"Tariq Ali? Is he still around?" 60s firebrand speaks in Toronto today
Here is an Australian perspective on Tariq Ali, the British anti-war
activist, author and filmmaker, who speaks on Palestine at the UofT at 6:30
PM today (Saturday). Click here for more details.
See you this evening at the UofT with Tariq Ali
April 30, 2005
The radical reader
By Jane Cornwell
The Australian, Sydney
NEO-CONS like to dismiss him as "that Marxist firebrand from the '60s". Or
as a red-under-the-bed Leninist. Or even as "Britain's pet Trot".
For the hardline Left, he's a pin-up boy, speaking out in his mellifluous
voice or writing with his polemicist's pen against American imperialism,
British toadyism or anything that offends his sense of justice. Then there
are those who haven't thought about him in years. "Tariq Ali? Is he still
around?" asked one colleague, recalling the famous photograph of the
moustachioed student radical at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in London,
arms linked with a girlish Vanessa Redgrave.
Ali, however, never went away. As the world put its fingers in its ears and
partied for a decade or two, he continued to write books, plays and opinion
pieces, and to direct a bit of television. Now he is back on the mainstream
radar, louder, angrier and busier than ever.
Because the Pakistan-born Ali, 61, has four publications to promote. There's
A Sultan in Palermo (Verso), a sumptuous tale of Muslim life in 12th-century
Sicily and the fourth novel in his acclaimed Islam Quintet series, a project
begun in 1990 to illustrate the conflicts between Islam and Christendom.
("Most people assume Islam is a Third World religion," Ali, an avowed
atheist, will say languidly. "These novels capture Islam as a major European
player.") There's Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with
Tariq Ali (Scribe), in which he variously sounds off against the occupation
of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict and 21st-century
imperialism. There's The Nehrus and the Gandhis (Pan Macmillan), his
authoritative 1985 take on the Indian dynasty, newly updated.
And there's his autobiography, Street-Fighting Years (Verso), reissued and
expanded to mark the 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon (who once
sang his newly penned Power to the People to Ali over the phone) and the
40th anniversary of the death of Malcolm X. ("He and Martin Luther King were
the big incorruptibles in a world wherepoliticians had to be bought and
Ali's kitchen, in the house he shares with his long-term partner and
daughter in London's leafy Hampstead, bears little evidence of his
coming-of-political-age in Paris and Prague, Hanoi and Bolivia. His sense of
purpose, however, is palpable. Tomorrow he's off to New York, the start of a
US speaking tour, ready to stick thorns into George Dubya at closer range,
and he'll be in Australia in late May for the Sydney Writers Festival.
Ali receives about 20 to 30 international invitations each week. "I'm under
so much pressure now," he says, pulling up a chair to the kitchen table, his
laid-back demeanour suggesting otherwise. For a while he was worried he
wouldn't get around to finishing A Sultan in Palermo, the writing of which
was interrupted by the events of 9/11, after which he produced two
time-sensitive nonfiction works, The Clash of Fundamentalisms and Bush in
Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq (both 2003) instead. In Australia to
promote them, he insisted on spending a solitary week in Byron Bay and got
the novel moving again.
Today he'd rather talk about his fiction. About the factors that inspired
the Islam Quintet: Bosnia, the Gulf War, the burning of Salman Rushdie's
Satanic Verses. And the positive feedback: "After [the first novel] Shadows
of the Pomegranate Tree came out, one of the people involved in the campaign
against Rushdie wrote me a letter saying he felt ashamed, that reading the
book had made him weep." But inevitably, our talk turns to politics. There's
no getting around the subject: even his plays, such as 1998's Ugly Rumours
and 2003's Illustrious Corpse, are the work of a man appalled by the
government he voted to power.
Tony Blair and his New Labour cohorts (some of them comrades turned
turncoats from the 1960s and '70s) lied to drag a reluctant country to war
in Iraq, he says. The millions who marched against the war might have been
ignored, but dissent is brewing.
"The war has split political parties in Europe. The Spanish Government was
elected by promising to bring the troops home and it did. This rogue
[Silvio] Berlusconi has just suffered a massive defeat in Italy. In Britain
we will see what happens [at the general election next Thursday]. I have
said that nobody who opposed the war should vote for a warmonger member of
parliament, whether Tory or Labour. Which is why I'll be voting Lib Dem
Blair, he feels, should be impeached for lying and tried for war crimes. So
should George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright.
Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Ariel Sharon may also be squeezed into
the dock. It's likely Ali will keep on saying so, in pen and in person,
until he expires. As a writer, he feels obliged to expose "cover-ups, lies,
untruths, spin". As he feels all writers should be: "Obviously culture
reflects politics in some shape or form. So playwrights and novelists who
try [to] hide their politics and think it's much nicer writing about, you
know, trying to feed milk to a baby over 200 pages, and thinking that makes
a novel, then fine!" He sniffs, collects himself. "It's their right," he
adds smoothly, "but for me it doesn't work like that."
This, after all, is the man who as a youth encouraged menial workers in the
Himalayan town of Nathagali (where his family went to escape the heat of
Lahore) to strike when he discovered how little they were paid to clean
toilets. Whose father tried to break from his Muslim ruling-class background
in the '30s by becoming a communist and who edited the country's largest
newspaper, The Pakistan Times. Whose household was visited by everyone from
poets and railway workers to judges and police chiefs. Whose private tutor
was a radical mullah who immersed young Tariq in English and Russian
literature. Activism felt normal, necessary. But when Ali applied to join
the Labour Party while studying at Oxford University in the '60s, he was
considered so radical his application was turned down.
Nonetheless, he insists that most of his inspiration comes from reading
books: the classics, Latin American fiction and - a new discovery - American
novelist Richard Powers. "For me, he is the finest novelist writing in the
States today, better than Pynchon or DeLillo." He waxes rapturously over
Powers's latest epic, The Time of Our Singing, "a reconstructed history of
the [US], right from the early years, through the rights of capitalism,
through immigration, everything".
Ah, immigration. As far as Ali is concerned, the more of it, the better. "I
first visited Australia in 1971," he says. "Now the country is transformed
beyond recognition. Its cities are very relaxed, very multicultural." The
days when Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen tried to have him deported
seem bygone, arcane. "This Pauline Hanson thing was very unpleasant, but
that was Old Australia refusing to go down without a fight. But go down it
will. Australia, basically, is a white plantation inserted in Asia. Sooner
or later it will become Asia.
"The last time I was there," he warms to his theme, "I was telling a
conservative audience at the Sydney Institute that the whole world is what
it is thanks to immigration. Look at the States. Look at Europe. People
forget that, especially in Australia. I said, 'I welcome the day when
Australia has a prime minister of Chinese origin.' There were a few gasps at
that." He laughs wickedly, drains his coffee.
With bags to be packed and papers to be prepared, he sees me to the door.
Tariq Ali then: still around, still active, still activist. It's good to
know he's there and good to know he'll be in Australia soon, lighting those
fires of conversation.
Tariq Ali will appear at the Sydney Writers Festival, May 23-29.