From Mohja Kahf’s unpublished love poetry manuscript

Mohja Kahf is a Syrian-American poet and novelist. Her first collection of poetry- E-mails from Scheherazad- evokes the mixture of pride and shame involved in being different, with characters balancing on the line between assimilating and maintaining the habits of a good Muslim. In addition to contemporary Muslim women, Mohja’s poetry also explores figures from Islamic history including Hagar, the wife of the prophet Abraham, Khadija and Aisha, wives of the Prophet Muhammad, and Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. According to The New York Times, her writing on contemporary subjects “draws sharp, funny, earthy portraits of the fault line separating Muslim women from their Western counterparts.” Of the intersection of Islam and art, Mohja says: “One of the primary messages of the Qur’an is that people should recognize the beautiful and do what is beautiful. This is not simply a moral beauty but a visual and auditory beauty as well. Conduct should be beautiful, writing should be beautiful and speaking should be beautiful.” Here are a couple of her poems.

#1. I Have Exchanged My Heart
I have exchanged my heart
for a new heart
so love me all over again
Look at my eyes
I have filled them from the font
of a new sea
I have exchanged my skin
for a new skin
so let us unlearn the habits we have borne
I have gone and got new cells
so let us start from the beginning
of the bloodstream
Ask me my name
as if we just met
and let us race to love once more

#2. Doves
By Mohja Kahf
Don’t turn from me because of what you see
Shall I release the doves for you?
They’re in my pockets with the rabbits
Believe in the existing but unseen

My shoulder is a wild lilac tree
Can you afford to pass up love’s canteen?
Take a swig against the dryness of the soul
And I’ll release the doves and you will see

Jump out of yourself. Jump to me.
I’ll do it with you—one, two, three—
Let’s drop these veils together
Don’t turn away because of what you see

#3. My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears
My grandmother puts her feet in the sink
of the bathroom at Sears
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
wudu,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares

Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom

My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,

as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”

Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display

I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I

hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.
[Mohja Kahf, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears” from E-mails from Scheherazad.]

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