Book: The Topkapi Secret (What They Learn About the Koran Could Change the World…or Cost Them Their Lives) by Terry Kelhawk (NEW September, 2010)
Am I in danger reviewing this book? The flaks for Kelhawk’s book are going out of their way to persuade us that she is in mortal danger–so doesn’t it follow that a reviewer might also be targeted? Are their dangerous secrets in the Koran?
Like the subtitle of The Topkapi Secret says, asking questions about the Koran can get a person in trouble. This book deals with religious warfare–but not the replay of the Crusades with Muslims against Christians. Here we have a group of Muslim scholars who want to perform historical and scientific studies on the Koran endangered by radical Muslims who believe that the Koran is unchanged and unchangeable and should not be analyzed.
The main character, a Palestinian graduate student who studies the Koran with his father in their home in Lebanon, says he is A.D.D. (Adult Deficiency Disorder). I would say that The Topkapi Secret has the same affliction. Part thriller, part religious history lesson and part travelogue– and oh, yeah, romance– it doesn’t settle down in any one spot very long.
The settings flash by as Mohammad, the grad student, jokester, and womanizer bounces around from Lebanon to Turkey to Holland to Great Britain to Palestine to Syria to Morocco. Following him, we learn all about (and I do mean ALL about) the history of the Koran, the study of ancient documents, factions in the Muslim religion, the layout of the Topkapi Palace and the lives of the sultans and the Harem, present day Palestine and Lebanon, and quite a bit about the Arabic language. Does that sound like a lot of learning?
Whether you want to sign up for this course depends on how much you want to know. Author and professor Terry Kelhawk lists extensive research sources, and claims great experience, although the statement “Award winning writer, speaker and teacher”…doesn’t count as facts.
I read a great description of the secrets of Topkapi and it’s Sacred Relics Chamber, in Strolling Through Istanbul, not to mention an intriguing 1999 Atlantic article about Koranic study. So I was very curious about the subject. And you know that I’m a sucker for travelogues!
However, The Topkapi Secret only picks up speed and interest when we “cut to the chase.” Fortunately, there are plenty of exciting chases. The thriller aspect of the book is better done than the over-lengthy exposition.
I had a problem relating to either of the main characters. Mohammad performs deeds of daring-do, even murder, and he does serious scholarly work, but his personality seems stuck in 7th grade with silly jokes and “Ha, ha.” Yes, the author actually has him saying, “Ha, ha.” It is hard to take him seriously as the James Bond of Koran scholars.
The female protagonist, a professor of literature and feminism at Berkely, who gets mixed up in all of this through some far-fetched connections, comes across a bit more believable, but some of her actions, like playing dress up and reliving the life in the Topkapi harem, don’t ring true for a supposedly serious scholar.
Bottom line: Great idea for a book but awkwardly crafted by a first-time novelist.
I always enjoy literary visits to mid-Eastern countries and learning more about their cultures, but I cannot unreservedly recommend the book. You’ll have to decide for yourself. You may like it especially if you read it for the thriller aspect and let the overload of information wash over you. And who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and a more skillful book on this intriguing subject will show up on the shelves.
Are you aware of the controversy about studying the Koran? Which of the places that this book goes would you like to travel to? Have you ever visited the Sacred Relics Chamber at Topkapi? Now THAT’s high on my wish list!
The Topkapi Secret was provided by the publisher for review. And the lovely photo above comes from Flickr, courtesy of a Creative Commons license. Click on the photo for more info and to see more about the photographer, Steven Corso.