In Empire of Lies (also published as The Ottoman Secret), famous Lebanese novelist Raymond Khoury tells a story where an extremist discovers the secret of time travel and uses it to alter the course of history in a manner that results in the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to Western Europe in the 17th century. This expansion is the primary cause of the Ottoman Empire being the largest power in the world in the 21st century. People who love historical fiction and adore crime thrillers would find such an idea very fascinating as the basic premise of a novel.
The story starts in 2017, when Ayman Rasheed — a former military intelligence official in the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein, and who joins the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) later on — finds a way to travel through time. He sets his mind to not only restore Islam to its former glory, but also to make sure that its grandeur surpasses all previous achievements. He yearns for a time when Arabs were the bastion of civilisation, whereas the West was under the affliction of the Dark Ages; when Arabic and Persian were the international languages of science and philosophy; and when Islamic empires stretched from China to Spain. In Ayman’s opinion, there is definitely a need for the Caliphate; however, it is not the one that ISIS has in mind.
Ayman delves into the history of the decline of the Muslims and the rise of the West. He comes to the conclusion that, in order to remain a formidable political power, Islam has to overtake the European continent to spearhead scientific revolution and its consequent military and industrial technology. To fulfil this vision of his, Ayman identifies three critical moments in history when Islam came very close to dominating the West, but failed: The Battle of Tours in 732 when the Moors reached central France and Paris was only a couple of hundred kilometres away; the Siege of Vienna in 1529 by Suleiman the Magnificent; and the Battle of Vienna in 1683 when the Ottomans tried, for a second time, to capture the Austrian capital. Ayman decides to alter the outcome of the Battle of Vienna by going there, back in 1683 and, to ensure that the rest of Europe falls under Ottoman control, by staying there. He chooses this year because he considers it more feasible to put his formidable plan into practice.
Ayman manages to achieve what he sets out to achieve across the stretch of centuries. He is able to have himself appointed to the enviable post of governor of Paris under the vastly enlarged Ottoman Empire in the late 17th century. He finds the leading scientists of the time and takes them under the patronage of the Ottomans, ensuring that it is the Ottomans that reap the benefits of the upcoming Industrial Revolution. However, towards the end of his life, he falls seriously ill and decides to travel to his original time in history, ie 2017, to get suitable medical treatment.
A new novel imagines a world where one man is able to go back in time to alter history and allow the Ottoman Empire to conquer Europe
Here, the readers are introduced to a Europe strictly under the control of an authoritarian Ottoman Empire and we also meet the novel’s other three main characters: Kamal is an officer in the Paris secret police force of the Ottoman Empire, Ramazan is Kamal’s brother and the doctor who treats Ayman visiting from the past and Nisreen is Ramazan’s wife and a human rights lawyer.
The lives of these three characters are turned upside down when they discover the true story of Ayman Rasheed and how he singlehandedly changed the course of history. They discover that the history of their empire is based on lies. The authorities in Paris come to know that these characters have become privy to the “Ottoman Secret”, which cannot be disclosed to the public because it could have disastrous political ramifications. Thus starts the thrilling hunt across the physical expanses of Europe and the temporal stretches of history by the Ottoman authorities to stop the struggle for returning history to its “original” form.
“And that was the ultimate sting of democracy, you see: the insane idea that one man’s ignorance was just as worthy as another man’s knowledge. The ludicrous idea that the vote of the uninformed is just as valid as that of the educated.”— Excerpt from the book
So far, so good. However, at this point, the intriguing theme of the novel starts giving way to the formulaic execution of crime thrillers, where cops are chasing a rogue cop and his partner in crime. The twists and surprises are almost like something waiting to happen. Moreover, the characters of Kamal, Nisreen and Ramazan appear to lack the depth required to create convincing circumstances for the motives of their actions which have gigantic consequences. Furthermore, the discussions on liberty versus security seem to be rather more preachy, instead of being cohesively set within the larger framework of the story. At times, the narrative contains pages and pages of world-building and the back stories of characters without the inclusion of a single dialogue, making it seem more of a documentary than a novel.
The primary strength of the novel is its intriguing concept of altering history. Although the author has tried to describe various instances of the historical tweaking required to fulfil this vision, he has ignored the larger socio-political forces at play. Technological achievement is not possible without scientific understanding first, and scientific inquiry is not possible in an environment that stifles rational thought. To suppose that the advancement of science was possible without the rational critique of the socio-political order of the society is quite unrealistic. Therefore, imagining a world where scientific revolution is possible without the preceding Age of Enlightenment appears farfetched. Moreover, the premise that any empire under Muslim rule is bound to be authoritarian and totalitarian is also contrary to the historical examples of tolerance and coexistence under Moorish and Ottoman rule.
In a final analysis, Khoury brings out a promising theme, but falters in fabricating an equally awe-inspiring plot around it. Still, it can be a good read for those who want to explore how the Ottomans and the West clashed and how our modern world was shaped by the victory of the West.
The reviewer is a civil servant and freelance writer
Empire of Lies
By Raymond Khoury
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 26th, 2020