Between the lines: Muslim-American slam poetry

By Onaje McDowelle

Slam poet, Noor Wadi, recites her poem at Nueces’ poetry night.

AUSTIN — Plastered against a white wall sits a bookcase where on top, the Quran and various other books are stacked neatly together. Just above, a sign reads “The adhan has been given,” a call to worship in the religion of Islam. Scattered between white pillars are people in prayer. The masjid, Arabic for mosque, is quiet and still, a safe haven for many Muslim students at the University of Texas at Austin.

This year, freely expressing Muslim identity has proven difficult within the United States. In January, Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban disproportionately affected Muslim-Majority countries and Anti-Muslim and Anti-immigration flyers were posted around the university a month later. As a result, the necessity for a safe space for Muslim students such as Nueces Mosque has become more apparent.

Nueces Mosque is a quaint building that is located in the center of the fast-paced West Campus community, about 10 minutes outside of UT’s campus. Opened in 1977, Nueces was the first mosque to be established in Austin, serving the campus community for about 40 years without being renovated or rebuilt. Now, the masjid community is currently heading a large-scale expansion project that will create a brand new religious worship center for its constituents.

The sense of community and love was just as present that night as any other. The place buzzed with chatter after prayer as students prepared for the night’s lineup of poets to take the microphone towards the front of the room. It’s slam poetry night at the mosque and the theme is “Generation Muslim: Narratives of Muslim-Americans.”

“We wanted to bridge culture and faith,” Omar Bheda, president of the masjid and third year management information systems major, said. “We’re having each poet explain what the poem means to them. So, we’re putting things into context; what it means to be a Muslim, those experiences and the context of everything right now. That was the goal for tonight.”

For many, slam poetry is a way to share common emotions and feelings with the masses. But, for students like Noor Wadi and Mah-Ro Khan, both Palestinian Americans, slam poetry is that and more. It’s a way to share both the struggles and triumphs of being Muslim-American while connecting with others who identify as Muslim-Americans. Poetry is a space for them to discuss experiences specific to their identities with a community that is empathetic and supportive.

Wadi is a third-year UT Law student who competed at last year’s College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational in Chicago, an international competition and showcase for the world’s top collegiate spoken word poets. In 2015, UT’s team won the competition, and some of the poets from that team have since mentored both Wadi and Khan throughout their journeys as slam poets. Khan is currently the president of Spitshine, a student-run poetry organization at UT, and plans to attend 2018’s CUPSI.

“In Texas, marginalized communities are already small number wise, but what was really amazing was finding other people who are from similar communities or identities who do poetry too,” Wadi said. “Going to CUPSI and seeing so many Palestinian poets and so many Muslim poets and hearing them talk about the things we feel was very validating.”

Both Wadi and Khan began getting into poetry after high school. Wadi recalls being inspired by rap music and thinking about “how cool it would be to talk about Islam through rap.” After giving a graduation speech in a spoken word-esque style, she realized that poetry was her calling and immediately got involved with the poetry community at UT during her undergrad years.

As for Khan, she originally started out writing stories and narratives instead of poetry. Once she decided to attend UT, she stumbled across the 2015 CUPSI team on YouTube and decided that Spitshine was the one student org she absolutely had to find and get involved with at orientation. “It’s a really great community here,” Khan said.

After they both finally settled into their roles as poets, despite noted anxiety about getting behind the microphone, Wadi and Khan have realized how therapeutic slam poetry has been for them, especially within the Muslim community. “Having people of similar identity supporting your work, it really gave me a lot of courage to keep performing,” Wadi said.

“Poetry has helped me to put words to what I’m feeling, which has been really healing especially in the climate of UT,” Khan said, recalling an Anti-Muslim bumper sticker on a passing car. “It helps me deal with it, it helps me find other people who are dealing with it and I think putting words to that is very powerful, not just with being Muslim, but with other things like anxiety and school too.”

During the event, Khan delivered a poem about drone strikes in her home country, while Noor followed with a poem about anti-Muslim attacks here in the United States, both of which were met with resounding support and endless snaps and woos from the crowd.

“I’ve been really touched by tonight’s performances,” said Sharif Chang, who served as the moderator of Friday’s poetry night. “I’ve been getting goosebumps. You never think about these things until you hear it. Everything that was spoken tonight, deep down we feel it or it comes to our minds, but when it’s really spoken and we hear it from another person, it really resonates with us.”