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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.”