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Muslim American Poet Sets Down Stakes

Muslim American Poet Sets Down Stakes

University of Arkansas' Mohja Kahf asks what one more label could do for study of American writers, herself not excluded. The lecture is part of CNES-, CEES-, and government-sponsored sociology course on Muslims in Europe and North America.

Everywhere you turned over a rock … there was something that could be identified as Muslim American literature.


At the final public meeting of a UCLA sociology course on Muslim communities in Europe and North America, University of Arkansas literary scholar and poet Mohja Kahf invited students to consider the utility of inventing a field called Muslim American literature. Kahf is herself in the process of doing just that. She has assembled a convincingly long list of authors and works under four sub-categories, and she advocates flexibility about future directions in what may be an emerging field. Many works of prose and poetry that fit Kahf’s criteria for the Muslim American label have been profitably studied under other rubrics—Arab American, Persian American, South Asian American, Beat Poets, new formalist, U.S. Southern, and so on, even Irish American—but Kahf contended that the use of a new lens would be sure to bring previously unexplored aspects of the texts into focus.

"When I started looking, everywhere you turned over a rock … there was something that could be identified as Muslim American literature," she said. A medievalist by training, Kahf has taken up the subjects of Anglophone and then U.S. writing by Muslims only in recent years.

Now finishing its third consecutive Spring Quarter session, the UCLA course, introduced and overseen by Dr. Samy Swayd, has been supported from the start by Education Department grants and has good prospects for continued funding, according to UCLA organizers. UCLA Centers for Near Eastern Studies and European and Eurasian Studies invite speakers and take the leading role in putting together content for this Department of Sociology offering. Many of the speakers looked at post-9/11 Islam in the West and immigration, discrimination, and other issues.

In Kahf's account of Muslim American literature, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965, written by Alex Haley) occupies a special position because of the constant allusions to it by other writers. The Black Arts Movement of roughly 1965–75 also looms large as a source of inspiration, Kahf said. If the proposed field has a "poet laureate," she said, it is Daniel (Abd al-Hayy) Moore, who began writing what Kahf regards as a consistently excellent string of books of poetry a few years before his 1970 conversion to Sufi Islam. Converts, then, are as important as immigrants and their children to this literary field bounded by both religious instruction and place.

Non-religious writers also make the list, just as they do in such fields as Jewish American literature. To decide whether a given literary work ought to be included, Kahf looks at the religious identity or affinities of the author, the subject matter of the work, and subtler indications in the work's language that might indicate an engagement with Muslim themes or source materials. Some combination of these elements will be required for inclusion in an anthology envisioned by Kahf and co-editors she has already recruited. At the talk, she encouraged others to fill some acknowledged gaps: children's literature, translations, slave narratives by Muslims, essays, sermons, hajj and other travel memoirs, and more.

Kahf was born in Damascus, Syria, moved to the United States as a child, and grew up in Indiana. The school environment there was a "battle zone," she said in response to a question, remembering students who pushed and insulted her during the Iranian hostage crisis. (If something happened in Turkey, she said, that made her a Turk.) When school let out in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Sept. 11, 2001, Kahf was relieved to find that her teenage daughter, present at the talk, had received a far more caring response from a new generation of classmates. Growing up Muslim in the Midwest of the 1970s is the subject of Kahf's forthcoming novel, Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.

Giving the UCLA audience a glimpse of her performances at poetry slams, Kahf read her own "Hijab Scene #7," one of the poems collected in her E-Mails From Scheherazad (2003). Exhibits of Muslim American literature, the "e-mails" include, among other memorable pieces, "Voyager Dust" and "My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears"  ("a contamination of American Standards … 'Worried about their sink, are they? I / should worry about my feet!'"). In "Fayetteville as in Fate," she writes of Damascus as well as the Arkansas college town.

Whole populations of seed sowers and herb knowers
some from Damascus, some from Fayetteville, they meet
in my head like the walls of the Red Sea crashing together …

May their children e-mail one another and not bomb one another
May they download each other's mother's bread recipes
May they sell yams and yogurts to each other at a conscionable profit
May they learn each other's tongue and put words into each other's mouth

Kahf can boast a following not only as a poet but as a sex columnist for the progressive web site Muslim Wakeup (though she might well reject the "progressive" label on the site’s behalf). The issues are not always simple, but Kahf said that she has found community-oriented Fayetteville to be a very welcoming place for herself and her family.