Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Muslim Women's League Audience Demands Encore from Islamic Feminist Poet Mohja Kahf

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Muslim Women's League Audience Demands Encore from Islamic Feminist Poet Mohja Kahf

Article excerpt

Muslim Women's League Audience Demands Encore From Islamic Feminist Poet Mohja Kahf

"Right on!"

"That's right, Sister!"

"More, more, more!"

No, I wasn't at a rock concert or a political rally, I was at a poetry reading given by the Muslim Women's League. The poet was Mohja Kahf, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Attired in khaki slacks and a red blazer, Kahf was the epitome of a young professional. Her mark of distinction was a hijab emblazoned with red, blue, yellow and green polka dots.

From the moment she bounded to center stage and took the microphone, Kahf's self-confidence signaled her listeners they were in for something unusual.

"From the patios of the Alhambra I come and out of the fountains of the Taj Mahal. Hispano-Arab women sang me in Andalusia, in forgotten vernaculars Palestinian women embroider me into the breastplates of dresses

I flow like wine through the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam

and like blood through Ibn Sina's Textbook of Medicine

I am carved into Baghdadi doorframes and was once

whispered passionately by the concubines of Harun ar-Rashid..."

These opening lines of her poem, "From the Patios of the Alhambra" stunned the audience of some 100 women -- many wearing hijab -- into a pin-drop silence. Perhaps they had expected to hear a soft-spoken romantic, but the vigorous realist voicing emotions they may have held in their subconscious but had never expressed brought them to their feet applauding for more.

Soon Kahf was drawing laughter from her audience as she cued them to chant the chorus and title of her poem "I Love a Man Who Washes My Dishes."

Even more laughter erupted with her poem about "More Than One Way to Break a Fast." She offered a one-liner from her poem "Men Kill Me" because "they think the sun is just for them." She turned more serious as she recited from "The Woman Dear to Herself" who "has breast exams and wears running shoes."

While the "queen" the woman who knows her dignity and beauty, is the woman dear to herself, Kahf also writes about the noble potential in every man, the "gentle knight" who is the counterpart to the "queen." In another poem celebrating the vitality of Arab men, she praises them for knowing how to "cushion the tumbles of small children without pausing in converation."

The vivacious poet's mother -- her head covered by a white hijab -- laughed uproariously at many of her daughter's lines but shyly bowed her head when Kahf introduced her. The poet explained she was three years old when her parents left Damascus in 1971 for the University of Utah, where her father earned a Ph. …

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