Return of the Friend I had not expected love but it surprised, like the slip of arm around my waist I had expected chiding, but your eyes spoke only kindness, like your face Tulips by the road, the burst of red— I drew my breath as your bus rounded the bend Pink rose in lime green tissue, then your tread, and the slip of arm around my waist Years dissolve between us in this place, and I exhale. I had expected questions, quizzing, an exchange, a taxing gaze, not acceptance freely given, your embrace I had not expected love
~ From Mohja Kahf’s unpublished love poetry manuscript written in 1999.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.”
Columbia University hosted the second annual symposium, The Muslim Protagonist: “A Synthesis of Journeys” this past weekend, sponsored by Columbia University’s Muslim Student Association. The event featured Muslim writers, artists, and other emerging creative voices.
An event like this is evidence that Muslim cultural creatives are moving into the space of cultural producers rather than just cultural consumers, inshAllah.
You know the cool part? Our influence is global. And as we celebrate our own identity, we also intersect with humanity on issues of personal struggle, postcolonialism, loss, joy, creativity, carving out our own space, and the big one — love.
The existence of successful Muslims writers, filmmakers, designers, artists and musicians demonstrates to the world (and to ourselves) that we are fully and gloriously human.
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“‘I love you’ scares me,” he admitted, looking nervous. “I’m not sure I know what it even means.”
I sighed with exasperation. It means everything, I thought. You could paraphrase it as I see you. Better yet, I read you. There’s nothing else important to say, really.
I didn’t become a hopeful romantic because of rom-coms or Disney. I grew up without a television in a progressive household, and though my parents have a marriage suitable for any American dream story, I was raised to be an independent thinker. My parents turned gender roles on their heads and upended social norms about race and consumerism without ever uttering words like “feminism” and “capitalism.” Without a TV, books were my first love. Saturdays at the library were the highlight of my week as a child, where I’d pile volume after volume into stacks so tall I could barely carry them. I’d drag them home and arrange them beside my bed in order of decreasing appeal, so the book that most excited me was on top of the pile, ready for me to grab when I woke up on Sunday morning to start my day by reading.
Before I became a parent when mothers shared stories about their children’s first day of nursery school, their eyes glistening, their voices catching as they described walking away from the school building and leaving their children behind, I tried to empathize, but truly, all the emotion over what is essentially, a part of life, befuddled me. Until, of course, as with most things parenting related, I had children of my own.
Though my eldest was signed up for nursery school just twice a week- and half days at that- seeing him drive away with his father to school for the first time felt like an emotional sucker punch to the gut. Yes, I wanted this for him. I wanted him to have consistent playmates and to learn some school routines before official school began. I trusted his teachers, the school’s philosophy, and the parents and kids I met were wonderful. And yet- watching him leave, taking in the quieter house and wondering how he was, what he was doing created a strange free-floating feeling that rattled me.
It was the feeling of vulnerability.
Novelist and screenwriter Kamran Pasha on being a Muslim in Hollywood and having the courage to follow your dreams, whatever your spiritual path.