Is Edward Said Spinning in His Grave?

Geraldine Brooks wrote a very amusing review of Sherry Jones’s Jewel of Medina in the Washington Post.

It’s shocking that Random House got cold feet about Muslim reaction and refused to publish Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina. But what’s even more shocking is that they paid good money to acquire such a dreadful novel in the first place.

By now, this cliché-ridden abaya-ripper is a cause celebre, so it’s hard to shut out all the noise and evaluate the book simply as a work of historical fiction. But I will try.

Yet with all this intriguing material at her disposal, Jones unaccountably fails to create a rich psychological portrait of an important and under-examined woman. Instead, she concocts a steamy Orientalist stew that must have Edward Said spinning in his grave. There are some facts in these pages, but they’re drowning in ahistorical and under-researched claptrap.

Okay, okay . . . The Jewel of Medina is fiction. Jones is entitled to imagine whatever she wants. But 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?

So perhaps the fairest thing is to let the book speak for itself. Aisha’s crush, Safwan, is described as: “Tall, handsome Safwan, with the chiseled face of a purebred steed and hair as thick and glossy as a horse’s mane.” There are words that strike despair into the heart of a reader. “Steed” is one of them. “Loins” another: “Desire burned like a fire in Muhammad’s loins, unquenchable in one night, or two, or three.”

Turns out the reviewer, Geraldine Brooks, wrote Nine Parts of Desire, which I read about ten years ago. Now I’ll have to read it again.

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Filed under arab, arabian, arabic, arabist, books

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