The Jewel of Medina goes on sale in the United States today. *queue scary music.*
Two weeks ago, I got a copy of the novel from Beaufort Books, the U.S. publisher, to review for the magazine I work at. I read the book, interviewed Denise Spellberg—the associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas who advised Random House not to publish Jewel—and also managed to wrangle a one hour-interview with author Sherry Jones.
If you're interested, you can also listen to the interview here:
And now for my op-ed:
I initially began reviewing this novel by deciding to list all the inaccuracies and false facts I found in it. But once I realized I'd already filled four pages of text and I was only 40 pages into the book, I stopped.
Purple prose aside (and there's a lot of that), my biggest beef with The Jewel of Medina is the author's insistence that the book is "extensively researched" and based as close as possible to historical facts when the reality is that Jones has taken liberties with history that would make historians gnash their teeth. If she'd only just added the disclaimer "this book is loosely based on real facts," it would have been so much easier to stomach.
In my interview with her, she admitted that
"A novel has a protagonist, […] a narrative, thriving action, tension, climax, [and] resolution, and […] I didn't find that the lives of the characters conformed to that structure. So I had to introduce elements and make some changes for the sake of putting together a novel."
In other words, she had to distort history and sensationalize it in order to get people to read it. Sex and violence sells. And what better way to draw in readers than with a racy, completely fictionalized and very controversial version of hadith al-ifk? (the accusation of adultery made against ‘Aisha). Which, by the way, was made available online months ago. A teaser, if you like.
In other words, it's libel. If Lady ‘Aisha was alive today, she could sue.
But is it not libel because Jones has said her novel is fiction? I remember the fuss that people kicked up when the book Confidential by Allison Jackson was published. Basically, Jackson found look-alikes of celebrities and photographed them in compromising situations (the back cover of the book is the Queen of England sitting on a toilet reading a magazine with her granny underwear around her ankles. Other photos include "George Bush and Tony Blair chatting in the sauna, Osama Bin Laden playing backgammon, and Monica Lewinsky lighting Bill Clinton's cigar"). Fauxtography at its best. But, and here's the rub, she didn't get into any trouble because she stated that the photos were of look-alikes.
It's understandable why the celebrities would be annoyed with Jackson. But at least with her book, the reader knows that everything is false. But with Jones' book, how will the inaccuracies be discernible by non-Muslim readers? Advising them to read the novel with a healthy grain of salt will not help them differentiate between what is fact and fiction. Consequently, the fiction will end up circulating in mainstream literature and Muslims will have to work hard to counteract the ideas put forth by Jones' book.
And it's not just the obvious boo-boos (hadith al-ifk interpretation, the hatun [great lady of the house], purdah [seclusion, a sub-continental custom that did not apply to the Islamic age], Lady ‘Aisha being a warrior, etc), but little things mentioned oh-so-subtly: you'll get your hand cut off for stealing even when you're starving, you'll get stoned if you're seen speaking to a man, and other random things like the Prophet's favorite meal and decorating camels with kohl (eyeliner) and flowers before slaughtering them (huh?).
One more thing: why is it al-Lah and not Allah?!
To be fair to the author, she does represent certain situations, events and personas in a good light. But the novel includes many glaring inconsistencies; I'd be reading, and suddenly something so blatantly wrong reared its head and jarred my concentration. What we call in Arabic el sem fel ‘asal (poison in honey). It's especially galling when you realize that many strands of the truth are taken to weave a tale that is not quite true—though a lot more sensational.
The Prophet, for example, appears as a just and fair leader, although Jones alludes to the idea that he might have been marginally corrupted by power. His kind treatment of women shines through and even though it's not a glowing portrayal, neither is it at all fair to liken Jones' representation of him to the Danish cartoons.
But the poison here is Jones portraying him as a man who, to put it bluntly, was sex-obsessed, looking at women as if they were "a bowl of honey" with "nostrils flared," and "no duty in his lust filled gaze." He marries complete babes because he desires them—and oh, they also happen to be political alliances. Not the other way around. The Egyptian women arrive in belly-dancing suits, and with their eunuchs. Oh, and did I mention the catfights? And that One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is one of Jones' sources? ‘Nuf said.
(Though again, to be fair, there are no sex scenes. With all the fuss, I was expecting pages and pages of heaving bosoms. Elhamdulelah there wasn't).
Lady ‘Aisha is the heroine of the novel. However, she is portrayed as an impulsive, petty, solipsistic, flighty, irrational, irresponsible, vindictive liar who breaks her promises and only wants the glory of the battlefield. And those were only some adjectives I jotted down while reading.
The author is a 21st century western woman, and it filters through. Lady ‘Aisha enjoys her "last day of freedom" before her arranged marriage, "a fate chosen by others, as though I were a sheep or a goat fatted for this day," and hates the "ridiculous inventions such as purdah and hatun and durra [second wife] and their traditions of male superiority that made chattel of women."
When she hears the verse about hijab, or veiling, "words I could have lived the rest of my life without hearing," she says the prophet might as well have "buried [us] alive" or "put blinders on us." Seclusion to her, which Jones has her endure since the age of six, was living within the "dark, cold walls of a tomb."
It seems as though Jones cannot quite manage to divorce herself from western mentality and put herself in the shoes of a woman who lived in a very different time and place. She almost forces Lady ‘Aisha into being a feminist, with the criteria being (of course) that she believes veiling is oppressive, women are treated badly, she doesn't need or want male protection, etc., etc.
"If I were a man, I'd be riding through the desert now. No one would lock me away or call me "parrot" or judge my worth by the number of children I had. I'd be in charge of my life as only men could be, with their swords and their horses, their courage and their wits."
Okayyy. But c'mon, a six-year-old dreaming of the freedom to choose her own destiny? And wanting a sword in her hand? Wanting to "charge through the desert, wild and free?" Really?
In the end, the book is not really worth all the hype. What is though, is what comes next.
There's no denying that many Muslims will be offended by the depiction of their sacred figures. I consider myself pretty open minded and tolerant, and yet my gut clenched more than once while reading this book. It's just very very hard for those who aren't Muslim to wrap their heads around the respect Muslims give to their prophet, his companions, and the mothers of the believers.
I interviewed the author and I genuinely believe she had good intentions, and just didn't-quite-get-it. It's a shame Muslims didn't pay more attention to her book before it was published. When I interviewed her, she told me that had she known bowing was not a part of Islamic culture (when Lady ‘Aisha becomes the hatun, the prophet and his wives bow to her), she would not have included it. She says no Muslim organization would give her the time of day to review her book.
The question is, have Muslims developed thicker skins? Regardless if you believe Jones was well intentioned and just didn't get it or cashing in on the Islamophobic wagon, the truth is she's being given a platform to speak on and has said, more than once, that her intentions were to honor Islam and that she will continue to defend Islam in her public speaking.
So, yeah, I'm sure bombing the home and office of the book's publisher is the way to go about proving to her and the world that Islam is a great and tolerant religion.
The novel will be published and there is nothing Muslims can do to control that. What they can control are their reactions. Random House deciding to self-censor themselves shows that they already believe the worst about Muslims. I'm not suggesting we put up and shut up, but that we answer free speech with free speech.
Muslims, if they get it right, can use the publication of this book as a platform to educate people about the characters who are so much a part of their lives and as a starting point to really teach non-Muslims about the life of ‘Aisha, who was a woman far more fascinating that Jones was able to portray.
The book, warts and all, does have potential. Jones will have piqued the readers' interests, and instead of letting the wrong facts in the book stand, Muslims can seize the opportunity to teach many who might never have heard about ‘Aisha and her life about her.
And if they get it wrong, Muslims will end up muddying the image of Islam even more. Is that what Lady ‘Aisha would have wanted?