Upon This Rock

Photo: Joe Scafuro

Kanan Makiya’s first novel, The Rock, is deeply concerned with “explosions,” with things that “erupt” in Jerusalem; the fact that it’s set 1,400 years ago doesn’t make it any less relevant to today’s grim headlines. The violence that preoccupies Makiya is, if anything, even older than the seventh century. It’s the violence of Creation itself – an act that the Iraqi-born author, an architect by training and (in his nonfiction writings) a fierce anti-Saddam polemicist, describes as “explosions of form into unformed space.” And yet the point of his dense and deeply felt novel is to tie together those long-ago explosions with the ones you’re reading about right now.

According to certain traditions, the Creation began at Mount Moriah in Jerusalem; that craggy hill – the “Rock” of Makiya’s title – is, disastrously as it turned out, holy to three faiths. It’s the spot where Adam is said to have fallen after his expulsion from Paradise, and where Abraham went, ready to sacrifice Isaac. It’s where Jesus preached and Muhammad ascended to Heaven, and where Solomon’s Temple once stood and on which the Dome of the Rock now stands. The Rock recalls the events that led to the construction of that shrine following the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in the mid-600s. But whatever his novel’s superficial preoccupation with architecture, Makiya’s real interest here is what he clearly considers – given the literally common ground that the three faiths share – to be the fatal absurdity of the internecine violence.

The novel is narrated by one Ishaq, the son of the (real-life) sage Ka’b al-Ahbar, the trusted, Jewish-born adviser to the second caliph, Umar, who took Jerusalem from the Christians around 634. About the real Ishaq almost nothing is known; for his own fictional purposes the author makes him the designer of the Dome. The ongoing conversations between wise father and naïve son are Makiya’s vehicle for exploring much larger historical and religious issues. At one point Ishaq asks his father, referring to the sacred Black Stone in Mecca and the Rock in Jerusalem: “What is left that is harmonious between peoples who face different Rocks in prayer?” Ka’b seems to think the answer is a lot.

Makiya, by provocatively making the psychologically and theologically conflicted Ka’b the real hero of this novel (born Jewish, he becomes a fervent follower of Islam yet ultimately fails to convert), movingly emphasizes the need to bring Jerusalem and Mecca “back into an uneasy embrace.”

Throughout The Rock, the author pointedly uses imaginative re-creations of historical events to suggest that the essential relationship between the faiths is one of similarity rather than difference. The long, central set-piece of the novel is the meeting between Umar, Ka’b, and Sophronius, the Christian prelate who officially handed the city over to the Arabs. As the three tour the Holy City, it’s clear from their elaborately polite exchanges about the various sites they’re seeing that they have more in common than first meets the eye. Makiya weaves into such scenes paraphrases of various scriptural accounts of the Creation and the Fall, the sacrifice of Isaac, and numerous other stories relating to the Rock. The fact that the author never indicates which scripture he’s quoting is part of his strategy to emphasize unities rather than divisions. Readers who haven’t been to Sunday school in a while will have to search the 70 pages of dense notes at the back of the book to figure out whether they’re getting the Koran, or the Old Testament, or the New.

That’s Makiya’s point. God, according to Ka’b, “intended the universe … as a consonance of different parts… . My work is to fit them back together again in the right way so that they return to harmony.” If Ka’b fails to maintain harmony in the end, it’s possible that Makiya does so as well. Too often, the attempts to weave disquisitions on theology or Arab dynastic history into a persuasive fictional framework fizzle. (Characters tend to square off and say things like, “In a certain class of human minds, the principle of idolatry is never truly eradicated.”) Still, it’s hard not to be moved when Makiya climactically ties together the creation of the Dome and the Creation itself, of which the Rock is the eternal reminder. All three – Creation, Rock, Dome – are explosions of form in unformed space, and all three mark, in their different ways, the way in which “beauty erupted into the world.” Right now, it’s no small thing to be reminded, as this unusual book so determinedly reminds you, that the Holy City could have been the site of creative harmonies, rather than destructive dissonance.

Upon This Rock