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  • "Dammit, Jim, I'm a Muslim Woman, Not a Klingon!":Mediating the Immigrant Body in Mohja Kahf's Poetry
  • Nadine Sinno (bio)

I pursue something other than life, insofar as I am fighting for the birth of a human world, in other words, a world of reciprocal recognitions.

—Frantz Fanon (193)

The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension.

—Judith Butler (26)

In 1979, Edward Said highlighted the power of literary productions in unsettling orientalist narratives and the ways in which artistic texts have been systematically omitted by social scientists purporting to illuminate the "Orient" to unwitting American audiences:

One of the striking aspects of the new American social-science attention to the Orient is its singular avoidance of literature. You can read through reams of expert writing on the modern Near East and never encounter a single reference to literature. What seem to matter far more to the regional expert are "facts," of which a literary text is perhaps a disturber.


More recently, in her study of contemporary Arab American literature, Carol Fadda-Conrey has affirmed the increasingly crucial role that literary narratives play in countering hegemonic discourses:

[O]ngoing national and international crises and military conflicts render Arab-Americans all the more vulnerable to prejudice and anti-Arab racism. In the context of such vulnerabilities, and in the absence of established leadership among Arab-Americans, literary production becomes an important vehicle to counter the limited [End Page 116] venues in which Arab-Americans enact diverse and antihegemonic forms of transnational US belonging and citizenship.

(Contemporary 21-22)

The 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the ensuing wars in the Middle East have undeniably resurrected latent stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims and the allegedly unbridgeable gap between East and West. As many Arab American studies scholars have cautioned, however, 9/11 should not be seen as an exceptional historic moment marking the beginning of anti-Arab racism in the United States. Rather, the terrorist attacks provided fodder to preexisting nationalist narratives that demonized Arabs and Muslims, labeling their cultures and religious beliefs as backwards, militant, oppressive, and simply incompatible with Western values—this time more vociferously.1 Steven Salaita contends that the attacks provided proponents of "imperative patriotism" with legitimacy, such that they were now able to speak about Arabs and Muslims in a derogatory manner without worrying about the consequences of their dehumanizing rhetoric (91).

As life grows more tenuous for Arab and Muslim Americans in the United States, it becomes increasingly crucial that they have their voices heard in defiance of exclusionary and neo-orientalist discourses, everyday discriminatory practices, and even preemptive disciplinary measures (such as racial profiling, surveillance, and detainment). While various types of anti-hegemonic narratives can serve as disruptions to neo-orientalist discourse in its various permutations, literature occupies a unique position in that it generally seeks to show rather than tell, by illuminating the lived experiences of Arabs and Muslims more humanely than cold facts and "expert" knowledge.

Syrian American scholar, novelist, and poet Mohja Kahf is one of the contemporary literary voices that have risen in the face of dominant narratives that seek to vilify Arabs and Muslims. Kahf's work belongs to a growing Arab American literary tradition that includes poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Lisa Suhair Majaj, Suheir Hamad, and Dima Hilal, among others. While the works of these contemporary authors naturally differ in scope and aesthetics, they explore common themes, including negotiations of identity, memory, belonging, and fear of the Other. Kahf's poetry often serves as a vehicle for articulating a politics of anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and anti-militarization. In fact, many of Kahf's poems, including the headscarf-centered poems analyzed in this study, were initially written a few years before the 9/11 attacks. They...