Escaping the Margins: Poetry of Protest, Poetry of Power

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi


The author as a student at Kinnaird College

I began writing poetry on a campus of red-brick corridors, ancient oaks, belligerent crows, and sharp-witted, lively women who thrived on critical thinking— Kinnaird college, in Lahore, Pakistan. In my earliest writing, I seem to have tested truths, grappled with the abstract, as many young people do, building a dialectic between the sensory, cerebral and emotional, in an attempt to catch the elusive. And then, from my immediate surroundings, came news of an incident that shocked me out of my juvenile navel-gazing: it was the news of a campus staffer’s son committing suicide. Rumor had it that he had been unwilling to join his father’s vocation of managing the college café or “tuck shop” as we called it. To compound the matter, he had found the family’s Christian faith hard to reconcile in a society that unfortunately did not look upon minorities as equals. The young man’s father, “Chaudhry Sahab,” who carried himself as a campus elder and enjoyed well-deserved popularity among the students, may have missed the early signs of his son’s anxieties and aspirations, neglecting to acknowledge that he belonged to the new generation and rightly envisioned a life different from the one into which he was born. The details of the story were never clear to me but my emotions were— I wrote my first “protest poem.” This incident opened my eyes to other forms of social injustice and exploitation, as well as the dehumanizing effects of the war in bordering Afghanistan; I wrote about child labor, refugees, famine, about young women becoming war-widows and children losing their limbs in landmines.

And then I came to America, to study. I continued writing poetry in response to the news, but in this environment, I was the minority. As a young Muslim woman, I was not just any minority, but the one which perhaps bears the burden of a peculiar otherness signified by a foreclosed discussion more than any other minority group in America, one which is expected to be unable to speak for itself, imagined to have emerged from under a mountain of oppression. I found myself in the midst of people who not only knew nothing about Muslim women, but very little about Islam itself. I found myself confronting rigid stereotypes, at a loss to extract language from its Orientalist baggage, to decolonize my identity in an environment of little historical knowledge and a great deal of certitude about it, a culture of discussion and debate, yet a culture that insisted upon promoting, via a mammoth media, a preconceived, inaccurate narrative of who I was and where I came from as a Muslim. Here is when I asked the critical questions: where do I really come from as a Muslim? What is my place as a Muslim in the West?

A poet seeking identity is not an extraordinary thing but a poet whose identity is forced upon her in the form of a predominant narrative which is perpetuated in academia and popular culture, is an extraordinary thing. It provoked a political response. But poets who want to write something of value, choose instinct over agenda, discovery over dogma. As I wrote my creative thesis at Reed, I was fortunate to work with a professor who encouraged me to deepen my work and make discoveries as I wrote.

I discovered that protest, though urgent and important, inhabits the margins. So, in exploring my identity as a Muslim woman living in the West, I shifted away from being a protest poet and delved into the history of Muslim Civilization. My instinct was to create a poetic lexicon that is divested of postcolonial, neocolonial filters and to see myself from the eye of human history, to coin my own idiom to define myself, in other words, to redirect the current of protest poetry to a poetry of power. Needless to say, by “power” I don’t mean dominance and supremacy, but gaining a rightful autonomy in constructing a language that contains the self on its own terms, rather than being an acerbic answer or a weak echo of another, a way to clear the blind spots of the mainstream Western narrative I had come across— a narrative (as I later discovered in my research), designed on deliberate omissions; it is a narrative of intellectual inferiority, backwardness and zealotry, perpetuated not only through Western discourse but also through the postcolonial impoverishment of thought and detachment from history, especially the history of Muslims in the West, that is rampant among us Muslims. Therefore, my earlier question: do I really know who I am?

My book Baker of Tarifa is a series of poems based on the history of Muslim Spain; it attempts to recreate a near-millennium of Andalusi culture which transformed Western thought, values, art, science and technology, building a legend of peaceful co-existence known as “la convivencia.” The work, through narrative, choral, and persona poems, recalls a pluralistic culture defined by modern values and led by Muslims; it looks at Muslim Civilization as a bridge between antiquity and modernity, East and West, between three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe) and three religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam); a golden chapter not only in Muslim and European history but human history.

Kohl and Chalk, written simultaneously with my first book, includes poems that protest the conditions (in Pakistan and the US) that have caused turmoil and trauma and continue to be factors in the deterioration of the Muslim identity. These “protest poems,” many of them autobiographical, come from my childhood experience of growing up during the Soviet war in bordering Afghanistan, as well as raising my children during the present global violence in “wars against terror” and “terrorism.” Where Baker of Tarifa explores the possibility of harmony and collective, collaborative intellectual progress, Kohl and Chalk is about splitting and splintering of the personal and the political, about the “with us or against us” of the Bush/Talibaan era.

Both books explore conflict and dream of peace, both recall historical moments that led to polarization of epic proportions, both are an attempt at recasting history in a female voice.

As we enter yet another phase of history where the anguish and trauma of the war/terrorism binary will express itself in myriad ways, I want to remind myself that the journey that has come to be about protesting against oppression and building a coherent literary language to define myself as a Muslim in the West, originally came from my response to a tragedy that befell a Christian in Pakistan, years ago. I was as much a “Muslim” poet then as I am now and the impulse as much a desire for justice and peace then, as now.

Note: As hate-rhetoric against Muslims spun out of control, and Islamophobia rose to a frenzied pitch in the US Election Season ’16, I found myself in a position to speak not just as a poet, a woman poet, or a Pakistan-American poet, but as a Muslim poet. Among the several places I was invited to speak and read my poems, was AIC (American Islamic College) in Chicago. In my talk at AIC titled “Escaping the Margins: Poetry of Protest, Poetry of Power,” I shared thoughts about my own journey as a “protest poet” and highlighted my views about the value and limitations of protest poetry in the context of the myth of the “clash of civilizations,” as I called into question some of the assumptions and manufactured notions that have solidified stereotypes of Muslims in America. The above is a transcript of my talk at AIC.