I wrote this story several years ago, after we did a great interview together on Fayetteville’s Community Access Television.
A Conversation with Mohja Kahf
UA professor discusses her writings, misconceptions about Middle East
Written by Richard S. Drake
Born in Damascus, Syria, the oldest city in the world, Mohja Kahf has the advantages of seeing the world through different sets of lenses.
While still a young child, she moved with her parents – who were exchange students – to Utah. After they got their degrees, they moved to Indiana, where Kahf lived until she was in tenth grade. At that point she and her family moved to New Jersey.
In fact, her upcoming debut novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, takes place in Indiana. The truth is, though, that her memories of Indiana often raise Kahf’s hackles. What bothers her most about Indiana? “The racism. There was the most I had ever experienced of it. I hadn’t experienced any of it in Utah as a very young child.” she says simply.
“I think in Indiana there is a higher proportion of racism. Now, after careful research, think that it is. I don’t think it is just an impressionistic view. I guess it is because Indiana is a very homogenous state.”
She adds, “Native born sons of native born Protestant white Americans.”
Very little about The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is autobiographical, however. “In terms of fact, I did not grow up in Indiana, I had a few years in Indiana. A lot of the things the protagonist does, I don’t do. She has an abortion, gets a divorce, goes back to Syria for almost a year. I didn’t do any of those things.”
Kahf describes The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf as a coming of age novel.
Mohja Kahf says that she would like to back and visit Syria, should the dictatorship change. It would also be dangerous for her husband Najib Ghadbian, who is a prominent Syrian dissident.
Though she has not been able to return to Syria, she has been able to visit other parts of the region, including living briefly in Iraq as a teenager in 1984. During her sophomore year in college, she lived for a time in Saudi Arabia.
And while living in Arkansas, her husband got a job in the United Arab Emirates, so they lived there every summer for a time. “It was fun to move from a very small town environment in Fayetteville to a big city, with a million taxis beeping their horns at the same time. You could raise your hand and could go anywhere for twenty-five cents,” she laughs.
Kahf earned her doctorate in comparative literature at Rutgers, and now teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she is an associate professor.
In addition to The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Kahf is also the author of the poetry collection, E-mails from Scheherazade,and Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque.
But how did such a well-traveled woman end up in Fayetteville, Arkansas? Like for so many other transplants to the region, a job offer brought her here. Her husband had already applied for a job at the University of Arkansas, and he suggested that she apply for a job that was available in her field.
“I said, ‘Arkansas? I don’t even know where that is.’ But I did, just for the exercise, and the campus interview, and I was asking my office mate in Women’s Studies at Rutgers where I was an instructor, ‘Do you think it’s ethical for me to let them fly me there for an interview when I know I am not going to take the job?’”
Her friend advised her to come to Arkansas just for the experience. “I had never been to any place so small and homey, where everyone knows everyone, but not to the extent that you don’t fit on if you aren’t a newcomer.”
To add to the impression, it was February and the Daffodils were blooming, whereas back in New Jersey it was snowy and slushy and cold.
“I thought about it, and, hey, it was a tenure track professorship, and all I had was an instructorship.” The tenure track – and the Daffodils – won out over New Jersey.
Speaking of her work at Rutgers, she says, “I was teaching Theories of Feminism, Women’s Culture and Society, what the non-feminists call the brain-washing course.”
She laughs loudly. “What the boyfriends didn’t want their girlfriends to take.”
Then there were the more advanced courses that she taught. These included sections on Native American Women, Palestinian Resistance Women, and Black Power Movement Women, among others.
At the University of Arkansas, as an associate professor in the English Department, she is on the faculty of two programs, the Comparative Literature Program, and Middle Eastern Studies Program.
“I introduce students to facets of Arabic literature, and the modern Arabic novel and poetry.” She also teaches classes on Arab women writers, Palestinian literature, among other topics.
How much Arabic literature is really available to person attending a modern American university?
“A fair amount. Everyone knows The Thousand and One Nights.” she says, as a way of pointing out a starting point for many people to discover Arabic literature. “There are a lot of good translations that are available, if people know where to look.”
Kahf herself is very quick to recommend books to people. One that she has read lately that she thinks highly of us The Ornament of the World, How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, by Maria Rosa Menocal.
“I have struggled over the years to come to a place where I recognize and publicly abhor the logic of Arab rationalizations for the killing and suicide-bombing of Israeli civilians. The rationale includes statements that “no Israeli is really a civilian, because they all must serve in the army” (something which the early Zionists themselves unfortunately affirmed, with their dangerous and provocative slogan ‘The Whole Nation, a Front! The Whole People, an Army!’) and ‘they leave us no other means, we are a people stripped of an army, an infrastructure, rights to speak, to travel, to assemble, to change things politically, to defend our homes against bulldozing; how else do you expect us to resist but by disrupting their daily life?’ This is not acceptable. Being unbearably oppressed does not justify targeting civilians. Being oppressed does not justify immorality I and my husband are critics of Arab dictatorships, as you know. I speak out against Muslim intolerance of Jews and Christians when it occurs. I am no zealot for Arab injustice or justifier of Arab atrocities. Such a recognition—when you hear the pain of the other side and are willing to listen to the names and stories of the innocents your side has killed—is spiritually transformative.” – Mohja Kahf, “Israel as Godzilla”
Kahf’s writing can be seen in a variety of forms – her upcoming novel, essays, poetry, and online writing are just a few of the forms that her creativity takes. And, as if this were not enough, she has also written an advice column, or short stories about sex, “Sex and the Umma,” for the Muslim Wakeup, a progressive Islamic website.
The column appears to be very popular. In fact, one online blogger (www.kitabkhana.blogspot.com) had this to say about Kahf’s advice column:
I’m sitting here wondering why it took me so long to discover Mohja Kahf. After eons of reading politically correct women writers whose books fall into the ‘oppressed, depressed, repressed’ category, as a friend of the Babu’s puts it, it’s sheer relief to find someone who can write with humour and sharp wit about sex.
Kahf says that the project is on “hiatus” at the moment.
She has also been involved for several years with the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective, a group of writers in Northwest Arkansas who meet and perform publicly.
Lisa Martinovic, a poet who was once active with the OPWC, but has since returned to California, has high praise her fellow poet. “Kahf’s writing will make you feel deeply, think differently, and gasp audibly at her passionate eloquence.”
Mohja Kahf’s poetry has also been published in such venues as The Paris Review, the Atlanta Review, Ozark Gazette, and the Paterson Review. And in 2002, she received the prestigious Arkansas Arts Council Individual Artist grant for her literary achievements.
“You cannot go into a place with guns blazing, killing and massacring, turning populations into refugees for life, and then claim to be the aggrieved innocent. To quote James Baldwin ‘It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent.’” – Mohja Kahf – “Israel as Godzilla”
It is inevitable that conversation must drift towards the recent events in the Middle East, what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice callously referred to as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
She points to the often one-sided reporting. “Count the op-eds, do the numbers, count the images that are seen. They complain that Aljazeera is showing the images of the carnage in Karna. Well, yeah it is. Somebody’s got to show it. Why wouldn’t it? It’s newsworthy.
“Don’t you think Arab children bleeding is newsworthy, but the Israeli victims – it is also wrong – we get to see them and their mothers crying, but you don’t want to look at the other side? You don’t want them to be human?”
Talking about many people’s inability to understand the basic issues involved in the Middle East, she recounts what some people say to her, lines like, “It’s just a shame people can’t get along over there.”
It is obvious that she has heard that expression many times. “I’ll just cringe at that. Because you don’t say, when there is someone who is dominating someone, like when there are slave owners on the plantation and are keeping the slaves imprisoned and whipped, you don’t say, ‘ Gee, I wish the slaves could get along with the plantation owners.’
“You don’t say that when there is a huge injustice being done, that only one side has the power to remove the hurdles. The power is in their hands, because the ownership, the domination is in their hands right now.
“And so you don’t say, ‘I wish people could just get along.’ That’s so inadequate. That’s so blind. I think there is a very special, very American sort of innocence that horrifies me.”
Many criticize Muslim culture because of the practice of female circumcision, and Kahf wanted to address this before the interview came to a close. “It’s based on a double standard, about girl’s sexuality, about not allowing them to have those sexual feelings. Other than the morality issue of teaching them to have restraint with their sexuality, it’s kind of like morality going a little overboard. ‘We’re not even going to let to have the skin cells that will allow to have the sensitivity that will feel the sexuality.’”
She continues, “ There are a lot of women who approach it within the culture with other cultural values. What about teaching restraint, teaching self-control, sexual ethics and integrity? Those are things that do have support within those cultures. What about equality and egalitarianism between boys and girls? All of those cultures have their own versions of gender equality.”
Through whatever medium Mohja Kahf uses at any particular time, her goal seems to be to open people’s eyes, so that the scales can fall from them and they can walk away with a more realistic view of the world.
Little Rock Free Press – 2006