Friday, 16 January 2009

Kim's Review : The Jewel of Medina

I had written about the controversy surrounding "The Jewel of Medina" a couple of months ago, but it hadn't really inspired me to go out and buy the book immediately. Of course there was the other matter of it not being available in any Middle Eastern country. But when a friend of mine told me she had the book in case I was interested, I decided to see what the fuss was all about.

The book was initially quite ho-hum (compared to some of the other books I have read on the subject) while it covered the childhood politics around a little girl growing up in a polygamous family where her own mother was the second wife. The girl just happens to be Aisha Bint Abi Bakr, herself an extremely controversial character in Islam. After the Prophets death, she led an army against his Son-in-law Ali, which was the cause for the Sunni-Shia split.

Sunnis claim Aisha was the favourite wife of the Prophet, while Shiites believe that he disliked her for her disobedience. Sunni accounts put the Prophet in Aisha's embrace at the time of his death and Shiites believe that he died in Ali's arms.

Why is The Jewel so inflammatory?

Conservative Catholics across the globe were vociferously against "The DaVinci Code" as it was based on the anti-thesis of a non-negotiable fact - that Jesus was married and sired a bloodline. This questioned the foundations of the Catholic faith and the vows of celibacy taken by priests and nuns.

"The Jewel of Medina" portrays each edict passed by Mohamed as being one for personal gain. It also caricatures him as an old man in constant sexual overdrive, whose only interest was in finding the next beautiful young bride. Drawing conclusions and elaborating on the fact that, when his male followers were allowed only 4 wives, the limitations did not apply to him. And other such incendiary conclusions.

For someone who is not familiar with the basics behind the Islamic teachings, it is a disastrous book to read, because it will completely distort the idea of Islam and its foundations. Ms Jones in her interviews has claimed that she wrote this book to make Islam more accessible and understandable to the general public in USA.

If this is her target audience, it will only serve to further aggravate the differences between Muslims and non-Muslims in America where a majority of non-Muslims already look upon Muslims with suspicion and in extreme cases, even hatred. Among the non-Muslims in America, there is a wide spread belief that women are completely dominated by men in this religion, they are forced to cover up from head to toe by overbearing fathers and husbands. This book will only serve to deepen and worsen those beliefs. I do not see any "understanding" coming out of this book.

The problem with writing fiction with characters from real life is that very few readers actually have the ability or knowledge to distinguish the line between the blurred lines of fact and fiction in a novel. And how much of this book is fiction? As a non-Muslim with basic information about Islam from my Muslim friends, I was quite riled up about certain injustices being described in certain sections of this book. This is a normal process when reading a book, the skill of the author is in making you feel for the characters. But the way it is portrayed as fact, brings these feelings out back into the world, beyond the reading of a book.

What Ms Jones has written is a piece of fiction and not even a well researched one at that. Friends of mine who are scholars in Islamic studies, say that the inaccuracies are innumerable.

Geraldine Brooks (who has extensively researched the history of this era), author of the 1995 nonfiction book, "Nine Parts of Desire" whom Jones has cited as one her initial inspiration, says this in her review of The Jewel of Medina, "if you wish to claim that your novel is "extensively researched", why lurch around in time and space, grabbing at concepts such as hatun, or leading wife, which Jones knows full well belongs to the Ottoman empire of centuries later, or purdah, which exists in Persian, Urdu and Hindi but not Arabic? Why refer to an Islamic veil by the modern Western term "wrapper"? Why have Muslims bowing to Aisha, when bowing is an alien custom to desert Arabia and to Islam's egalitarian ethos?"

Is "The Jewel of Medina" a good story? - Well, it manages to keep your interest going after the initial chapters, wondering what is going to come next? and How will Aisha manage this latest calamity?. But in most parts it reads like Mills & Boone/ Silhouette kind of Soft Porn.

I ask a larger question : "Is it ethical to write a book like this, which caricatures a person who is the cornerstone of a particular religion?

Disclaimer : I do not want to get into a debate about death threats, riots and fatwas that inevitably follow a book of this kind.

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