Mohja Kahf in a dialgoue around American Muslim Woman

Mohja Kahf in a dialgoue around American Muslim Woman

Postby A Aboulmagd » Fri Nov 04, 2011 4:42 pm

Mohja Kahf and AbdurRahman Abou Almajd in dialogue around American Muslim Woman

We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about the American Muslim Woman, more particularly. At this point Mohja Kahf isn’t going to speak about her views on the American Muslim Woman only but she also speaks about great efforts seen in US.

Mohja Kahf.
Mohja Kahf is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas.
She is one of the greatest Arab-American poets and authors.
She moved with her family to the United States in 1971. She received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Rutgers University and is currently an associate professor of comparative literature and faculty member of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Kahf's work explores themes of cultural dissonance and overlap between Muslim-American and other communities, both religious and secular. Islam, morality, modesty, gender and gender-relations, sexuality, politics, and especially identity are important aspects of her work.
Her great works.
Her first great book of poetry, E-mails From Scheherazad, was a finalist for the 2004 Paterson Poetry Prize.
The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf 2006, Carroll & Graf
Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque.

Q: In The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf we love seeing mainstream American life through a young Muslim woman's eyes; could you elaborate on that, please?
MK: My aim was to give mainstream American readers the jolt of seeing their world through the eyes of a fresh immigrant--and a child, at that, in the early pages, a child who echoes the unease that her family feels with some American habits, and who echoes the family's stereotyping of "Americans." Rather than explaining the immigrant in terms that mainstream American readers would find familiar or comfortable, I wanted to defamiliarize America for mainstream American readers.
This is uncomfortable for some American readers, they tell me. They feel the narrative voice is anti-American in the early chapters especially. That paragraph describing how Khadra's family views Americans as unclean, for example, and holding untenable family values, is often one that provokes a strong reaction in college-aged readers. (BTW, the book has been on the required entrance reading lists of some colleges in the US, such as the College of Notre Dame, a Catholic college for women located in Maryland, a few years ago.)
It is also uncomfortable for some Muslim immigrant readers, because it exposes the way we do stereotype Americans too--the stereotyping does not just happen from their direction to us.
Once I have thrown down those stereotypes on the table in the early chapters, I hope the reader notices that the stereotypes held by the narrative voice early in the book crumble away throughout the book, in the experiences of the protagonist and in the narrative voice as it evolves.
Q: I wonder how should Western Representations of the Muslim Woman be faced and corrected.
MK: As long as the relationship between large parts of the Muslim world and large parts of the Western world remains a postcolonial relationship of assymetrical power, Western discourse will continue to produce ways of thinking about Muslim women that justify imperialist domination.
So my view is a bit pessimistic. Or, you might think of it rather as a view that looks at discourse as a produce of larger institutions and systems, not something that can easily be changed merely by counter-discourse on the individual level.
In other words, no matter how many books and people speak out criticizing and analyzing the ways in which Western discourses stereotype Muslim women, this will not change until the political realities change. In fact, the stereotyping only becomes more sophisticated and multiplies.
With the people's revolutions we are seeing in the Middle East this spring and summer, we may finally be entering a phase of history that can put colonialism behind and move onto new realities. But we are only at the tippy-tip beginning of this reality-change. This large scale change in global power dynamics may result in a new set of issues about Islam and gender that finally changes the old scene of colonial and neocolonial attacks from Western discourse and postcolonial reactions and defensiveness from Muslims. Not yet. But one day. And because of our present revolutions, that day is getting nearer.

Q: Your work explores themes of cultural dissonance and overlap between Muslim-American and other communities, both religious and secular. I would like to get to know the character of Khadra as you'd love her to to be seen through reading.
MK: Khadra tries, at one point, to re-activate her identity as a Syrian, through her return trip to Syria as an adult. The "return story" is a common theme in American immigrant literature--the return to origins in search of roots and meaning, often followed by a realization that one must move forward, to integrate both experiences, the experience of where one came from, and the experience of life since leaving that place.
(In my own life, I have never been able to re-visit Syria as an adult, in part because of my participation in political dissent, and before that because of my family's participation. This may change soon!)
Khadra has another journey, to hajj. Like many Muslims around the world, she initially idealizes the country in which Mecca happens to be today, Saudi Arabia, as the spiritual home of her faith community. Her trip forces her to see that Saudi Arabia is just another modern country, with its own problems, not a magical land where all is ideally Islamic. Visiting the Kaba as a physical place is important to her, but after that visit, which is necessary, she understands that
what the Kaba symbolizes to Muslims can be carried in the heart, and is certainly not carried by a modern political state or by the people in Saudi society.
The novel attempts to show that people in Saudi are diverse and at the same time that they disappoint Khadra's Islamic idealism, they also do not fit the American stereotypes of Saudis that are present in mainstream US media.
As a result of Khadra's journeys, she comes to realize that there is a way to integrate being Muslim and being American, without simplifying either, and that she is already doing that.
Part of that, for her, is folding away her Syrian identity and putting it in the back of the cabinet.
This is something a lot of Syrian immigrants did. This was done with a lot of pain and harqet qalb for some. Whether with a lot or a little pain, it was done because the way to Syria has been blocked, seemingly permanently. The Syrian "qadiya" has not been a live wire, in the way the Palestinian qadiya has remained very much alive for us. There seemed to be no hope, no hope at all in our lifetimes. It was a dead end.
Now we Syrians have a qadiya that is alive again!
My own journey with Syria is now open in a way Khadra's is not: I see myself going back to settle down there, in the next phase of my life, after the pro-democracy revolution wrests Syria from the dictatorship that has dominated it for nearly fifty years, inshallah soon.
Nonetheless, I will go back to Syria carrying my experiences as a Muslim in America, which have opened my eyes to the fact that Islam is a religion, a faith, and not a culture--not tied to one particular culture such as those cultures in the Middle East, for example, but having far more open and universal possibilities.
Many Muslims who have never lived for extended periods outside the Middle East hold values that are part of Middle Eastern cultures, whether Arab or Kurdish or Berber, that they assume are part of Islam. But when you take Islam away from the Middle East, you realize that those values are not really part of Islam itself; they are part of the local cultures.
Let's take the concept of عرض as an example. The Quran says nothing about 'ird. This is an ancient tribal concept. The specific ways shariah and fiqh evolved in the Middle East seem to enshrine the concept of 'ird by putting it into Islamic terms. But you find nothing in the Quran itself, or in hadith, that justifies honor killings, for example. Or, the notion that rape is an unsurvivable dishonor for women, for example, is not in the essential texts of Islam at all, nor are notions such as "only blood washes blood dishonor," nor the hysteria about the hymen as the physical emblem of honor in woman's body. Yet honor killing, and the hymen obsession, is a very difficult concept to disentangle from religion, in Muslim life in the Middle East. In American Muslim life, it becomes clearer and easier to disentangle these tribal concepts from the religious faith, and to envision a faith practice that does not have these concepts at all within it.
This is an example what living outside the Middle East as a Muslim can offer to the evolution of Islamic religious identity.
Muslims who remain in the Middle East and remain locked in the Middle Eastern outlook on Islam may choose to label this a dilution or an"Americanization" or a "loss of Islamic idenity," and to dismiss it as an authentic expression of Islam, but it is no less authentic and no less Islamic.
The journey from an Islam inflected solely with Middle Eastern customs and habits of thought (many of which are positive, not just negative) to an Islamic identity that is open to Khadra's experiential reality in the US, is part of the novel. Sometimes Middle Eastern-rooted Muslims find this theme in the novel disturbing.
From the other side, the American side, Khadra is able to take advantage of a multi-cultural model of being American. Multiculturalism, which emerged in the 1980s, is controversial in the American cultural scene, too, and faces a conservative reaction that wants to see immigrants accept a higher level of assimilation to America. Assimilation is a model that Khadra resists. She is able to find a place in America only after finding a dimension of America that is able to make room for different ways of being American, not the American model of homogeneity and exclusion that the state of Indiana seems to represent initially in the novel.
Does that adress your 2 questions? I hope the parts of the answer are not too disjointed.
Q: Why are there frequent use of Arabic expressions in the book?
MK: To reflect an immigrant's bilingualism.
To Arabize the English language of America enough to express an Arab immigrant's experience, and force the Anglophonic American reader to expand their horizons linguistically.
To point to a Muslim American culture that is developing in mosque communities and which integrates Quranic Arabic into its subculture, which has become part of the mosaic of cultures in America. This use of Quranic Arabic in Muslim American life is common to all Muslim Americans who are part of mosque communities, and has a different use of Arabic than the Arab immigrant's use of colloquial Arabic.
Colloquial Syrian Arabic is present in the novel in places such as the use of the phrase "te'ebrini." "Te'ebrini" is a very specific expression of endearment used very locally in certain cities in Syria and Lebanon. So in that way the novel globalizes a certain localism. This is different from the point above about Quranic Arabic becoming part of Muslim American language and Muslim American culture in ways that are very different from Arabs' use of Arabic.

MK: One other thing I wanted to mention:

The novel is structured around the positions of salah. Qiyam and sujood, in particular, are postures underlying certain scenes. If you notice, key moments of insight in the novel are expressed in terms of the positions of salah.

Abdur-Rahman: Thank you very much.
A Aboulmagd
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