Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, by Tariq Ali
Islam Quintet Book 1
Publisher: Open Road Media
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
(Original Publ: 1993)
This novel intrigued me and held my interest primarily from its exotic nature to a Western reader relatively unfamiliar with the time period, particularly from the Muslim point of view. I studied Medieval Spanish history in course for school years ago, but not up to this point of the Renaissance period of ‘Reconquest’ under the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella.
It is immediately apparent that Ali writes nonfiction essays and screenplays predominantly, in many respects this novel is a mixture of the two set around a fictionalized plot of one family’s tragic destruction as microcosm of the Reconquest as a whole. Ali focuses the story around key historic details both political and of daily life, writing most eloquently when describing the mundane and quotidian, such as cooking a dish, or when describing moments of tenderness and eroticism. In contrast, while relaying large dramatic moments, Ali employs matter-of-fact brevity. The result is a flow that feels a great deal like watching a film, or a documentary re-enactment of events. In similar film manner the focus of scenes flows back and forth between characters with complete omniscience, favoring no single character in the novel overall, but intimately zoomed in to each for their moment in the camera’s eye.
The resulting style may not be for everyone’s reading taste, but I didn’t mind it whatsoever, in a way it gave the events related on the small scale of this one family seem more grandiose and general for the society as a whole, splitting focus between characters with varied pasts, secrets, and points of view. What is interesting is that although on the face of it the events in the story feature a clash of religions, particular theological faith has very little to do with it. Really it is a clash of general cultures. The majority of characters have either a general faith in an almighty power, willing to accept the Muslim version or the Christian as required, or have no faith whatsoever. Instead, the events are reduced to a matter of conqueror and conquered. Of destroying a particular culture and wiping it out and the decision of whether to give into assimilation or fighting to preserve a culture and religious heritage.
This treatment of a complex mixture of religion and general secular culture into a simplified form makes the point that these conflicts in history are, at their heart, ultimately independent of any theological issues. However, the treatment also reduces the characters, particularly the chief villain, into one-dimensional caricatures of cruelty. The novel thus certainly has its flaws, and those demanding happy endings to their stories should obviously stay away, but for those interested in an introduction to this period and the type of conflict that continues to this day, it would be worth reading.