Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review: The Most Magnificent Mosque

 I am frequently jealous of my friends and colleagues who work on the ancient world because there are so many lovely children's books with beautiful illustrations. It's not that anybody really needs children's books about his or her field of study, but they sometimes contain illustrations that can be useful in introductory or general-audience lectures; and selfishly, one likes to think that so fascinating a topic, whatever it might be, has appeal to people beyond the ivory tower. So, I was very excited to discover the existence of The Most Magnificent Mosque written by Ann Tungman, a University of Exeter-trained lawyer-turned-teacher and illustrated by Shelley Fowles, a graphic designer based in Brighton. It was published in 2004 by Frances Lincoln Children's Books.

The book tells the story of three boys, one Jewish, one Christian and one Muslim, who are troublemakers in the city of Córdoba until one day they get caught dropping oranges on the head of the caliph and are sentenced to several months' of work in the gardens of the mosque. In order to take a break from the scorching summer sun, they often seek refuge inside the Great Mosque and come to appreciate its splendor. When they are grown, they reunite to keep Fernando III, who conquered the city in 1236, from razing the mosque.

The book's underpinnings are a curious mix of both the well-intentioned and the quite malicious stereotypes that plague this field of study at the professional level; it's almost as if the author read a few of the most inflammatory press clippings and book reviews, cottoned onto them and deemed her research to be sufficient. At once a Muslim boy can be best of friends with a Christian boy and a Jewish boy, but then the evil Christian reconquerers sweep into Cordoba and want to sunder everything that the Muslim rules and the rank-and-file multiconfessional population had achieved. The words put into the mouth of the fictionalized Fernando III, who reconsecrated and preserved the Great Mosque as it was (aside from adding two small chapels) are: "'It is indeed a magnificent mosque,' said the king, and he sighed. 'But this is to be a Christian city and we shall build a great cathedral on this site. The mosque must be pulled down." It's sad that the author took a figure who was, indeed, a champion of multiconfessionalism and turned him into a villain. The real lesson of the Great Mosque (at this level, anyway) is that a cathedral can look like the local architectural style dictates a sacred space should. Cathedral does not automatically imply high gothic. This book teaches children that a building with arches and calligraphic decoration cannot be a church, which is untrue and even contravenes the message of tolerance and integration that the book seems, on the surface, to want to promote.

I don't mean to say that children's story books need be perfect histories, but there should be some truth to ground their aspirations to a better world. In other words, this book would not have had to be strictly accurate to be worthwhile, but it should have been true in some way. And furthermore, I do think that the conflation of one named historical figure with a version of the actions of another, with absolutely no indication of what is happening is a problem. In actual fact it was Charles V who plunked a renaissance-style cathedral in the middle of the original mosque complex; he was the one the rank and file in Córdoba opposed, and he is said to have regretted his decision almost immediately after it was completed. And there is no narrative reason why Ferdinand III should have been made the villain of this story.

I did laugh aloud when I read the page on which the boys, who enjoy making mischief in their hometown of Córdoba, are finally caught after they dropped an orange on the caliph's head from their perch atop the minaret. I'm not sure that was the desired effect, though.

The illustrations are nice enough, but are not stunning on a par with the illustrations of ancient Near Eastern legends retold for a young, Anglophone audience. And I'm not sure they are really worth putting up with the problematic story. Really the only one that overcomes the text appears towards the middle of the book (the pages are not numbered) and depicts the boys standing in the arcade of the Great Mosque. It may not be the illustrator's skill, though, that makes it sing, though; it is more that the architecture itself can shine through any kind of treatment and still amaze even the most jaded historian.

The representations of the characters' outfits is also a bit strange. The children are dressed in such a way that one cannot but wonder if there is a comment implicit in the illustrations about sumptuary laws. All the Christians wear cross necklaces, which forces one to ask why their presence need be signaled in such a way. Is the book trying to say that people respected each other's religious traditions while holding their own dear? Or is it that society was so assimilated that this was the only way to tell people apart? That religion was really the most important thing? Additionally, the outfit that the caliph is drawn in looks curiously similar to papal vestments.

One other seemingly tiny problem betrays the book's ill-informed and uncareful approach to the whole matter: While the author managed to describe Rashid, one of the boys, as a "Muslim" in the text of the book, he suddenly becomes a "Moslem" on the back cover and a "Moor" in the front matter.

With all that said, though, on balance I'm still marginally pleased by the book's existence.

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