Wednesday, May 24, 2017
mohja kahf: she carries weapons; they are called words
SAN FRANCISCO, May 11 — Mohja Kahf, an Arab-American writer, draws sharp, funny, earthy portraits of the fault line separating Muslim women from their Western counterparts. At times she captures the breach in a single title, like her poem built around respecting prayer rituals, called “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears.”
Occasionally it just takes a few lines, as in “Hijab Scene #2,” a poem that reads in its entirety: “ ‘You people have such restrictive dress for women,’ she said, hobbling away in three inch heels and panty hose to finish out another pink-collar temp pool day.”
Sometimes it’s a whole book, particularly her novel published last year, “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf,” a coming-of-age tale set in Indiana, where Ms. Kahf spent much of her own childhood. The novel turned Ms. Kahf into something of an idol among Muslim American women, especially younger ones, struggling to reconcile their faith with a country often hostile toward it.
“As a Muslim living in the U.S., you run into these little slices of life that are on every page of the book,” said Dina Ibrahim, a 31-year-old broadcasting professor, after Ms. Kahf read recently at the Arab Cultural and Community Center here.
For example, Ms. Ibrahim, whose parents are Egyptian, recently experienced the angst of trying to explain to a salesman at Home Depot that she wanted to install a hose in her toilet. Water hoses are ubiquitous in the Arab world, where such ablutions are considered far more sanitary than toilet paper.
Ms. Kahf, 39, is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. She believes that the growing body of Muslim American literature has reached the critical mass where it might be considered its own genre, including works like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Khaled Hosseini’s novel “The Kite Runner” and a current best seller, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid.
The books evoke the mixture of pride and shame involved in being an “other,” with characters living the tug of war between assimilating and maintaining the habits of a good Muslim. “Islam makes you this other race,” Ms. Kahf told a literature class at Stanford University, noting that the genre should appeal to both American Muslims and outsiders seeking a better understanding of the minority. “I can’t not write ethnically, because my characters don’t eat pork and they do use incense.”
The knowledge that her work might be one window that outsiders use to view Muslim Americans sometimes shapes her choices as a writer, she explained. In an early draft of her novel, for example, its heroine, Khadra Shamy, changed from being a devout teenager wearing black head scarves to taking the veil off entirely as an adult. In later drafts Ms. Kahf changed her mind.
“People would have read it as ‘We won! She is an escaped Muslim woman!’ ” the author said. “People think that all Arab women are dying to uncover.”
She ultimately decided that Khadra would remain veiled, at least along the lines that Ms. Kahf is herself — she covers her hair for public appearances, but lets it slip off in restaurants and is less than scrupulous about it on hot days.
The book is rife with the lurking dangers that Muslims encounter in America. It details the fear and horror of a kindergarten girl discovering that candy cane contains “pig,” or Khadra’s frustration in middle school when the bullies tear off her head scarf repeatedly, and her teachers pretend not to notice.
Ms. Kahf came to this country in 1971 from Damascus, Syria, before her fourth birthday, and like her, many immigrant Muslim children find themselves caught between hostile worlds at school and parents who are basically clueless. Several young women at the San Francisco reading said that in growing up as the only Muslim girls in their communities, they wish they had had Ms. Kahf’s book to read so they knew that they were not alone.
Suzanne Shah, a 21-year-old premed student at the University of California, Berkeley, uses Ms. Kahf’s poetry book, “E-mails from Scheherazad,” in a class she helps tutor.
“It was refreshing for me to find that there is a poet out there who speaks the same language that I speak and thinks the same way I do,” Ms. Shah said.
Ms. Shah, who is unveiled, said she particularly likes a poem castigating those trying to make a battleground out of Muslim women’s hair, with Muslims treating the veil as far too sacred and Westerners misconstruing taking off the veil as liberation.
“It’s not war, it’s not freedom, it’s just hair,” said Ms. Shah, who points out to her students how Ms. Kahf is more observer than judge. In the poem about American women seeing her grandmother washing her feet before prayers, for example, Ms. Kahf writes, “They fluster about and flutter their hands, and I can see a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom.”
Not that Ms. Kahf entirely avoids choosing sides; her political poems can be searing. In “We Will Not Deny the Holocaust,” she lays out the common Arab perspective that Israel literally gets away with murder, using the Holocaust as a canopy to deflect criticism of widespread human rights abuses against the Palestinians.
Her father went into exile because he was a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, and her husband, Najib Ghadbian, a political science professor, is involved in Syrian exile politics. During a radio interview here, Ms. Kahf called on the Syrian government to release Anwar al-Bounni, a scrappy human rights lawyer just sentenced to five years in jail.
She believes the emphasis on tradition in the Arab world long ago warped the open spirit of Islam. Although Ms. Kahf grew up in a devout household, she finds the Muslim Brotherhood’s interpretation of Islam too narrow, calling it an anticolonial political movement that is just not spiritual enough to incorporate all facets of Islam.
That would include sex, and Ms. Kahf writes a rather graphic online sex column that has drawn ire, even a death threat, from the orthodox. One column described a dream in which a revered medieval Islamic scholar is described in flagrante delicto, while another depicts a Syrian village where the local imam has declared that women too can take more than one spouse.
Relations between the sexes is a subject she said she often used when asked to do readings to church groups around Arkansas. The women cannot always relate to stories about Muslim immigrant anxieties, she said, but she finds common ground with poetry talking about a man’s chest as “that forested mountain with the bluffs and crags where a woman likes to hide.”
In one poem about the holy fasting month of Ramadan, she laments that after abstaining from food and sex all day, then gorging at night, nobody is ever in the mood for lovemaking. “Ramadan is not a time for thongs” was a huge laugh line for her San Francisco audience.
Her readings are rather un-self-conscious. She waves her hands. She sings, she dances. In fact, she can sometimes seem almost oblivious to her surroundings. Driving across the Stanford campus, she stopped right in the middle of an intersection to light a clove cigarette.
Her audiences say Ms. Kahf embodies what they strive for, in that she is someone who both respects her own faith and yet uses the advantages offered by being an American, like free speech, to explore its every corner.
“It is just so refreshing for someone to put a lighter spin on being a Muslim in America,” said Ms. Ibrahim, the San Francisco professor. “Are we only going to talk about the war, are we only going to talk about how our faith is so misunderstood? It gets really old.”