New York Times Book Review
The Stone Woman: A Novelby Tariq Ali
The story of a dying man and a waning empire
The Stone Woman has stood on the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul for generations. The ancient pagan icon has become a confessor, allowing people to release their guilt without consequence. Close to the Stone Woman is the family home of Iskander Pasha, a distant descendant of an exiled Ottoman courtier. When/b>… See more details below
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The story of a dying man and a waning empire
The Stone Woman has stood on the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul for generations. The ancient pagan icon has become a confessor, allowing people to release their guilt without consequence. Close to the Stone Woman is the family home of Iskander Pasha, a distant descendant of an exiled Ottoman courtier. When the aged Iskander suffers a stroke, his family rushes to his side to hear his last stories.
As the dying man revisits his life, a complex family drama emerges, tracing the labored final breaths of an empire in decline. Through the diverse Pasha clan, Tariq Ali reveals sexual intrigue, political unrest, and domestic tension simmering in the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. In the third book of his acclaimed Islam Quintet, Ali draws a nuanced and powerful portrait of the Muslim world.
New York Times Book Review
Internet Book Watch
“A richly woven tapestry that, even before its completion, merits comparison with Naguib Mahfouz's celebrated Cairo Trilogy. A great work in progress.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Ali spins a web of tales that is as inventive and fantastical as the Arabian nights.”—The Times
“Tales of anguish, longing, lust and love all find their way to The Stone Woman. Ali paints a vivid picture of a fading world.”—New York Times Book Review
“This Chekhov-like scenario of intense emotion within a creaking social structure constructs a rich picture of history and the way we think about history.”—Times Literary Supplement
Read an Excerpt
The summer of 1899; Nilofer returns home
after an enforced absence; Yusuf Pasha's
exile; Iskander Pasha suffers a stroke
Myths always overpower truth in family histories. Ten days ago, I asked my father why, almost two hundred years ago, our great forebear, Yusuf Pasha, had been disgraced and sent into exile by the Sultan in Istanbul. My son, Orhan, on whose behalf I made this request, was sitting next to me shyly, stealing an occasional look at his grandfather, whom he had never seen before.
When one first arrives here after a long absence, through the winding roads and the green hills, the mixture of scents becomes overpowering and it becomes difficult not to think of Yusuf Pasha. This was the palace of his exile and its fragile, undying beauty never fails to overwhelm me. As children we often travelled from Istanbul in the dust-stifling heat of the summer sun, but long before we actually felt the cooling breeze on our skins, the sight of the sea had already lifted our spirits. We knew the journey would soon be over.
It was Yusuf Pasha who instructed the architect to find a remote space, but not too distant from Istanbul. He wanted the house built on the edge of solitude, but within reach of his friends. The location of the building had to mirror the punishment inflicted on him. It was both very close and far removed from the site of his triumphs in the old city. That was the only concession he made to the conditions imposed on him by the Sultan.
The structure of the house ispalatial. Some compromises had been made, but the house was essentially an act of defiance. It was Yusuf Pasha's message to the Sultan: I may have been banished from the capital of the Empire, but the style in which I live will never change. And when his friends arrived to stay here, the noise and laughter were heard in the palace at Istanbul.
An army of apricot, walnut and almond trees was planted to guard his exile and shield the house from the storms that mark the advent of winter. Every summer, for as long as I can remember, we had played in their shade; played and laughed and cursed and made each other cry as children often do when they are alone. The garden at the back of the house was a haven, its tranquillity emphasised whenever the sea in the background became stormy. We would come here to unwind and inhale the intoxicating early morning breeze after our first night in the house. The unendurable tedium of the Istanbul summer was replaced by the magic of Yusuf Pasha's palace. The first time I came here I was not yet three, and yet I remember that day very clearly. It was raining and I became very upset because the rain was wetting the sea.
And there were other memories. Passionate memories. Anguished memories. The torment and pleasure of stolen moments during late-night trysts. The scents of the grass in the orange grove at night, which relaxed the heart. It was here that I first kissed Orhan's father, "that ugly, skinny Dmitri, Greek school inspector from Konya" as my mother had called him, with a stern and inflexible expression that hardened her eyes. That he was a Greek was bad enough, but his job as an inspector of rural schools made it all so much worse. It was the combination that really upset her. She would not have minded at all if Dmitri had belonged to one of the Phanariot families of old Constantinople. How could her only daughter bring such disgrace to the house of Iskander Pasha?
This attitude was uncharacteristic of her. She was never bothered by family trees. It was simply that she had another suitor in mind. She had wanted me to marry her uncle Sifrah's oldest son. I had been promised to my cousin soon after my birth. And this most gentle and even-tempered of women had exploded with rage and frustration at the news that I wanted to marry a nobody.
It was my married half-sister, Zeynep, who told her that the cousin for whom she had intended me was not interested in women at all, not even as engines for procreation. Zeynep began to embroider tales. Her language became infected by the wantonness she was describing and my mother felt her elaborate descriptions were unsuitable for my unmarried ears. She painted my poor cousin in such dark and lecherous colours that I was asked to leave the room.
Later that day my mother lamented bitterly as she kissed and embraced me. Zeynep had convinced her that our poor cousin was a merciless monster and my mother was weeping in self-reproach at the thought that she might have forced her only daughter to marry such a depraved beast and thus have become the direct cause of my lifelong unhappiness. Naturally, I forgave her and we talked and laughed about what might have been. I'm not sure whether she ever discovered that Zeynep had invented everything. When my much-maligned cousin became ill during a wave of typhoid and died soon afterwards, Zeynep thought it better if the truth was concealed from my mother. This had one unfortunate result. At her nephew's funeral in Smyrna and to the great consternation of my uncle Sifrah, my mother found it difficult to display any signs of grief and when I forced myself to squeeze out a few tears she looked at me in shocked surprise.
All that lay in the past. The most important truth for me was that after nine years of exile I was back again. My father had forgiven me for running away. He wanted to see my son. I wanted to see the Stone Woman. Throughout my childhood my sister and I had found hiding places among the caves near an ancient rock which must once have been a statue of a pagan goddess. It overlooked the almond orchards behind our house and, when we saw it from a distance, it looked most like a woman. It dominated the tiny hillock on which it stood, surrounded by ruins and rocks. It was not Aphrodite or Athena. Them we recognised. This one bore traces of a mysterious veil, which became visible only when the sun set. Her face was hidden. Perhaps, Zeynep said, it was a local goddess, long since forgotten. Perhaps the sculptor had been in a hurry. Perhaps the Christians had been on the march and circumstances had compelled him to change his mind. Perhaps she was not a goddess at all, but the first carved image of Mariam, the mother of Jesus. We could never agree on her identity and so she became the Stone Woman. As children we used to confide in her, ask her intimate questions, imagine her replies.
One day we discovered that our mothers and aunts and women servants did the same. We used to hide behind the rocks and listen to their tales of woe. It was the only way we knew what was really taking place inside the big house. And in this way, the Stone Woman became the repository of all our hidden pain. Secrets are terrible things. Even when they are necessary they begin to corrode our souls. It is always better to be open, and the Stone Woman enabled all the women in this house to disgorge their secrets and thus live a healthy inner life themselves.
"Mother," whispered Orhan as he clutched my arm tight, "will Grandfather ever tell me why this palace was built?"
There were many versions of the Yusuf Pasha story in our family, some of them quite hostile to our ancestor, but these were usually the preserve of those great-uncles and great-aunts whose side of the family had been disinherited by mine. We all knew that Yusuf Pasha wrote erotic poetry, that except for the few verses passed down orally from one generation to the next, it had all been burnt. Why had the poetry been destroyed? By whom?
I used to ask my father this question, at least once a year, before my exile. He would smile and ignore my question completely. I thought that perhaps my father was embarrassed to discuss this aspect with his children, especially a daughter. Not this time. Perhaps it was the presence of Orhan. This was the first tithe that he had seen Orhan. Perhaps my father wanted to pass the story to a male of the younger generation. Or perhaps he was simply feeling relaxed. It was not till later that I realised he must have had a premonition of the disaster that was about to strike him.
It was late in the afternoon and still warm. The sun was on its way to the west. Its rays had turned a crimson gold, bathing every aspect of the garden in magic. Nothing had changed in the summer routines of this old house. The old magnolia trees with their large leaves were glistening in the dying rays of the sun. My father had just woken up after a refreshing nap. His face was relaxed. As he grew older, sleep worked on him like an elixir. The lines that marked his forehead seemed to evaporate. Looking at him, I realised how much I had missed him these last nine years. I kissed his hand and repeated my question. He smiled, but did not reply immediately.
I, too, waited, recalling the afternoon routines of the summer months. Without speaking a word, my father took Orhan's hand and drew the boy close to him. He began to stroke the boy's head. Orhan knew his grandfather from a fading photograph that I had taken with me and kept near my bed. As he grew I had told him stories of my childhood and the old house that looked down on the sea.
And then old Petrossian, the major-domo of our house, who had been with our family since he was born, appeared. A young boy, not much older than Orhan, followed him carrying a tray. Old Petrossian served my father a coffee in exactly the same way as he had done for the last thirty years or more and, probably, just as his father had served my grandfather all those years ago. His habits were unchanged. He ignored me completely in my father's presence, as was his custom. When I was a young girl this used to annoy me greatly. I would stick out a tongue at him or make a rude gesture, but nothing I did could alter the pattern of his behaviour. As I grew older I had learnt to disregard his presence. He became invisible to me. Was it my imagination or had he smiled today? He had, but in acknowledgement of Orhan's presence. A new male had entered the household and Petrossian was pleased. After inquiring with a respectful tilt of his head whether my father needed anything else and receiving a reply in the negative, Petrossian and the grandson he was training to take his place in our household left us alone. For a while none of us spoke. I had forgotten how calm this space could be and how rapidly it soothed my senses.
"You ask why Yusuf Pasha was sent here two hundred years ago?"
I nodded eagerly, unable to conceal my excitement. Now that I was a mother of two, I was considered mature enough to be told the official version.
My father began to speak in a tone that was both intimate and authoritative, as if the events which he was describing had taken place last week in his presence here, instead of two hundred years ago, in a palace, on the banks of the Bosporus, in Istanbul. But as he spoke he avoided my gaze altogether. His eyes were firmly fixed on the face of little Orhan, observing the child's reaction. Perhaps my father recalled his own childhood and how he had first heard the story. As for Orhan, he was bewitched by his grandfather. His eyes sparkled with amusement and anticipation as my father assumed the broad and exaggerated tones of a village story-teller.
`As was his wont, the Sultan sent for Yusuf Pasha in the evening. Our great forebear arrived and made his bows. He had grown up with the Sultan. They knew each other well. A serving woman placed a goblet of wine in front of him. The Sultan asked his friend to recite a new poem. Yusuf Pasha was in a strange mood that day. Nobody knows why. He was such an accomplished courtier that, usually, any request from his sovereign was treated as a command from heaven. He was so quick-witted that he could invent and recite a quatrain on the spot. But not that evening. Nobody knows why. Perhaps he had been aroused from a lover's bed and was angry. Perhaps he was simply fed up with being a courtier. Perhaps he was suffering from severe indigestion. Nobody knows why.
When the Sultan observed that his friend remained silent, he became genuinely concerned. He inquired after his health. He offered to summon his own physician. Yusuf Pasha thanked him, but declined the offer. He looked around him and saw nothing but slave-girls and eunuchs. This was not new, but on that particular day it annoyed our ancestor. Nobody knows why. After a long silence, he asked the Sultan for permission to speak and it was granted.
"O great ruler and fount of all wisdom, Sultan of the civilised world and Caliph of our faith, this servant craves your forgiveness. The fickle muse has deserted me and no verse enters this empty head today. With your permission I will become a story-teller tonight, but I urge your sublime majesty to listen carefully, for that of which I am about to speak is true."
The Sultan was by now genuinely curious and the entire Court swayed as it leant forward to hear Yusuf Pasha's words.
"Five hundred and thirty-eight years before the birth of the Christian saint, Jesus, there was a powerful Empire in Persia. On its throne there sat a great king by the name of Cyrus. In that auspicious year Cyrus was proclaimed King of Kings in Babylon, a region now ruled by our own great and wise Sultan. That year the Great Persian Empire appeared invincible. It dominated the world. It was admired for its toleration. The Persians accepted all worshippers, respected all customs and, in their new territories, they adapted themselves to the different schemes of governing. All appeared to be well. The Empire flourished, dealing with its enemies like an individual swatting a flea.
"Two hundred years later the heirs of Cyrus had become the pawns of eunuchs and women. The satraps of the Empire had become disloyal. Its officials, corrupt, callous and inefficient. The enormous riches of Mesopotamia saved the Empire from collapse, but the longer it was delayed, the more overwhelming it was when it finally happened. And thus it was that the Greeks gained influence. Their language spread. And thus it was that long before the birth of Alexander the route of his conquest had already been built.
"Then one year, without any warning, ten thousand Greek soldiers slew their Persian patron, made their officers prisoners and marched from the city we now call Baghdad to Anatolia. Nothing stood in their way. And soon people began to realise that if only ten thousand soldiers could do this, then rulers and leaders were unnecessary ..."
Yusuf Pasha had not yet finished his story, but the sight of the Sultan's face interrupted his flow. He fell silent and dared not look his ruler in the eye. The Sultan developed a rage, rose to his feet and stormed out of the room. Yusuf Pasha feared the worst. All he had intended was to warn the friend of his youth against sloth and sensuality and the suffocating influence of eunuchs. He had wished to apprise his ruler of the eternal law, which teaches that nothing is eternal. Instead the Sultan had taken the story as an ill-omened reference to the Ottoman dynasty. To himself. Anyone else would have been executed, but it was probably shared childhood memories that favoured the quality of mercy. Yusuf Pasha was punished very lightly. He was exiled from Istanbul. For ever. The Sultan did not wish to be in the same city as him. And that is how he came here with his family to this isolated wilderness surrounded by ancient rocks and decided that it was here that he would build his palace in exile. He yearned for the old city, but he never saw the Bosporus again.
They say that the Sultan, too, missed his company and often yearned for his presence, but the courtiers, who had always been jealous of Yusuf Pasha's influence, made sure that the two friends never saw each other again. That's all. Does that satisfy you, my little pigeon? And you, Orhan, will you remember what I have said and repeat it to your children one day, when I am dead and gone? '
Orhan smiled and nodded. I maintained an expressionless face. I knew my father had spoken half-truths. I had heard other stories about Yusuf Pasha from aunts and uncles belonging to another branch of our family, children of a great-uncle whom my father loathed and whose children were never encouraged to visit us here or in Istanbul.
They had told tales that were far more exciting, much more real and infinitely more convincing. They spoke of how Yusuf Pasha had fallen in love with the Sultan's favourite white slave, and of how they had been caught while copulating. The slave had been executed on the spot and his genitals fed to the dogs outside the royal kitchen. Yusuf Pasha, according to this version, had been whipped in public and sent away to live out the rest of his life in disgrace. Perhaps my father's version was also true. Perhaps no single narrative could explain our ancestor's fall from grace. Or perhaps nobody knew the real reason and all the existing versions were false.
I had no desire to offend my father after such a long estrangement and so I refrained from questioning him further. I had upset him a great deal all those years ago by falling in love with a visiting school inspector, running away with him, becoming his wife, carrying his children and appreciating his poetry, which I now realise was very bad, but which at the time had sounded beautiful. Poetry, alas, had always been Dmitri's true profession, but he had to earn a living. That is why he had started teaching. In this way he could earn some money and look after his mother. His father had died in Bosnia, fighting for our Empire. It was the soft voice in which he recited his poems that had first touched my heart.
All this had happened in Konya, where I had been staying with the family of my best friend. She had shown me the delights of Konya. We had seen the tombs of the old Seljuk kings and peeped inside the Sufi houses. It was here that I had first met Dmitri. I was seventeen years old at the time and he was almost thirty.
I wanted to escape from the stifling atmosphere of my house. Dmitri and his poetry appeared as the road to happiness. For a while I was happy, but it had never been enough to obscure the pain I felt at being banished from my family home. I missed my mother and soon I began to ache for the comfort of our home. More than everything else, I missed the summers here, in this house overlooking the sea.
I had wanted to leave home, but on my own terms. My father's edict declaring me an outlaw had come as a real blow. I hated him then. I hated his narrow-mindedness. I hated the way he treated my brothers and especially Halil, who, like the spirited stallion he was, refused to be disciplined. My father would whip him sometimes in front of the whole family. That was when I hated my father the most. But Halil's spirit remained unbroken. My father regarded Halil as a lazy, disrespectful anarchist and was, as a result, astounded when Halil enlisted in the army and because of his family history was rapidly promoted and assigned to duties in the palace.
Iskander Pasha doubted his younger son's motives and in this he was not so far wrong. Father could be ever so refined and elegant in the Parisian salons where he served as ambassador from the Sublime Porte to the French Republic for many years. That is what we were told by my older brother, Salman, who had been permitted to accompany him and had received his higher education at the Academy in Paris, which made him a lover of all things French, except its men.
Whenever Father returned to Istanbul with new pieces of furniture and fabrics and paintings of naked women for the western portion of the house, and perfumes for his wives, our spirits would lift. Halil would whisper, "Perhaps, this time, he has become a modern." We would all giggle in great anticipation. Perhaps there would be a New Year's Eve Ball in our house. We would wear dresses and dance and drink champagne, just like our father and Salman did in Paris and Berlin. Idle dreams. Life never changed. In the familiar environment of his city and his country, Father reverted to the behaviour and mannerisms of a Turkish aristocrat.
This was the first time since my runaway marriage that I had been invited to return to our old summer house, but only with Orhan. Dmitri and my adorable little Emineh stayed at home. Perhaps next year, my mother promised. Perhaps never, I had shouted angrily. My mother visited me three times, but always in secret, bringing clothes for the children and money for me. She acted as an intermediary and, slowly, relations with my father had been restored. We began to communicate with each other. After two years of exchanging polite and unbearably formal letters, he asked me to bring Orhan to the summer house. I'm glad I did as he had asked. I had been close to refusing his request. I wanted to insist that I would not see him unless I could bring my daughter as well, but Dmitri, my husband, convinced me that I was being foolish and headstrong. Now, I'm glad I did not let pride stand in the way. If I had apologised for my defiance and pleaded my case at his feet, I would have been forgiven a long time ago. Contrary to the impression I may have created, Iskander Pasha was neither a cruel nor a vindictive man. He was a creature of his time, strict and orthodox in his approach to us.
That first night, when Orhan was asleep, I left the house and walked through the orchards, the familiar smell of thyme and the pepper tree reviving many old memories. The Stone Woman was still there and I found myself whispering to her.
"I've come back, Stone Woman. I've come back with a little boy. I missed you, Stone Woman. There were many things I could not tell my husband. Nine years is a long time to go without speaking of one's longings."
Three days after my father told Orhan the story of Yusuf Pasha, he suffered a stroke. The door of his bedroom was half open. The windows leading to the balcony were wide open and a gentle breeze had brought with it the sweet smell of lemons. My mother always went into his room early in the morning to open the windows so that he could smell the sea. That morning she had entered the room and found him breathing strangely, lying on his side. She turned his body round. His face was mute and pale. His eyes were staring into the distance and she knew, instinctively, that they were searching for something outside this life. He had felt death's chill and he did not wish to prolong his life.
He was paralysed, unable to move his legs, incapable of speech and, if his eyes were an indication, praying to Allah every conscious minute to bring his presence in this world to an end. Allah ignored his pleas and slowly, very slowly, Iskander Pasha began to recover. Life returned to his legs. With the help of Petrossian he began to walk again, but his powers of speech were gone for ever. We would never hear his voice again. His demands and commands were henceforth written on small pieces of paper and brought to us on a little silver tray.
And so it came about that every day, after the evening meal, a group of us would gather in the old room with the balcony overlooking the sea. Once everyone was comfortably seated, Father would sip some tea from the corner of his mouthhis face had been cruelly affected by the strokeand while Petrossian's grandson, Akim, gently massaged his feet, he would lie back and insist that we tell him stories.
It had never been easy to relax in my father's presence. He had always been a demanding man. Ever intolerant of even the mildest form of criticism directed against his own conduct, past or present, he was always finding fault in others.
My brothers and sister, who had been summoned to his bedside from different parts of the Empire, were convinced that his affliction would make him more tolerant. I was sure they were wrong.
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