Literature of Exile: Mohja Kahf

“The longest exile is exile of the heart
The only passage for return is love”

― Mohja Kahf, E-mails from Scheherazad

[He] [w]ent deep into the cave where wounded men go when they walk around not talking to anyone about what’s happening to them on the inside. Also known as Terre Haute.”

“Liar,” she says to the highway sign that claims “The People of Indiana Welcome You.”
― Mohja Kahf, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

Mohja Kahf is both the daughter and grand-daughter of Syrian exiles; her mother’s father was a former Syria parliamentarian exiled for his opposition to the Baath regime, and her father was exiled for his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. Growing up in Indiana and New Jersey, a a hijab wearing Muslim in Middle America, she imparts her own experiences of cultural dissonance to Khadra, her protagonist in, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

Much of the novel is well-worn, “2nd-generation immigrant-attempts-to-meld-her-exacting traditional-culture-with-tawdry-American-sloth” territory. Fortunately, Kahf has more on her mind than a simple narrative of uptight immigrants vs laid back Americans. She depicts the complexity of American Muslim culture that is all too often flattened in the popular conception; Khadra challenges Islamophobic racism in American life but also the anti blackness in her Syrian community; anti-hijab sexism, as well as Muslim patriarchy. Yet this is no polemic; Kahf has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps things from getting too heavy (a Muslim rock band called “Clash of Civilizations”? Why not).

Although GITTS begs to be a sitcom, (or at least a miniseries on Hulu), Kahf turns serious in her two poetry collections: E-mails From Scheherazad and Hagar Poems. In the voice of two iconic Muslim heroines, Kahf explores sexism and American xenophobia, while exalting the strength, power and beauty of Muslim women.

Hagar Poems features several Muslim religious figures who will be familiar to readers of the Jewish and Christian Bibles: Hagar, the “handmaid” of Abraham cast out into the desert; Asiaya, the Egyptian princess who rescued baby Moses from Pharaoh. Kahf uses these traditional tales in praise of contemporary women who are made refugees with their children, or called on to protect children from male power.

Men kill me
How they forget that the world is resting
on the back of a tortoise
and the tortoise is poised on a spider
and the spider is dangling like a drop of sweat
from the temple of the woman scrubbing the floor
under the feet of Copernicus and the pilgrims at the Ka’ba.

Her poems introduce the legendary Scheherazad of the Thousand and One Nights to modern day New Jersey, mocking the absurd cluelessness of European American entitlement and assumed superiority:

Hijab Scene #2

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.

Hijab Scene # 7

No, I’m not bald under the scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where women can’t drive cars
No, I would not like to defect
I’m already American
But thank you for offering
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
Off your assumptions
They’re going to blow you away.

My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway

The theme of wandering permeates these stories, told by a daughter and granddaughter of refugees. In this, my favorite of her poems, Kahf conveys the immigrant’s tender longing for a lost home, and the legacy that is passed on to the next generation:

Voyager Dust

When they arrive in the new country,
voyagers carry it on their shoulders,
the dusting of the sky they left behind.
The woman on the bus in the downy sweater,
I could smell it in her clothes.
It was voyager’s dust from China.
It lay in the foreign stitching of her placket.
It said: We will meet again in Beijing,
in Guangzhou. We will meet again.
My mother had voyager’s dust in her scarves.
I imagine her a new student like this woman on the bus,
getting home, shaking out the clothes from her suitcase,
hanging up, one by one, the garments from the old country.
On washing day my mother would unroll her scarves.
She’d hold one end, my brother or I the other,
and we’d stretch the wet georgette and shake it out.
We’d dash, my brother or I, under the canopy,
its soft spray on our faces like the ash
of debris after the destruction of a city,
its citizen driven out across the earth.
We never knew
it was voyager dust. It said:
We will meet again in Damascus,
in Aleppo. We will meet again.
It was Syria in her scarves.
We never knew it.
Now it is on our shoulders too.

For more on Mohja Kahf

Women’s Emancipation in Mohja Kahf’s ‘Emails from Scheherazad’ (2003)

“Dammit, Jim, I’m a Muslim Woman, Not a Klingon!”: Mediating the Immigrant Body in Mohja Kahf’s Poetry

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