Book Review, Fiction, Historical

A Sultan in Palermo by Tariq Ali

n230287 This book is Part IV of the Islamic Quintet by Tariq Ali and continues with the series’ promise of bringing forth a rich tapestry of the Islamic world as it existed at its height of power and when it is about to fall from the dizzying heights that it attained in its first century of conquest.

This book is about Sicily (known as Siquilliya) during the time of the celebrated cartologist Muhammed al-Idrisi. Palermo is one of the most cultured city in the world vying with Baghdad and Cairo. The island is ruled by a Norman ruler, King Roger (though he is more popularly known as Sultan Rujari in the island and among his subjects) who has adopted the Arab culture and in whose kingdom Muslims, Christians and Jews have co-existed though the orthodox Christians are understandably unhappy about the influence that the Muslim culture has over King Rujari.

The book is set at a time when the tension in the island becomes high as the King becomes slowly incapable of asserting his authority due to old age and due to lack of a proper succession alternative, the Christian monks and Bishops (who have been shown as rapacious and small minded – a characterisation of which there is a dearth of in western literature) begin to grab power with the ultimate aim of converting Sicily into a ‘pure’ Christian country.

Al-Idrisi is drawn into this maelstrom of secret plots and counter-plots quite against his will. But every man is a product of their times and his life is shaped by the events around him.

We are also shown his family life, complete with scheming daughters, grandchildren who he begins to mentor, son-in-laws plotting to rise up in rebellion against the Christians. Central to the story also is Idrisi’s love for Mayaa with whom he had the affair of his life at an young age and who had been taken by the Sultan as concubine, who comes back into his life along with a daughter that has been fathered by Idrisi’s.

The pages are filled with fascinating characters including ‘The Trusted One’ – a wandering ascetic formenting rebellion, Philip-al-Mahdi, the wisest court advisor, who is sacrificed by the King to preserve his throne, the Emir of Syracuse and so on…

Most importantly, it gives the view of the world from the ‘other’ side,a side which is often callously disregarded in a media that mainly draws its inspiration from the western viewpoint.

As with his other novels in the Quintet, this novel gives us an endearing glimpse into the lives and customs of the people who lived nearly a thousand years back with whom we seem to relate as if we met them on a street.

And it is a fascinating journey right down to the fall.

Its a history lesson which doubles up as a damn good story.



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