Tarek el-Ariss reviews

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

by Mohja Kahf

Caroll and Graf Publishers, 2006, 444 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-78671-519-0

Little Mosque on the Prairie

Life happens in Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Through the eyes of an earnest and strong-willed girl named Khadra, Kahf provides us with a kaleidoscopic view of growing up Muslim and female in America. Racial and religious prejudice, political developments in the US and in the Middle East, integration and activism, all these issues come together in a carefully constructed crucible, strategically situated in America’s heartland. Modelled on that of early converts such as Khadija and Abu-Bakr, Khadra’s community is made up of Muslim pioneers in the Midwest, missionaries who set up shop in Indianapolis in the 1970s. Holding on to a “pure” Islam, which they reinvented along the way, they sought to shield it and themselves from corruption, jadedness, and the political. In shedding light on this life of simple devotion, Kahf examines the community’s views on the Americanized Muslims or “McMuslims” (186), on Christians and Jews, and on the treatment of women and of African-American Muslims.

As Khadra (the “green one”, in the sense of idealistic and inexperienced) grows older, her idyllic world and its values come gradually under scrutiny. The important encounter occurs half way through the novel, when she accompanies her family to Mecca for Hajj. On this trip, the American Islam of the Dawah Center comes in contact with “real” Islam, the Islam of Hajj, and of Saudi Arabia more specifically. The idealization of the religion, experienced and sustained by the immigrant in the Diaspora, is violently exposed in this context. Arrested by the Saudi vice police on her way to the Mosque for dawn prayer (prohibited to women in Saudi Arabia) and harassed by her cousin’s Saudi friends, Khadra becomes aware of the vulnerability of her idyllic world. “And even though she was in […] the Muslim country where Islam started, she had never felt so far from home. There was a nip in the air all of a sudden.”

As she becomes aware that the idealized Islam of the Dawah people is in fact divorced from its wider practice, she produces and grows attached to her own Islam. Khadra finds the necessary balance that allows her to hold on to Islam as home while acknowledging the limitations and the contradictions at the heart of its many practices.

Akin to the Indiana landscape it conjures up so well, Kahf’s narrative stages Khadra’s abandonment of the Platonic cave as she sets out on her journey to discover reality. However, aside from a few meaningful encounters along the way, this long journey consists mostly of an enumeration of anecdotes and mundane events. Clearly, such are the trappings of the autobiographical genre that sets out in this case to tell both a personal and a communal story.

Though it is important and necessary to shed light on an experience often obscured by contemporary representations of Islam and the West or Islam in the West, it is also important to keep in mind the medium – the novel – and the rules of seduction, for lack of better terms, that ought to structure it.

Unfortunately, the earnestness of Khadra rubs on the text, undermining its ability to rise through literature beyond the cultural moment it purports to capture. This raises the question of readership. Should the effect of literature be understood as cultural titillation wherein an imagined reader is allowed to reduce Kahf’s text to its hyphenated identity? Is this the moment where literature is forfeited in the process of writing culture?

These are important questions that need to be addressed in an attempt to challenge a post-9/11 cultural mood that coerces Arab and Muslim authors, both in the US and outside, into assuming the role of native informants by coming clean on their identity.

Mohja Kahf

From Banipal 30 - Autumn/Winter 2007

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