I prefer to be an Ottoman

Justin Huggler

  • The Stone Woman by Tariq Ali
    Verso, 274 pp, £15.00, July 2000, ISBN 1 85984 764 1

No country in the Islamic world has embraced the West as eagerly as Turkey has, which makes it an intriguing setting for the third novel in Tariq Ali’s Islamic Quartet: a series of snapshots of the great historic collisions between the two cultures, taken from the Eastern point of view. The Stone Woman is set as the 19th century draws to a close. With the Ottoman Empire in terminal decline, Ali sends the members of a wealthy and aristocratic Turkish family hurrying to the bedside of the patriarch, Iskander Pasha, who has had a stroke. As he slowly recovers, the family, their friends and servants debate whether their country, ‘the sick man of Europe’, can get better too.

At first sight it seems that Ali has set out to write an Eastern Magic Mountain, if only in the sense that his characters, withdrawn from the world, discuss the historic events taking place around them. As the narrator, Nilofer, Iskander Pasha’s daughter, puts it: ‘Outside in the world a great deal was going on. Rebellions were being plotted. Resistance was being prepared. Sultans and Emperors were becoming uneasy. History was being made. Here, in the beautiful fragrant gardens . . . all that seemed very remote.’ But this is a little disingenuous: Ali’s characters are not detached from the outside world. Iskander Pasha’s country retreat teems with intrigue. There is a political murder. The Young Turks, plotting a nationalist revolution against the Ottoman Sultan, hold one of their secret meetings in the house. Even Ataturk makes a brief appearance. He is not named, but simply referred to as a ‘young officer from Salonika’. The previous novel in the Quartet, The Book of Saladin, was a panegyric to the formidable Kurdish general who turned the Crusaders out of Jerusalem. The Stone Woman, by contrast, is the story of forgotten people who lived through great changes, and shaped them unwittingly.

It is to the The Stone Woman’s advantage that it is not primarily concerned with the great men of history. One of The Book of Saladin’s weaknesses was its stock characters: the heroic, self-denying general; the irreverent but faithful old retainer; the comically self-important academic. The characterisation in The Stone Woman is subtler: Mariam, for example, the cruel wife of Nilofer’s brother Salman, has a fear of emotional commitment which is traced back to her abandonment by her mother, while Iskander Pasha himself, strict and puritanical in the eyes of his family, but a drinker and womaniser during his time as Ambassador to Paris, has the classic split personality of the Islamic patriarch (one brilliantly explored in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy). Ali’s explanation for this lies in Iskander Pasha’s past, however. We learn that he was once a dervish, a Sufi mystic who believed that God could be found through sensual ecstasy, and that it was the death of his first, Sufi wife which turned him into such a solemn figure.

Not all the characters in the novel are so well developed – in fact, some are hardly developed at all. Ali has stuffed The Stone Woman with more characters than he can handle. Nilofer’s half-sister Zeynep, for instance, has so little to do that Ali has to pack her off to Istanbul to get rid of her. And, even with his stronger characters, his control slips from time to time. Some of the dialogue is unconvincing: what is said is interesting enough, but people just don’t talk this way. ‘I am starved of information concerning your life’ seems an extraordinary turn of phrase for a mother comforting her weeping daughter. More alarming, the characters do not react realistically to dramatic events. Nilofer may no longer be in love with her first husband, Dmitri, but when he is murdered, you would expect her to feel horror or pity – or at least guilt at her own lack of feeling – but she has recovered her poise within a few paragraphs. When a spy is discovered at a Young Turks’ meeting and dragged off to be murdered, the characters are unmoved. ‘Poor man,’ the old German tutor comments – which seems something of an understatement.

As the title implies, The Stone Woman is a novel about women, history’s (and Islam’s) most forgotten figures. This is a world of arranged marriages, where it is taken for granted that although a man can have several wives, a woman can have only one husband. On the other hand, Ali knows that women weren’t, as the myth has it, entirely powerless. The aristocratic Nilofer is at a considerable advantage in her relationship with her first husband, the Greek schoolteacher Dmitri, who is decidedly middle-class, and a member of a subject people, while the Young Turk Selim, Nilofer’s second husband, is a strong supporter of women’s rights. Interestingly, abolishing the veil is the only one of his stated aims that still troubles modern Turkey. The irony is that Ali has set out to explore difficult historical and cultural issues through the accessible medium of fiction, but his writing is at its best when he is dealing with these complex factual matters.

The Stone Woman herself, the statue of an ancient goddess, is a narrative device intended to compensate for the limitations of a first-person narrator. For centuries, the women on Iskander Pasha’s country estate have told their secrets to the statue in the dead of night – which allows Ali to break away from Nilofer’s narrative and reveal the thoughts of other characters. But it is an unnecessary device. The characters’ secrets are more interesting when they’re modulated via an unreliable narrator. Nilofer herself is convinced that the reason her Greek husband is willing to die at the hands of Turkish nationalists is that she no longer loves him, despite the fact that he has written to her that it is a ‘political act’.

In a sense, the two reasons are inextricable: Ali’s characters represent the dilemma facing the dying Ottoman Empire. The family’s old tutor is German (Germany was the major European influence on the Ottoman Empire in its last years) and is having an affair with the intellectual of the family, Uncle Memed, which is used to symbolise the meeting of East and West. Iskander Pasha’s split personality serves much the same function. He was Ambassador in Paris during the Prussian siege of 1870, when Napoleon III was overthrown; and as Nilofer reads his diaries from that time it is made clear that drastic change is now underway in Ottoman Turkey. ‘Only the French could topple their king in these circumstances,’ Iskander writes. ‘How I envy them this capacity.’ Turkey soon enough would do the same. As the Western powers set about carving up the Ottoman Empire, confining the Turks to a small area of barren steppe, Ataturk, the ‘young officer from Salonika’, forced the Sultan from power and set up the Turkish Republic.

A seemingly inconsequential exchange between Nilofer and her second husband shows how infatuated the Ottoman Turks of the novel are with the West – and how much the Islamic world has changed since the 12th century, in which Ali’s last novel was set. Selim tells Nilofer that he dreams of becoming a photographer: she is astonished. ‘Is it that you could not imagine a future for me other than that dictated by my past and my origins?’ Selim asks. ‘Do you think only Italians can be photographers? This new art is beyond the reach of a poor boy from Anatolia?’ This is a far cry from the world of The Book of Saladin, where the Westerners are ‘barbarians’, to be converted or despised, not the masters of new technologies to be emulated. Both the first and second novels in the Quartet dealt with high points of Islamic civilisation (the first was set in the Arab Caliphate of Cordoba). In The Stone Woman the last of the great Muslim empires has been reduced to ‘a poor boy from Anatolia’, peering in at the window of the West’s camera shop.

The novel may look forward to the rise of the Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, but the Empire in its time had represented much more than Turkey, and its collapse meant the end of a united Islam’s challenge to Western hegemony: there would no longer be a caliph, a successor to the Prophet Mohammed. The Stone Woman shows the last Islamic empire in its death throes, its rulers desperate to forge a new state in emulation of the West. This is often seen today as a triumph of the allegedly Western values of democracy and human rights, but Ali does not see it that way. When Nilofer and Selim debate the form of a new Turkish state, she tells her husband: ‘I have no desire to be described as Turkish. I prefer to be an Ottoman.’ It is not just that Turkishness is ‘soulless’, as Nilofer petulantly puts it. Her mother’s family is Jewish, and whereas the Ottoman Empire was a political concept that embraced many ethnicities and all three religions ‘of the Book’, the Turkish national movement aimed to build a Western state around a single ethnic nation: Muslim Turks. Ali’s portrayal of the Ottoman Empire is a little rosy, but it is essentially accurate.

‘What of the Greeks who do not wish to leave Istanbul or Izmir?’ Nilofer asks. ‘You will either force them to be Turks or drive them into the sea?’ When her son asks if his father Dmitri’s killers will be punished when the Sultan is overthrown, one of Nilofer’s brothers tells him the truth. The men who murdered his father because he was Greek are the very ones who are planning the brave new Turkish world. Even more chilling is the case of Petrossian, the family servant, an Armenian. Petrossian tells the Stone Woman that his sister’s house has been set on fire in an attempt to drive the Armenians out of her village. He says that Nilofer’s brother Halil, an Ottoman general, used to prevent this sort of thing, but can no longer do so. The old multi-ethnic state is crumbling – and more than a million Armenians will be systematically massacred by the Turks during the First World War.

There is one last twist in the novel’s great debate – and an unexpected one. At the end of this serious novel of assassinations and ethnic cleansing, Ali introduces a genuinely comic character: Iskander Pasha’s brother Kemal, a shipping magnate. Kemal claims that he ‘could fly the Japanese flag’ on his ships, ‘if I wished’ – national identity is not of much importance to an international businessman.