Book Review: Biography of a colourful Arab poet and artist

26th Apr 2013

About this man called Ali: The purple life of an Arab artist. By Amal Ghandour, London: Eland. pp248. HB. 2009. £18.99

This book is a biographical account of the life of Ali al-Jabri, a talented but equally troubled Arab artist, who was born in 1942 and was murdered in 2002. Hailing from a prominent Syrian family, young Ali grew up during a challenging time in modern Arab history. Many of the Arab states were on the verge of regaining their independence from the colonial powers, inspired by an interest in a new brand of Arab nationalism. The Second World War had also just ended and soon afterwards the Arab world was to experience yet another upheaval, namely the birth of the new State of Israel which many Arabs found difficult to accept due to political, cultural and economic reasons among other things.

Amal Ghandour, the author of this book, is a journalist and author who was born in Beirut but educated in the United States. She decided to write this biography because she found the life and struggles of Ali al-Jabri a fascinating subject for study and exploration.

The author wrote, “Because of the friend in the man, because of the poet in the artist, because of the eyewitness in the painter, because of the pauper in the aristocrat, because of his addiction to this land and everything tragic about it, because of those eyes that could see beauty in the most ordinary and breathe every manner of colour into the staid, because of those spirits within him that sparred only to make love again, because of his loud genius and his obscure name, because of the rich life he lived and the death he should not have died, I decided to write this book about Ali.” (P xv)

Although this book revolves around the life, work and struggles of an individual, the author deserves credit for placing this biographical study in the political, social, cultural and economic condition of the time. This is an important point because people live in space and time, and as such the biography of an individual can only make proper sense and understanding when it is analysed within the wider socio-political context of the time.

The author alludes to her multi-faceted approach in these words, “when Ali passed away, I knew that his was a story too compelling not to tell. Elusive to even those closest to him, Ali sent enough our way that told of lives and thoughts and talents and dreams and days and moments, all worth exploring, all worth knowing. What he had to say with ink, acrylic and pastel about his own roaming existential pleasures and struggles, about his family, about his Arab terrain, flows in streams of perspectives and interpretations. This book strings together some of these, trying to make this fragmented man more whole, to shake off the dust of time that has made his story barely intelligible,” (p xvi)

Divided into five chapters, a prologue, an epilogue, glossary, bibliography and extensive notes, this book tells the story of a talented poet, gifted artist but culturally confused individual who hailed from a powerful Arab family. It is much more than a biography because it also chronicles the history of the modern Middle East through the fortunes of a Syrian family. This book is worth reading.

Muhammad Khan is author of long awaited book, The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (forthcoming, 22 May 2013).


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