The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem, by Kanan Makiya. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001. 287 pages. Sources to p. 341. Illustrations to p. 347. Acknowledgments to p. 349. $26.00 cloth.
Caveat lector: Reader, beware. This is a historical novel so tiresome and turgid that its title is an apt metaphor for its petrifying effect. The reader will need heavy armor to withstand its artificiality, its stilted style, and its confused--and sinister--political message. It is not a "tale" at all, but rather more like a dramatized series of tedious conversations and homilies delivered by the fictive son of Ka`b Al-Ahbar, a semi-legendary Jewish convert to early Islam. The immediate question that suggests itself when the reader comes mercifully to its end is: Why bother with a highly contrived potpourri of legends when one can now enjoy, in several good anthologies and translations, the pleasure of reading the original legends and stories?
Kanan Makiya, of Brandeis University, is best known as an Iraqi opposition figure much courted by Washington grandees. At the time of writing, he is temporarily disenchanted by America's current plans for the future government in Iraq. The Rock, however, obviously is intended, inter alia, to extend his much sought after expertise to the history and significance of Jerusalem. In case the reader is in any doubt about that expertise, each fitful chapter of this "tale" comes complete with a detailed, rigorous commentary, entitled "Sources," in which Makiya explains how his account is built, what sources he used, and how he joined them together. This is no free-floating historical novel à la Umberto Eco, Norman Mailer, or Robert Graves. This is a novel where the reader must be made fully aware of its historical sinews, with the aid of copious quasi-academic notes. And in keeping with historical practice, Makiya the commentator tells us exactly where he found his building blocks, passes firm opinions on the secondary literature (e.g., this article is very important, that one is flawed), and tops it all with a short appendix entitled "A Historical Note on Ka`b and the Rock," where he enters the fray as a trustworthy historian and no longer a novelist.
And to whom does this wondrous rock belong? This question is what this "tale" is all about. From the murky prose, one might deduce that the narrator/Makiya would opt for God as the owner (e.g., p. 270). But there is the small matter of the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. This is, of course, a topic best left to the notes. And just in case a reader is too thick to get the point, Makiya the exegete quotes without any comment whatever an "ultra-Orthodox" Israeli minister who claims that Jewish rights override those of Muslims on the "Temple Mount" because it has already been paid for by King David (p. 303), whereas he administers a severe rebuke to a minor Muslim author for calling Ka`b a "Zionist" (p. 282). Although this benighted author's views are not, according to Makiya, "typical," nevertheless they are "suggestive of the new wounded and defensive mindset" among Muslims regarding the State of Israel. Our thanks must go to V. S. Naipaul for providing Makiya and similar company with adjectives like "wounded" to qualify such nouns as "mindset." Is one to conclude that, since the term "mind" as in "the Arab Mind" is no longer politically correct, that the term "mindset" is quietly slipping in to replace it?
Here then is a tale of seventh-century Jerusalem complete with a lengthy tail of commentaries and notes. If we begin with the tale, we find it arranged in lumpy chapters ranging from about three or four pages to ten or so. A lot of these mini-chapters are taken up with conversations between Ka`b and his narrator-son or between Ka`b and the Caliph `Umar, in which the rock is the main topic. The diction is supposed to be medieval: "Tell us the story, O Ka`b" or "God who makes the tongues of the eloquent fall short of His beauty." This mock medieval is interspersed with the ultramodern: "Those who know what a great seducer the desert is understand how the faith of its sons gets tested daily simply by their being condemned to live in it." Mixed metaphors come thick and fast (e.g., "Muhammad had inaugurated an earthquake on that day in Medina"). The result is an artificiality that jars the prose on every page, almost like a modern vandal scribbling over an ancient scroll. This artificiality has the effect of spotlighting the central political message of the tale: the debt that Islam owes to its Judaic heritage is one that needs to be emphasized, with the modern State of Israel acting as guardian of that heritage. According to Makiya, the contribution of early Jewish converts like Ka`b "has largely gone unappreciated by modern Muslims in part out of fear that such acknowledgment might undermine the authenticity of their faith" (p. 281). In addition to having a wounded mindset, Muslims also fear losing their theological legitimacy. Even `Umar, we are told, "turned his back on the Rock" (p. 266). Thereafter the City of the Rock was turned into "a mine for profit in this world, not the next" (p. 266). Meanwhile, "a thing belongs to the one who remembers it most obsessively" (p. 266; and there is no prize for guessing which people that is). The reader is left to conclude that Muslims, in addition to all their other woes, also have lost their religious claim to the Rock.
The tale qua tale is quite simply unreadable. Its tail of commentaries is a different matter and must be judged as Makiya himself intended it to be judged, i.e., as a straightforward piece of historical writing. Here the wild assumptions of the author, the generalizations, the unfounded assertions, the claims made without a shadow of support from the sources, the ludicrous historiography, the innumerable mistakes of translation and comprehension, the shoddy transliterations (for which Makiya thanks someone who goes by the unfortunate name of Fudge) are all too numerous to cite, but here is one example: the builders of the Dome of the Rock "may have thought they were rebuilding Solomon's Temple" (p. 278). Makiya asserts that the building of the Dome of the Rock had nothing to do with Muhammad's Night Journey (p. 324) but reflected `Abd al-Malik's conception of Solomon "as an ideal Muslim ruler" (p. 327). However, this claim immediately is contradicted by the statement that "it is impossible to read `Abd al-Malik's mind from the sources" (p. 328). So, like it or not, one concludes that the Dome actually is a Solomonic temple. Despite the historical evidence of an overwhelming Christian presence in Palestine and the Near East in general during the seventh century, how can one argue with Makiya's contention that "the unambiguous evidence is that early Muslims were ardent seekers of Jewish lore" (p. 281)? How could Ka`b, who allegedly died in 651, have been "held in very high regard" by the Caliph `Abd al-Malik, who ruled between 685 and 705 (p. 279)? How do we contest that the "earliest Arabic name for Jerusalem" is not Madinat bayt al-Maqdis but Iliya' (p. 291)?
And so the book goes on, specious argument after spurious, "fact" laced with imaginative reconstruction, outright mistakes, and deliberate falsifications. If pressed, the author no doubt will claim the privilege of the novelist. But given the insidious political message, the telling of tales is clearly not his sole vocation.
Tarif Khalidi is Sheikh Zayid Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University of Beirut.