Muslim America in Poetry: A Conversation with Deema Shehabi and Kazim Ali

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi


Deema Shehabi & Kazim Ali

As a Pakistani writer who grew up during the Soviet war in bordering Afghanistan, and one who has never known a time when Muslim-populated cities across the globe were not under attack, I insist on defining my “Muslim-ness” outside the gallery of war, turning away from the qibla of Empire that would have me forever circumambulate its own game, its own naming. I have found much to celebrate in my Muslim identity, especially since researching my first book Baker of Tarifa which is based on the history of the “convivencia” in al-Andalus or Muslim Spain (711-1492) and traces the near-millennium of Muslim influence on European civilization in fields as varied and modern as architecture, fashion and the book arts, navigation technology and surgery; Muslims served as a bridge not only in establishing legendary interfaith bonds in Iberia but also served as a bridge between Greek learning and Latinate cultures via translations in Arabic— the lingua Franca of educated Europe of the time. But the dominant narrative about Muslims in the West, as we know too well, paints a negative picture of Muslims of the past, present and future.

Imagine then, my astonishment and delight, on receiving a note from Professor Charlotte Artese of Agnes Scott College inviting me to present at an event titled “Celebrating Three Muslim-American Writers.” I had never before seen the word “celebrate” in such close proximity to “Muslim-American,” though I’ve never doubted that we are worthy of celebration. These poetry/panel events at Agnes Scott were remarkable in every way but the conversations they spurred among the presenters were truly extraordinary. Professor Waqas Khwaja, himself a poet, led an excellent panel discussion, one which elicited such responses from my fellow-panelists, Kazim Ali and Deema Shehabi, that I really wish I had written them down. Both Deema and Kazim brilliantly described the complexity, beauty and challenges of their journey as Muslim writers in America. In an effort to continue our conversation, I asked them further questions.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: How does poetry figure in the sacredness of everyday life?

Deema Shehabi: Poetry is an act of cognizant observation, of transformative listening and of ebbed consciousness. In quietude a poet can apprehend (even when fleeting) the sense of what’s sacred and what’s otherworldly in a seemingly quotidian scene. Poetry brings us closer to that vacuous space that looks and reflects upon the interior. The poet Mary Oliver, in the poem “White Owl Flies Into And Out of the Field” writes of a “scalding/aortal light—/in which we are washed and washed out of our bones.” Her rendering in language of this metamorphic, sacred light is only possible because of observation and sustained attention to what’s sacred in the everyday.

There have been instances where I’ve felt that a poem has driven me to my knees—or that the epiphany in the poem is like a lightning rod. For me, poetry rarely makes sense on a logical level. Rather, poetry—distilled from diverse human experience—engages the visceral and displaces the reader from norms of experience that have been previously unexplored, bringing us closer to what’s sacred. Sometimes, it is the perfect image combined with an intense presence of what is not being said. Sometimes, it is the moving away from the material world, as in Sufi poetry. Sometimes, it is in such intense material presence that the spirit is hiding behind the door of words.

Kazim Ali: Poetry is a way of observing, a way of taking stock of both time and space as they intersect in the experience of the human. As the full experience of a human is endless and infinite (even within an instant of a life), poetry has the capacity to release multiple energy. I find the possibilities of a linguistic construct to be endless. It is the only way I have found to be present to my life. The “sacred” is most often understood as the “rare”—but for me the sacred is ordinary. It recurs in each moment and each day. There’s no faraway place that holds any more knowledge than one’s own life.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: There is a personal aspect to faith and then there is the traditional “language” and “culture” of every faith. Politics aside, what part of the “language” of Islam are you most attached to, or struggle with, or are most inclined to explore in your writing?

Deema Shehabi: As a child, my first longing to be part of a Oneness began when I heard the call to prayer. That was my first displacement in the sense of the material world or perhaps it was my first integration with interior knowing; it’s unclear. The language of Islam is suffused with this displacement/integration, which acts a gateway to the spiritual.

I’m most attached to the Quran’s description of how uncontainable and merciful the Almighty is. As such, the language of Islam is woven into my spiritual ethos and that makes its way into my own poetic sensibility. Last year, when my father passed away, verses from the Quran were recited for the first three days after his death. At some point during the recital, the prayers entered a captivating zone of urgent rhythm mimicking the soul’s ascendancy. That space created by language and rhythm and mystery is the place I’d like to explore in my own work.

Kazim Ali: Before the Quran’s text was codified by Caliph Usman (and all variant versions collected and burned), it was an oral text and passed on by repetition, recited as poetry, and experienced as a kind of music. Rather than the via positiva of defining God or divinity in the previous Judeo-Christian and pagan traditions, Islam invoked the via negativa shared by mystical traditions across spiritual traditions. In these traditions, God was experienced in the abstract, was considered infinite and ultimately unknowable. It was my yoga practice and study of ancient and medieval yoga texts that gave me (as it gave many of the Kashmiri sufi sages) a shape and vessel with which to experience and explore the connotations of those teachings fully. Abstraction, geometry, mathematics and the architecture of space are some of the classic arts that inform the way I use language and the way I approach the form of a poem.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: Who are you inspired by as a Muslim?

Kazim Ali: I am inspired by the humanist and intellectual traditions in Islam. They were subverted in both medieval times, during the European colonial period, and in modern times in order to support covert and overt efforts and increasing European and American political and economic hegemony over the Middle East and African regions. As Malcolm X pointed out these hegemonic controls were only nominally related to racism or a quest for political power; the true goals of Western efforts to control areas of the Muslim world were related to the mineral and material wealth of those lands—specifically oil, industrial diamonds, nickel and cobalt (needed for super-alloys required to build jet engines and turbine blades, among other things). The activists and artists and thinkers who are attempting to build movements for social justice with the old Islamic traditions of plurality and humanism are the ones who inspire me the most.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: Despite, or perhaps due to, rising Islamophobia, we are witnessing a renaissance of sorts in the literature and fine arts generated by Muslim Americans. Does America gain from this new efflorescence?

Deema Shehabi: America only gains if it views Muslim American writers not as marginal “others” or “exotics” or as mere tokens to diversity but rather as individuals with their own narratives, aesthetics, and craft who are tied to a larger and deeper history of America. Also, all naming categories are problematic because they reduce the writer and the person. It’s also of utmost importance that America recognizes the irony and tragedy in “celebrating” Muslim American writers at home while being engaged in brutal wars against Muslims abroad.

Muslims have been here since the beginning and their stories have been part of the fabric of American society since day one. Moreover, as the late scholar Edward Said posited, American literature or even Western civilization is not a distinct, exceptional, or exclusive construct. Those distinctions can be blurred if you view history as part of a web of mutually impacting civilizations and cultures.

Although there has been a renewed demand and interest in literature written by Muslim Americans and this can be construed as a blessing, the truth is it’s also difficult to be placed in a de facto reactive environment with an audience that’s seeking an understanding not only for the sake of understanding but to reaffirm its own notions of tolerance and liberalism.

Efflorescence is about belonging, and belonging is such a complex subject. I will say that one belongs to their writing.

Kazim Ali: Islam is part of American life from the original colonies. Many of the African laborers where adherents and some of the colonists too. Islam in America is nothing new. American Muslim communities should support creative and artistic expression more. There is work to be done in these areas but with each passing year more writers appear. Just in the last few years we’ve seen new books of poetry published by Kaveh Akbar, Fatimah Asgher, Solmaz Sharif, Ruth Awad—there are nearly too many for me to name right now. So that wave has begun to roll.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi: What would you say in a postcard to a future poet? Please share a brief message you’d send to a Muslim writer living in 3017.

Deema Shehabi: I would tell the writer that exile is part of the human condition and in this place of displacement the writer will find a way to begin again. By then, most likely, future writers would be exiled from parts of the earth that we take for granted today.

Kazim Ali: Perhaps by 3017 we will have forgotten the names of things and will have to start again. Maybe to begin I would quote Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builder refused has become the new foundation.”

There remain more questions I want to ask but among the many reasons even this brief conversation is gratifying, is that it reflects the unique ways these poets interpret and create, yet the deep connection between Islamic spirituality and the language of aesthetics, its ease with abstraction, is a common element in their writing. Approaching the Divine through poetry is an inextricable part of the Muslim mystic tradition. The Divine word itself being a tributary of the principle of meaningful beauty, the Qura’an, also called al-bayan “The Eloquent” and al-Meezan “The Balance,” contains the literary and intellectual meta-language: aesthetics of sound and form, anecdote, counterpoint, dialogue, paradox, praise. Verses of Muslim poets such as Rumi, Hafiz, Iqbal and Darwish allude to Quranic figures that have become key metaphors and are still in use by contemporary poets: Abraham’s test of faith, Mary’s radiant face, the healing touch of Jesus, Joseph's dream of the eleven stars, the sun and the moon, the night of Ascension when Muhammad journeyed through the heavens, and the moment I personally revisit the most as a poet: the beautiful Quranic prayer in which Moses, before tasked with speaking to the Pharaoh about the one true God, asks God to “untie the knots" on his tongue.

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KAZIM ALI was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian, Iranian and Egyptian descent. He received a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an M.F.A. from New York University. His books encompass several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward, winner of the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry; The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award; The Fortieth Day; All One’s Blue; and the cross-genre text Bright Felon. His novels include the recently published The Secret Room: A String Quartet and among his books of essays is Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice. Ali is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College. His new book of poems, Inquisition, and a new hybrid memoir, Silver Road: Essays, Maps & Calligraphies, will both be released in 2018.

DEEMA K. SHEHABI is a poet, writer, and editor. Her poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies such as The Kenyon Review, Literary Imagination, New Letters, Callaloo, Massachuset ts Review, Perihelion, Drunken Boat, Bat City Review, Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry, and The Poetry of Arab Women. Deema’s poems have been nominated for a Pushcart prize five times, and she served as Vice-President for the Radius of Arab-American Writers (RAWI) between 2007 and 2010. Her full collection Thirteen Departures From the Moon was published by Press 53 in 2011. She is also co-editor with Beau Beausoleil of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here (PM Press), for which she received the Northern California Book Award's NCBR Recognition Award. During 2009 – 2013 she worked with Marilyn Hacker on the Renga sequence DiaspoRenga. Deema's two plays, "Light not Touched by Fire" and "A Handful of White Petals," were performed by the Arabian Shakespeare's Company's New Works Festivals.