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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.
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 A’isha 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).