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Fictional Truth

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Invented stories about the past in which Islam is given a role are attempts at conveying matters that cannot be presented in nonfiction for reasons of access or evidence. Authors such as Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Jurji Zaidan, and Nasim Hijazi exemplify this proposition in their complex narratives tied to ideational and political ends. While differing in understandings, aims, and modes of expression, all three have a reverential view of Islam although not of all people who call themselves Muslim. Their fictions of human life also point to thoroughly nonfictional prescriptions for their audiences.

In modern times, Islam has been fictionalized in a less deferential vein as well, through satire and other forms of trenchant critique regarding religious beliefs and their worldly effects. Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, is a prominent case in point. Rushdie’s novel is not historical fiction in the sense of trying to represent a past event or period perceived as having been real. Rather, it tells a modern story in which a character has visions that refer to episodes in the hagiographical life of Prophet Muhammad.

Rushdie’s novel caused a global controversy when it was published. Some saw it as a provocation that aimed to mock Islam’s founding figure. The uproar eventually led to accusations of blasphemy, and in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran gave the legal opinion that Rushdie was subject to a death penalty. Although Rushdie has not come to grievous harm, he has lived under the shadow of this affair for the past three decades.

Shortly after the controversy regarding The Satanic Verses caught fire, Rushdie published a short essay reflecting on why societies must protect literature that may cause offense. Entitled “Is Nothing Sacred?,” the essay begins by considering whether, in the modern secular context, literature deserves the sacrosanct position enjoyed by religious texts in earlier periods. This is an established argument in some circles, and one might think that an author threatened with death would invoke it vigorously to motivate governments and intelligentsias to defend him.

Rushdie begins by discussing the possible parallelism but eventually rejects it. He emphasizes a difference in categories, saying that unlike the attitude religious people may take to their scriptures, works of literature must always remain open to critique and supercession. Making literature untouchable in the same way as certain religious texts are treated would negate the very reason for which literature is valuable.

Rushdie argues that writers like him must be free to write as they wish because imagination, whose narration falls to professional authors, is a human necessity:

Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our heads, we can hear voices talking everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little, unimportant-looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary (Rushdie, “Is Nothing Sacred?,” 1543).

Writers of earnest fiction on Islam may not agree with Rushdie’s use of the freedom for which he advocates. But the value of his position is evident from the immense energy that has gone into producing fictions of Islamic pasts over the past two centuries. Given the volume and variety of works produced, we must acknowledge that invented stories about a past perceived as real seem to answer to personal and communal needs not satisfied by nonfictional means.

This section treats some theoretical issues brought to the fore by the consideration of fiction pertaining to Islam. This is admittedly a vast topic, which, like the rest of this book, can be addressed here only suggestively. My primary muse for these reflections is what I consider one of the acutest recent investigations of the conjunction between history and fiction. This is not the work of a theorist. It is itself a novel, one that, moreover, is entangled with issues pertaining to Islamic pasts and futures. I first present the novel’s premise and then circle back to how it helps us understand fictional histories.

A neighborhood with buildings and narrow streets.

Streets in the Alfama district of Lisbon at dawn.


Photo 171978788 © Svetlana Guseva |


Fictional Truth

The Siege of Lisbon, 1147 CE

José Saramago (d. 2010), who won the Nobel prize in literature in 1998, is a major figure in modern Portuguese literature. Published in 1989, his novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon (História do Cerco de Lisboa) is a story about the writing of a counterfactual historical novel. The work is focused on a single character, a man named Raimundo Silva, who lives an inconspicuous, lower middle-class life in Lisbon, Portugal. He works mostly from home, a small apartment in the Alfama district that was, many centuries ago, the heart of Lisbon as a city of Muslims. He is a freelance proofreader for publishers in the city, a job that requires meticulous attention to texts. The labor he and other proofreaders undertake is critical for the publishing industry, although it is anonymous and ultimately invisible since the point is to eliminate errors before a work is published.

Silva is good at his job, which requires deep attention and a kind of unostentatious erudition. But there is also more to him:

The proofreader has this remarkable flair for splitting his personality, he inserts a deleatur or introduces a comma where required, and at the same time, if you’ll pardon the neologism, heteronomises himself, he is capable of pursuing the path suggested by an image, a simile, or metaphor, often the simple sound of a word repeated in a low voice leads him, by association, to organise polyphonic verbal edifices capable of transforming his tiny study into a space multiplied by itself, although it is difficult to explain in plain language what that means (Saramago, History of the Siege of Lisbon, 14).

Fixed in placid and parsimonious habits on the outside, Silva’s inner life has a vivacity that transforms with the genre of work he is contracted to proofread. He is given a manuscript to proofread that is a historical work on an event with a deep connection to the city and the quarter in which he lives. The event is the siege of Lisbon in 1147 by Dom Afonso Henriques (d. 1185), ruler of the county of Portugal. Afonso’s capture of Lisbon greatly enlarged his territory, as he found the kingdom of Portugal that has continued to exist as a state, in one form or another, from the twelfth century to the present. As Silva reads the historian’s account of the city’s siege in the twelfth century, his active imagination starts to plot the presence of the army outside the walls of the quarter in which he lives in the twentieth century.

Silva exists at the crossroads of two spatiotemporal coordinates: his Portuguese identity places him with Afonso and his army as they wait outside the walls for the event that would make Portugal possible. But as a citizen of Lisbon, he identifies with the city’s Muslim population as it feels terrorized by the invaders. In the historical narrative, the eventual conquest is made possible by a key happenstance. An army of Crusaders on their way from northern Europe to Jerusalem are passing through the region. Afonso appeals to them for help, arguing that disposing the Muslims in Iberia was on par with the divine work they expected to do in the Holy Land. They agree to this, and with their help, Afonso becomes the founder of the Portuguese nation.

As Silva proofreads the account of the siege, his mind begins to play with counterfactual possibilities. This ultimately leads to a moment when

he holds his biro with a steady hand and adds a word to the page, a word the historian never wrote, that for the sake of historical truth he could never have brought himself to write, the word Not, and what the book now says is that the crusaders will

Not help the Portuguese to conquer Lisbon, thus it is written and has come to be accepted as true, although different, what we could call false has come to prevail over what we would call true, falsehood has replaced the truth, and someone would have to narrate the history anew, and how (40).

Although apprehensive about what would happen once others see what he has done, Silva submits the corrected/falsified manuscript to the publisher. He is unsure even about his own action: “Why, in this history accepted as being true, must I myself invent another history so that it might be false and false so that it may be different” (114).

A few days pass before the problematic change is discovered, which compels the publisher to appoint someone to supervise the work of proofreaders. Silva is brought into the publisher’s office and is reprimanded. Here he meets Dr. Maria Sara, the newly installed authority over proofreaders. She allows him to continue being employed after he promises to avoid further antics. But the interaction between Silva and Maria Sara starts something more: she urges him to write a fictional history of the siege that would result if the crusaders had in fact declined to help Afonso.

Silva’s attraction for Maria Sara becomes comingled with the latent desire that had led him to alter the text, and he embarks on the endeavor. He and Maria Sara become involved amorously, courting each other in a tender and complex emotional and physical relationship. Saramago’s description of their affair braids Silva’s thoughts about his present situation with his imagination of an affair between Mogueime and Ouroana, a Portuguese soldier and the concubine of a slain Crusader, who are part of the Portuguese contingent besieging Lisbon in 1147.

What if all the evidence on which we rely to construct historical narratives is riddled with such seemingly small insertions, placed by whim or design, so that all our pictures of the past are false?

Rethinking History in Fiction

The value of Saramago’s work derives from Raimundo Silva’s pains and pleasures that follow once he embarks on the process of writing the fictional account of the siege of Lisbon. The character inside Saramago’s novel is shown as someone who is simultaneously the creator and the explorer of a world. He imagines scenes and characters and then also probes them as if he were a historian looking at evidence.

Silva’s endeavor requires working through critical issues pertaining to history. How can he explain the crusaders’ refusal to help? How would the history of Lisbon be told if the crusaders had refused to help? What difference does changing the crusaders’ decision make for imagining lives of ordinary people in Lisbon since the twelfth century? How are we to understand the relationship between events and their representation given that, as seen here, the insertion of a single three-letter negation requires rethinking centuries worth of historical destiny? What if all the evidence on which we rely to construct historical narratives is riddled with such seemingly small insertions, placed by whim or design, so that all our pictures of the past are false? This may matter greatly for the stories we tell, but does it make any difference for understanding the human condition? Generalized beyond the case, these questions lie at the heart of historical fiction as a literary form.

Saramago’s answers to these questions echo his general belief, expressed in nonfiction, that univocal historical representation is suspect by definition and must be resisted using both alternative sources and imagination. In the novel, he remains committed to realism by indicating that Silva must construct his narrative between two necessary points: the Crusaders refused to help in the twelfth century, but Lisbon did become Christian and has resulted in the place where Silva lives in the twentieth century.

The imperatives governing Silva’s possibilities mean that narration of time in the longue durée must show steps leading to a predetermined end based on his own present. Silva is not really free to imagine as he wishes. But on durations of smaller scale, such as interactions between people and lifetimes of individuals, experienced time is amenable to all manner of invention. This is, in essence, a key trick involved in creating successful historical fiction, which allows an author to fill historical time with representations of matters such as emotions, inner thoughts, and interactions between people that cannot be substantiated through evidence. These latter elements are how historical fiction can represent alien worlds of the past in terms that satisfy the desires and credulity of audiences for which the narratives are being created.

Silva’s first problem is to come up with a reason for why the Crusaders refuse to help. He is stumped by this, but then a solution comes to him as he goes for a walk near the ramparts of the old city. Here, his connection to the land on which he lives suddenly comes alive, and he feels like an actor transported to the earlier events he is imagining to have occurred at the same spots (119). When writing, he describes the scene in which Afonso asks the Crusaders to help him by invoking a vision in which Jesus has come to him and promised victory. Afonso argues that by helping him, the Crusaders would simply be the agents for realizing Jesus’ decision.

The Crusaders listen to Afonso and then tell him that they would respond the next day. When they come back, their (and Silva’s) response is this: given that Jesus has promised the Portuguese a victory already, Afonso should be able to do it all with his own troops. By inserting themselves in the situation, they would be interfering in God’s work rather than carrying out his will (136). The message is sarcastic and includes a sense of mockery by the Crusaders, which is not lost on Afonso, although he cannot respond punitively.

As it turns out, then, Silva’s solution to the narrative problem he faced is very simple. However, within it lies Saramago’s utter dismissal of a key ideological feature of historical accounts generated for religious and nationalist purposes. Such narratives justify victories against odds by invoking otherworldly aid or unnatural zeal resulting from extreme righteousness. But Saramago is pointing out that by a certain logic, such claims of extraordinary help should work in reverse. The claims are absurd even by the logic of religious systems and indicate the partisan and manufactured nature of evidence we routinely use to construct pasts.

While this solution gets Silva out of his immediate conundrum, it does not solve the subsequent issue of how the Portuguese still capture the city. What he finds as he works more is that, even as the inventor, he cannot control the narrative he has started. There is a kind of automaticity that ensues based on him inserting the initial “not” into the narrative: “[H]e suddenly finds himself confronted with the outcome of a necessity as implacable as that other, from which he thought he could escape by the simple inversion of a sign only to find himself falling for it once more, now negatively or, to speak in less radical terms, as if he had written the same music lowering all the notes half a tone” (226).

As Saramago’s novel progresses, the account of Silva writing his fictional history becomes ever more personalized. The details of the two love affairs—between Silva and Maria Sara and between Mogueime and Ouroana— become harder to tell apart, reflecting things in Silva’s mind. The two novels end together in quick succession. Silva finishes with the demise of Muslim Lisbon when a Christian soldier beheads an old Muslim man giving the morning call to prayer for the last time in 1147.

Having written this, Silva comes to bed at 3 AM, where Maria Sara asks him how the story ends. He replies with the following:

With the death of the muezzin, And what about Mogueime, and Ouroana, what happened to them, As I see it, Ouroana will return to Galicia, and Mogueime will go with her, and before they leave they will find in Lisbon a dog that has survived in hiding and will accompany them on their journey, What makes you think that they should go away, Difficult to say, the logical thing would be for them to stay, Forget it, we’re staying. Maria Sara’s head is resting on Raimundo’s shoulder, with his left hand he strokes her hair and cheek. They did not fall asleep at once. Beneath the verandah roof a shadow sighed (312).

By the end, Silva imagines, as well as lives, in both the past and the present. The two categories of time are distinguishable as points on a scale but are utterly intermixed with respect to human relationships and quotidian decision-making. Through fiction, history is made into a matter of human lives conducted in the same worn way that applies to all peoples past and present. Under the grand projections of religious communities, nations, and ideologies, everyone turns out to have ordinary lives understandable across large swathes of time.

Saramago’s History of the Siege of Lisbon makes the traffic between historical fiction and nonfiction the very object of the novel. His realist narrative dramatizes the manufactured nature of the past, playing with presumptions underlying history, such as the connection between evidence and truth, data and interpretation, fact and accidental displacement, and consequences resulting from slight changes. His invention of personal encounters, emotions, and quotidian details in his version of the siege have no effect on historical development over a long duration. But these matters imbue his story with details that illuminate a type of history that cannot be had from archival evidence. His fiction about the writing of historical fiction reveals as much about history as it does about the process of inventing a tale about the past. Analytical and political postures embedded in Saramago’s work help us to understand all the different types of historical fictions that have been invented to represent Islam.

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