The fourth novel in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet is set in medieval Palermo, a Muslim city rivaling Baghdad and Cordoba in size and splendor. The year is 1153. The Normans occupy Siqilliya, but Arab culture and language dominate the island and the court. Sultan Rujari (King Roger) surrounds himself with Muslim intellectuals, several concubines and an administration presided over by gifted eunuchs.
In this captivating novel, Tariq Ali charts the life and loves of the medieval cartographer, Muhammed al-Idrisi. Torn between his close friendship to the Sultan and his friends who are leaving the island or plotting a resistance to Norman rule, Idrisi finds temporary solace in the harem; but, confronted by the common people of Noto and Catania and the Trusted One, his conscience is troubled.
A Sultan in Palermo is a mythic novel in which pride, greed and lust intermingle with resistance and greatness. It echoes a past that can still be heard today.
“A twelfth-century geographer al-Idrisi had been told by his father of the twelve calligraphers who transcribed Arabic translations of al-Homa’s poetry, working under conditions of such secrecy that if they were even to reveal the nature of their work, ‘the executioner’s scimitar, in a lightning flash, would detach head from body.’ But one of the calligraphers, undaunted, copied out parts of both al-Homa’s poems and sent them to his family in Damascus, along with the information that the complete manuscripts were in secret compartments in the library of Palermo. Generations later, al-Idrisi finds himself in the library at Palermo and, of course, discovers the secret compartment … Whether the subject is heretical poetry, the disunity of the Arabs or the threat that laughter poses to those in power, these digressions only add to the richness of the novel’s texture. A marvelously paced and boisterously told novel of intrigue, love, insurrection and manipulation.”