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By the time we reached the halfway point of our interview at the Fayetteville public library, where the no smoking signs are almost as plentiful as books, Mohja Kahf was dying for a cigarette.
Maybe something can be gleaned about her view of authority in the fact that, albeit on an exterior balcony with a hazy view of the Ozark Mountains and the University of Arkansas campus, she went ahead and smoked. You can surely learn almost everything you need to know about her personality in that, instead of stealing furtive puffs from a butt cupped in her hand, glancing around for the prying eyes of library staff, she instead pulled out a cigarette holder that seemed as long as your arm — maybe the most conspicuous smoking device ever conceived. Tipped with a slender clove cigarette, it looked like something that would have fit perfectly between the lips of Dorothy Parker as she held court at the Algonquin Hotel's Round Table. Kahf smoked with great relish while we talked, right up to the second that a librarian finally spotted her and told her there was no smoking at the library.
Kahf is used to upsetting those in charge. In the past few years, through her poetry, novels, scholarship, essays and an online column dealing with the issue of sex in the Muslim world, Kahf — an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas — has been busily challenging the conventional wisdom about the role, viewpoint and desires of Muslim women at every opportunity. In the process, she has managed to touch some deep nerves, both in the Islamic world and the West.
Born in Damascus, Syria, in 1967, Kahf came to America with her parents at the age of 3. With her father pursuing a graduate degree and her mother finishing a BS in pharmacy, they landed in Salt Lake City, Utah, which Kahf said was probably the best place her parents could have started their lives in the West. Conservative Islamists — followers of a cultural-political revival which sought to mediate between traditional and modern Muslims with a vision of Islam that is both true to orthodox religious beliefs and applicable to modern society — they were more than a little concerned about American culture. In Utah, they found a bastion of clean living and morality.
“It was kind of a refreshing place to start,” she said. “In the '70s, it was an oasis from what my what my folks saw as the enormous permissiveness and mass drug use and free sex of the '70's. That was probably the best place they could have landed.”
From there, the family moved to Plainfield, Ind., just outside of Indianapolis. It was a choice that Mohja Kahf admits she has often puzzled over. Kahf calls the time she spent growing up in the Midwest some of the worst years of her life. Ruthlessly taunted because of her ethnicity, especially as tensions between America and the Middle East grew to a fever pitch in the 1970s, she said that experiencing nearly constant oppression in the days before anti-bullying rules and hate crime statutes gave her presence of mind, and a belief that her own voice could make a difference.
“I remember the actual moment and day when I knew how to not take it anymore,” she said, “and to whirl around and say something back, and to have that shock of, oh, what I say can actually be effective in some way. That voice is still in me.”
The experience didn't slow her down academically or creatively. Around age 12, Kahf started writing in a journal — writing that slowly morphed into poems. She graduated from high school at age 15. A year after completing her PhD in comparative literature at Rutgers University, Kahf came to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where she was hired as an associate professor.
Though she has a definite love and knack for scholarship — her dissertation on Western representations of Muslim women was her first book, published by the University of Texas Press in 1999 — it is Kahf's moving, emotional and often hilariously funny creative efforts which have made her one of the most important emerging voices in the Muslim world. The buzz surrounding her name has really kicked up in the years since she started writing “Sex and the Ummah,” (“Ummah” is roughly translated as “the Muslim community”) a semi-regular column for the website muslimwakeup.com. Through the medium of often-bawdy short stories, “Sex and the Ummah” has explored a corner of the Muslim mind that is almost unknown (or at least ignored) in the West — sensuality, orgasmic bliss and good ol' headboard-rattling sex as seen from an Islamic viewpoint.
Kahf said the idea for the column came from an essay idea she had been kicking around about Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when followers are supposed to abstain from food and sex during daylight hours. While Imams and other Muslim scholars and essayists often talk and write about the spiritual aspects of fasting and hunger during Ramadan, she said, they don't ever seem to want to talk about the requirements concerning sex.
“There's never anything about Ramadan horniness,” she said, “and what that is supposed to inculcate, and thoughts about the blessing of sex and of eros and the kind of reawakening of gratitude and grace about that. That's where [the column] started.”
Kahf approached the editors of the Muslim Wake Up website with the idea. They were so impressed that they asked her to turn it into a regular column. Since then, Kahf has written stories on everything from a Muslim woman who gets turned on by the idea that her husband might be a terrorist, to faux-theological edicts on the sanctity of menstruation. Though she's currently turning the stories into a book, she said she doesn't like to be pigeonholed.
“Whenever I start to see readers type me as one kind of writer — like the sex column did because of that buzz — then I'll come out with something on a totally different tack,” she said. “I don't want them to take the spin. I want to encourage readers to do their own careful reading and independent thinking. So I'll come out with something very religious or spiritual. And that says, Hey, don't just label this person with one label.”
Part of avoiding the label has come in the form of her writing in other areas. Her book of poems “E-mails from Scheherazad” was published in 2003 to modest critical acclaim, and her semi-autobiographical novel “Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” came out last year and is currently gaining steam in college classrooms as one of the few books to truly capture the Muslim-American experience.
As for how her works have been received by the Muslim world, there have been a vocal few who see her books and stories as an affront. In December 2004, a group calling itself the Islamic Challenge Brigades hacked into the Muslim Wake Up website, deleting the archives of the “Sex and the Ummah” column. A warning posted during the hack singled out Kahf as a “pervert” whose writings are insulting to Islam, and branded the website “murtad” — a term meaning apostate, which has often been used in violent Islam as shorthand for a pending attack. In a list of demands, the group called for “No more using our beloved prophet [sic] name in one of your dirty pornographic stories,” and called the hack a “final warning.” The FBI was called in, but the culprits were never found.
Still, Kahf said she is always interested in the views of those who disagree with her. She said that by carefully varying the tone and themes of the writing she publishes in the Muslim world, she is “cultivating” the opinions of even the farthest of far-right thinkers.
“I did an Internet search once where I came up with some irate thing that somebody on one of the Muslim sites had written about [one of her columns], that it was a ridiculing of the Koran,” she said. “And I actually wrote back. ... I wrote him a note that said, this does not come from a place of ridicule at all. This comes from a place of affection and longing to hear things like this in the scriptures and in religious literature. It tries to write in women Muslims and women of non-Arab culture into that literature.”
Though Kahf's personal beliefs tend to fall on the more liberal end of the Islamic spectrum (as a ideological comparison, she likened herself to a more open-minded Episcopalian while many Muslim-Americans are closer to strict Baptists), she balks at the idea that her writing, even her writing about sex, is somehow outside of or contrary to Islam. She said a common misconception in the West is to label any Muslim woman who doesn't fit the stereotype of “oppressed” with the only other label our society can come up with: “rebel.”
“There is that tendency because of the stereotypes that exist about Muslim women,” she said. “The prime stereotype is ‘victim,' right? And the secondary stereotype is ‘escapee.' Whenever the press latches hold of a Muslim woman who doesn't seem like a victim and who doesn't seem to fit those stereotypes, the only thing they can do is paint her as a rebel. [They say] ‘Oh, she must have escaped from all of that; she must be against all that.' That's where I find I'm kind of packaged as sometimes and I don't like that, so then I try to do things that are sort of in-your-face conservative Islam.”
In the interest of tearing down those narrow stereotypes, Kahf often brings the audiences who come to hear her speak into the conversation. One issue that often comes up is the veil, which Kahf said is wholly misunderstood in the West. Far from a symbol of oppression, Kahf describes being veiled in terms of tradition, honor and power — a way for a woman to see without being seen. The best correlation she has found to get the Muslim concept of the veil across to American audiences, she said, is to compare it to a woman taking her husband's name at marriage (like most women in the Muslim world, Kahf kept her maiden name when she married).
“The married name connects especially well with conservative audiences, because they can really connect with why you'd use a married name,” she said. “That's not a Muslim practice, by the way. Most Muslim women keep their maiden name. I have this cousin who came to America, and she said, ‘Mojha, what is this I see in the paper where people get married and it says Mr. and Mrs. John Smith? Why do American women erase their identities this way? That's the name she grew up with. That's who she is.' So she's having that same moment that American women often have about Muslim women: ‘Why would she wear a veil? Why would she erase her identity like that?'
When asked why a woman might take a married name, Kahf's audiences inevitably list reasons like honor, tradition, continuity with the family and convenience. “I write those things on the board,” she said, “and I say, these are some of the same reasons that go into the thinking of Muslim women who veil. For some, it is an honor and it's something they believe in, and for some it's just what you do in your social context. For some, it's tradition and habit. That's always an ah-ha moment.”
Kahf said the people who come to hear her speak are always shocked to learn that while the veil is legally required for women in only two countries today, Iran and Saudi Arabia (and, even there, she said, women are allowed broad leeway outside of major cities and holy sites) — there are half a dozen countries in the world today which forbid women — sometimes violently — from veiling or wearing a head scarf in public.
“I could not teach university in Turkey (while wearing a head scarf). I would be fired. In Tunisia, I would be pulled off the street and hit by police for wearing a head scarf, today,” she said. “The Taliban was an oppressive regime. So were the regimes that stripped women of the veil and made them dress Western. No one has ever written about that, even though that has been the experience of masses and masses of Muslim women in the 20th century — stripped in the street, the mirror opposite of being forced to veil.”
The reason most Americans don't know that, she said, is because the image of veiled, victimized Muslim women is more useful to both the United States and the American media than the truth.
Though she had some reservations about moving to Arkansas, those fears quickly evaporated once she arrived. The South, she said, has a kindness and familiarity she never found growing up in the Midwest. “Arkansas turned out to be totally different than I expected. The ethos of the Midwest is very different from the South. The South contains more room for eccentricity. It matches some of my ingrained Arab cultural structure on hospitality, friendship and civility. The Midwest is so much more gruff and taciturn and mind-your-own-business.”
For now, Kahf is just happy to be where she is, having just finished a new book of poetry, and in the final stages of getting her “Sex and the Ummah” book to press. It has been, she said, a banner year in terms of publicity for her.
Maybe even more than anything else, she seems happy to be helping change people's minds about women in Islam. Recently, she said, she was standing on a sidewalk, smoking, when an old man came up to her and inquired whether she had found more freedom in America as a Muslim woman.
“I said, ‘What do you mean by that?' And he said, ‘Well, you're smoking.'”
Telling the story, a big smile blooms across Mohja Kahf's face as she relates how she told the man that, back in Syria, her grandmother smoked most of her life.
“He said, ‘Hmmmm. Why do we have these assumptions?'” Kahf said, laughing. “And I told him, ‘You know, I've been trying to figure that out for a long time.' ”