Listeners to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” on December 7th were lucky enough to hear Associate Professor Mohja Kahf reading from and discussing her recently published novel. We reproduce the transcript by permission of NPR: to hear the interview, visit their website at NPR.org.
DEBORAH AMOS, host: Mohja Kahf has some things she wants you to know about Muslims in America. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is her new novel—the story of Khadra Shamy, a Syrian girl transplanted to the American Midwest in the 1970s. The author, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas, borrowed details from her own life. Her family was part of the Islamic Society of North America, a conservative religious organization. But she insists this is not an autobiography. It is the story of growing up an American Muslim and the particular pitfalls of American culture - some large, writes Kahf, some as small as a piece of candy.
KAHF: “Mrs. Brown, the kindergarten teacher, poured the candy corn into a little flowered plastic cup on Khadra’s desk. Khadra said, I can’t eat this, her round baby-fat face grave. Why not, sweetie? Mrs. Brown said, bending low so her white face was next to Khadra. There’s a pig in it! Mrs. Brown laughed a pretty laugh and said, no, there isn’t a pig in it, dear.”
AMOS: Mrs. Brown was wrong, but then how was she to know the dietary restrictions of Muslims.
KAHF: “But when her brother Hiyad saw the candy corn on the bus he said, Oohmmm, you ate candy corn! Candy corn has pig! Nuh-uh! But it did, and it was too late to throw it up. Khadra was tainted forever.”
AMOS: How is growing up a Muslim in America different than growing up in a mainstream religion?
KAHF: You don’t realize when you’re in a minority culture that people look at you as if you’re this alien thing. You really don’t! Because once, my best friend and I were in a store and a group of Amish women came in. And my friend and I, you know, were like, I wonder how they live? I wonder what they do? And then after we got out of the store, we looked at each other and we said, do you suppose people look at us the way we just looked at the Amish? And we looked at each other and said, yeah, I guess that’s how people look at Muslims, especially, you know, women–we were both women who wore a hijab—and that was sort of a revelation.
AMOS: The hijab, the Islamic headscarf, stands out in American culture and sometimes so does prayer: Five times a day, an obligation for religious Muslims, times set by the rise and the set of the sun.
KAHF: “Once, lost, trying to get to Mishawaka, they even prayed next to a giant roadside egg. Twelve foot high, made of concrete. The lettering beneath it declared, Greetings from Mentone, Indiana, the Egg Basket of the Midwest.”
People always get all worked up over the fact that Muslims pray with their butts in the air. And then Western photographers - when do they photograph Muslims during prayer? When they have their butts in the air. You know, I wanted to take a different look at that posture. It’s really an embrace of the earth. It’s very grounding.
And so I went back to the form. Only seven surfaces should touch the earth: palm, palm, knee, knee, foot, foot. Those six plus the plane of your face that touches the earth. And how vulnerable of a position is that?
AMOS: The novel is structured around the rhythms of prayer. In real life, the novelist writes about topics outside of religion. For example, an online sex column for a journal called Muslim, Wake Up. Advice that sometimes comes in the form of short stories, stories that have earned Kahf some disapproval from more conservative Muslims.
KAHF: I really don’t get that. These things that I wrote about sexuality on the Web just jump right out of conversations with tons of girlfriends, aunts and nieces and sisters and sisters-in-law and so on. I come from these vibrant women’s cultures where women talk about this together.
AMOS: There are tons of online sex columns.
AMOS: Is yours different because you’re a Muslim?
KAHF: Oh, right, yes, because I mean in Western languages not many of those sex columns reflect the shape of Muslim culture around those issues. For example, the encounter between two virgins on their wedding night. How often is that a topic of Sex and the City when that show was on or whatever the latest hot thing is, you know? The sexual innocence of religious men, how about that? I mean that is sort of one kind of sweet aspect of religious subcultures.
And so there are many interesting moments that I have never seen reflected in, you know, Redbook.
AMOS: You meet young adults as a professor. Do they know more now than they did when you were growing up in the middle of the country about Islam, about Muslims, about that culture?
KAHF: They seem to think they know more, but they don’t know more. They just - they just know worse. And I mean worse as an adverb modifying know. Can you do that?
AMOS: Do you think in some ways that The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf—do you think that the novel explains some things?
KAHF: Damn right I do. Can I say that?
AMOS: Mohja Kahf. Her novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.
(Soundbite of music)
AMOS: You can hear and read more excerpts from “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” on our Web site, NPR.org. You’re listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Deborah Amos.