Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree: Book One of the Islam Quartet. Tariq Ali. Open Road Media. Reissue October 2013. 288 pp. e-book, 955 KB, ASIN #: B00FEZ2432.
The Banu Hudayl family has a momentous choice to make, convert to Christianity or die. A Moslem family proud of their heritage, they are proud of the ancient stories displaying wisdom and at the same time warning of what leads to the demise of great Arab cities. They lust as avidly as they brag about their Arab military history. But the family has been divided in many ways by the hidden relationships begun and ending in disaster.
Now in 15th Century Spain a new danger looms. The story begins with a huge book burning scene, the destruction of religious, scientific and artistic works worth a fortune but seen as nothing but heresy by the fanatical Ximenes de Cisneros, who is also the private Roman Catholic confessor of Queen Isabella. Up to now the Church’s policy has been that reason would eventually compel the Moslem population to convert. But Ximenes knows that only force and an ultimatum of life or death will bring about this change and at the same time cleanse the country of its impure residents. He’s determined that his plan to guarantee this end is carried out to completion! Granada has fallen and now the outlying town where the Banu Hudayl family lives is next to fall!
A chess set serves as the appropriate metaphor for this historically devastating time, the pieces representing Queen Isabella and the great grandfather of Yazid, one of the Banu Hudayl sons, who was once a very famous Muslim knight. Yazid’s father doesn’t initially believe he and his family and peers are on the brink of annihilation, not until his brother Miguel, a convert and the Bishop of Cordova, begs and threatens him to convert or die. For Miguel, survival is better than being dead but his family does not see it that way at all, at least not all of them.
While there are innumerable names mentioned, at times providing annoying confusion, it is clear who the protagonists are herein. There is Yazid’s brother, Zuhayr, who’s been visiting a wise old man, Ibn Zaydun, whose past love story involved a family member supposedly gone “mad” because she could not marry her lover. But Ibn Zaydun has used the years wisely, studying the ancient writings of Muslim philosophy and culture, and these are what he shares with Zuhayr. The latter seems too interested in the story quality of what he hears, but later all these things will come to his mind’s foremost thoughts when he chooses to fight rather than surrender to the surrounding Christians. But this is no chivalric tale as Zuhayr comes to learn discernment between the time to strike, the time to do what needs to be done outside of a direct attack, and the time to withdraw to fight again at a better time.
There is also a feisty female character, Hind, a passionate woman who dreams of romanticized olden days that are rapidly dissipating, “Remember the shadows of the pomegranate tree during the full moon, Amira? Remember what we used to say? If the moon is with us, what need do we have for the stars?”
In between the constant debates about the Christian threat, there are lovely descriptions of the luscious Arab meals shared, palaces and homes with beautiful tapestries and artifacts within, snippets of quotes from famous Arab writers and scholars, and descriptions of clothing typical of the time and place of this notable Arab family.
Many more intriguing tales and family interactions fill these intriguing pages. This is the first of a planned quartet. One often hears about the Crusades of earlier times, but this is the first work of fiction this reviewer has read that is a powerful account of what it was like to be a Muslim family and community threatened with extinction, all because of the rise of Christianity. In one way, it’s a sad story but this family’s pride, humor, passion and pragmatic outlook are the noble characteristics that make this novel a wonderful read! Definitely highly recommended and definitely looking forward to the next addition to this talented writer’s opus of well-established historical fiction!