Tariq Ali’s novel, The Stone Woman, tells us about the decline of the Ottoman empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a story with plenty of lessons for present-day Turkey. The Ottoman kingdom ruled a vast portion of the Middle East and Eastern Europe for over 600 years. Like any other empire, it rose, peaked and gradually fell.
The Stone Woman, published two decades ago, explores this history critically and serves up an allegory even for today’s Turkey which is rapidly descending into right-wing populism, rekindling the same pre-1921 phenomenon that the novel denounces. This history is portrayed through the perspectives of an aristocratic Ottoman family. The Pasha family has descended from one of the favourite courtiers of the Ottoman statesman named Yousuf Pasha. The novel uses this family as a microcosmic symbol for the empire—its fortunes rise and decline in parallel with the empire’s.
The lateral impact of western imperialism on Turkey is also traced. As the Ottomans begin to decline, there is more and more dissent from within, calling for radical change and reformation in all facets of Turkish life. This echoes in the words of the character 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 obstinate refusal to accept change and innovation while being rigid on matters of religion and tradition.
As 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 capitals as an Ottoman ambassador. Iskander has four children: Salman, the oldest; Halil, a general; Nilofer, the daughter whose enthralling life story is 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 personal tales of the members of the Pasha family. The reader gets 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 political events unfold, their lives are inevitably impacted to a very large extent.
The time is the summer of 1899 AD and the Ottoman Empire is starting to show signs of decline. An unease has crept in among the younger 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 Nilofer, the narrator, 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 part of the new rebellious thinking which wants to overthrow the sultan and install a new secular government. A secular nationalist movement under the Committee for Union and Progress which later became the “Young Turks movement” is plotting an uprising against the Ottoman Sultan. Mostly army officers are part of this plot including Halil and Selim of the Pasha family. They hold one of their secret meetings at the Pasha estate.
A brief reference is also made to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who is not named, but referred to simply as a “young officer from Salonika.” He is part of this nationalist movement, which among other things plans to replace the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, so that Western ideas become more accessible to the people of Turkey.
Tariq Ali’s narratives restore that side of the Ottoman history in which they acted in a tolerant manner and ran an inclusive empire for a pretty long time where Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Bedouins, Greeks and Slavs were all had a place. Some dissent was always encouraged, as indicated by the debates among people about religion, reformation, rationalism and the possible foundations of a new republic on modern lines. However, these accounts were later contested by the narrations of the young people like Halil, Selim and Mehmed. Through its portrayal of the diverse and rich currents of thought within the Ottoman society, the novel challenges the self-serving narratives of the West, which present Muslims as monolithic beings. The novel does this through the use of polyphonic modes and characters who possess highly-emancipated ideas.
Ali’s passionate longing for reform from within in Islam is alluded to in The Stone Woman, multiple times, 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…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 possible future emancipation. Iskander Pasha, now confined to bed after severe illness, calls upon the family members to learn history in order to understand the past so that future challenges can be dealt with. He takes a keen interest in studying western literature himself. Halil and “Uncle Memed”, belonging to two different generations, have different answers to this question. A rational dialogue occurs within the family on the state of the empire, the nature of a possible future state, the role of knowledge and technology. Each member comes up with his own insights. There are agreements and disagreements which are happily resolved. Reasons are outlined for the degradation of the empire. Notable among these was its refusal to pay attention to spread knowledge and political and social reform and allowing the clergy to dominate.
Halil’s arguments are very fascinating. His views echo the feelings of young modern Turks of the early twentieth century, and mirror the views of many modern Muslim intellectuals keen on reform from within including the author. He, therefore, becomes a mouthpiece of Ali’s strongly dissenting and progressive views. Baron Pasha’s own rational analysis critiques the governance model of the Ottomans and refers to the great medieval Muslim historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun’s theories on history and the rise and fall of civilisations.
The influence of Ibn Khaldun on Tariq Ali becomes evident in the long arguments presented by Baron Pasha about history and nature of the state. Thus the family becomes a microcosmic symbol of Turkish society and echoes events of their time. The conversation between Iskander Pasha, Halil and Uncle Memed is interesting in that it evokes the debates within the contemporary Muslim world as it endures a very tough phase politically, socially and in its intellectual life, which is split between two poles—orthodoxy on the one hand and the longing for modern reform on the other.
As the novel also shows a new kind of Turkish nationalism, based mainly on secular parameters, emerge and challenge the sultanate but it has still not found a way to accommodate some of the empire’s ethnic and religious minorities. The murder of Dimitri, who is of Greek ethnicity, in the distant place of Konya by 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 unable to formulate a consensus on their affection towards the nationalist cause. The forceful imposition of the dominant Turkish identity itself becomes a problem for minorities like the Greeks who vehemently resist and unfortunately, Dimitri becomes a victim of malice. A similar fate unfortunately awaits other ethnicities like the Kurds and Armenians.
Tariq Ali portrays an individual’s view of the history of the times from a subaltern perspective that challenges the power structure of the time. The Turks bring out new self-critical and self-reflexive dimensions of Muslim history. There is again a strong contestation of the partisan and hegemonic views of western narratives. The grand narratives of institutions backed by the power structures are rejected and an attempt is made to analyse history through alternative points of view, including that of the individual. Tariq Ali does this successfully through marginalised characters like Dimitri and Hasan Baba. The Pasha clan’s barber, Hasan, represents the divisive social hierarchy of Ottoman society and culture.
Ali also alludes to various complex historical events which characterise both Ottoman and Muslim history, including Sultan Abdul Hamid’s brutal suppression of the Armenians in 1894-96. Later, in 1915-16, there occurred the terrible Armenian genocide. Through the diversity of characters in The Stone Woman, Tariq Ali locates history from multiple perspectives and provides subtle hints towards the state of much of the Muslim world today, including Turkey.
The author is a blogger and writer based in Kashmir. The views are personal.