I shake hands all the time; flesh on flesh shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But there’s something about dead flesh. Tanned dead flesh.
I am exactly whom the librarians were trying to keep away back in 1984, when we first wrote about the Koran wrapped in human flesh: the curiosity seekers. Yeah, I wanted to know what a 140-year-old book wrapped in human skin felt like, smelled like, looked like. I didn’t think it all the way through.
In 1984, a Cleveland Magazine writer ticked off librarian Alice N. Loranth, the head of special collections, by asking to see the book. Loranth explained that a Koran wrapped in human skin is offensive to some Muslims, who believe the body is sacred and tattoos are a no-no — using your body to bind a book is more so. The library didn’t like to bring the book out for fear of theft or damage, “and there were all those curiosity seekers, who only wanted to hold the book in their hands for macabre reasons,” she said. Besides, it was being restored, so it wasn’t around.
Well, it’s back. On a page inside, a note in faded pencil claims that Professor Wilson of Cambridge confirmed it was likely bound in human skin, and that it belonged to East Arab Chief Bushiri ibn Salim. It’s a deep red, chipped near the binding. It feels like leather — which, I guess, it is. Human leather. The skin is believed to either belong to Bushiri or someone he killed.
Pamela Eyerdam, Loranth’s modern-day equivalent, says the book gets looked at a couple times each year. The library can’t confirm that it is human skin because the tanning process destroys the DNA. The hesitancy in her voice is apparent. “When you print this, I will get threats,” she says. She asks me to remind people that her job is to present information, not interpret it. So leave her alone.
Now excuse me. I have to wash my hands.