“THE JEWEL of Medina,” a novel by journalist Sherry Jones, was originally to be published in August. But Random House decided to drop this historical romance about A’isha, the child bride of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, after an alarm was sounded by an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas. She had been sent the galleys by the publisher, as is customary, seeking nuggets of praise to promote the book.
A flurry of e-mails and blog postings among Islamic scholars ensued. The professor, Denise Spellberg, then reportedly called her editor at Knopf, a Random House imprint, saying that the book could provoke violence. Soon after, Random House canceled publication. Commentaries appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about Random House’s apparent self-censorship. Salman Rushdie weighed in, declaring that the book should be published.
Enter Beaufort Books, which is publishing “Jewel” today. This is the same Beaufort that last year brought us “If I Did It,” O.J. Simpson’s hypothetical confessional, after it had been dropped by its publisher because of public outcry.
In Britain, Gibson Square’s publishing plans for the book are reportedly in limbo after publisher Martin Rynja’s house was firebombed last month. Perhaps this attack proves Random House’s fears, or perhaps, had it simply published “Jewel” without fuss, the book would have gone unnoticed.
It does seem odd that Random House -- which publishes Rushdie, a man made famous well beyond literary circles by the fatwa against him, and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, who regularly receives death threats in his native Turkey -- would balk at a novel that, from the excerpts, seemed an un-serious piece of literature about Islam. The obvious comparison is with the controversial Danish cartoons of Muhammad, but here critics and pundits were weighing in on a work that almost no one had seen. So what exactly is the book like?
“The Jewel of Medina” is a second-rate bodice ripper or, rather, a second-rate bodice ripper-style romance (it doesn’t really have sex scenes). It’s readable enough, but it suffers from large swaths of purple prose. Paragraphs read like ad copy for a Rudolph Valentino movie. “From my camel’s hump I could feel the leaf-kissed air moving like a cool, moist cloth across my brow as I inhaled the fresh clean scents of petal and blade and springs gilding the morning,” says A’isha. The newly founded Islamic community is fleeing Mecca, and she’s selling air freshener. Also, it’s unfortunate that Jones refers to male genitals as “the scorpion’s tail.” Perhaps this is an Arabic metaphor, like the Petrarchan conceit of lips like cherries, but it doesn’t work.
The characters are difficult to believe. A’isha is a 7th century prepubescent girl for the first part of the novel, yet she sounds like a mix of Gloria Steinem and Pippi Longstocking. Dreaming of adulthood, she muses, “I’d rather be a lone lioness, roaring and free, than a caged bird . . . " Looking at her mother, she notes: “In her world, women weren’t supposed to fight, only to submit. . . . They weren’t supposed to live, only to serve.” Pretty precocious for a 6-year-old.
Ali, her nemesis within the community, is portrayed as a treacherous, one-dimensional braggart. And except for sweet, long-suffering Sawdah, the other wives in Muhammad’s harem are pretty thin as people, though Jones has a knack for describing female beauty.
A’isha is a wayward girl who needs to be disciplined by an older, wiser male. Unfortunately, the brand of romance novel in which independent women needed to be put in their place stopped being cutting-edge in the Reagan era.
Also, Jones is not in control of her voice as a writer; sometimes it makes a fool of her. For instance, when Muhammad brings the youngster home and presents her with a roomful of toys, the sense is less of an understanding husband and more of a man opening the door to his lair. I’m certain this was not Jones’ intent.
These flaws aside, once strife among Muhammad’s wives begins to develop, the story becomes entertaining. Jones can make a plot dance. Muhammad’s women bicker, scheme and cat fight while the founder of Islam wrings his hands and acquires still more wives, who bicker, scheme, etc.
A’isha’s tragedy is that she has the mind of a top-notch general stuffed into the body of an emotionally immature child. When Medina is attacked, it is her idea to dig a trench around the city, and she foils an attempt on her husband’s life like a pint-sized mastermind. Jones makes Muhammad into a character who wants women to have equality but who can’t quite get over his culture’s attitude toward them. Adding to his confusion, he’s often outmaneuvered by this skinny, red-haired teenager who runs a campaign like Patton.
I suspect Jones wanted to write a feminist text, sort of Islam 101 for the post-"Buffy the Vampire Slayer” generation. I can’t say whether, from a religious point of view, “The Jewel of Medina” is worth the anguish it’s caused, but as literature, it’s a misstep-ridden, pleasant-enough mediocrity.
Laurel Maury is a New York-based writer and critic.