A Sultan in Palermo: A Novel

A Sultan in Palermo: A Novel

by Tariq Ali

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Greed and strife simmer in a riven land held together by an ailing kingAmid the chaos and misery of the Middle Ages, Sicily proved to be an island in more ways than one. Even after Christians reconquered the island, the citizens retained their Muslim culture. One ruler became a bridge between worlds, speaking Arabic fluently, maintaining a harem, and even


Greed and strife simmer in a riven land held together by an ailing kingAmid the chaos and misery of the Middle Ages, Sicily proved to be an island in more ways than one. Even after Christians reconquered the island, the citizens retained their Muslim culture. One ruler became a bridge between worlds, speaking Arabic fluently, maintaining a harem, and even taking on the dual titles of King Roger of Sicily and Sultan Rujari of Siqilliya. Aiding Rujari is the Muslim cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. As the Sicilian leader descends into old age and the island is pulled toward European values, al-Idrisi is caught between his friendship with Rujari and the plots of resistance brewing among his fellow Muslims. Pride and friendship collide with greed and lust in Tariq Ali’s rich novel of medieval Sicily.

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“A marvelously paced and boisterously told novel of intrigue, love, insurrection and manipulation.”—The Guardian

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Open Road Media
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Islam Quintet , #4
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A Sultan in Palermo

Book Four of the Islam Quintet

By Tariq Ali


Copyright © 2005 Tariq Ali
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-4856-8


Idrisi's reflections on beginnings and chance encounters. His first meeting with Rujari.

The first sentence is crucial. He knew that from instinct and his study of old manuscripts. How well the ancients understood this, how carefully they chose their beginnings, how easily their work must have progressed after that decision had been made. Where to begin? How to begin? He envied them the choices their world had made possible, their ability to search for knowledge wherever it might be found.

His mother had taught him that the people of the Book, who insist that all knowledge before the time of their own Prophets is worthless, betray their own ignorance. She had told him of how, when the city had been taken by a special breed of the Prophet's warriors—men who feared knowledge more than death—her grandfather, a venerated mathematician of Qurtuba, had been publicly stripped of his dignity and put to the sword, together with eighty other scholars. The zealots who killed in the name of religion referred to the world of the ancients as 'the time of ignorance', a world in which people were unburdened by the need to worship a single god. How they must have blasphemed to their heart's content. A world without apostates. A smile lightened his face for a moment before the cloud returned.

Unlike us, he thought. We are fated to drown in the whirlpool of eternal repetition. In the Name of Allah the Merciful, and Muhammad his Prophet, his truest Messenger. The only consolation was that the blaspheming Nazarenes were much worse. How could Allah be the father only of Isa? How could the All-Powerful produce just one son? And why had the Nazarenes invented this untruth? It could only be because they were closer in time to the Roman world and its gods. To win converts they had to inject some magic into their creed. How he wished they had kept the old gods or, at least, the best of them. Zeus could have been Isa's father or Apollo, Ares or Poseidon ... no, not Poseidon. He was very stupid. Mariam lived far away from the sea and Yusuf was not a fisherman. Perhaps the lame, lustful Hephaestus had entered ... He came up on to the deck of the royal ship and took several deep breaths. Washing his lungs with sea air had become a ritual. He smiled. The sun was about to set. The sea was still calm. Poseidon willing, they would reach Palermo without another storm.

This was his last voyage before the completion of his book. The vessel had encircled the island twice and he had checked each detail in his map of Siqilliya against the actual coastline. Occasionally they had disembarked to collect fresh water and food and the fresh herbs he needed to test his medical formulas. Idrisi was both geographer and physician. Even though the journey had taken less than a month, he was tired. He slept more than usual and in most of his dreams he went back to his childhood—his mother looking at the stars, the cobbled streets of Noto, the tree trunks scarred by lightning, the women milking cows and goats, his father's pock-marked face—but when he rested in the afternoon he invariably dreamed of Mayya, usually the same dream with hardly a variation. They lay naked in each other's arms after making love. It was always in her bedchamber in the palace harem, outside which the eunuchs kept watch. Nothing else ever happened. The repetition annoyed him so much that he even thought of going to the dream-interpreter, but something always stopped him.

Last night, for the first time, he dreamt of something different. He was a warrior engaged in combat, but when he woke he had no memory of the enemy. He thought of that now as he stood on the deck, watching the sea change colour, and wondered whether he would have been of any use as a soldier. He was of medium height with delicate features and a soft, fair skin, as if his gender had been decided only at the last minute. The sun had darkened his face, exaggerating the whiteness of his beard. It was neatly trimmed, mimicking the style of a Qurtuban scholar. He was fifty-eight years of age, a time in life that compels most men to think of the past, not the future. And so it would have been with him were it not for the fact that he was possessed by a mighty anger, of which only his two closest friends were aware and even they could not understand its causes. To the Sultan and the courtiers in the palace at Palermo, he was a scholar of some importance and a man of calm temperament. They had no idea of what lay beneath the mask or that he inwardly raged about the oddest things. Once his closest friend Ibn Hamid, whose heart was heavy-laden, had looked at the sky and muttered, 'O the poetry of the stars', and Idrisi had responded in an angry tone, subjecting him to a lecture on astronomy and the movement of the Earth. Had he noted how each night a movement was repeated? The ancients had tried to penetrate the secrets of the heavens, but failed. If what he thought was true then al-Quran was mistaken and if al-Quran was mistaken, who had made the mistake? Allah or his Messenger? Ibn Hamid became fearful that his friend might be charged with blasphemy and advised him to leave such questions to the future.

Idrisi's reply had been a withering look and they had not spoken for the next few days. Now Ibn Hamid, too, had abandoned the island, leaving his friend more isolated than ever. Harsh words had been exchanged and Idrisi accused of providing succour to the foreigners who occupied the island. Perhaps, thought Idrisi, he too should have gone and established a life in Ifriqiya or perhaps Baghdad where the Caliph was a patron of thinkers and poets. But his life was changed by a chance encounter that offered him more freedom than he had imagined possible.

His thoughts flew back to a late afternoon when he was working in the library of Sultan Rujari's palace at Palermo. He had obtained special permission to do so and was delighting like a child in every new discovery. He recalled the excitement that had gripped him almost twenty-seven years ago when he had first sighted the old Greek al- Homa's manuscript. Could this be the work of which his paternal great-grandfather had spoken all those years ago in Malaka? His grandfather had entrusted the memory to his father and he could still hear the loud, slightly agitated, voice of his old father punctuating the story by plucking the white hairs out of his still dark brown beard. He spoke of how the qadis, fearful of the power of poetry and its capacity to mislead Believers, had decreed that only three copies of the Arabic translation be permitted so that theologians could study the pagan religions that led to the period of Ignorance in Arabia at the time our Prophet was born.

Twelve men were entrusted with the task. The most skilled translators of ancient Greek, they had translated the works of Galen and Pythagoras, Hippocrates and Aristotle, Socrates and Plato, and even the plays of Aristophanes. All these works were in the Baghdad library. But translators, although carefully chosen, trusted employees of the palace, were not permitted to read the entire work. The calligraphers doing the transcribing were sworn to silence. If they were to divulge the nature of this work to any person—and this included their wives and lovers—the penalty would be swift and the executioner's scimitar, in a lightning flash, would detach head from body.

His father had smiled. 'Threats never work in our world. It is possible that if nothing had been said the calligraphers would have copied the work and moved on to their next assignment. The danger excited their curiosity, but while eleven of them accepted the inviolability of a qadis injunction, the twelfth managed to copy half of the first poem and most of the second part and sent it to his family in Damascus. His son, also a translator, came to work in the school in Toledo. He married a woman from Qurtuba. Her grandson discovered the incomplete manuscript hidden underneath al-Quran in an old chest and allowed my great-grandfather to read it in his house. This was how our ancestor discovered that the Greek book had been lodged in secret compartments in the library of Palermo. Special permission had to be obtained from the Caliph before any scholar was permitted access to the hidden section of the library.'

It was during his first year in the library of the old palace in Palermo, the longest voyage his mind had ever undertaken, that he stumbled on the secret section and informed the palace Chamberlain, who informed his master. Sultan Rujari had interrupted his meal and rushed to the library. Idrisi, meeting the Nazarene ruler for the first time, explained his excitement. The Sultan had not heard of al-Homa, but declared his immediate intention of studying the manuscript himself. His spoken Arabic was not perfect, but he read the language well. The Chamberlain took the manuscript and was about to leave the library, but was restrained by the Sultan who, noticing the disappointment on the face of the young scholar, instructed the Chamberlain to find the best calligraphers in Palermo and set them to work. He wanted a new copy waiting for him on his return from Noto. Then he turned to the turbaned youth who had assumed a modest posture.

'Your name?'

'Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi, Your Majesty.'

'Master Idrisi, after we have both read this work carefully we shall discuss it together. Let us compare the knowledge we derive from it. If the Arabic used in translation is too complex I will summon Ahmed from Djirdjent.'

Six weeks later, summoned to Rujari's presence, the young scholar had memorised some verses from al-Homa's work.

'I cannot understand why this work upset your theologians so much.'

'I think they could not tolerate the intermingling of gods and humans, Commander of the Wise. And gods created in the image of men and women were unacceptable to them. There could be no other reason.'

'But that is the most enjoyable part of the work. Their gods were part of everything that happened: wars, floods, mishaps, adventures in the sky and on the sea, family quarrels, births, marriages, deaths, re-births. Do you think the wife of the seafarer Odysseus, who resisted earthly suitors, might have succumbed to a god's charm? I'm surprised none of them tried. I must give instructions for it to be translated immediately into Latin, unless a manuscript already exists. Will you find out for me? If it's only in the Vatican, then we will need our own translation. The monks won't like it any more than the qadi. What aspect of the work most appealed to you? Was it the wiles of the women? Or the fear of the unknown? Or life as an unending journey, interrupted by tests of endurance?'

'All appealed to me, Your Majesty, but I was distracted by something else: al- Homa's sense of geography has amazed me. In the second part of the work he describes our sea and the islands and countries and trees. In ancient times people did not travel as much as we do. Most of them were buried in the village where they were born. Al-Homa told them there was another world outside their village and island. In the mouth of Menelaus he puts these words:

I wandered to Cyprus and Phoenicia, to the Egyptians,

I reached the Ethiopians, Eremhoi, Sidonians, and Libya.'

'And one-eyed giants and the temptresses who wreck ships not far from these shores?'

'Transient mischief, Exalted Sultan, nothing more. It reveals the power of the poet's imaginings, but nothing more. For me, what is truly remarkable about this work is that the descriptions of real things are almost exact. He visited our island and called it Scylla. I am convinced al-Homa must have been a seafarer. And he fought in a war, but it was the map of his travels that distinguished his memory'

'The Chamberlain informs me that you, too, are a mapmaker.'

Idrisi bowed.

'When you have finished your work in this library, I wish to be informed of all your discoveries.'

For the next thirteen months Idrisi had abandoned all—lovers, friends, pupils—in search of the truth. The Sultan had given him the freedom of his library and apart from eating and the bodily functions that it necessarily entailed, he spent each day buried in a manuscript. The palace eunuchs often referred to him as Abu Kitab, the father of the book. Later, as a trusted confidant of the Sultan, his enhanced status required a superior title: he was now spoken of as Amir al-kitab.

Those months in the library had been pure joy. Al-Homa was only the beginning. He would visit Ithaci and the other islands in search of traces. He often wondered whether al-Homa alone had written such beautiful works or whether he had inherited the stories and covered them with his own divine mantle. And how amazing it was to discover that only a few generations after al-Homa's death, Xenophanes denounced him in language that echoed the theologians of today: 'Homer has attributed to the gods everything that is disgraceful and blameworthy among men—theft, adultery and deceit.' And did the story-tellers in Baghdad who compiled the stories of a thousand nights have Odysseus in mind when they created their own tales of Sinbad the sailor? These questions, and even al-Homa, were soon forgotten as other treasures, closer to his preoccupations, began to emerge.

Reading the Arabic translations of Herodotus, Aristotle, Galen, Strabo and Ptolemy was like discovering distant lands familiar from travellers' tales. His tutors had introduced him to the Greek venerables but he had been too young to really appreciate them. His knowledge remained incomplete till he began to study the texts for himself. Ptolemy's ideas still echoed in his mind like music from a distant flute.

One day he came across an anonymous manuscript which delighted him. Who was the author of 'The Library'? He could still remember the first sentence: Sky was the first who ruled over the whole world. Here was the story of the gods and how they populated the world and although not as stimulating as Ptolemy or even Strabo, much more exciting. It was here that he read of Hercules' short visit to Siqilliya. Sky was the first who ruled over the whole world. The sentence reverberated. Why should he start In the name of Allah, the Beneficent ... just like every other scholar in his world. Why?

During his first year in the library, the Sultan would often summon him to his chambers and question him closely on his reading. Rujari was not a big man, but he had strange swinging gestures and when he became excited his arms swayed like sails in a storm. His open-hearted welcome touched Idrisi.

'What will you do with all this information, Master Idrisi? You can teach your own children and mine, but will this be enough to satisfy you?'

Idrisi recalled his worried, self-deprecating smile as he confessed his ambition. 'If the Sultan permits I would like to write a universal geography. I will map the world we know and seek out the lands still unknown to us. This will be useful to our merchants and the commanders of our ships. This great city is the centre of the world. Merchants and travellers stop here before going West or East. They can provide us with much information.'

The Sultan's pleasure was visible. He sent for the Chamberlain, instructed him to make sure that henceforth the scholar and master Muhammad al-Idrisi was paid the sum of ten taris each month by the Diwan and provided with lodgings close to the palace. As the Chamberlain bowed and prepared to leave Rujari had an afterthought.

'And he will need a ship, ready to sail anywhere at his command. Find him a reliable commander.'


Excerpted from A Sultan in Palermo by Tariq Ali. Copyright © 2005 Tariq Ali. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Tariq Ali is a novelist, journalist, and filmmaker. His many books include The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity; Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq; Conversations with Edward Said; Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties; and the novels of the Islam Quintet. He is the coauthor of On History: Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone in Conversation and an editor of the New Left Review, and he writes for the London Review of Books and the Guardian. Ali lives in London.

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