Friday, February 20, 2009

On the Objectification of Subordinates in The Book of Saladin

Essay written for a special topics in literature class. It received an A. I don't think this is the version I turned in, but I wanted to throw this up so it was uh, something. Stoking my vanity, maybe.

Although much is made of the apparent equality of all men under the eyes of Allah - particularly during a jihad - this is seldom achieved in Tariq Ali's The Book of Saladin. Even under the guise of friendship, the value of one character to another in seems to often be measured only by what that character is capable of doing for another. Throughout the novel, individuals are frequently delegated to the rank of possessions, and few characters - most notably Shadhi - ever manage to escape this. The objectification of subordinates is a theme found throughout Saladin, and suggests a multitude of views that Ali has on authority, military/political hierarchies, and the life and social aspects of the ancient Muslim world in general.

In the weeks preceding the final campaign to Jerusalem, the novel's narrator and protagonist, Ibn Yakub mentions that, for the Sultan Salah al-Din, "It was necessary to show both friend and enemy that, in a jihad, all were equal in the eyes of Allah." (p. 240) This is a troubling thought given the importance that s placed on rank during the campaign. Although all of the soldiers in the camp hail from throughout the Muslim world, eat the same food from the same cooks, and are es expected to lay down their lives for the cause as anyone else, they are not welcome in the tents where the highest levels of strategy are to be deployed. That honor is instead reserved for Salah al-Din's closest and most trusted military generals and advisors, such as his nephews Taki al-Din and Farrukh Shah and, sometimes for the sake of historicity, the scribe Ibn Yakub. The soldiers, then, are equal to their superiors in the food they eat, the loot they may pillage from conquered cities, and the level of ribaldry they can spew in front of the camp fires - but not for sensitive topics such as strategy. This implies a strange sort of equality, and one reflected by many of the characters found in the novel.

This treatment of inferiors is most often demonstrated through the actions of the characters that surround Ibn Yakub, and sometimes by him as well. Although Salah al-Din treats Ibn Yakub with generosity and great courtesy, never are Ibn Yakub's personal wishes and drives acknowledged by the Sultan. The Sultan uses him in his official capacity - as a personal scribe - to great effect, and in this context his objectification of Ibn Yakub is understandable. However, as the novel moves forward and the Sultan seems to begin to view Ibn Yakub as a friend, the underlying dynamic of their relationship - subject and master - is never quite escaped. After Ibn Yakub returns from Cairo - where his family had been murdered by raiding Franj soldiers - he immediately visits with the Sultan. Whereas old friends and relative equals might embrace and enquire on the mental well-being of a friend after having dealt with such an ordeal, the Sultan instead immediately begins to recount his most recent failings and struggles with the jihad – and the scribe's troubles ignored.

Ibn Yakub seems to be unmindful of the lack of care expressed by the Sultan, and views him always as a superior instead of a friend. As their relationship begins early in the novel, Ibn Yakub acknowledges this when he fails to recognize the Sultan in his own home; prostrating himself before the Sultan, Ibn Yakub says, "Forgive my for not recognizing Your Majesty. Your slave begs forgiveness." (p. 5) Establishing early on the dynamic that would follow the pair throughout the novel, the Sultan responds by saying, "I do not care much for slaves. They are too prone to rebellion." (p. 5) Although possible that Ibn Yakub was following a societal norm in his address of the Sultan, his innate sense of inferiority is telling.

Telling, too, is the Sultan's response - rather than implying that Ibn Yakub was not his slave, he suggests instead that he'd rather he was something below even the status of the slave - something incapable of rebellion, perhaps. Mere days after this exchange, during the scribe's first official appointment with the Sultan, Ibn Yakub comments, "My hand began to move on the paper, pushed as if by a force much greater than me." (p. 30) Although this "greater force" could be any number of things - up to and including, potentially, Ibn Yakub's god - it is most certainly not Ibn Yakub himself. He is merely the instrument of more powerful hands, and seldom is seen as otherwise, whether by himself or by those around him.
Even when dealing with social issues not related directly to the Sultan or his court, the disparity between social/political ranks among characters is ever-present. The scribe's first interactions with women in the novel have him on both sides of this dynamic, both as subordinate and master. The former comes during his first meeting with the Sultana Halima, whom had been saved from a public execution by the Sultan so that he might keep her in his harem - whether by her choice or not. Clearly confused as to the intentions of Halima's desire for audience with him - and intimidated by her beauty and intelligence - Ibn Yakub begins their conversation by saying nothing, provoking Halima to ask, "Have you been struck dumb, scribe?" (p.92) Ibn Yakub indicates that he has not, and "assume[s] there was something [Halima] wished to communicate to me. You see I have brought my equipment with me so that I may transcribe your every utterance." (p. 92) In the first few exchanges between the pair, a hierarchy between them has become clear; Halima, who often seems to look down on everyone around her, is well aware that she has the initial advantage, and her vague insult signifies this. Ibn Yakub himself went into the conversation with an understanding that he was an object to be used by the Sultana - hence his equipment and hesitancy to initiate conversation. His first thought after mentioning his capacities as a scribe are that "She ignored my display of servility," (p. 92) suggesting perhaps that either she didn't care about what his skills were and wanted him for something else, or that she was above even servility – but she was nonetheless in a position above that of Ibn Yakub and able, through her own decision, to do either.

Her use of Ibn Yakub as an element of, initially, entertainment, and then as a listening post, is demonstrated by the content - and the conclusion - of their one-sided conversation. Halima relates to Ibn Yakub the story of how she came to be caught in the arms of a man other than her husband, although she fails to acknowledge that Ibn Yakub, too, may have a story. Disgusted and annoyed with his shock at the concept of Halima taking a female lover, she dismisses him, saying "I'm disappointed in you, scribe. I don't think I shall summon you again," (p. 96) indicating that Ibn Yakub's value to her extends only so far as he is capable of being a listener - and not a judger - of her words.

Ibn Yakub treats his wife, Rachel, in a similar capacity to how the Sultan and Halima treat him. His taking of the position of royal scribe had removed him for long periods of time from their home and their daughter, and rather than addressing the problem with their relationship in the fashion that equals in marriage perhaps would, Ibn Yakub instead seems to regularly dismiss her complaints. After he returns home one evening and finds his friend and mentor, Ibn Maymum, fornicating with his wife, neither his mind nor his words turn to what he could have personally done to avert such a terrible thing from happening, or even how he might be partially at fault. Instead, he grows angry with her and Ibn Maymum, assaulting the man and nearly doing the same to his wife. When he comes and looks to her and she says, "You never forgave me for not giving you a son. Was it my fault that after our daughter was born I could never conceive again? You abandoned me for the Sultan and life in the palace. Ibn Maymum became my only source of consolation. I was lonely. Can't you understand?" (p. 155) His response to what should have been a clear indictment of his recent lifestyle was, rather than even vague understanding, was "I was shaken. No reply formed on my lips. I was filled with blind rage and, had I not left the room, would have struck her several blows." (p. 155)

Although his initial, potentially violent reaction is (sort of) understandable, her words provide an insight into their relationship that Ibn Yakub failed to take notice of. Although Ibn Yakub never seemed to mention it, that Rachel failed to provide for him a son - and thereby, in a sense typical to the novel, outlived her usefulness - was a substantial cause of tension in their relationship. Instead of viewing her as an equal, a partner with whom to share struggles and joys and life, he - or at least, how she felt he viewed her - wanted her exclusively for her capacity to bear him a male heir. Failing that, she became nearly useless.

That a person can become useless and ultimately discarded is a concept that also arises repeatedly in The Book of Saladin. One of the most highly-favored of the royal concubines, Jamila, seems to experience this as both a discarded person and a discarder of people. Shortly after arriving in the royal harem, Jamila and Halima became close friends and closer lovers, and the joy the pair brought to one another was seen and commented upon by many characters in the novel. After Halima became heavy with the Sultan's child, however, their relationship changed; seduced by the superstitions of the old women of the harem, she rejected Jamila, both as a friend and lover. That she could allow what appeared to be a fundamentally strong relationship to falter and fail at the words of old women suggests that Jamila had a real and tangible value to Halima - and those values could be found elsewhere and in perhaps greater quality. Halima had replaced Jamila.

This was not to be the last cause of tension between the two characters. Amjad, the personal eununch and servant of Jamila, worshipped his master, saying at one point that "[Jamila] is the only one I love, and I would die happily at her command." (p. 257) This indicates that, even if Jamila personally hadn't intended to objectify the eununch, then he had objected himself to her - he lived and found life on her every word, and seemed to function as little else than pleasing her in any way possible. The above quotation resulted in a conversation that the eununch had with the scribe, Ibn Yakub, about a terrible sort of secret that the eununch had been trying to hide from his master, Jamila - that Halima had been raping him on an almost nightly basis. Shortly after finding this out and learning of the death of Halima, Jamila had the eununch sent away, and explained it in a heartbreakingly-casual fashion; "Amjad? Alas, he is no longer with us. He spread so many calumnies to so many people that I had to ask for him to be sent away. The steward dealt with the matter. Do not look so worried. He is still alive." (p. 322) She discarded him, ironically, in a fashion similar to the way that Halima discarded her - on what were false pretenses, paranoid delusions, and self-damning, blind acts of temper. People that are seen as fellow humans, and not objects with a quantifiable value, should seldom be treated in such a fashion - but objects capable of outliving their value frequently are.

A certain amount of consideration for cultures foreign to my own should be taken, however; the way that my peers treat one another is imagined to be vastly different than the way that peers in the ancient Muslim world would treat one another - particularly those in a militaristic or royal setting. That essentially every character in the novel is guilty of objectification when they can get away with it - except, again, for Shadhi - is troublesome. Were all of the people surrounding Salah al-Din really just miserable bastards? I have a difficult time accepting this, as characters like Shadhi, who treats nearly everyone with the same hyperbolic level of either venom or love, suggest that some of the individuals found in the novel view human beings as creatures worthy of care. This suggests that, instead, Ali has chosen to infuse most of the characters in The Book of Saladin with the capacity for a cold and callous disregard for the emotional and physical needs of others. That this occurs most often with characters dealing with those they might consider subordinates - such as the Sultan Salah al-Din to the scribe Ibn Yakub and the husband Ibn Yakub to the wife Rachel - indicates a certain attitude that Ali may have towards people that inhabit positions of power over others. He perhaps has an innate dislike for people that find themselves in such positions, or has experienced that they view those below them as objects to use as tools and not as individuals to care for.

The singular character that seems to avoid being used as a tool is that of Shadhi; a Kurd, like Salah al-Din and hailing from the mountains, he tends to be less refined and far more callous than the other characters found within Saladin. Shadhi, who taught the Sultan in the ways of war and of life since an early age, is particularly close to the Sultan, and often takes advantage of this by way of both openly mocking any member of the royal court he wishes to, and by having the freedom to do most anything he wants. Both the narrator Ibn Yakub and the Sultan develop a deep affection for the man, and it becomes clear by the time of his death that he is a special case in the kingdom. That Ali chose essentially the most barbaric and uncivilized of characters to be among the few that escape objectification is interesting, suggesting, perhaps, that civilization itself is a corrupting influence. That he is often present at potentially dangerous exchanges – such as Ibn Yakub's first meeting with Halima – is a strange choice. Intrinsically an outsider, the most socially privelaged and unrefined character often finds himself as anything but an outsider. Even if not directly center-stage, Shadhi never misses a performance and is usually just on the periphery, absorbing the input and returning insults. He also seems to be one of few characters that develops a genuine bond with Ibn Yakub, taking special care to ensure he doesn't step on the wrong feet, and appeared to be genuinely sympathetic to the narrator when he found his wife with Ibn Maymun.

Although Shadhi is near all of the positions of power, he seems to wield little of it himself, instead acting as confidant and advisor to his Sultan. That he also fails to systematically objectify all of those around him suggests perhaps an alternate take on motivations – not that those in power abuse personal relationships because they can, but because they must. In order to rule a kingdom effectively a leader must have an effective eye not merely for talent, but for personality – and the capacity to know how to use that personality. In order to solidify their positions as strongly as they can in the harem, Halima and Jamila are forced to abandon people they otherwise might not. This doesn't address Ibn Yakub or Ibn Maymum, however. Neither of them seemed to be particularly interested in jockeying for increased power or social influence, and Ibn Yakub seemed at all times secure in his position. However, that didn't stop him from objectifying one of the few characters beneath him – his wife – and nor did it stop his friend Ibn Maymum from commodizing their friendship by fornicating with Rachel.

Saladin seems to end as a series of objects caught adrift in a storm of jihad and confused spirituality, with the exertions of each object upon another providing the catalyst for conversation and the forwarding of plot. Even the underlying goal of the majority of the book – the Sultan's planned reconquest of Jerusalem and Ibn Yakub's recording of it – is a struggle about attaining objects. Fitting, then, that the novel ends as a series of physical objects, the letters that Ibn Yakub wrote to Ibn Maymun, instead of in the narrative voice that dominated so much of the story.

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