A few years ago I enrolled in an Open University course entitled The History of Islam. I had been living in Israel for over 15 years, and the class, tracing the rise of Muhammad and continuing into the Golden age of Islam, served to fill in what had been an incomplete picture. But as we learned about the origin of Islam in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, its phenomenal expansion, its tolerance for other monotheistic religions and its rise to cultural prominence, something began to trouble me.
Where, I wondered, were the women?
The past is a foreign country, the writer L.P. Hartley once wrote, but in the case of the women of the Middle East, it is more like a vanished country. Women were almost absent from every single modern and ancient source that we studied. Absent from the schools where boys from every walk of life were taught to read the Koran. Absent from the debates where questions about how a Muslim should live were argued and recorded. Absent from the documents telling of ruling dynasties, religious figures, philosophers, law makers, architects, musicians, poets, geographers, physicians. Absent from virtually every quarter of public life. Reading the texts that have come down to us, one could get the impression that the Middle East was a place where women existed solely for the purpose of backdrop and decoration.
Curious about this omission, I consulted the Talmud, (whose dramas unfolded a few hundred years before the onset of Islam). I was hoping for a different picture and I found one. Sort of. Women are indeed mentioned in the Talmud. They can be found doing all the things that Jewish women of the time generally did. Tending to their ovens. Weaving cloth. Going to the Mikvah. Waiting for their husbands to return from “the schools of the rabbis”. All these actives are described with regard to their relevance for their authors’ story. In each instance, they are called up only when their presence supports the point the speaker wants to make. What would emerge, I wondered, if a woman of that time had the opportunity to write the tale of her own life? This question was the starting point that inspired me to imagine an answer.
I envisioned a story taking place in the 9th century, when Islam was the most progressive and creative civilization in the world. It would be set against the backdrop of the Middle East; not the Middle East we know from news broadcasts about violent conflict, corrupt dictators, suicide bombers and religious fanatics, but a Middle East of color, light, and vitality. A Middle East of roadside inns, remote monasteries, colorful markets, libraries filled with books and scrolls, translators of Greek and Roman, mystics and Sufis, wise rabbis, and of course, passionate poetry and music
I wanted to call the book Entelechia, after the Greek concept whereby a living thing realizes its ultimate potential. But when publication began to look less like a fantasy and more like a reality, I knew I had to find another name. The task proved more difficult than I had thought. Even after I found a publisher, the book still didn’t have a name.
Near the end of the novel, Rahel, the protagonist, has a midnight conversation with a Rabbi. After three long years during which she has fled her village, disguised herself as a boy, been kidnapped into slavery, lived in a monastery, worked as a cook, learned to read and write, loved and lost, she questions what will become of her life if she decides to cease her journey and live as a Jewish woman amongst Jews. The Rabbi answers with a Talmudic legend:
It is written in Genesis 1:16, And God made the two great lights: the greater light to govern the day, the smaller light to govern the night… The moon protests, complaining to God, “Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?” And God replies, “Go then and diminish thyself”.
The debate, which continues until God eventually admits that he has created an unfortunate but irrevocable paradox, seems to capture something of Rahel’s predicament. For her, the meaning behind the legend and the Rabbi’s response to her question is clear; the world has been set in motion, and that motion cannot be changed; the moon, by nature, must exist in the shadow of the bigger and brighter sun.
Unless fate hurls it off its course, forcing it to forge a different path. Unless it is a wayward moon.