Witness the Hour: Conversations with Arab-American Poets Across the Diaspora

Led by poet Claudia F. Savage, a mostly quarterly interview series

Mohja Kahf (Photo credit: Russell Cothren, University of Arkansas)

The third of the series, a conversation with Mohja Kahf.

The writing of Syrian American writer, activist, and professor Mohja Kahf manages to balance the gravity of persecution with the absurdity of cultural navigation. She is the author of two books of poetry, E-mails From Scheherazad and Hagar Poems, a novel, the girl in the tangerine scarf, and multiple works of non-fiction, including Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque. Her exuberant poetry performances are only bested by her tireless activist work to help Syrians in crisis and help educate Americans about Syria, as in her poem, “How it Came to This:”

the people want
no violence no
sectarianism no
foreign military intervention
one one one the Syrian people are one
Mohja Kahf’s grandparents, Edibeh and Nazeef, overlooking the Barada Valley in Syria

Claudia F. Savage: I want to begin with an excerpt from “The Passing There:”

My brother knows this song:
How we have been running
to leap the gulch between two worlds, each
with its claim. Impossible for us
to choose one over the other

In all of your work there is this constant struggle for belonging in that liminal space between worlds. Is this space part of what made you a poet?

Mohja Kahf: I don’t think it was, no. What made me a poet is about language and beauty, as in the beauty of words. Language: the power of. The agency of. Could make people listen and respond.

At age ten, I wrote a little ditty that got published in the newsletter of my insular community. At age fifteen, I won a prize in a high school poetry contest sponsored by one of the colleges in New Jersey. Both times, my father validated my “becoming a poet,” by quoting what he said was an old Bedouin saying: “The tribe rejoices at three things: the foaling of a mare, the birth of a boy [here he asked me to listen patiently to the rest, knowing I would object to the sexism in this item, yeah, even at ten], and the emergence of a poet.”

“But I’ve been writing poetry for years,” I said.

Mohja and her brother Yaman as children

“Writing poetry is different from being a poet,” he replied. “All Arabs write poetry. Only a few go on to really become poets. You’ve crossed the line. And that is something to celebrate.”

So that is, yeah, the pretty insular, tribal sense in which I early on identified as a poet. Not really the liminality thing, right?

Even though…wait…so, I’m getting my sense of being a poet from Arabic, but writing in English. Oh…this may have been the deep flaw of my poetry all along!

As a feminist, I feel ambivalent about this genesis story, but there it is. Carolyn Heilburn somewhere described her experience, and that of many white, second-wave U.S. feminists, as including being mentored by fathers, coming of age in a reality, in the U.S. fifties, where most of their mothers did not play roles outside the traditional ones. Algerian writer Assia Djebar wrote about a little girl version of herself in Fantasia, holding her father’s hand as he walked her to school, when the Western-model secular schools were new and perilous territory. My own maternal grandmother has told me about her father’s support for her and her four sisters’ educations, scandalizing some of the neighbors. She was in the first cohort of girls in Aleppo to go all the way through the only public girls’ high school, And, then, she even went to boarding school in Damascus to get her teaching certificate. Actually, so many Arab women of that era write or tell stories of the liberal father supporting the daughter’s education over the objections of traditional femininity that I see it as a theme in modern Arab women’s writing. Then, of course, the daughters go out beyond what the fathers probably imagined — but there’s no denying that initial hand-pull played some kind of role.

Baby Mohja and her grandfather (jiddo in Arabic) Nazeef

The cool thing is that I can look back past the fathers to a rich heritage of Arab foremothers in poetry, even, if yes, they’re always pulling against how they get marginalized and condescended to. There’s Khansa, spanning pagan to early Islamic times in the Arabian peninsula, for starters. When a major male poet of the day tried to compliment her by saying she was the best poet “among those who have breasts,” Khansa retorted that she was the best poet “among those who have testicles, too.”

“Asiya’s Aberrance” (or “Nushuz Asiya,” in Arabic) read by Mohja Kahf from her collection Hagar Poems

CFS: What’s the role of the poet in telling other people’s stories? I’m thinking of your poem, “The Roc:” “Here’s my mom and dad leaving Damascus…They know nothing about America: how to grocery shop or open a bank account… Here they are telephoning back home, where the folks gather around the transmission as if it came from the moon….”

MK: The thing is, I want to write poetry that folks will want to read and re-read, to reach for on cold days and warm, and in bed, and in the street, and in phone calls to their daughters, poetry to touch and exchange in times of joy and anger and grief. I think that activism for human rights, including gender rights, has this built-in impetus that it wants to reach people. It means seeing people’s language and people’s stories as sources for your telling, as muses among your muses. So maybe this goes against the notion of just this individual poet on a rock on a mountain with chin in hand seeking some ideal of high individuality and the most rarified original aesthetic. Stories come to you and you knead them into poetry. And you bake them and give them back to people, in new form. Collect them where they were scattered. And sometimes you tap a vein, and people hear their own stories in your poetry.

You also hit up against the ethics of that. When are people’s stories not your muses? When are you not allowed to tell? What are the limits of telling a pain not your own, versus witnessing to it and feeling compelled to give witness? So you tell it slant, if tell it you must, and sometimes you are part of the story so it’s yours to tell, too.

CFS: You satisfy this in the poem “Fayetteville as in Fate:”

See how a farmer takes up a handful of dirt
This one wears overalls and that one wears a sirwal,
but the open hand with the dirt in its creases
makes a map both can read…
It is my fate…to kiss
the creases around the eyes and the eyes
that they may recognize each other

I’m also thinking of the line, by poet Hayan Charara, “I have more faith in poems than in policies.” In your piece, “Human Rights First”, you say:

World, I’m putting you on notice until 2067… Have you fixed human rights? Have you established minimum standards for decency that you’re willing to uphold everywhere?

What do you think the role of poet is in this fight?

Mohja Kahf performing “The Vigil”

MK: To witness. By that I don’t mean “to stand aside.” To stand and bear witness for human rights through language beautifully crafted enough to rivet attention to its content. There’s a million and one ways to do this.

Could we talk a bit about my weaknesses as a poet? I think it’s a fair criticism to say that some of my poems stress content over style, conscience over craft. I want to learn how to improve that without compromising conscience. I do work really hard at craft — now I’m getting myself all defensive — I don’t just spill out all over the page, I revise endlessly, I think about form, word choice, punctuation, rhythm, etc. etc. I’ve been thinking about this political poetry conundrum a lot because my next poetry manuscript is about Syria. I do have poems that have lines crammed with names and dates and even a poem or two that attempt, basically, to tell the history of the Syrian Revolution through poetry. Is that legit, do you think? Or only when men do it? Like Pound, how come his Cantos can be all crammed with names and highly specific references and foreign languages — but the cache only comes from foreign languages like Greek, right, got it. Or, is political poetry only legit when white people do it such as Milton or Ginsberg, but not angry brown people, especially not angry and joyful brown women? See the Denise Levertov vs Robert Duncan debates…except neither of them was Vietnamese.

CFS: Yes! There are so many deserving poets that are writing their own epics, but, I’m with you, will they be remembered in the same way? I’m European Jewish and Lebanese Christian which has led to a lifetime of questioning. Your novel’s main character, Khadra, begins her life as a conservative Muslim and becomes a seeking adult who approaches her faith on her own terms. How does questioning figure into your work?

MK: Sometimes your skin falls off. Sometimes the identities you came with crumble due to life experiences or hitting the sublime paradox and that’s terrifying and exhilarating because the inside of you could be anything. Then you are hit with the fact that everyone else still sees the outside of you. And that can’t be “anything” because you’re fixed by all these identities like little Lilliputian ropes needling you down. But you know they’re not Real. They are. But they’re Not. But they Are. So it goes on and on, around and around, a paradox. Questioning is how you live in that paradox.

Mohja Kahf performing her poem, “Fayetteville as in Fate”

CFS: And, humor? I’m thinking of the poem, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears,” featured in the New York Times. What I love most is how you express the way children often become family mediators:

“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them…”
I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled….
Mohja Kahf, 2014 (Photo credit: Gale Daneker)

MK: My grandmother asked me suspiciously, when someone around her translated it quickly, “are you making fun of me in that poem?” And, well, yeah, I am. Making fun of the grandmother in the poem, Nanna, not you! But really I am, gently, I think, affectionately, I think, poking the ribs of both sides, not just her, the other women, too, and also the speaker of the poem. Speaker, Nanna, speaker of the poem, not necessarily me, oy, Poetry 101: the speaker is not necessarily the poet! Save me from literalist biographizing readers. But, yeah, in that one it’s pretty much a version of me.

That poem caused trouble when it was read on a September 11 memorial day at a high school in Boston a few years ago. Some parents reacted hostilely to a poem by a Muslim being read on September 11. They apparently missed the humor at all sides in it, and definitely missed the gently poking fun at my grandmother part — and I mean, that part didn’t get past her, even in quickie translation! And to top it off, apparently by some administrative accident on the same day, the student-announcer forgot to read the Pledge of Allegiance, whoops, but somehow my poem got extra ire because of that accident. So both sides think it’s undermining their rigid world views. So I’ve done my job. Mwahaha.

CFS: In our current paradigm, it feels like humor about oneself is non-existent. The poem, “What is Recorded of the Response of Ghazali’s Wife on Being Informed by Her Husband the Great Theologian That He Was Quitting His Job, Leaving Her and Their Children, and Skipping Town to Find God and the Proper Worship Thereof” is just a title, white space beneath it, and instructions like John Cage’s piece 4’33. I love that poem!

MK: Hah, that was probably written right after I had discovered John Cage and read Foucault — exploring the shape of absence and the meaning of silence, all about what’s not there.

A reading I attended recently, in which Leonard Schwartz read from his book Babel, made me think about the limits of language with his “list poems.” Poems composed of lists of one word per line. Really with the Syrian Revolution going on six years now, its degeneration into devastation on all sides made me hit a wall. What “efficacy of articulating?” How futile is language, is communicating anything to anyone, in the face of such massacre, such destruction? In the face of such denial, the regime’s beyond-Orwellian distortion of language for five decades reaching dizzying new levels of spin, playing language shell games with bodies at stake? My sentences were broken. For a minute I was not even sure I was a writer anymore. And writing has been an axis for so long for me, I was sucker-punched in the gut by that doubt. Still recovering. So the thought of a simple list appealed to me — like a rope of words. One. Knot. After the. Other. Reach. It. Pull. Yourself. Up. Only it’s not simple at all, of course. It allows Pause. Between. Allows. Silence. Careful. Bodies at. Stake.

And of course I failed at it. I fell into lines longer than a word. But it opened up a way for me to get on the page again at a time when I thought I couldn’t.

CFS: When we talk of ongoing grief I think about Claudia Rankine’s The End of the Alphabet. Her line: “And to speak/ out in the open, to tell all/ is to listen/ to the whole as it happens/ and be understandably ambivalent and stripped/ down and booed off.” The unending destruction abroad combined with the rhetoric at home surrounding Arab peoples.

MK: It’s just not that new to us. It’s hypervisible now. We swing, as Arab American writer Joe Kadi once said, between invisibility and hypervisibility, erasure and silencing and being objects of interest.

CFS: This brings me to talking about children. I completely related to the poem, “Hagar No Roses:”

I only understood Hagar when my baby got a fever
It was late & we were just off Medicaid
& above the poverty line but not enough
for insurance plans or private doctors…
Hagar, no roses here —
Motherhood is bitter fighting
against death-forces
in a desert of indifference.
Provide water! Provide balm
If there is any salve in the world,
it is for this, here, now: the infant, small flames
that rise in irises to flicker like tigers.
Mohja mending, taken by her daughter, Weyam Ghadbian

MK: Mothering, now that’s another big place where poetry comes from for me (more than all that liminality business, really). The constant scrape and struggle of mothering children, and then the struggle to let go and let them go and have their own space and fly away, fly. Fucking mothering, I hate it. I definitely love/hate it. And I am good at it. I am fucking Super-Mom (and I need to let go of so being), ask anyone (save my kids), ask anyone how I give, how I am there as in “being there” instead of at gigs that I turn down in favor of being there, how much thought and care I put into it, how it is the work of nearly every minute of my days and nights. It is agonizing and humorous and sweet and joyful and soul-drenching and keelhauls your fucking heart across sharp coral. I am Mama Bear. Hear my terrifying roar if you try to hurt my kids, but, then, sometimes my kids wish I wasn’t Mama Bear and I am trying to learn from them. I am very proud of my children and they are beautiful, tender, vulnerable, talented human beings and they cannibalize every last goddamn piece of me every day like raccoons and I love them like a helicopter loves its young. God/dess help me to get through the teenage hurricane years of my third and last one, and have him not hate me forevermore, and have him emerge a righteous loving human knowing his own Light Within at the other end of this, o ye powers of the universe come to me now please and fucking succor me monstrously.

CFS: That almost made tea come out of my nose! [laughter] You also do activist work with your daughter, Banah. Your piece in The Rumpus about going to refugee camps with her in Turkey in 2011 was harrowing. What else are you doing together?

MK: Banah and I are co-writing things now! We just submitted an essay to the Journal of Middle Eastern Women’s Studies; we wrote it collaboratively: I wrote a few paragraphs and then she wrote a few paragraphs responding to mine and then we integrated them. She is a poet with a chapbook out and a novel in the making! And I’m working on a Syria manuscript of essays to include work by her as well as my elder daughter, Weyam. Both of them are much better than I am at journaling, and my elder is a wise woman and teaches me about respecting the artist within and writing every day to process and examine the Self and the Dream. Weyam is a truly dedicated artist who understands deep process. My process? I’m so damn busy running around every day getting stuff done, on the hamster wheel of life, it tends to be haphazard. I lose the thread sometimes. Quite honestly it had been lost for a while and I wasn’t writing anything that I felt was good, wasn’t feeling that force that moves through you and makes you drop whatever you’re doing and listen to it and write write write. Then I went away with them to a peaceful, beautiful paradise for a few days, and Banah finished writing her novel and Weyam drew, and they were balm to my soul, and muse to my art. It came to visit me again because of them, because of that moment of peace away from it all and their balm-presence. And, to answer your question, all three of us support each other in our activist work.

“My People are Rising” by Mohja Kahf on the BBC

CFS: That’s so wonderful. Speaking of women, you wrote a controversial online column “Sex and the Ummah” (Ummah is Arabic for community) that was discussed on Nerve. What I found most fascinating about it was the way you embraced desire and destroyed stereotype simultaneously, something you do often in your poetry.

MK: I was trying to do dual critique: critique of Orientalism/imperialism/colonial feminism simultaneously with critique of actual Muslim sexism and (a separate, if overlapping category) Arab sexism, which is shaped differently from how Orientalism and its current variant “Islamophobia” shape it.

And where do you find joy? Because amid all those layers of critique, you have to find that wet sproingy place of jouissance. Can’t lose the wet sproingy place. Need joy to live. Pursue it, create it. So yeah, I was trying to do all that.

Then I stopped because of Abu Ghraib. That dried up the joy of writing sex for me, when those horrifying abuses were published. But, later, after the shock: you can’t let your joy be taken away. By anyone. And, also, I had stopped for another reason: the “progressive” label was being co-opted by those who, yes, were against Islamist extremism, but were doing that in a way that deliberately supported Orientalism and Islamophobia. And I felt queasy being under the “progressive Muslim” label together with them, and I needed to get out.

The MuslimWakeUp!.com website wasn’t dominated by those faux progressives or anything, far from it, but some of those “progressives” were getting a lot of press. And so by being around them, I was getting the wrong kind of interest, the prurient Orientalist, U.S. right-wing kind, that was oblivious to the other side of my dual critique and just interested in utilizing me as a tool with which to bash Muslims. Or where I could be the exception, the token Muslim trotted out on the dais, because lookie here’s one of “the good ones.” Not interested in playing that role.

I want to pull in something from this recent public Facebook post of mine here in answering this question too, on Arab feminism being shaped differently around different positives as well as negatives from Western feminism. (That particular Facebook account of mine is public, for public activism and professional discussion.)

CFS: How are you managing that “wet sproingy place of jouissance” today? Is it still possible?

MK: Through my children as they become beings who make their way by the light Within. Through my new poems. Through falling in love with my new husband and every which way to wet sproingy with him. Through my teaching, helping someone’s hand to unlatch the lapus lazuli box that contains the tablet with the story carved on it, the face staring out of the poem-mirror. Syria is so everything filling my eyelids right now, and it’s hard to speak of Syria in terms of joy when there is so much pain. Through cupping my hands around the grief and joy that is Syria. Then through connecting that Syria pain and love to other people’s experiences, new friends and rediscovered old ones, and wondering what next? What life-altering, what consciousness-re-centering is happening next? Just as I never expected Syria-hope to return, and it did, what else is not impossible? Through my house which I love seeing filled with the energies of friendship. And through knowing that, even if I were to be in pain like I’ve never known, or stripped of all these things as inevitably I will be by death, the light within me is connected to the light of the lamp in the niche surrounding us, Stardust, all that Is. And that is okay.

Born in Syria, Mohja Kahf is a poet and activist. She is a professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arkansas and the author of E-mails from Scheherazad (poetry) and The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (novel). She has written on the Syrian Revolution “Then and Now: The Syrian Revolution to Date” (and on a more personal note, “The Daughter’s Road to Syria”), family history, and Muslim American issues (“Human Rights First”). Her second book of poetry is Hagar Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 2016).

Claudia F. Savage is one-half of the improvising sound-poetry duo Thick in the Throat, Honey. Her poems and interviews have been published in Water-Stone Review, Denver Quarterly, BOMB, Columbia, clade song, FRiGG, Cordella, Late Night Library, Bookslut, and Forklift, Ohio, among others. A 2015 Pushcart and Best Poets 2016 nominee, her first book, Bruising Continents, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil in May 2017. Her collaboration, reductions, with Detroit-visual artist-Jacklyn Brickman is forthcoming in 2018. Find her at Claudia F. Savage.