed by Saladin at the start of a book to record his life, the past and as it happens, we are treated to a feast of diverse characters – from the fiercely independent Sultana Jamila, the concubine Hamila and their complicated relationship, Shahdi, the irreverant old soldier whose loyalty is only to Saladin, Nur-al-din, the sultan who most inspires Saladin, Ibn Maymun (historical Maimonides), Guy Lusignan, Balian of Ibelin, Reynald of Chatillion to lots of minor characters that enrich the story over the 200 odd pages.
Most of all, its about Saladin – his passion for driving out the Franj (the all encompassing name given to the crusaders – derived from Franks) from the holy lands, his innate sense of justice which seems remarkably liberal even by standards of our century, his intellectual rigour, his tolerance for diversity, his humour. Its also about his weaknesses and about the doubts about his actions and his increasing loneliness as he begins to be treated as a demi-god after the liberation of Jerusalem – all of which makes him very much a human which makes the reader almost reach out to him and sympathize. The portrait is of a man far ahead of his time who over the centuries will be commoditised to suit the different ruler’s different interests
What we have is a story of heroism, of human frailty, of a enlightened civilization trying to gather itself and find old glory, of events that have gone down in history, set in a period whose echoes affects our conscience even today, even though we might not be aware of it. For example, the Arab hatred of the western ‘barbarism’ and of the word ‘Crusader’ can be gleaned from here as can be the seed of the decline of Islam – the religion and the civilization that played the most role in European Renaissance.
What we also have is a very human story – of love, of betrayals – both personal and political, disillusionments, glorification and vilification of liberators, also of hope and redemption, all of which make it a story that does not seem at all distant.
In fact, the aware reader will find all the aspects of the modern world reflected in the lives if the characters and the world they inhabited and the reader will realize that we do not live lives too different from them. Change the names and dates and the event will mirror events in our lifetimes. History does repeat itself – again and again.
It does not need a historically aware person to read and enjoy the book and that is its beauty. In fact this book is a must read for everyone not only for its gripping story or for its glimpse into a lost world but also for its relevance for us today.
Saladin is one of the people in history whom I truly admire and it truly has been a feast reading this book. Tariq Ali, it seems cannot disappoint.