Mohja Kahf creates unity through poetry

Thursday, March 29, 2018 - 3:07pm

Mohja Kahf

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Last Friday, poet Mohja Kahf performed readings from her latest poetry collection, “Hagar Poems,” at the Rackham Amphitheatre.

“Performed” should not be taken lightly. Out of the myriad of poetry readings I’ve attended since the age of 15, Kahf’s was by far the liveliest. Kahf’s reading was theatrical and inviting, while politically informed and incredibly moving. She didn’t stand behind the podium, but rather in the center of the stage, moving freely and expressively as she read.

To me, this came as a bit of a surprise. Kahf was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1967, but grew up in the American Midwest. Her poetry encapsulates her experience as a Syrian woman living in America — all the similarities and differences between her native and adopted countries.

It’s clear that Kahf’s poems carry an American poetic influence, evident through their use of free verse and informality of language. However, Kahf’s work is also heavily informed by Arabic poetry, reflective of Qur’anic suras and the prominence of the Arabic oral tradition.

Kahf’s poetry both addresses and reinvents stereotypes about Muslim women, encapsulating issues of femininity, sexuality and gender. Her poems ruminate on Islamic traditions — which non-Muslims often view with an air of ignorance and misunderstanding — in a way that is emotional, personal and, frankly, hilarious.

Kahf addresses the satisfaction of self-mastery that occurs during Ramadan, despite the almost torturous struggle that occurs when beginning to fast, the experience of being a mother in moments of frustration and the misunderstanding, trial and devastation that exist in the current state of Syria.

In the context of the American political moment as well as the Syrian crisis, addressing the overlapping themes within Kahf’s poetry is incredibly important. Kahf’s work, however, is infused with emotion — pride, sadness, anger — complicating these themes that are often viewed as one-sided. Kahf reveals the multilayered and complex issues of what it means to be a Syrian woman and an American citizen today, while allowing room for happiness and humor as well.

Kahf invited the audience to participate heavily, reciting moving call-and-answer poems, engaging in conversation and asking questions as to what the audience wanted to hear from her. The audience’s reaction iterated the wave of emotions felt as Kahf read — passion, sorrow and happiness.

Through her bubbly and inviting personality, theatrical and potent poetic voice and genuine and kind engagement with her audience, Kahf created a humanizing conversation around the current state of Syria that, many times, is not talked about. Kahf’s reading created a powerful unity that spread over the entire room — a kind of unity that, today, we need more of.