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Mohja Kahf Mohja Kahf’s poetry “offers articulate, passionate challenges to commonplace perceptions” of the Middle East and its people, striking “notes of humor, compassion , outrage and celebration that resonate across the literary register.” Throughout her writings—she is the author of a poetry book, E-mails from Scheherazad; a novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf; and a scholarly book, Western Representations of the MuslimWoman from Termagant to Odalisque— she shows a keen eye for the “creative dissonance of seemingly incongruous juxtapositions.” Born in Damascus, Syria, she now teaches comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. 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, 171 2CHARARA_pages_165-334.qxd:Layout 1 11/14/08 2:39 PM Page 171 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 washbasins, 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.” 172 Mohja Kahf 2CHARARA_pages_165-334.qxd:Layout 1 11/14/08 2:39 PM Page 172 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 173 2CHARARA_pages_165-334.qxd:Layout 1 11/14/08 2:39 PM Page 173 Hijab Scene #1 “You dress strange,” said a tenth-grade boy with bright blue hair to the new Muslim girl with the headscarf in homeroom, his tongue-rings clicking on the “tr” in “strange.” Hijab Scene #2 “You people have such restrictive dress for women,” she said, hobbling away in three-inch heels and panty hose to finish out another pink-collar temp pool day. Postcards from Hajar, a Correspondence in Four Parts O our Lord, I have made some of my family to dwell in a valley without cultivation by your...


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