For many, 2020 has been a strange Ramadan, and this weekend will mark an unusual Eid. We asked YPNer Fathima Zahra to recommend books by Muslim poets for these strange times.
‘I fast during Ramadan and by its midpoint I feel charged, sharper. I feel witchy (is this blasphemous?) and clear. I don’t know that pure is the word, really – just that I feel sinewy, catlike. Everything in my body is a set of eyes. Every feeling is a scream, a revelation.’
– Safia Elhillo, ‘Now More Than Ever’
It is the last third of Ramadan as I write this and each poem, each essay in Halal if You Hear Me sits at a different register than it did last year. It’s as if the constraints of lockdown have somehow opened up the space for old favourites to expand.
I love anthologies for how full they leave me feeling. I come away from them with reading lists, notes on conversations between the poets and poems in the book, and feeling like I’ve attended a literary ball (is that even a thing?). Reading through an anthology helps me notice what I like in poetry – the sheer range offers a platter to pick and choose from.
Ever since I heard about Halal if You Hear Me, I awaited its arrival at the National Poetry Library with the apprehension of an eight-year-old at the foot of her first rollercoaster ride. I devoured the reference copy on quiet afternoons in the library (their loan copies were always out!) and walked away each time like I had just put down the phone after a three-hour conversation with my best friend.
Halal if you Hear Me is an anthology that celebrates Muslim writers who are women, queer, genderqueer, nonbinary or trans. The book itself is divided into five sections named after the five pillars of Islam: Shahada, Sawm, Hajj, Salah and Zakat. The associations between each poem and essay in a single section, as Safia Elhillo describes, have an ebb and flow to them. Placed in this way, these poems seem to converse with each other. The book is a rich repository of poetry spanning writing on grief, intergenerational trauma, sexuality, healing, joy, relationships, sex and love.
In the opening poem, ‘Following the Horn’s Call’, Ladan Osman writes:
Paradise is to ask whatever you like. A tea with God.
I have filled a book with questions I can’t remember.
This sets a precedent for the book as a whole: each poet asks whatever they like, and each poet brings their perspective on Islam and identity. Take ‘An Introduction’ by Sheena Raza Faisal, for instance – her god is not an omnipotent being, but ‘teenages’ (a great new verb!); her god ‘built this earth on Friday night / and tires of it on Sunday morning’. Meanwhile, Zeina Hashem Beck writes in ‘Say Love Say God’: ‘When you said sin, god, you did not mean my legs, or the way you were already inside me.’ These poems dance at night clubs, sing to each other on Nakba Day, and praise ‘the fluff of Ashanti’s sideburns, the rice left in the pot, the calling cards and long waits, the seasonal burst of baqalah-bought dates’ (Momtaza Mehri). Be it waiting in line for the food bank (Aria Aber) or the funeral for a Gnawa boy in ‘Marrakesh, 1968’ (Charif Shanahan), the poems in this book refuse to be boxed. They spring out of every stereotype; they are here to be listened to and held, in their wholeness.
In Fatimah Asghar’s opening essay, ‘Finding the Hammam’, she speaks of finding a safe space in The Salon in Jordan, ‘more a mini mall than a salon: there was a sugar-waxing studio, a nail salon, a gym and a locker room with a Turkish bath (hammam) and showers, where the women would gather, naked, in the water and talk for hours’. This anthology is like stepping into the hamaam, into peals of laughter from conversations you never knew you needed to hear. So, as Fatimah Asghar writes, ‘Join me. Join us. Let us … come in our real, naked skin, sit in the water and talk openly.’
I also recommend:
- The Things I Would Tell You, edited by Sabrina Mahfouz – A searing, brilliant anthology of poems, stories and essays by British Muslim writers, including poems from Imtiaz Dharker, Nafeesa Hamid, Aliyah Hasinah, Amina Jama, Hibaq Osman, Azra Tabassum, Asma Elbadawi, Shazea Quriashi, Muneera Williams among others.
- The January Children by Safia Elhillo – Named after a generation born in Sudan under British occupation where children were assigned birth years by height, all given the birthdate January 1, Elhillo’s collection grapples with the experience of displacement, play with language and white space to speak of the dualisms in her life.
- A Warning to the House that Holds Me by Amina Jama – Divided into five sections after the milestones in Frida Kahlo’s life, this pamphlet pays homage to the Mexican painter whilst exploring Jama’s British Somali heritage and relationships.
- Doing the Most With the Least by Momtaza Mehri – This pamphlet borrows its title from the opening line of Mehri’s essay ‘Harlem is Hijaz is Havana is Harar, or: The Whole Point of The Black Arts movement is That They were Moving’ (bombmagazine, 2019). These poems are tender yet clever in their exploration of geopolitical complexities.
Content warning: All books mentioned in this feature contain references to graphic violence, abuse, mental health issues and sex.
The quotation in the title is taken from Fatimah Asghar’s poem ‘If They Come For Us’.