Oppositional Progress: An Interview with Tariq Ali

Speak, for your lips are free…
Speak, for the truth still lives.
– Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Tariq Ali has a penchant for taking on uncomfortable subjects. For four decades now, having been both praised and reviled by many, he has gone against the grain and lived life at an angle. As we spoke desultorily for over an hour at his office in Soho, it was impressed upon me – by this amalgam of political commentator, activist, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, broadcaster and powerful orator – that nothing is sacred and there can be no room for dogmas.

Britain is a rather secret country. The esotericism of the political establishment is seldom shared. A recent disclosure of files from 1974 reveals minutes from a cabinet meeting where the activities of one Tariq Ali were discussed. In the years that preceded, his political forays had certainly caused a great stir. In 1965 he was elected President of the Oxford Union, during which time he had risen to prominence after a series of debates with Henry Kissinger and then Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart. He was invited to dinner by Marlon Brando, arrested in Latin America under suspicion of being Che Guevara’s bodyguard, had travelled to Vietnam on behalf of Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell to survey war crimes and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had sought his counsel on founding a new political movement in Pakistan.

Famously, as a leader of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Tariq led over 25,000 students to Grosvenor Square and later, in October 1968, a 100,000 strong demonstration to Trafalgar Square. It’s a subject that he’s speaking on later tonight at the National Portrait Gallery, The Crowds in the Square: Demonstrating Dissent.

But things are different now; ideas have changed. With the événements of 1989, Tariq avers in a wonderful commanding voice that carries delightful Lahori intonations, ‘I had realised that the epoch of socialist ideas had come to an end.’ Working with people like Darcus Howe (now a columnist for The New Statesman), Tariq produced The Bandung File for a number of years – a weekly magazine broadcast on Channel 4 that peeled away at the Third World. Around the same time the ex-revolutionary took up another pursuit: ‘Politics was in the doldrums and nothing much was going on in reality, so I decided to write fiction.’

Tariq’s earliest set of novels is called the The Fall of Communism Trilogy, the first of which, Redemption, is a savagely witty attack on some of his erstwhile comrades. ‘It was basically a satirical attack on the sectarianism within Trotskyism, and on sectarianism in general. I followed that up by Fear of Mirrors and then began my Islam Quintet.’

The Clash of Fundamentalisms, his seminal polemic, opens with the laconic sentence, ‘I never really believed in God.’ It follows that historical materialism came easy to him, but Tariq is not so much an atheist as he is an antitheist: every religion being a different version of the same untruth. So why the fascination with Islam? ‘The question I wanted to pose in the wake of the first Gulf War was, “Why hadn’t Islam experienced a Reformation?” I wanted to go to the roots of the problem, so I went to Spain, spent months travelling around, imagining things – I didn’t feel to write a history, I wanted to write a novel.’

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, The Book of Saladin, and The Stone Woman, all published by Verso, have bound within them the confrontations between Islamic and Christian civilisations set to a picturesque background of humour, love, heresy, betrayal and tragedy. Critics have argued that historical fiction of this rank put the author in the company of writers like Amin Maalouf, if not Naguib Mahfouz at a stretch. What about the remainder of the quintet? When can we expect the next novel?

‘Well, I need to find a writer’s retreat. After I came out with Shadows, and it was well received, my friend Edward Said told me, “Don’t just stop at Spain. Do it all.” So I’ve got to chronicle the whole damn thing. And there’s a third volume also that I’ll be looking to write, looking at the subject of renegacy.’

Renegacy? I suppose he’s alluding to the phenomenon surrounding former leftists who have since reneged their views; ‘The new empire loyalists’ as he referred to them in The Guardian nearly two years ago. In that particular piece, while confronting those who had found their way from ‘the outer fringes of radical politics to the antechambers of the state department’ – presumably people like David Horowitz in the United States – Tariq found time to chide former friends Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens for having metamorphosed into the belligerati. The attacks of September 11 drew huge rifts between a number of scribblers who are courted by the liberal press on both sides of the Atlantic.

Having earned a reputation as a caustic critic of Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and others who felt his iconoclastic fury, Christopher decided on that tragic day to throw in his lot behind the Bush administration and its ‘War on Terror’. Since then, Tariq Ali and Christopher Hitchens have met publicly on a number of occasions and, needless to say, clashed calamitously. Their disagreement has been rendered all the more dramatic by their shared history: both read PPE at Oxford, graduated with stylish thirds, held positions in the Oxford Union, developed their political grounding as soixante-huitards from the Trotskyist movement, and several years later collaborated on the Channel 4 film, Hell’s Angel that blew away the halo surrounding Mother Theresa.

The appendix to Tariq’s latest polemical work, Bush in Babylon, is a humorous dissection of The Hitch’s political writing around Iraq. Their last fracas, broadcast on DemocracyNow, sees Christopher repeatedly interjecting on the point of support for the resistance in Iraq at which point Tariq stammers, ‘Don’t be stupid and arrogant!’ ‘Ok, I’ll be quiet now,’ was the enfeebled riposte from the equally irascible Christopher.

The resistance to occupation in Iraq has been a point of contention for many. Leading into the war there was unprecedented international opposition, yet once it began there was a specious demand made to ‘support our troops’ or to ‘withdraw only once stability has resumed’. The conversationalist entertaining me, however, staunchly defends a different position.

His latest book is written very much in the style of the one that preceded it, The Clash of Fundamentalisms. Acerbic prose is luxuriantly mixed with poetry, personal reminiscence, and heavily interlarded with history. The analysis, though at times cogent, suffers from the same symptoms: a casual attitude toward scholarship and an over-reliance on single sources. Bush in Babylon (which was confiscated off me by US Customs on a visit to Chicago last November) offers a popularised history of Iraq, detailing periods of political turmoil, the roots of Western interference in the country and a thought-provoking history of resistance.

Why then, as the book begins by asking, is it that people are surprised to learn that the occupation is detested by a majority of Iraqis? ‘I think what creates this bewilderment is two things. First, there’s no sense of being occupied historically, and second, there is an arrogance in the world in which we live that says they should be so lucky to be occupied by the United States. What’s wrong with them? Why are they getting so upset? We’re doing them a big favour.’

And what are people to make of the resistance being waged against this occupation? ‘The resistance in Iraq is following anti-colonial patterns; it’s not too dissimilar to what happened in Algeria or Vietnam. And one must remember, while the British governed Iraq through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – there was resistance of one sort or another.’

Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism, once posited that there has also always been some form of cultural resistance in the face of an active Western intruder. Though Arabic-less himself, Tariq Ali has brought to the attention of the Western reader the importance of poetry as a medium of cultural resistance in the Middle East. ‘Poetry,’ Tariq tells me, ‘plays a very important role in Arab culture. It’s not an elite thing at all, which it has become in the West. In the Arab world and the Muslim world you have poetry readings attended by tens of thousands.’

It certainly is a tradition somewhat alien to the West, but bearing in mind that in the 19th century there was a strong tradition of radical poetry in Britain and the United States, I ask how culture and politics imbricate through poetry. ‘There’s a tradition where critical poems written by Nizar Qabbani, the fine Syrian poet, or Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of Palestine, is immediately picked up by ordinary people in cafés, across frontiers without any problems. The great singers of the Arab world then sing these poems; the poem is transformed and is consumed by millions.’

Somewhat less well received have been the interviewee’s scripts for the stage. Together Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton have co-written a string of political satires for performance. Their first outing was with Iranian Nights at the Royal Court Theatre, in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair. ‘We chose the theatre as a forum of choice because political theatre has a history in Europe, and the place was packed out.’ Snogging Ken, Ugly Rumours and Collateral Damage followed. The last two were scurrilous attacks on New Labour, very much in the spirit of the attacks by Harold Pinter and Hanif Kureishi, as is Tariq Ali’s latest play, The Illustrious Corpse (shown at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester and the Soho Theatre).

Having mentioned that the LIP is looking at issues around asylum and immigration, I want to know why he finds New Labour so odious. Tariq’s face contorts to evince a grimacing look full of disdain. ‘I have a visceral hatred of them and everything they stand for. These are people without any political principles at all, intent on staying in power at all cost. They will back war, privatise things even the Tories wouldn’t dream of, they are selling off schools to corporations, they are just wrecking this country.’

I sense that time is trespassing on his patience with much still to be exhausted. I couldn’t, however, possibly leave without understanding why he persists to rail against power in an age that is hardly propitious for dissent. After all, most of the people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security. ‘I think it’s a case of just obstinately refusing to capitulate. Through, projects like the New Left Review, which is a cultural and political journal, the work I’ve undertaken with comrades close to me manages to sustain me.’ In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens postulates that ‘rebellion is innate’. I put the point to Tariq. He winces. I don’t know what he’s offended by more, the contention or the contender. ‘I, myself, prefer Goethe’s maxim: “the world goes forward because of those who oppose it.”’

Bush In Babylon and Clash of Fundamentalisms are published by Verso.

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