The Muslim Community at NYU Gathers for a Night of Poetry and Discussion

Astrid M Trouillot
5 min readMar 31, 2017


Poets Kaveh Akbar and Safia Elhillo opened up to a mainly Muslim audience on how their personal lives identify in their writing at NYU’s Liberation through Poetry event.

“Safia Elhillo speaks to being female, Muslim, black, and individuality; how they overlap, and why they’re different” said Zainab Babikira, a fan of one of Thursday night’s guest artist. Babikira strongly identifies with Elhillo’s writing in every sense, and feels that she’s “never related to writing as much as hers.” The 19-year-old Sudanese knows only four others who have the same cultural background as her, but reading poetry such as Elhillo’s reminds her of that she’s not alone.

Liberation through Poetry was an event part of the Shuruq (Sunrise) Islamic Heritage Month, which is a series of events that brings together the Muslim community at NYU for various and diverse occasions that focus on diversity of life, practice, and worship. This yearly celebration of the Muslim community hosts events such as one that centers on women in faith, a comedic one regarding the struggles one may face as a religious person, and artistic ones. In 2017, the dates range from March 20th to April 14th.

Humaraya Mayat, a senior at NYU and the chair of the Shuruq Islamic Heritage Month has run multiple events this month, but for this one is particular, she “wanted to bring artists from the Muslim community, and see if they feel that have to speak on behalf of them.” Having putting on the event, Mayat, a Middle Eastern Studies major, thought poetry was a popular new interest and wanted to hear in what ways known Muslim poets implicate their heritage in their writing, rather than writing just to write. She was also curious to find out how much their background came into play.

Though she seemed a bit stressed about the details surrounding the event (such as waiting for the call that let her know the food had arrived), she was happy to see that someone outside from the Muslim community would be interested in learning more on the subject.

The room was fairly big and had two sections of 8x5 rows of orange chairs. Though the white walls that surrounded the room could have felt enclosing, that which was on the outside of the building had long windows that offered openness and an amazing view of the city. There was also a self-serve station of Mediterranean food that included chaat and boti rolls. Though this was a University event, there were definitely a few older people that had come to listen, and three women in the audience wore an abaya over their heads.

As the clock turned closer to 6:30 p.m., more people joined the scarce room. One woman, however, had been waiting patiently since 6. “Poetry is the best way to express oneself,” she said with full confidence and a strong tone. Her name is Syueda Masoe and she is a Pakistani who grew up in New York and is now studying for her PHD in sociology at Brown. As a lover poetry and literature, she was almost too excited to see the Liberation through Poetry event listed on The Islamic Center at NYU website. Masoe often attends spoken word events and, most of the time, she finds them on Google. She notices “spoken word is normally done by people of color and people who experience marginality, which can be a great experience.”

As Akbar and Elhillo speak, the intention is so clear in their uninterrupted tone that there is no question whether their writing is inspired by personal experience. It strongly affects the audience, as they snap to lines they personally relate to or agree with.

Kaveh Akbar is a recovering alcoholic, as you can guess from the title of his latest book that came out in January 2017, The Portrait of the Alcoholic. He grew up in a household of scientists and gained a sense of wonder for the world at a young age. “Wonder is a gateway to poetry,” said the 28-year-old, commenting on his childhood. As a writer that shares such personal stories, he tries to focus on “the joy of having written and externalizing all the other stuff,” because to him, poetry is useless if it’s not personal. “If I’m trying to figure out how I feel, I write. There is not poetry without personal experience,” he said, feeling strongly on the subject.

Though he’s been sober for close to 4 years, he believes he will always be an alcoholic. “It’s a disease, you know, and every cell in my body wants it, but every day, every hour, I don’t,” he said of the struggles he faces in recovery. Akbar threw away everything he wrote prior to sobriety because it “struck as false,” and he described poetry as an addiction as well, rather than an escape.

As Akbar read to the audience, he was very friendly and interactive, calling them “a beautiful space and very aesthetically pleasing.” The poems he read, contrary to his behavior, were more directed towards painful past experiences as he read excerpts from Portrait of the Alcoholic that contained lines such as “how many times are you allowed to lose the same beloveds before you believe they’re gone,” and “sometimes the mind is ready to leave the world before the body.” As the anger in the writing escalated, so did the emotion in his voice, but for the most part, the constant rise and fall in his voice was comforting with the words he read aloud.

As the light coming in from the windows grew darker, it was Safia’s turn to read.

Safia Elhillo grew up in a single parent household with her mom who raised both her and her brother. Her maternal grandfather also wrote poetry, and so it was an “understood way of communication” in her family. At the time of her grandfather’s youth, making a living out of poetry simply wasn’t realistic. Now, 26 years old, Safia makes it work and has the full support of her family. Because her poetry is so personal, she pretends that she there’s no one reading her work as she writes.

She read old and new works of hers, reading deep-thought lines such as “let the song take its time, let the ocean close back up,” and “I said leave and meant help but said leave.” A lot of the pieces she read aloud also focused on the translation between Arabic and English, underlying the difference between her Middle Eastern and American heritage.

It was a night of full satisfaction for Humaraya Mayat. In a celebratory atmosphere, every question was thoroughly answered by the artists she brought to NYU.

Both artists concluded that they write as they feel, and can often choose when they want to represent their community or self-identity in their writing. It’s a decision entirely up to them because, after all, their poetry has to come from a personal place.



Astrid M Trouillot