Guest Blog by Sylvia Fowler
In an effort to understand the considerations of a top market editor who loved but ultimately hesitated to accept my memoir, The Red Sea Bride, for her house, I am reading a book she accepted. The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson, is about an Englishwoman who finds a treasure left by a 17th century Cornish woman who was abducted by Moorish pirates.
I’ve been to Morocco six or seven times; it would be a pleasure to revisit, especially in the Renaissance.
It took me well over 200 pages, with a lot of what W. Somserset Maugham called “the fine art of skipping” to get “into” the book. When did I finally bond with Johnson’s story? When the Cornish female prisoner starts teaching Berber women higher skills in embroidery. That part is believable for me because I met many Moroccan women during the travels I made with Malik in North Africa. I also embroider.
I did appreciate the wondrous descriptions of Moorish décor, of the pirate ship, etc. I take my hat off to Johnson’s skill and talent. She did a lot of research and carefully worked in historical details which only left me somewhat scratching my head : “Qasba des Oudaias—begun by the Almohad sultan Abd-el-Moumen in the twelfth century to defend the area against attack from the sea. His son, Yacoub el Mansour, continued the work, creating these great ramparts around an existing convent—hence the city’s name of Rabat, which means ‘fortified monastery’”(p.220).
This was familiar territory. What jarred and still does (I am on page 286) are stereotypical comments that undermine true understanding of Islam. For instance, yes, ignorant Muslims think dogs are unclean because of their extremist interpretation of a comment made by the prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but those same societies barely read. My husband Malik had a dog when he was little. Malik’s father was a doctor and read voraciously. Malik told me how much he, his sisters, and brothers wept when the dog died giving birth to a litter.
Tragically, many Muslims are ignorant. Reading, in Muslim lands, is not what it once was. ( Sadly, the same thing is happening in the West.)
The Turkish nobel prize winning writer, Orhan Pamuk, wrote a brilliant chapter on Muslim attitudes towards dogs, narrated by the illustration of dog. I laughed like crazy because he knows and I know.
I am finding that Johnson’s book just keeps on promoting the same old stereotypes. She does it so beautifully, I could cry.
1 In one of the stories from Under a Crescent Moon, author Julia Simpson-Urrutia also describes a rabat; it is not a word for a convent but a place where widows or single women without means can live together around a courtyard, usually from the charity of others. There has never been any convent in Saudi Arabia. It is difficult (if not completely absurd) to believe that El Mansour found a convent in Rabat in the 12th century to build ramparts around.