Lots of things have been going down at LoveInshallah.com and within the Muslim blogosphere. The recent article on Muslim men returning “back home” to find wives generated diverse cyber chatter, with various responses supporting or criticizing different positions. On the heels of that debate, the Miptserz-coining, Somewhere in America, video featuring women in hijabs and cool turbans skateboarding to Jay-Z generated widespread media controversy. Again, Muslims drew well-argued lines on the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding the video’s use of hijab and contemporary representations of Muslim female identity. In the middle of these developments, I had two appearances on NPR’s Tell Me More discussing issues around dating, race, and identity.
These events got me thinking about my own orientation to love and belonging. This would not be page worthy except that these thoughts nudge against how I define myself as a Muslim in conjunction with a desire for love and (re)marriage. I had some epiphanies: my current world is too small and too White, yet I probably will end up with a white, non-Muslim guy.
I gleaned from the dialogue on arranged marriage the Mipsterz video is that the space I inhabit as a Muslim woman — a writer and cultural creative, divorced, someone who has been in and out of the hijab (and one day, may wear it again) — is highly problematic. The American Muslim community isn’t quite ready for large-scale cultural juxtaposition, complexities, and emerging personal narratives. We swear that we are. We want to be. But let’s be real: we still like our world cozy and certain.
I Will Be Satisfied I will never be satisfied Until you flood me like the Nile floods the plain Until your arms become Babylonian lions and devour me raw Until you scale me like the Temple of the Feathered Serpent And I will never be satisfied Until you cast yourself into the fire And its flames are cool and safe for you because of me Until you break the chains of impossibility And slay the beast of doubt like oxen sacrifice At the altar of the Holiest of Holies Until I see my face in all your writings Until my name enters all your words And you adorn and crown yourself with me Love me—love me—love me—love me— And I will be satisfied ~ From Mohja Kahf’s unpublished love poetry manuscript written in 1999.
Mohja Kahf is a Syrian-American poet and novelist. Her first collection of poetry, E-mails from Scheherazad, evokes the mixture of pride and shame involved in being an “other,” with characters balancing on the line between assimilating and maintaining the habits of a good Muslim. In addition to contemporary Muslim women, Mohja’s poetry also explores figures from Islamic history including Hagar, the wife of the prophet Abraham, Khadija and Aisha, wives of the Prophet Muhammad, and Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. According to The New York Times, her writing on contemporary subjects “draws sharp, funny, earthy portraits of the fault line separating Muslim women from their Western counterparts.” Of the intersection of Islam and art, Mohja says: “One of the primary messages of the Qur’an is that people should recognize the beautiful and do what is beautiful. This is not simply a moral beauty but a visual and auditory beauty as well. Conduct should be beautiful, writing should be beautiful and speaking should be beautiful.”
Bookstores are my turf. They’re my territory, where I live and breathe. I’m intimately familiar with all aspects of it: from the selling of books (bookseller, two years) to the buying of books (lifetime member of Bookaholics Anonymous, which, like most things, is a figment of my overactive imagination), from the writing of books to the reading of them. I will devour any word on any page.
And yet…there is a part of this kingdom I’ve refused to go near: the fashion and beauty magazines. I ventured into this exotic and dangerous area a few years ago. I looked to my left, looked to my right, stepped gingerly in. The array of lipsticked, perfectly coiffed, exquisitely dressed women both bewildered and terrified me. I skulked for a bit until someone else started perusing the section, at which point I hightailed it back to my political journals section with unseemly haste. Back on solid ground.
Here is where the Venn Diagram of nerd girls and Muslim girls intersects: there is something inherently shameful about a woman paying attention to her own body. One of my favorite blog posts of the year perfectly captures the strangely contradictory dichotomy that both Muslim girls and nerdy girls face. We are simultaneously desexualized and hyper-sexualized by the societies we find ourselves in.
I fear I’ve double-whammied myself on this one.
I left my twelve-year marriage two years ago this week. The decision was a long time coming, yet the final countdown involved a weekend at an abandoned haunted asylum hunting ghosts in the dark with a religious philosophy professor and his wife. We found our way to a room where four people allegedly committed suicide, and the rest of the evening passed in lofty dialogue about metaphysical issues regarding life after death, Heidegger’s philosophy, long-term commitment (the professor and his wife were in their thirtieth year of marriage) and how exploring mysterious things like ghosts could be a transformative, contemplative endeavor.
Something about that dark evening unveiled more than academic discourse on the paranormal. Of course, I longed for more events like this; opportunities for esoteric contemplation in strange spaces with educated folk. This creative little moment in the suicide room was not about death. The evening showcased how beautiful inconsistencies can morph into living possibilities. I wanted to be a girl brave enough to emerge from this metaphorical darkness, from this site of death, to a space empowered by art, story, and philosophy. It was baffling that little odd conversations in creepy buildings carried such hopeful weight. I had heavy things on my mind — a decaying marriage, for example — and such magnitudes were pondered best in complete darkness with tragedy and philosophy as a soundtrack.
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I started bicycle riding a few months ago after a twenty-five year lull. A fellow writer sold me the bike. She looked concerned when I ceremoniously mounted the saddle and peddled away. I rode a few yards before losing my breath and compromising public safety.
“Um, do you think this is such a good idea?” she asked. I couldn’t hide my wobble. I jerked the handlebars with such violent imprecision that she became visibly nervous.
“I advise that you wear a helmet,” she commented.
I took off the next day to explore the greenway beside my home. One mile in and I became certain that others on the path were secretly laughing at my amateur swerve and heavy breathing.
A week later, I ventured even farther, my lung capacity stretching to accommodate this newfound distance. I discovered hidden geographies and alternate passages to new places that I had missed while in a car. A different world revealed itself, and it was one only accessible by bike.