In 2001, I became afraid of the way the world viewed me. My identity caved in on itself, much like the horrific tragedy that we all saw unfold on our television screens that year. In the months that followed, I began to feel wary. Where once calling myself Muslim was like calling myself Indian, or a woman, or tall, now it became a calculated admission.
For years, I was a Muslim (raising my glass of wine/ whiskey/ beer). A Muslim (by birth not practice). I was a Muslim who came with a disclaimer, so that people need not feel threatened by me. So I startled myself when I began to weep while reading The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write. I felt that somewhere in the rubble of my identity, lay truths I could speak again without flinching.
In this anthology, editor Sabrina Mahfouz sets a course to dispel stereotypes of Muslim women in the West. Mahfouz writes that in addressing the misrepresentation – and under-representation – of Muslim women she felt it was vital that this anthology present a range of narratives, countries, ages, experience, and genres. To that end, the book brings together poems, short stories, extracts of plays, and non-fiction by multi-ethnic British Muslim female writers to, as Mahfouz says, “challenge the current dominant narrative” that disempowers them.
In some standout writing, Ahdaf Soueif and Aisha Mirza speak bald, unapologetic, razor-sharp truths about dangerously and wilfully ignorant people who destroy culture and identity – and nations. Poets Seema Begum, Shazea Quraishi and Imtiaz Dharker each bring powerful voices to bear upon empathy, femininity, and loss. Leila Aboulela and Hanan al-Shaykh tackle appropriation and its consequences in two exceptional tales. Selma Dabbagh evokes a visceral sense of claustrophobia and desolation in her Palestine under siege, while Kamila Shamsie, Fadia Faqir and Chimene Suleyman use dark humour to highlight intolerance and urbanity.
Above religion, race, and politics, however, this anthology is about the experiences of people who love and cope with loss in all its forms. This is what struck a chord in me – so many of the narratives are palpable in their rage and joy, and in their fear and pain. I felt that my experience belonged to something larger, and some of the voices here spoke aloud for me.
This anthology rides a growing wave of writers and artists around the world who are speaking out against definitions of Islam that are set by fanatics, terrorists and alt-right wingers, and of systemic racism that is overlooked or ignored by institutions.
And they are being heard. British mental health activist and YouTube star Husain Manawer has also used social media and performing art as a platform to provoke thoughtful discussions with thousands of viewers about race, identity, religion, and mental health. Wrap My Hijab, a rap by American poet Mona Haydar, went viral globally within hours of its release in March this year, thumbing its nose at both the sacred and profane for women in Islam.
The blurb at the back of The Things I Would Tell You says, “the writers in this ground-breaking collection blow away the narrow image of the ‘Muslim Woman’” in our society. But these voices are about much more than ticking boxes to dispel a narrow image, and the structure could have served them better by explicitly working around the themes that run through these narratives. The anthology is often uneven, with the narratives arranged in no particular order. This pits the sinewy and unforgettable voices against the more subtle, weaker ones, each losing or gaining their power by the narratives that precede and follow.
I overcame this flaw, however, by reading the book in parts rather than in a single sitting. With tragic and inhuman events unfolding around us daily, and thousands of innocent lives lost in the name of religion, it is so important that we view each other beyond the lens of religion and with the lens of humanity. The beauty of this anthology, and its triumph, is that religion is a sidebar. The experiences of these writers and poets reflect the experiences of many fiercely intelligent and empathetic women in a shockingly discordant world. And just like being tall or short, or being Syrian or Somalian, it just so happens that the contributors identify as Muslim. Like me.
There are various book reading and discussions taking place this weekend where you can hear from the writers themselves.
When: Saturday 27 May 2017, 1.30pm
Where: University of Greenwich, The Queen Mary Undercroft, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London SE10 9LS
Tickets: £5 – £7
More info: Greenwich Book Festival
When: Sunday 28 May 2017, 8pm
Where: Sackler Space, Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 8EH
Tickets: £12.50 (+ £1.95 booking fee)
More info: The Roundhouse (part of the Last Word Festival)
By Kulsum M. Kulsum is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer who is passionate about reading, travel, and anything that brings experiences of the other – or others – into her imagination.
Posted on 25 May 2017