Saturday, November 01, 2008

Discussion Questions for November Book Club: THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, by Sherry Jones

All questions by Ed Ass, from her personal point of view. I'll put the questions followed by my brief thoughts (I'll try to not put down my whole opinion so that there is something left to discuss!).

1) Some of the criticism The Jewel of Medina has received since publication has been about the fact that there is a lot of sex (and preoccupation with sex) in the novel. Do you think there is too much sex in the novel? Do you think it was appropriate for Sherry to talk as she does about the (imagined) personal marriage details of one of the world's great religious figures?

From my unsolicited opinion, this is hardly a problem--the book is about the experiences of a young teenage girl who is locked in close confines with a growing number of other women. As if her own hormones and budding sexuality aren't enough of a reason for her to be thinking about sex around the clock, her own survival in the harim depends on her ability to conceive a child. I can't help but think that any other treatment of the topic would have been unrealistic.

2) As we know from all the media hullabaloo around the publication of Jewel, the topic of Islam and its early history is not often addressed in pop culture. Of course, Sherry herself confesses that there are many details of A'isha's story that no one knows, so the best we can ever get is fiction. At the same time, historical fiction is a great vehicle for education, and it seems possible that the fact that Islam is such a "taboo" subject in mainstream "Western" media may be a reason that it is often misunderstood or ignored, despite its obvious relevance in our global society. What do you think--is it more harmful to not publish at all on a topic that is sacred to many people, or to publish unverifiable fiction on a sacred topic?

To me it seems like a shame not to publish--I've always found my most vivid appreciations of history come from historical fictions I've read and absorbed because they were told in an engaging style I was familiar with. Historical fiction is the vehicle that has introduced me to literally countless topics I have gone on to research seriously (ie by reading nonfiction about them!).

At the same time--I'll admit--I do worry about the authenticity of voice from an author who obviously comes to the topic with the same outsider eye that I do, and about what outsider prejudices are [totally inadvertently] inflicted on the subject and characters.

This is a Catch-22, since a non-familiar voice wouldn't reach as many readers, and might not be interesting or publishable to our very commercial media world. But in my opinion, it is always preferable to publish--as long as the content isn't irresponsible or posited for the reader as if it were the gospel truth (forgive the simile). I think that as long as the author is honest about the fact that he or she has fictionalized details (and, let's hope, the audience understands what that means) it is much more helpful than harmful to have the fiction circulating among readers.

3) Sherry has told us and others that she did tons of research for this book--and I'm inclined to believe her wholeheartedly. Was there a particular moment in the novel that you felt was particularly vivid for you, or one that made you feel like the book helped you come to clearer terms with history?

One of my favorite moments in the book is at the end of Chapter 31, when the professedly pagan-to-the-death wife of one of Muhammad's erstwhile enemies is moved to convert because she witnesses Muhammad's forgiveness. Her conversion triggers a conversion of the rest of the town around her.

The early success of Islam in drawing huge numbers of converts has always been really interesting to me. To take an obvious example, Christianity was an oppressed and tiny subset of the population during the life of Christ and for a long while afterward. Islam, however, had already done some significant catching on before the death of the Prophet, and was widespread enough to survive a major doctrinal schism only a few decades later.

In college, I took a class on the history of Islam--a survey course that unfortunately didn't dig very deeply. I remember during a discussion section I brought this question up--what caused so many people to convert to Islam in such a short period of time? My professor was the one who shut me down--she said you can never question what inspires a religious conversion; it's a personal matter. The rest of the class piously nodded. I was shocked, actually, and still am, that this was the [only] answer I got out of a university history class. I think that was my first real inkling that conversational doors are regularly closed in the name of PC.

I've thought back on this moment many times since then and resented it--I don't understand why it's a question I can't ask. I just wanted to understand a fact of history, and I've asked the same questions to myself and others of many other religions (and have heard other people do so). I didn't (and don't) mean it rudely, only curiously. Of course, historians never like to answer any "why" questions; academically it's safer to dismiss theories than to suggest them.

For this curiosity, Sherry's book scratched an itch. She presented several ideas, founded in history, that offer a possible explanation for why the people of Medina, Mecca, and other nearby cities and kingdoms were as receptive to Islam as they were. I appreciated the way Sherry treats Islam as a political as well as religious force, the way the umma is a social community as well as religious fellowship.

[As moderator, I'll forgo answering the next two.]

4) Do you think Sherry makes any controversial points in the book?

5) In the end, do you feel that Muhammad was presented favorably or unfavorably? What about A'isha? Is she a sympathetic character, or not?


Ann Victor said...

Moonrat asks: What do you think--is it more harmful to not publish at all on a topic that is sacred to many people, or to publish unverifiable fiction on a sacred topic?

My vote: publish and be damned! Fiction is a great way to explore the face of alternative religions to one's own. It leads to a corridor of interest in subjects that would not otherwise be explored.

ChrisEldin said...

This is fascinating, simply fascinating. I must have this book.

Moonie knows that our family splits time between Dubai and the U.S. I am very curious about how the book is being received in the Middle East.

Certain books have been banned in Dubai (The Girls of Riyadh and Persepolis come to mind) and have been 'smuggled' in by fellow book club members and passed around like crazy. They're very popular, even if in whispers...

Kristi said...

I'm only about 3/4 of the way through the book. NaNo is already cutting into my reading time!

I have a couple of thoughts. First, about the amount of sex in the novel, I second your (Moonrat's) opinion that it is unavoidable given the subject matter. At the same time, sex has never bothered me in fiction--I'm an avid romance reader and beginning writer, and so sex has always been a major part of many books that I read. I am frequently amused and annoyed by people who seem shocked by its appearance in "mainstream" or "literary" fiction. Come on, folks, don't pretend sex isn't an important part of human experience.

As for the question of A'isha's and Muhammed's characters, I have mixed feelings. In some ways I like them both. Frequently I want to slap A'isha. She's impulsive and petty and occaisionally not particularly bright. But then I remember some of the dumb things I did at age 14, and I am sympathetic towards her.

For Muhammed, I waver. Earlier on in the novel, I liked the guy. He displayed a lot of forgiveness and love, and it helps that his character didn't rush to consummate a marriage with a 12 year old. As the book has continued, though, I'm liking him less and less. He's shown himself as more of a womanizer and with less actual interest or respect for his wives than I care for.

It's hard to be a judge, though. Growing up in white, middle class, Christian(ish), America in the 20th century, my experiences are a very poor lens for judging the actions of people from such a different time and culture.

I am a big fan of historical fiction in general, and have also found that imagining the actual people, places, and daily lives makes learning and understanding important dates and figures so much easier and more pleasant. And I don't treat most of this as fact--I assume that the major dates and battles are probably correct. The rest is the icing, the artificial color applied to make it more real.

But, it is making me want to learn more about the era, and the people, and about islam (a subject on which I am woefully ignorant).

moonrat said...

Thanks, Kristi. I think your take is really interesting, esp re: Muhammad's character.