The fact that Tariq Ali’s fiction is rife with orientalism (an academic term used to describe ethnocentric interpretations of eastern countries by outsiders of the culture) is interesting in regards to his having been raised in a Muslim culture in Pakistan. However, at seventeen, Ali was sent to England and was educated at Oxford, thus indoctrinating him in western culture.
Self-fashioning is the term that Stephen Greenblatt first used in the eighties to talk about the Renaissance aristocracy’s penchant for creation of the public image according to the socially accepted standards of the 1400s and 1500s. Since then though, many readers and writers have discovered that the concept of self-fashioning for an elevated social status can easily be applied to all types of characters in all types of literature, and that it is also a key motivator to real life individuals as well.
Self-fashioning and the healing of political and religious dystopias go hand in hand for Ali and is surely constrained, depending on which audience he is attempting to self-fashion for: the aristocratic West or the aristocratic East. His need to satisfy both power-structures manifests not just as a call for a return to the pluralism during the golden age of Islam as it was prior to the Reconquest of Spain, but also shows up in the way he distances himself from his Muslim roots by orientalizing his characters in his historical fiction quartet that begins with the first book entitled, “Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.”
Furthermore, he orientalizes in his historical fiction and occidentalizes (taking a huge (I realize) liberty with the reverse definition of orientalism here) in much of his political, non-fiction work. Ultimately, his struggle for cultural identity seems rooted in his desire for an Islamic reformation, one that moves away from what he considers to be the anachronistic state of organized religion and to tend towards self-fashioning as a form of resistance against hegemony. He is also an admitted atheist.
The struggle for cultural identity and the need to self-fashion in a way that manifests as reversals is fascinating, not just in terms of what it means for the psychological aspects of the writer Ali, but also in terms of how his work will be interpreted by scholars.
Ali also tends towards extremism in activism in terms of an implied scorn towards localism made clear through his chosen career as an activist journalist. Could the globe-trotting, journalist lifestyle be based more on headline chasing then wanting to make a difference in the world? It seems by lifestyle choice alone, Ali considers the idea of provincialism or localism as quaint, rather than the conscious effort that it is on the part of the local peoples to support causes by other local peoples which historically has brought about the most stable and long lasting forms of change. Ali considers himself to be an activist journalist, but his headline chasing seems more in line with Greenblatt’s definition of self-fashioning than the selflessness that community activism requires.
So Ali is at one moment in history with Malcolm X and another with Che Guevara and all the while considering himself as someone who despises imperialism, colonialism, Zionism, racism, localism and leftism, and who is supportive of socialism, is at any rate a vocal anti-capitalist, who has written passionately on the success of pluralism, but, who, in his current writing, conjectures the time for an Islamic reformation has passed, even though it seems obvious to at least this writer that the healing of the Islamic world would help to repair the rift between the East and the West and maybe even the rift in Ali as well.
Ali’s fiction tends to do the opposite of his journalism by othering his ethnic heritage through maintaining oriental stereotypes perpetuated in the occidental culture of his Oxford education. Furthermore, his persona of a globe trotting activist scorns provincialism as a means to avoid accepting either the East or the West as his heritage.