Introduction

0

This seminar was easily the most meaningful part of my freshman fall, and one of the most exciting classroom experiences I’ve had. I emerged from the Barker Center every Tuesday night feeling energized and invigorated, my mind whirring as I tried to process all that I had just learned. I went into this class very interested in Islam and its intersection with politics and gender issues, but I knew little about the religion and I had never been exposed to Muslim literature. I enjoyed the wide range of literature we read over the course of the semester, from feminist Urdu poetry to epics like The Journey of Ibn Fattouma. Each week’s readings introduced new cultural perspectives and nuances to our exploration of Islam. It was frustrating to have my attempts to synthesize and generalize thwarted, but exciting to realize that there is such diversity within Islam that generalization is not possible.

Professor Asani’s presentations in class reinforced this realization, and taught me so much about Islam, both in terms of theology and questions of religious authority, and also in terms of the intersection of religion with political and social issues such as women’s rights, conflicts between Islam and the West, race and class divisions, and the emergence of the Muslim nation-state. I enjoyed diving into the complexity of religious authority in Islam, from the tensions between spiritual and scholarly figures, to the role of ulama in doctrinal interpretation, to the influence of poets. Listening to Muslim music and looking at artwork added another interesting dimension to the class and our cultural studies. And it was incredible to be surrounded by students with similar interests but diverse backgrounds, who brought unique perspectives and interpretations into every discussion. I learned so much about the world from my classmates, such as the reality of life in Pakistan from Zunaira, Orthodox Jewish practices from Julia, approaches to Catholicism and morality from Ashley, and the complex nature of split identities from many who had grown up in more than one country.

Over the course of the semester, my religious and cultural literacy improved dramatically. I quickly realized in the first few weeks how religiously illiterate I was – not just about Islam, but about any major religion (I grew up in an atheist household and I have never read the Bible). It was exciting to feel like I had learned so much and my perspective had been substantially widened over the course of just two and a half hours. The course exposed me to the richness and depth of religious and cultural studies of Islam, but also highlighted how much I do not know and the importance of acknowledging that. I learned the importance of being open to people and perspectives that do not fit into my preconceived notions. In today’s world, outsiders (particularly Westerners) have a harmful tendency to generalize and stereotype Islam, treating it as an easily definable practice, or a being with agency that is responsible for all of the actions of its followers. When we generalize about a religion, particularly about its relation to extremism and violence (as has been seen in recent reactions to ISIS), we create dangerous and unnecessary culture wars, and risk dismissing or alienating people who do not fit our idea of what a Muslim looks like. We give too much weight to religion when we blame terrorism or sexism or political events on Islam, ignoring the historical, cultural, and political factors at play. Generalizations have only served to perpetuate misunderstandings and exacerbate divides.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from this seminar is that Islam is a religion, not a person. As Professor Asani reiterated several times, Islam does not do things; people do. And it is important to examine and strive to understand these people’s motivations apart from religion by using a cultural studies approach. The cultural studies approach entails looking at historical contexts, cultural and political influences and power dynamics, social divisions such as race and class, and personal motivations when analyzing events or movements. I will strive to apply this approach in my future studies.

However, while it important not to generalize, it is possible to analyze and discuss common themes that emerged throughout the class. While the literature we read portrayed diverse and often quite different cultures, there was much overlap in terms of issues the texts grappled with, and these commonalities emerged in my portfolio as well.

One such commonality was the importance of poetry as a means of expression and source of authority. We looked at quite different forms of poetry, from Urdu na’ts to the feminist poetry of the “We Sinful Women” collection, to Iqbal’s “Complaint” and “Answer.” Despite the differences in style and substance between these poems, all conferred the poet with religious and cultural authority, as poetry is widely respected in Muslim tradition. I tried to reflect this in my portfolio by writing poems for two of my pieces. For one, I imitated the form of Udru na’ts to write an ode to poetry itself, and for the second, I wrote a poem about the policing of women’s bodies in Madras on Rainy Days. This poem ended up seeming sort of reminiscent of “We Sinful Women,” since it deals with gender issues and feminist thought.

The oppression of women is another theme I focus on in this portfolio that came up often in class discussions. The relationship between Islam and gender is complex, as many countries calling themselves Muslim nations have a history of oppressing women, leading many outsiders to associate Islam with patriarchy. While it is true that religious interpretations have played a role in perpetuating patriarchy, it is important to use the cultural studies approach to analyze other influences at work, namely power dynamics, emerging political movements, and cultural practices that predate Islam. Women’s bodies seem to have become the battleground for conflicts between Islam and the West, as conservative and extremist regimes have subjugated women as a means of reaffirming their brand of Islam and garnering political support (an example of motivations being political rather than religious).

Many of works of literature we read, such as “We Sinful Women,” Persepolis, The Swallows of Kabul, and Madras on Rainy Days tackle gender issues, and as a feminist, I found this theme to be particularly interesting. It was often painful to read certain passages in these works, such as the stoning scene from The Swallows of Kabul, in which women were brutalized or subjected to horrible injustices. Our class discussions on the subject were as engaging as they were depressing, as it became surprisingly easy to relate these injustices to our own experiences with rape culture on campus or slut-shaming or relatives’ reactions to girls liking boys. Several of my portfolio pieces center around the oppression of women: my collage interpretation of “We Sinful Women” focused on women’s bodies and their simultaneous power and powerlessness, my poem based on Madras on Rainy Days similarly broached the theme of women surrendering control of their bodies, and my re-telling of The Wedding of Zein played with giving a voice to a girl who is rendered voiceless by her society. Through these pieces, I tried to challenge narratives or manifestations of patriarchy presented in the literature.

Another issue that is prevalent throughout the works and my portfolio is the conflict between progress and tradition, a conflict that often unfortunately gets conflated with the conflict between Islam and the West. This was the central theme in Ambiguous Adventure, as village leaders struggled over the decision to send Sambo Diallo to receive a Western education rather than the traditional training centering around Islam and spirituality. This eventually became a conflict between symbols of Western advancement, such as modern innovations and material wealth, and the effort to hold on to village tradition, religious observance, and spiritual meaning. I depicted this fight in my marker drawing entitled “Progress v. Tradition,” in which a boot representing Europe is crushing Africa and Sambo Diallo’s village.  “The Garden,” a piece based on Iqbal’s “Complaint” and “Answer,” also explores this theme. Iqbal argues in his “Answer” that a commitment to progress is a central component of Islam, since Muslim societies have historically been leaders in innovation, science, and the arts. He says that while the West has taken over this role, Muslims must reaffirm their faith and efforts to advance their societies, so that “after centuries of tending soars Islam, a mighty tree.”

The nature of identity is also a critical question raised by the texts and my artwork. The 20th and 21st centuries have been critical periods for Muslim identity, as Muslims have grappled with religious and cultural identity in the midst of emerging Islamist movements, extremism and Western backlash, global conflict, and avant-garde religious interpretations such as Islamic feminism that have all attempted to define what it means to be a modern-day Muslim. I took on the idea of developing a multifaceted personal identity in my comic “The Identity Vortex,” based off of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which portrays the evolution of Satrapi’s own identity amidst the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. My piece “Split Identity,” inspired by The Reluctant Fundamentalist explores the division of identity that Muslim immigrants to the West often experience as they struggle to reconcile two often-opposing backgrounds.

These themes are critical today, as the world is becoming increasingly polarized between the West and predominantly Muslim regions and movements. ISIS is killing Westerners and spouting hate, and the West is perpetuating Islamophobia with equal measure. In the process, large groups of people across the globe are being otherized, their identities called into question or overlooked as extreme stereotypes take center stage.

In such a world, knowledge of the complex realities of Islam and Muslim societies is critical as a means of countering this trend, and this seminar has equipped me with a baseline of such knowledge (although I will always keep in mind how much more there is to discover). I will apply this knowledge to my consumption of news and my approach to analyzing the politics and current events of predominantly Muslim countries. I’m planning to study Government, and after this class, I plan to continue to explore the intersection of Islam and politics, as well as relations between the MENA region and the West. And five years from now, I will remember sitting around that wood table in the Barker Center, and the lessons that emerged from those Tuesday night discussions over dried mangoes: the importance of being open-minded, allowing complexity to triumph over generalizations, and owning up to my own ignorance.

“An Allegorical Path” — Collage inspired by “The Journey of Ibn Fattouma”

0

FSjourney

 

Explanation:

I found The Journey of Ibn Fattouma very interesting as a work of political and social commentary. I interpreted Ibn Fattouma’s travels to different civilizations as allegorical, with each civilization having a real-world equivalent. His journey seemed to be both a portrayal of the progression of societies from the most primitive (Mashriq) to the most enlightened (Gebel), and a representation of differing political ideologies.

For this piece, I traced Ibn Fattouma’s travels from one civilization to another through symbols of what I interpreted to be their real-world counterparts. I glued maps or symbols of each civilization on to poster paper, wrote their corresponding names and characterizing quotes from the book underneath the images, then drew a dotted line depicting Ibn Fattouma’s path.

I used a map of Dar al-Islam, the expansion of the Muslim world from 900 to 1700 during the era of caliphates, to portray the Land of Islam (Dar al-Islam translates to the Land of Islam in Arabic, and the book references caliphates). I chose sub-Saharan Africa to represent Mashriq, since the narrator mentions traveling south, and sub-Saharan Africa is often seen as an underdeveloped, “primitive” region (although I am wary of oversimplifying or perpetuating this stereotype). For Haira, I drew a castle to depict an absolute monarchy in which the king is seen as God, “the source of all wisdom and good.”

I used a map of the United States filled with the American flag as the equivalent to Halba, since Halba is described as a land of freedom, democracy, and capitalism (“everything in Halba appeared to enjoy freedom, including the prices”). Maps of the Soviet Union and China represent Aman, a place built around the idea of equality and uniformity, where people are given equal pay and strictly controlled by the ruling party (ideas that align with Communism). An image of a forest with sunrays shining through the trees represents Ghuroub, a place of mediation and reflection in nature – “a paradise of people in a trance.”

Lastly, Ibn Fattouma’s ultimate destination, the land of Gebel, is depicted as a staircase to heaven, representing the idea of spiritual ascent. Gebel is a spiritual realm beyond the human world, where people “don’t use senses or limbs,” and the gold glitter I surrounded the image illustrates that it is this spiritual realm that is the end goal of the journey.

 

“Surrender” — Poem inspired by “Madras on Rainy Days”

0

Poem: 

They tell me I must be pure

My body a temple they will destroy

If I succumb to human impulses.

 

Yet they market me as a commodity

For the taking of the most eligible bachelor

An object to use as he pleases.

 

They tell me my blood is impure,

My body so vulgar it must be placed in solitary confinement

Until my bodily fluids cease to offend them.

 

Yet they tell me I must wave a bloody sheet

Documenting my most intimate experience

Without which I am worthless.

 

I feel my father’s fists on my chest,

Rough knuckles making contact with trembling skin

Beating away my sexuality blow by blow.

 

I feel the pain of a wounded being

Stirring inside of me

As I kill what they will not accept.

 

I feel their hands scrubbing,

Cloaking me in scents and oils

So I can please another.

 

I feel, I feel, I feel

Yet my body is mine only to surrender

My needs, my comfort, my desires are nothing.

 

Explanation:

The policing of women’s bodies was a consistent theme throughout Madras on Rainy Days. Layla constantly found her body subject to the whims and expectations of others who sought to control it. Whether she is being cast out of her own bedroom and ostracized for menstruating, or threatened with death if she has premarital sex, or forcibly scrubbed and altered in preparation for her wedding, it is clear that Layla has no right to her own body. In such a patriarchal society, women must surrender their bodies completely; they have no ownership to lose because they never had any to begin with.

In this poem, I wanted to encapsulate the injustice of this by highlighting the powerlessness women feel in the face of the double standards, expectations, and physical violations they are subjected to day in and day out. I based the poem off of Layla’s experiences in Madras in Rainy Days, with references to the bloody sheet she is expected to produce after her wedding night, her secret pregnancy and attempts to end it, and her father’s beatings. I used language of “they” versus “I” to depict the fight for control over her body as a losing battle between the narrator and the rest of her world. I wanted to highlight the double standards women in Layla’s position face, so I juxtaposed stanzas describing these expectations; the first begins with “they tell me I must be pure,” followed by a stanza that begins with “yet they market me as a commodity” to highlight the hypocrisy of suppressing female sexuality on the one hand, and then at the same time valuing women solely as sexual objects. In the last few stanzas of the poem, I sought to portray the irony that despite the woman being the person who actually feels her body and the actions inflicted upon it, her feelings and desires are cast aside as irrelevant by those who claim ownership over her.

 

“The Garden” — Drawing based on Iqbal’s “Complaint” and “Answer”

0

Fs pencil

 

Explanation:

For this piece, I drew the garden of the extended metaphor in Iqbal’s “Answer” representing the progress of Muslim nations in relation to other nations. In this portion of “Answer,” Iqbal is responding to the point made by the narrator in “Complaint” that Muslim nations are declining, and losing power to the West and the “infidels.” The narrator accuses God of favoring other groups over Muslims unfairly. Through the garden metaphor in “Answer,” God addresses this claim by describing the trajectory of nations as states of a garden – the undeveloped “shared not in the harvest, and are swept away by autumn’s gales,” while the developed nations (presumably of the West) are “nations in Life’s garden that have gathered in their fruit.” After condemning Muslims for failing to have faith and remain loyal to religious practice, he uses garden imagery to outline an optimistic vision of Islam’s future: “Fruitful yet, a splendid symbol of immense vitality. After centuries of tending soars Islam, a mighty tree.”

I found the language of the garden passage beautiful, and I liked the metaphor as a means of describing the path of civilizations, so I wanted to create a visual representation of this garden. I used pencil and cut up the original poem and glued lines next to the corresponding portion of the drawing. I drew the three stages: the undeveloped or declined nations depicted on the left by bare trees with “autumn’s gales” and “weeds and brambles,” the advanced nations depicted on the right with a mature tree and harvested fruit, and Muslim nations in the center represented by a “mighty tree” that is “fruitful” with “blossoms” growing from the flames (since “where the flames are at their fiercest, there a garden fair would grow!”). I drew a sun rising to illustrate the hopeful idea in “Answer” that if Muslims are true to their faith, their societies will progress: “It is your horizon, glowing to behold your sun arise.”

 

“Split Identity” — Portrait inspired by “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

0

fsoilpastel

 

Explanation:

For this piece, I wanted to depict Changez’s split identity in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, in which he struggles to reconcile his American life and education with his Pakistani roots. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, along with several other texts we have read, highlights the identity crisis Muslim immigrants to the West go through, as they feel torn between two seemingly-opposing places, never quite fitting into either, and are consistently pressured by both sides to choose one identity over the other. While Persepolis explored multifaceted identity, The Reluctant Fundamentalist portrayed identity as being starkly split. Changez never seems to be able to successfully merge the two facets of his identity, and it was this divide between his American and Pakistani sides that I aimed to portray in my drawing.

I used oil pastels to draw a portrait of Changez, with a jagged black line splitting the drawing in two. On the left side is the ‘American’ Changez: clean-shaven, wearing a suit and tie befitting of an Underwood Samson employee in New York City, against the backdrop of the American flag. On the right side, the ‘Pakistani’ Changez has a full beard (in keeping with Muslim tradition), and is wearing a shalwar kameez, with the Pakistani flag in the background. Both Pakistan and America are given equal space and prominence in the drawing, illustrating that Changez can exist in either world. Both are an integral part of his identity. However, only half of him thrives in each space, so he never is fully present in either.

“The Stones of Groupthink” — Collage inspired by “The Swallows of Kabul”

0

collageFS

Explanation: 

This collage depicts the stoning scene from The Swallows of Kabul. I found this scene particularly powerful because it shows the extent to which seemingly reasonable and morally-upstanding people such as Mohsen can be corrupted by extremism and mob mentality. Inspired by the crowd of people throwing stones at a woman accused of adultery, Mohsen is overcome by the urge to throw stones as well, giving in to what he knows is immoral. This is a classic example of what psychologists term groupthink, in which individuals unquestioningly follow the actions of a group rather than their own individual inclinations. This sort of crowd mentality is what allows extremism to thrive in The Swallows of Kabul and the real world, since it frees individuals of accountability for their actions and allows them to easily submit to extremist pressures without question or resistance. Reason and morality are lost in the process, and it becomes very hard for individuals to stand up against the crowd for what is right.

 

To portray the effect of this mob mentality, I chose to create a collage using construction paper to show featureless outlines of people in a crowd, with a faceless Mohsen launching a stone at the accused woman. Members of the crowd remain faceless because succumbing to groupthink means losing individuality and defining characteristics. The only figure with a face in the collage is the crying woman who is being victimized, since she alone retains her individuality and remains apart from the crowd. Surrounding the figures, I wrote quotes in black marker that relate to groupthink, including definitions by psychologists, quotes from other novels that portray the powerful influence of groupthink (such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird), and a quote describing the stoning scene from The Swallows of Kabul itself.

 

“The Identity Vortex” — Comic inspired by “Persepolis”

0

FullSizeRender-8 FullSizeRender-5

 

Explanation: 

Creating a comic was a natural creative response to Persepolis, since its graphic novel form was such a powerful form of creative narration. This artistic means of telling a story is exactly what we have been exploring through our portfolios. I sought to imitate the graphics of Persepolis as closely as possible, so I used black Sharpie markers and pens to stick to the black-and-white style of the original. Persepolis was ultimately a coming-of-age story dealing with the complex nature of identity. Marjane is growing up and figuring herself out at a turbulent time in Iranian history —  war is raging around her, she is encountering differing views on religion and veiling and politics at home and in the outside world, and her years in Europe in the second part of the book add another complicating dimension, as they expose her to radical ideas and many facets of Western culture.

In my comic, I wanted to generalize Marjane’s story to explain the complexity of identity, and depict in very basic terms the confusion and turbulence of adolescence. I based my illustrations off of Marjane’s story (for example, depicting the Austrian flag in the panel about encountering different cultures), but the themes and experiences narrated in each panel could apply to girls in many Muslim countries (and some are applicable to teenage girls in any part of the world).

I called the comic “The Identity Vortex” because Persepolis illustrates how multifaceted and complicated identity is; identity is not always easy to distill or categorize, and when trying to define personal identity, the forces that shape it can indeed feel like an almost overwhelming, swirling vortex of ideas, pressures, tastes, and values. Persepolis is about embracing the multifaceted self, and so I conclude my comic with the protagonist emerging from the vortex: “eventually, somewhere out of that vortex, you emerge – whatever ‘you’ means and however you wish to define (or not define) it.”

 

 

“Progress v. Tradition” – A Drawing Inspired by “Ambiguous Adventure”

0

 

EXPLANATION:

This drawing depicts a boot representing Europe and ‘progress’ stomping on Africa and ‘tradition’ (which is written in Arabic). A box zooms in on Samba Diallo’s village in Senegal. I aimed to portray the conflict between the two worlds that was a consistent theme in Ambiguous Adventure, as the Senegalese village struggled to determine how to deal with European conquest.

Symbols representative of each world fill the boot and box, and highlight the tension between them. The Daillobe village is vibrant, its colors as rich as its culture. The bright West African sun shines down on the houses and cow-filled pastures of the village. A scene plays out in the center, where the chief of the tribe sits, thinking about his lineage and the importance of ancestry, flanked by the Most Royal Lady on the left and the teacher on the right. The chief represents traditional political systems built around lineage and ethnic identity. He is placed in the center of the scene, reflecting his central position in village life. The teacher represents the tradition of the Glowing Hearth, a method of teaching built around memorization of the Quran and rigorous, character-building exercises that “teach the children God.” The Word of God lies at the center of this education and the teacher’s core values. The praying villager depicted in the corner of the box serves as a symbol reinforcing the importance of Islam in this society.

In contrast, the boot of Europe is black-and-white, further highlighting the contrast between Africa and the West, and reflecting Sambo Diallo’s perception of the coldness of European life, in which the “streets are bare” (as seen in the left corner). This is a world of rationality and science (represented by the atomic symbol and caduceus), where time (represented by the clock) is a “mechanical jumble.” People in this world worship industry (represented by the gears) more than religion, and they advocate a secularism informed by Nietzsche and Descartes that is completely at odds with Senegalese religious devotion.

I tried to use symbolism to explore the various forces motivating European imperialism. The books in the left corner represent the intellectual influences – law, philosophy, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution – which fed into the attitude that Europeans embodied progress and “their law, their language, constitute the very texture of their genius.” This attitude fed the idea encapsulated in French in the speech bubble: C’est notre responsabilite a civilizer les Africaines sauvages (It is our responsibility to civilize the African savages). However, conquest was also motivated in large part by “the possession of riches,” depicted here by bags full of coins and money symbols, and a desire to dominate the world and build an Empire (represented by the world map and the compass).

Through this drawing, my ultimate goal was to depict the collision of worlds, as the world of European ‘progress’ crashes down upon the meaningful traditions of Senegalese tribes.

 

 

 

“I am a Woman” – Collage Inspired by “We Sinful Women”

0

FullSizeRender (3)

 

EXPLANATION:

For this piece, I created a collage of the Urdu feminist poetry from “We Sinful Women” in the shape of a woman’s body, overlaid with “I am a woman” written in Arabic in glitter. I found these poems to be powerful in their complex, nuanced depictions of feminine identity and what it means to be a woman. The question of identity so often centers around a woman’s body and physical appearance in the deeply patriarchal societies of South Asia, so I thought it would be interesting to place the poems within the outline of a woman’s body to explore how the poetry grapples with the relationship between the body and feminine identity.

I tried to strategically place the poems (or fragments of poems) close to the part of the body they discussed or related to: Surah-e-Yaaseen­ by the woman’s feet talking her fear as “with hurriedly advancing footsteps, I am a lone woman”; She is a Woman Impure, placed over the woman’s abdomen, describes a woman as “imprisoned by her flowing blood”; a portion of Come, Give Me Your Hand, pasted by the women’s navel, reveals the beauty of physical identity through pregnancy and “the beating of your child’s heart on that side of the navel”; Image, glued over the woman’s heart, reveals the hidden identity “deep in the recesses of my heart”;  Chadur and Diwari, placed over what would be the veiled portion of a woman’s head, passionately denounces veiling; and Akleema, pasted on the woman’s head, challenges the sexualizing of feminine identity, reminding men that above a woman’s “long thighs” and “high breasts,” “Akleema has a head.”

The poems have different takes on the relationship of the body to feminine identity – some viewing the body as a prison, some denouncing sexual objectification and double standards, some embracing the body as integral to womanhood, and others completely ignoring the body in favor of the mind. The variation in the poems highlight a common truth about feminine identity: women’s identities are complex and multi-faceted (despite the patriarchy’s efforts to portray them as two-dimensional), composed of many parts that complement and conflict with each other in equal measure. Taken together, the poems (and the facets of feminine identity they represent) form the shape of one complete woman.

 

“Muna’s Escape” – A Short Story Inspired by “The Wedding of Zein”

0

STORY:

Muna sat in a corner, tapping her feet to the rhythm of the ululations that careened around the room. The singing and drumming had been going on for hours now, and still the wedding party was in full swing. She surveyed the room. Remnants of a feast lay scattered on tables, and the smell of spices rose through the air, mingling with the scent of perfume. A sea of bodies swayed on the dance floor, their feet flashing in the light, while off to the side she could see the Imam intoning the benefits of religious scholarship to a few disinterested guests. But at the center of it all was Zein.

 

Zein. The village’s darling. That strange man who was always ‘slain by love,’ always surrounded by desperate mothers and the mysterious ascetic Haneen. The one they say has God’s grace upon him, who has the power to reveal a girl’s beauty and attract her a husband almost instantaneously. There he was, sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, laughing with that bizarre, donkey-like laugh of his, surrounded by a ring of girls and adoring mothers. The women showered him with flattery, complimented his charm and abilities, invited him for tea, pulled him like a rope in different directions toward their dancing daughters. From her vantage point, Muna could hear snippets of their overtures: “My Laila is the most beautiful, the most virtuous,” “My daughter has a voice like honey,” “Have you seen my Mariam’s lovely eyes?” And the girls batted their eyelashes and twirled suggestively, and Muna’s stomach twisted into knots.

 

She rose with the intention of making a stealthy exit, but her movement caught the eye of her mother, who rushed over from the throng of Zein’s admirers before Muna could escape. Her heart sunk. Her mother’s face bore the look of shame mingled with exasperation that Muna knew so well.

 

“Muna, why aren’t you dancing with the other girls? Why must you always insist upon being a wallflower?” Her mother chastised her angrily, glancing around as she did so as if embarrassed to be associated with such a failure of a daughter. “Don’t you want a husband? Stop sulking and come talk to Zein, for the sake of your future!”

 

Before Muna could respond, her mother had grabbed her by the arm and was dragging her over towards Zein, pulling her through the sea of mothers and daughters right up to the legend himself. “Zein, this is my habibi Muna. Isn’t she lovely? I assure you she is as gentle as a lamb, the sweetest girl in this village.”

 

Muna, cringing at the desperation in her mother’s voice, looked up at Zein. She had never been this close to him. She noticed for this first time his small, bloodshot eyes, and just how long and lopsided his face appeared, and wondered how this crazy-looking man had acquired so much power in deciding a girl’s fate. It was this nearly-toothless man who had been responsible for the marriages of her cousin Azza, her Bedouin friend Haleema, and her neighbor Alawiyya; once they had unwittingly ‘slain’ him, Zein had taken Muna’s friends away from her one by one. She was the last one standing.

 

She stood there and said nothing as Zein paused and looked her up and down briefly before turning back to the crowd and resuming his banter. Muna exhaled, a sense of profound relief washing over her. Her slaying powers had clearly not risen to the occasion. She could sense her mother’s palpable disappointment radiating from behind her, but before her mother could catch her eye, Muna turned and ran for the door, bursting into the dark night.

 

Outside, the fresh night air folded over her like a cloak, and she felt she could breathe for the first time that evening.  She could still hear the muffled beat of drums as she looked up at the sky. She’d always found comfort in the stars, in their ever-present, shining distance, a reminder that the universe was bigger and more meaningful than her village and its politics and oddities and endless string of weddings. It was here, looking up at the stars, that Muna felt most in touch with God. Here he was not the Imam’s God of law and ritual, nor Haneen’s God of mystical prophecy, but her God – one who comforted her and listened to her, who knew that she was more than just a pretty face. As she gazed at the stars, the drumbeats faded away into nothingness, and she prayed to her God to be left in peace for just a little while longer.

——-

EXPLANATION:

For this piece, I wrote a short story that re-tells parts of “The Wedding of Zein” from the perspective of a girl living in Zein’s village. The subservient status of women is a recurring theme in “The Wedding of Zein,” in which girls are viewed as simply beautiful objects to be married off, without any say in deciding their own futures or identities. Because the village where the story takes place views girls in this way, their voices are absent from “The Wedding of Zein”; it is a story told mainly through the eyes of men, and only occasionally through older women (Amna and Saadiya), who seem to have acquired voices and identities through their status as wives. Girls are left voiceless, spoken about and for by men in the story, just as they are in society.

 

I decided to invert this, and give girls a voice. My protagonist, Muna, is a village girl whose mother is desperate to attract Zein’s attention and use Zein (as all the mothers try to do) to marry her off. Muna has no interest in marriage; she is still a young girl trying to develop her sense of self, despite living in an environment that places no value on female identity. The story takes place at a wedding, since weddings were a central part of “The Wedding of Zein.” Muna dislikes the attention paid to girl’s physical beauty, and feels uncomfortable watching the girls dancing to display their beauty to Zein and their mothers pointing out their physical attributes, all in the effort to win Zein’s approval. Muna ultimately rejects her mother’s attempts to do the same, escaping the villagers and the pressures of marriage temporarily to seek solace in the stars and God.

 

My aim was to highlight how difficult it is to be a girl in a world like the one in “The Wedding of Zein,”in which most girls have no control over their destinies, and are valued for their physical beauty and ability to attract a husband. In such a world, girls must feel enormous pressure from family and the society at large to bend to these societal norms, all while going through the turbulent time that is adolescence and struggling to make sense of religion and what it demands of them (this was the purpose behind Muna’s talk of her God, versus the religious perspectives of the Imam and Haneen, at the end of my story).

 

In terms of the language used in the story itself, I tried to borrow imagery and diction from “The Wedding of Zein” — such as the “ululations” at the wedding, descriptions of Zein’s appearance, and references to the Imam and Haneen – in order to stay true to Zein’s world and make it a re-telling (versus a completely different story). By mirroring the original story’s language, while communicating a very different narrative, I hope I have succeeded in throwing a critical light upon the problematic view of girls that “The Wedding of Zein” perpetuates.