Sukoon interviews Arab-American poet and scholar Mohja Kahf

Immigration, Feminism, Revolution

“What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it?” – Mohja Kahf

Rewa Zeinati: Mohja Kahf, you are a professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arkansas. In addition to Hagar Poems, published last year by the University of Arkansas Press, you are the author of E-mails from Scheherazad, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, and Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque. You were born in Damascus, Syria, to parents who immigrated to the United States in 1971 when you were almost four years old, and you spent your childhood in the Midwest. Where is home to you? And does one ever stop asking this question?

Mohja Kahf: Never. I’ve moved I count seven major times in my life, one of them a life-changing immigration about which I was too young to have an opinion. Finally I thought I had settled where I am now. I’ve been here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. But when the Syrian Revolution started, for a minute I thought I would have a chance to reverse that immigration, to go “home again,” and I knew I was ready to take that chance. To leave everything again. But of course there is no “home again—” and for Syrians, that is now true in a particularly painful way. But the Syria-hope the Syria-chance shook me up from my illusory settledness and now I know I also am not home yet. I need still to find what I want and seek it and make it home as best I can.

RZ: Your poems explore themes of Arab identity, Muslim identity, and feminist politics. How important is religion to one’s sense of identity?

MK: Well, it varies depending on the person, of course. How important is it to mine has evolved over time. For the last sixteen years in the U.S., however, I’ve found that even though I’ve been ready to talk from another speaking position, something besides religious affiliation, the world keeps wanting to hear me speak as a “Muslim feminist” or “Muslim American.” There is work needing to be done there and I happen to be equipped with the tools for it and so I keep getting pulled back to shoulder some of that work, although I have other work going on to which I also devote energy and wish to see realized. So for example, will I ever be able to publish just a manuscript of love poems? Without bagging it as “Muslim woman love poems?” Hey, I have the manuscript—somebody find me a publisher please.

RZ: The poems you are sharing with us in the current edition of Sukoon are stylistically quite different from your previous poems. What compelled the change?

MK: Two things. I went to a poetry reading where a poet had “list poems,” and the experience sort of challenged me to write list poems. And secondly, Syria and silence. Meaning, I was at the end of my ability to speak about Syria. An impasse. No sentences were getting through. I was at the end of my belief in the efficacy of language, almost. I felt the end in sight of the vocation of writing, almost. What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it? need all three components: text, sender, recipient – need someone at the other end to hear what someone sends out into the world, to hear responsively. In Syria, by the regime for decades, language and narrative and expressive function has been so utterly abused and distorted. And then, regarding Syria in the world, the expressive function of language and writing, also so abused and distorted. So this “list poem encounter” seemed to come just then as a possible path out of my impasse. Cut through all that. Forget syntax. Forget grammar which has been manipulated to obscure truths. Let go and sink down to the level of words. Broken words. One word at a time, one phrase at most, like what would be the only units one could manage to get out if one were being strangled or bled out and lay gasping. Just one word, then another. Get it out. Articulate through inarticulateness. If you can do nothing else. Those are gasp poems. Gasp. Syria. Blood. Betrayal. Gasp. I’m too broken to do more than a one-word line. Take it. Gasp. Make sense of it. Carry it on to the next. Gasp. Run. Gasp.

RZ: Your latest book, Hagar Poems , is a collection written over the course of 20 years. Many of the pieces were written in the ‘90s, but some were written not too long before the date of publication. Tell us about your experience writing this book, and why it took so long to complete. When is a manuscript ever complete?

MK: You’re kind and attentive to have read it and paid attention to such detail as the dates. It’s not complete; it’s never complete. For starters, there are specifically two more good Hajar poems I wish I had not culled out of it. I had forgotten those two set aside and wish I’d put them back in time. There was a third put-aside poem that I managed to get back into the manuscript before publication. Then there are other poems I had pulled out that maybe were not as strong. I pruned and culled for years, decades, because I wanted it to get published; earlier versions of the manuscript were rejected for publication over the years. All the while, up to a certain point in time, I was also adding more Hajar poems (and then pruning and culling from those too).

I first encountered Hajar when my first baby got sick and had a febrile seizure—first time I had seen one, terrifying. Here’s this baby, this life, and you are responsible for keeping it alive, and it’s 3am and where did everyone go? I felt abandoned, tricked, like, this is the fine print of the family program that you signed, get married have a baby, but nobody mentioned you how poor you’re going to be and how alone even if married, with the nature of patriarchy and with immigration and today’s mobility and the global economic system and the lack of universal healthcare all stripping you of those people who might have been around to help in another kind of world. When I woke up from that, I thought, damn, we have glossed over Hajar’s story. There is no way it is as sugar-coated as we learn it in the tradition. We had to silence a whole lot of it to just fast-forward from her in the desert alone with her child and desperate to, bingo, whatever platitudes the traditional view gets out of it wrapped up in a bow. Let me unwrap this bow. I want to cut it to shreds. The bits of text about Hajar in the various scriptures are elliptical and cryptic enough to allow for imaginative spaces; you can cut in and interpolate in ways the traditional readings of the texts do not.

And once you start with Hajar, the same project is waiting to be done with so many other figures. Some other figures pulled me over the years and I spent some time on Maryam, on Asiya, on Balqis. But hey everyone, be my guest, there is an endless amount of reconfiguring that could happen with Hajar and her sisters, and with countless other matter of old, if it happens to grab you anew.

And as for the appropriateness of doing that (I guess it’s to the conservative readership I say this bit), well, if it is not there in order to grab us anew, what is it there for?

RZ: Tell us about your experience writing the sex column Ask Mohja, for the website Muslim Wake up! How did the idea come about?

MK: Well, those were a heady few minutes, hah. The column wasn’t called “Ask Mohja;” it was actually called “Sex and the Ummah,” and I was one of two columnists who were supposed to alternate, but it ended up being mostly me, and then some guest columnists I pulled in to try to still have alternating voices. I am delighted to say that it was the place where one of Randa Jarrar’s fabulous short stories was first published, as a guest column. It somehow got tagged in people’s minds as a “sex advice column,” but it was never that – it was a sexually themed fiction column, is all, mostly fiction pieces, although one time I did pull in a “sex advice” guest column by a gynecologist, a Palestinian American feminist. I had sent in “Little Mosque Poems” to the MuslimWakeUp!.com website editors to start with, in a spirit of feminist Muslim self-critique. An then they and I started conversing, and one of our conversations was about how there’s this Muslim belief that Islam is a sex-positive religion, and then there’s this modern stereotype of Islam as sexually repressive, and the truths are so much richer and more varying than those two positions, so what about exploring the gap between these ideas by delving into sexual experiences from a “Muslim angle” whatever that may mean.

Then there was Abu Ghraib, the exposure of sexual abuse there by U.S. soldiers, and that deflated my joy in doing the column.

What deflated it also was my sense that white readerships wanted to exploit the idea for the wrong reasons, Orientalist reasons. I started getting offers from agents who were interested for all the wrong, imperialist cultural politics, reasons. Well, I had received a death threat from an Islamic extremist reader, and so of course that attracted all the would-be makers of a new neo-con Muslim woman voice or something. And that was not a direction I wanted to go, ever. Man, I coulda been a star if I’d gone that direction, I coulda been rich! Haha.

The whole endeavor of the website was one of progressive Muslims self-critique and of Muslims critiquing conservative Muslim discourse, and that is a project I support. But a few of the writers started going in the direction where “progressive” meant “be a tool of imperialist cultural politics,” not progressive at all, not in solidarity with the struggles of oppressed people intersectionally. Just a tiny number, but they got a lot of press. It dampened my enthusiasm for being there with them under that “progressive” label.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers? Especially women writers of color?

MK: Give yourself time to take care of your Self. Give your Self space for creativity. Don’t fill your life with people who won’t nourish you. Remove soul-crushers from your daily life. Also, the people with whom you exchange energies most, their world view will try enter yours, so be careful what you let enter, where you work, where you live. In this white supremacist structure of our times, it is easy as a woman of color to be pushed to be what the structure needs, but is it what You need? What do You need and want? Seek that. This is all advice that I am constantly having to give my Self.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

Tremendously important. Without them we would just have those bigger journals that can get bigger money. We would have fewer and narrower channels where expression must be funneled. With them, we have multitudinous avenues for a multiplicity of voices and audiences. Without a reader goading it on, wanting it, a poem can wither and die. And with a reader who wants only certain kinds of poems, only certain kinds of poems will be written and see publication. The small literary journals find readers who are hungry for just that unexpected poetry but didn’t know what it was until they encountered it.


RZ: What are you working on right on?

MK: A volume of poetry about Syria, about the Syrian Revolution. For whoever will listen. For us, Syrians, if no one else.

Look, I’m sorry if the Syrian Revolution reads to the world’s progressives and leftist only as a conspiracy for rightist and imperialist agendas. It seems like I have to apologize for the existence of Syrians who do actually suffer the enormous human rights abuses of the Assad regime, to apologize for this to a world that does not want to hear this because it doesn’t fit current progressive agendas. The fact that Syrians are also getting abused by the Islamist extremists who are manipulating the grassroots protest movement for their own ends and in turn getting manipulated by regional and world powers only makes it more urgent that the original Syrian grassroots civilian uprising be recognized and respected. Just because the Syrian uprising doesn’t fit what progressives thought about the regime, doesn’t mean the human rights abuse doesn’t exist. Deal with that. Change your eye to adjust to the fact of our existence as Syrians. I say that, while doing internal critique of those Syrians who are selling out the Syrian Revolution to rightist agendas. My poetry on the Syrian Revolution is my own attempt to deal with the multiple silencing of Syrians, by the regime for five decades, by the right and left globally, by each other. Things grew to such a pass that a Syrian cannot find a space to speak amid so many different kinds of silencing. For a while I was so disheartened in so many ways internal and external that I stopped writing Syria altogether. It seemed so futile wherever one turned, like pounding on a thick beveled glass wall that was soundproof. What was the point of any writing at all? Fuck that; I’m back. Publish me.