Tariq Ali’s The Stone Woman: An Allegory of Ottomans with Strong Contemporary Parallels

Tariq Ali’s novel The Stone Woman critically tells us the story of declining Ottoman in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and has plenty of lessons for the current day Turkey. As is well known, the Ottoman kingdom, based in Turkey, ruled a vast portion of the Middle East and Eastern Europe for over 600 years. Like any other empire in history, the Ottomans experienced their rise, peak and gradual fall. The novel The Stone Woman by Tariq Ali not only explores this particular history, but also serves as an allegory of the current day Turkey which is rapidly embarking on the path of rightwing populism rekindling the very phenomenon existing prior to 1921 which the novel denounces. And this history is portrayed through the perspectives of an aristocratic Ottoman family. The Pasha family is a descendent of one of the favourite courtiers of the Ottoman Sultan named Yousuf Pasha. The novel thus uses this family as a microcosmic symbol for the empire—how their fortunes rise and decline in a parallel way. Along the way, the impact of the western imperialism on Turkey is also traced. As the Ottomans begin to experience decline, there are more and more calls of dissent emerging within the empire calling for a radical change and reformation in all the facets of Turkish life. This is echoed in the words of character named Selim who tells Halil: “The century is about to die…The Sultans and the Empire will go to the grave with it because their time has come. But when will our time come?”. The novel blames the Ottomans’ decline mainly on their obstinacy to accept change and innovation while being rigid on the matters of religion and tradition.

Tariq Ali The Stone WomanAs the story of the novel begins, the head of this aristocratic family, Iskandar Pasha, who has been a faithful servant of the Ottoman Empire for many years and has lived a comfortable life of riches and respect, experiences a sudden stroke in which he loses his ability to speak. Iskander Pasha is a retired diplomat who had spent ample time in foreign countries’ capitals as an Ottoman ambassador. Iskander has four children: Salman, the eldest son; Halil, a general in the army; Nilofer, the daughter whose enthralling life story is most fully explored in the novel; and her married stepsister, Zeynep. Memed, Iskander Pasha’s elder brother, and his gay-lover, a well-read German tutor of the family, Baron Pasha, also narrate their accounts. In a way, these narrations make the novel an assortment of various personal tales of the various members of the Pasha family. The readers get to know about the history of Ottomans through the perspectives of her family members who are by no means “great men or women of history”, but ordinary individuals who adopt the role of historical agents. As the political events are taking place, their lives are also inevitably impacted to a very large extent.

The time is the summer of 1899 A.D. and the Ottoman Empire is starting to show signs of decline. An unease has crept among the younger generation of Turks who are calling for a revolution to overthrow the Sultan so that a new beginning could be heralded in Turkey which would enable it to compete with a rapidly advancing Europe. As the narrator, Nilofer describes: “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 there is no detachment of the characters from the political turbulence in the country. The calls for rebellion against the reigning Ottoman king, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, are emerging fast. Some members of the Pasha family especially, Halil, the young general in the army, are also part of the new rebellious thinking which wants to overthrow the Sultan and install a new secular government. A secular nationalist movement under Committee for Union and Progress which later on became the Young Turks movement is plotting an uprising against the Ottoman Sultan. Mostly army officers are part of this plot including young officers, Halil and Selim, who are part of the Pasha family. They hold one of their secret meetings in the Pasha estate. A brief reference is also made towards Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkey, who is not named in the novel, but simply referred to as a “young officer from Salonika.” He is also part of this nationalist movement. Among other things, the plan of this new nationalist movement is also to replace Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, particularly to make Western ideas more accessible to the people of Turkey.

Through some narrations in the novel, Tariq Ali restores that side of the Ottoman history in which they acted in a tolerant manner and managed to run an inclusive empire for a pretty long time where Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Bedouins, Greeks and Slavs were all given due place. And some levels of dissent were always encouraged which is indicated by the debates among the people about religion, reformation, rationalism and the possible foundations of a new republic on the modern lines. However, these accounts are also later contested by the narrations of young people like Halil, Selim and Mehmed. Through this aspect, the novel once again challenges the self-serving narratives of west which present Muslims as monolithic beings through its portrayal of the diverse and rich current of thought within the Ottoman society and it does it through the use of polyphonic modes and characters possessing highly emancipated ideas and thinking.

Tariq Ali’s passionate longing for reform in Islam from within is well alluded to in The Stone Woman. This is reflected in the novel at multiple instances, mainly through the views and arguments of the young soldier, Halil: “We failed to renew ourselves. And this is the price we have to pay. We allowed the clergy too much power in determining the future of this state. Istanbul could have been the capital of invention and modernity like Cordoba and Baghdad in the old days, but these wretched beards that established the laws of our state were frightened of losing their monopoly of power and knowledge…The price we paid for our retreat into the past was a heavy one. We sealed off the Empire from a crucially important technological advance. The ulema, may they roast in hell, opposed modernisation on principle. It is an outrage that we kept the printing press at a distance to prevent the spread of knowledge. And even if you disagree on the printing press, though I really can’t see how you can, surely you must accept that the ban on public clocks was simply senseless. Here, too, the damned beards insisted that time was not linear. It was sacred and circular and could only be determined by the muezzin’s call to prayer. I think our decline is well deserved.”

Intense debates are taking place within the Pasha family regarding the imminent decline of the empire and the possible future emancipation. Iskander Pasha, now confined to bed after severe illness, calls upon the family members to learn about history in order to understand the past so that the future challenges are dealt with. He himself takes a keen interest in studying the western literature. Halil, the young soldier and Uncle Memed, belonging to two different generations, have different answers for this question. A rational dialogue occurs within the family on the state of empire, the nature of a possible future state, role of knowledge and technology and each member comes up with his own respective insights. There are agreements and disagreements which are happily agreed upon. Many reasons are outlined for the degradation of the empire. Notable among these was a refusal to pay attention towards proliferation of knowledge, political and social reform and allowing too much dominance of the clergy.

Halil’s arguments are very fascinating. His views not only echoe the feelings of young, modern Turks during the early Twentieth century, but also seem to give a picture of the views of many modern Muslim intellectuals who call for a reform from within including the author, Tariq Ali himself. He, therefore, becomes a mouthpiece of Tariq Ali in the novel for the highly dissenting and progressive views that he upholds. Baron Pasha puts forward his own rational analysis wherein he critiques the governance model of Ottomans and refers to the great medieval Muslim historian and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun’s theories about history and the rise and fall of civiliations. The influence of Ibn Khaldun’s ideas on Tariq Ali becomes evident in the long arguments presented by Baron Pasha about history and nature of the state. Thus the reasons for the decline of Ottomans are soundly debated within the Pasha family. The family being a microcosmic symbol of the larger Turkish society of the time just echoes what was happening there during the times. The conversation between Iskander Pasha, Halil and Uncle Memed is an interesting one in that this debate is in many ways evocative of the debate existing within the contemporary Muslim world as it endures a very tough phase in many facets of its political, social and intellectual life which is divided between two poles—adherence to orthodoxy on the one hand and the longing for a reform on the modern lines on the other.

As the novel also shows, a new kind of Turkish nationalism based mainly on secular parameters is emerging which is challenging the Sultanate, but it has still not been able to find a way to accommodate some other ethnic and religious minorities in the empire. The murder of Dimitri, who is Greek by ethnicity, in the distant place of Konya by the Turkish nationalists is a reference to the ethnic and nationalist tensions that still prevail between Turkey and Greece. The younger members of the Pasha family are not able to formulate a consensus on their affection towards the cause of the nationalists. The forceful imposition of the dominant Turkish identity itself becomes a problem for minorities like Greeks who vehemently resist and unfortunately, Dimitri becomes a victim of such malice. And similar fate unfortunately awaits other ethnicities like Kurds and Armenians.

Tariq Ali is also portraying an individual view of the history of the times through a subaltern perspective. It challenges the power-structure of the time—Turks in this case, and brings out new self-critical and self-reflexive dimensions of the Muslim history. It is again a strong contestation against the partisan and hegemonic view of the western narratives. The grand narratives of the institutions backed by the power structures are rejected and an attempt is made to analyse the history through alternatives like viewing the history from the individual point of view. Tariq Ali has done it successfully through marginalised characters like Dimitri and Hasan Baba. Hasan Baba, the barber of the Pasha family represents the divisive social hierarchy existing within the Ottoman society and culture during that era.

In the novel, Tariq Ali also makes allusions to various complex historical events which characterise both the Ottoman and Muslim history. Sultan Abdul Hamid’s brutal suppression of the Armenians in 1894-96 is also alluded to. Everyone knows that later on in 1915-16, there occurred a terrible genocide of Armenians. Through the diversity of characters in The Stone Woman, Tariq Ali not only seems to locate the history through a multitude of perspectives even while talking about the Muslims themselves, but also provides subtle allegorical hints towards the state of much of the current day Muslim world including Turkey.

Basharat Shameem, Assistant Professor, Amar Singh College, Srinagar

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