Who but Tariq Ali could have written a book like this? This is, first of all, a wonderful piece of literature, suffused with lyrical prose that befits its time and place and evokes the poetry and sensuality of the Middle East in the pre-modern world. And it is a vital piece of history, occasionally pedagogical (some might say to a fault, but I won't), an insider's view of the last days of the Ottoman empire in Turkey as the world prepares for the painful and violent birth of the twentieth century, a sensitive and cynical rendering of the corrupt,but feeble, state of affairs of the government of the Sultanate.
The narrative flows in a series of vignettes as the main characters, members of a proud aristocratic family, gather one fateful summer at the family estate outside Istanbul, and reveal their secrets to the"Stone Woman," a natural rock formation that has always been the keeper of family secrets. Ali's Turkey is full of surprises -- Sufi mystics who quote Balzac, nobles whose true lineage derives from Albanian shit-sweepers, gay uncle Memed and his intellectual Prussian lover of 50 years,desperate intrigues and dubious patrimonies. Through these the author teaches us of the follies of contemporary life in the Islamic world --the deadly hypocrisies of religious fanaticism, the ugliness and tragedy of ethnic and sectarian hatreds, the redeeming value of life-giving passion. And always, the eternal lessons of history. This is a marvelous book, as rich and complex and enchanting as an ancient Turkish carpet.