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.

Interview with Philip Metres

Poems of exile and war, and poems in translation

Interview with award-winning American poet, translator, scholar, and activist Philip Metres

By Rewa Zeinati

Rewa Zeinati: What does it mean to be an Arab American writer/poet? Or would it be more accurate to be ‘labeled’, simply, a writer/poet?

Philip Metres: Ever since I was young, I was marked as Lebanese or Arab because of my looks, and because everyone in my father’s family or in our Arab Christian Church immediately welcomed me as one of their own. I’ve been told, ever since I was young, that some of my ancestors came from Bsharri, the same village as Kahlil Gibran, and that he visited them in Brooklyn. (We have the letter to prove it! The family also believes that he wrote The Prophet while staying with them at 290 Hicks Street, but I have seen no actual evidence of that beyond a mythic wish.) But what it means for me to be Arab American continues to evolve. It’s never meant just one static thing. Often that’s what happens to immigrants—the Old Country becomes an ossified image of a lost home, even when that home is constantly changing in their absence. For me, being Arab American means I don’t forget that my people come from the Middle East, and that I carry their memories inside my memories, both remembered in the mind and carried in the bone. That I keep in touch with what is happening there, and that I constantly remind people that humanity has no national border. I’m always pleased when I hear Arab or Muslim names in the American public sphere—as artists, journalists, academics, writers, etc. It makes me feel like the United States is changing.

I’ve always felt a kinship with people of color, and particularly with recent arrivals to the U.S. Our experiences are all different, but I feel the Old Countries in the way they hold themselves, the way they move in the world. Being Arab American for me also means that I’m part of a great migration, that my ancestors were intrepid travelers. People, in the end, are not just a nationality. Nations are a temporary political fiction—albeit a highly-militarized and deeply ideological one. So many of us come from many directions, like the four winds. According to my genetic test, some Italian appears to be swimming in my Middle Eastern genes. I wonder who this Italian was. And also, there is some North African in me, some Maghrebi. And some sub-Saharan African. And I haven’t even mentioned my mother’s Irish and German roots. So I am a person of many migrations and journeys, all these ancestors traveling toward and within my breathing, my heart beating, my voice speaking, my hands writing.

RZ: Tell us a little about your experience translating Russian poetry into English. How did it all begin? How did (does) it influence your own writing?

PM: I’m still trying to answer this question for myself. The Russians would call it my fate. This past fall, I spent my sabbatical writing a 90,000 word memoir recalling the year I spent living in Russia during the period of economic transition (1992-1993), trying to retrace my steps into that decision. I’d gotten a Watson fellowship for a year-long independent study project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change,” which enabled me to live in Russia, translate Russian poetry, and meet and interview contemporary Russian poets.

One secret reason I went to Russia was that poets were powerful there, that poetry mattered to people there. To say poetry mattered to me is to understate the case by half. Reading and writing poetry had altered my life, had become my life, my secret life, the one that was mine that no one could see. Reading Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” simply confirmed what I already knew—that we were broken, and that headless sculptures admonished us to change our lives. Poetry had given me a way to clarify and transform my inner chaos, and the turbulence around me, into something almost beautiful. It mattered so much to me, and so little in this country, I’d wondered if I’d been born in the wrong nation. I’d been learning how the Tsar acted as Alexander Pushkin’s personal censor, after Pushkin got involved with the Decembrists; how Stalin sent Osip Mandelstam to his death in Siberia for writing a poem that made fun of him, and how Osip’s wife Nadezhda committed his entire oeuvre to memory, to ensure that his words would not be forgotten; how Anna Akhmatova’s heroic witness in poetry outlasted even Stalin; and how Russian poets in the Sixties—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, and Bella Akhmadulina—declaimed their poems to stadium crowds; how Joseph Brodsky was subject to a “show trial” because he was a real poet and the State could not stand that fact. Poets in Russia seemed to be prophets and rock stars, revolutionaries and dissidents. I wanted to find out why. The truth was more complex than I could have imagined.

But it’s true that translating and meeting those poets completely transformed my idea of poetry and its relationship to the political sphere—I became less interested in poetry as a political weapon and more interested in its alternate way of being, both part of but also beyond politics, or rather, beneath all politics. The primal ground of being. Translating poets like Gandlevsky and Rubinstein and Tarkovsky became an education in poetry’s possibilities. I know the poets I’ve translated better than any other poets because I’ve lived inside those sonic language architectures longer than in any other poem.

My new book, Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album, was occasioned by my return to Russia ten years after I’d lived there. I was flooded by memories as I walked around St. Petersburg, and I needed a way to write about returning to a place where I lived but never felt quite at home. There’s something in me drawn to that feeling of being unhoused, exiled, wayfaring, lost. I can’t explain it.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once that you hope that your 2015 poetry collection, Sand Opera, “can help be the start to a new conversation about the state of poetry, American life, and the role of Arab American literature in our ongoing cultural and political debate about U.S. foreign and domestic policy regarding the Arab world.” Tell us a little more about that.

PM: The difficulty with poetry is that poetry readers typically resist politically-challenging work, and people interested in politics tend not to read poetry. (In a particularly dark moment, I lamented to a friend that I wrote a book of poems too political for poets and too poetic for political activists.) At the same time, every couple weeks, I get another email from someone who’s just read Sand Opera and wanted to thank me. So I’m very grateful for the fact that it exists.

One thing I’m doing now is I’ve begun a Lenten observance. Every day I’ve been posting a poem from Sand Opera at www.behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com alongside Scriptural readings and dialogue pieces by other poets, writers, artists, and activists. This dialogic, choral project has been a way for me to return to poems that I’ve always felt were only partly mine. Since so many of the poems were themselves documentary in nature, composed of found language, the voices of so many touched by war, it’s almost as if the poems wrote me as much as I wrote the poems. One of the gifts of the Lenten observance has been that it occasioned my getting in touch with some Iraqi friends that I hadn’t spoken to in years, to ask for their contribution. And they have graciously agreed to participate.

But it hasn’t been without poignancy. One Iraqi scholar who has worked in the States for many years asked me about the project, and I mentioned some other Iraqi writers and artists who were participating, as a way to entice his participation. He said, well, that’s good, but Iraqis and Arabs already know the situation. I assured him that there would be a number of Americans who also would be part of it. But to hear him say that, his voice cracking with the weight of sorrow he’s carried for so many years, was heartbreaking. I heard in his voice the weight of a weary exile, unable to lay down his burden. Still trying to convince Americans of the humanity of his people, of himself.

Though I’ve felt self-conscious asking other writers to dialogue with my work, I’m touched by the robust response—as if people were almost waiting to be asked, wanting to add their voice.

RZ: “Art should remain subservient to politics.” What are your thoughts about this statement?

PM: It’s preposterous, but only slightly more preposterous than the American version of this statement, that art must remain free of all politics. Art is not art if it is subservient. Yet clearly art for its own sake is also a dead end.

RZ: In your opinion, what makes a good poem?

PM: Difficult question, because there’s no arguing taste. But for me, if you cornered me, I’d say that it’s a poem that retains some obdurate mystery, something unexplainable that makes me want to return to it, and is never quite exhausted by my re-reading.

RZ: Is one born a political poet? Or is all poetry political? (Or should it be?)

PM: I found it funny and sad that a fellow poet told me that he felt as if he should write more political poetry; as if it were somehow an obligation, a necessary evil to be part of the family of poets. That’s the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, for whom politics is something is necessary but dirties one’s hands. That distance is also a fiction of privilege.

A truly memorable political poem is alive because its politics so inhere in the fabric of the poem that it is inseparable from the fact of its being a poem. It’s damned hard to write real poetry of any sort, and doubly hard when it attempts to be political. There is a well-known Arab American poet who writes passionate verse for a righteous cause, and when his book came out, I hoped that it would be brilliant. Although I agreed with him politically, I found only one line in his entire book that I felt was truly alive. One line.

RZ: Is there room for poetry and art in a region that burns with absolute turmoil; where fundamentalism, religious figures and politicians have taken over home and street (i.e. the Arab region)?

PM: Of course there is room for poetry. Now more than ever.

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

PM: They are the ongoing conversation that writers and writing are having with each other. Reading them is to sit at the table of that conversation.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers/poets?

PM: The same boring thing everyone else says, probably. Read contemporary poetry and writing, but also the classics (that which is ancient is most new). Read more than you think you need to, because one isn’t original without knowing what has been done before. Don’t be afraid to “cover” (or imitate or argue with) other poems and poets. Write every day if you can. Write as if your ancestors were listening. Write as if the unborn are leaning in to learn the future. Write only because you must, and then write with the joy of this impossible gift of sentience.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

Every day, I’m doing this Lenten observance, which has returned me to scripture, to Sand Opera, and to the work of friends. But in terms of book projects, I’ve got a few that are simmering, that I hope will come to something: “The Flaming Hair of Fate” (the Russia memoir), “Shrapnel Maps” (poems on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), a book of translations, and a book of interviews with Russian poets.