Watch the Video
Mohja Kahf reads her poem “I Love a Man Who Washes My Dishes”
about the author
Poet and scholar Mohja Kahf was born in Damascus, Syria. Her family moved to the United States in 1971, and Kahf grew up in the Midwest. She earned a PhD in comparative literature from Rutgers University and is the author of the poetry collection Emails from Scheherazad (2003) and the novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2006). Kahf’s experiences growing up in the United States shaped her perceptions of the differences and similarities between the cultures of her home and adopted countries. Her poetry is an amalgam of both Syrian and American influences informed not only by American free verse … but also by a lush energy that draws on the heart of the Arabic oral tradition and Arabic poetry.” Kahf sometimes satirizes stereotypes about Muslim women—she has tackled hairstyles, sex, and clothing.
The Reading from the Author
Resources & Discussion
Use the following readings and prompts to inspire student writing. Thanks to Barbara Petzen, Director of Middle East Connections, a not-for-profit initiative specializing in professional development and curriculum development on the Middle East and Islam, global education, and study tours to the Middle East for American educators, who created this lesson plan.
Readings and Discussion
About the reading
Mohja Kahf’s first work of poetry, E-Mails from Scheherazad, brings together a number of poems she wrote over the last decade and a half, bridging the watershed September 11 events and continuing aftermath. The poems offer a set of vignettes of Muslim-American and Arab-American life. One poem–Fayettteville as in Fate–poignantly addresses her own role as a cultural bridge, trying to burn through the fog of stereotypes and cultural misunderstanding to show that Middle Eastern and Appalachian cultures have a great deal in common. Other poems challenge the reader to understand and accept the diverse experiences of Arab and Muslim Americans, especially women, who are usually quite different from the common stereotypes would suggest—not oppressed, not odalisques, not silent, not foreign.
E-Mails from Scheherazad was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize in 2004.
This lesson examines several short poems by the contemporary Syrian-American poet Mohja Kahf. In these poems, she explores a series of experiences in which Americans react to an Arab-American woman wearing a veil. In the poems, a woman is continually frustrated by the inability of those she encounters to treat her as an equal human being—she is stereotyped by how she looks, her ethnicity and her religion, and is denied the ability to fully participate in society. She is marked as strange, foreign, perhaps even a terrorist, because of her dress and background.
In this set of poems, discrimination is sparked by a visual cue—the headscarf worn by the speaker. The headscarf marks the speaker very obviously as different from the “norm,” so that she is seen as foreign in her environment, although she is American. Culturally, she is in most ways a part of the society around her, but visually she stands out, so that her obvious affiliation to groups that are suspect to some Americans—Arabs and Muslims–occasions treatment that betrays both ignorance and hostility. [It is worth noting that for many Americans, Arab and Muslim are indistinguishable terms—although one is an ethno-linguistic and one a religious identity, and although most Muslims are not Arab and a sizable minority of Arabs are not Muslim.]
Since well before the tragic events of 9/11, many Americans have felt an antipathy toward all Arabs and Muslims—blaming all members of these groups for the actions of an extremist few. Those who have been most vulnerable to hate crimes or discrimination are those who fit the common visual stereotypes of “the Arab”—men with olive skin and beards, those wearing “traditional” Middle Eastern dress, and women who cover their hair and/or face.
The sequencing of the poems’ titles, “Hijab“ Scene #3, “Hijab” Scene #5, and so on, emphasize that a woman wearing a headscarf in American society is frequently subjected to various kinds of on-sight discriminatory reaction by strangers on the street, in her professional life, as a parent, and as a citizen. [Note: the poems in the handout are presented in the order they appeared in Kahf’s book E-mails from Scheherazad although they were not consecutive in that text. There are no poems entitled “Hijab” Scene #4 or “Hijab” Scene #6 in the book.]
Published in E-Mails from Scheherazad
“Hijab” Scene #3
“Would you like to join the PTA?” she asked,
tapping her clipboard with her pen.
“I would,” I said, but it was no good,
she wasn’t seeing me.
“Would you like to join the PTA?” she repeated.
“I would,” I said,
but I could’ve been antimatter.
A regular American mother next to me
Shrugged and shook her head.
“I would, I would,” I sent up flares,
beat on drums, waved navy flags,
tried smoke signals, American Sign Language,
Morse code, Western Union, telex, fax,
Lt. Uhura tried hailing her
for me on another frequency.
“Dammit, Jim, I’m a Muslim woman, not a Klingon!”
–but the positronic force field of hijab
jammed all her cosmic coordinates.
Can we save the ship we’re both on,
can we save
the dilithium crystals?
“Hijab” Scene #5
“Assalam-O-alaikum” at the mailbox
“Assalam-O-alaikum” by the bus stop
When you’re wearing hijab, Black men
you don’t even know materialize
all over Hub City
like an army of chivalry,
opening doors, springing
Drop the scarf, and (if you’re light)
you suddenly pass (lonely) for white.
“Hijab” Scene #7
No, I’m not bald under the scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where women can’t drive cars
No, I would not like to defect
I’m already American
But thank you for offering
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
Off your assumptions,
They’re going to blow you away
“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.
Consider the following terms:
- Hijab: headscarf worn by some Muslim women to cover their hair.
- Free verse: Poetry in which the lines are written without adherence to a particular meter or rhyme scheme, often following the rhythms of normal speech.
- Scheherazad: Legendary storyteller of the Arabian Nights who postponed her death at the hands of her husband the king each night by telling a series of fantastic tales.
- Assalam-O-alaikum: A phrase in Arabic meaning, “Peace be to you,” used by Muslims to greet one another everywhere.
- Pink collar: Analogous to the terms blue collar and white collar, referring to work in fields traditionally considered to be women’s work, such as secretaries, nurses, telephone operator, day-care workers, etc.
Questions about the readings:
- The poet focuses on discrimination faced by the speaker. What sparks the discrimination she faces? How do you know?
- Reading these poems all together, what can you intuit about the speaker? Do you imagine that it is the same speaker in all five poems?
- In each of these poems, the speaker runs up against the ignorance or prejudice of someone else. What do you think the daily life of a Muslim woman who wears hijab is like? How might it vary from one place to another? What factors might influence how a Muslim woman is perceived and treated in the United States? (what she wears, what part of the country she is in: rural/urban, more/less diverse, external events like 9/11)
- In one poem, “Hijab” Scene #5, the headscarf actually creates a positive reaction. For whom does it do so? Why? How do you think the speaker feels about the reaction of the African American Muslim men to her headscarf? What does this poem imply about relationships among American Muslims, and between Americans of different races and religions? [Students might benefit from a brief introduction to African American Muslims.]
- These poems were all written in the mid-1990s. Do you think the experience of a woman wearing hijab in America today would be different? How?
Now You Try
Following Mohja Khaf’s poetry BUT writing prose, take into consideration the following prompts:
- Have you ever witnessed discrimination treatment of someone as the other?
- Or have you felt like/ been treated as the other?
Have students write a piece or related pieces that use the theme of discrimination. The piece/pieces might reflect scenes in which they felt that they were misunderstood, or might deal with discrimination of someone they know. Consider the following:
- Write a coming-of-age and loss-of-innocence through these experiences piece of prose.
- Or write about someone you know who experienced this.
- Have you never felt like the other, an outsider?
- School? Friends? Neighborhood? A class? Summer experience? Living outside your comfort zone? Could be religion, race, ethnicity, economic class, gender but doesn’t have to be, (bullying? exclusion by a person, friends, an institution, a club, a social group, a member of your family? new person, new school, new team, summer camp, youngest (age and maturity), only child) Misunderstood made to feel like an outsider by teacher, friend, peer…
- Who or what makes you feel like the other?
- How will you begin? Capture the reader’s interest?
- How will you end?
- What was the moment of change? Or not!
- A strong ending with self-awareness (does not necessarily have to be positive)
- Perspective: you need to have some distance from your experience so that you can look at it in the proper perspective and write about it effectively
- Where and when are you the other: details of setting: time, place, weather, age, season, building
- Who/what is the hegemonic group?
- What do you do or not do?
- What goes on in your head?
- Any dialogue?
Student Model "A"
The Great Nephew
“So, remind me, how are you related to Peter Langmack?”
I hesitated for a moment. Was she questioning my right to be there? The portly woman and her husband had approached the doors, and my sister and I were delegated by my great aunt to help greet guests as they arrived. This woman and man were both Caucasian and dressed in mostly black, fancy attire. She stared at me as I stammered out my response.
“Oh, I’m uh… I’m Avery, Uncle Pete’s– Peter’s, great nephew,” I corrected myself. “Here’s a program for the service, if you would like one.”
“Thank you,” she said politely, moving through the doors. “It’s nice to meet you, Avery.”
She and her husband proceeded to mingle with some of the other attendees at my great uncle’s memorial service. I made eye contact with my sister, took a shallow breath, and returned my gaze to the front entrance which we scanned for attending couples. The feelings of discomfort hung in the air.
If you haven’t noticed already, I am not white. My father came from Taiwan and my mother is Danish, German, Korean, and Chinese. In essence, I don’t look white like the other people who were at the memorial. Now, I don’t have very dark skin, so if you looked at my arm out of context, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that I was Asian. But the fact is that we don’t greet each other by staring at each other’s arms. We look directly into the eyes of those we are introducing ourselves to, and in my case, people tend to get a lot of their first impression of me from the features of my face.
Just because I look Asian does not mean that I was raised as an Asian. I was born in Denver and have lived here my entire life. I grew up in the middle of the United States with a family that taught me mostly American values. So no, I cannot read or speak Mandarin or Japanese, and I don’t want to become a doctor when I grow up. And yes, I do have relatives who are Caucasian and relatives who are Asian, all of whom I love very much. When I look around and see my American peers, I think of myself an American, not as some removed sub-category of American with a little bit of Asian mixed in.
When I was around my Uncle Pete, he never treated me or my family like we were any different from the rest of his Iowan friends and family. My sister and I loved helping him shuck fresh sweet corn on the back porch of his Long Island house. He would chuckle and remind us jokingly about the time when he accidentally stabbed himself through the hand with a corn skewer. What surprised me most about this experience at my Uncle Pete’s memorial service was how all of these memories seemed to have so little significance knowing that I was in a room with some of his former business partners and best friends. Later, I came to the realization that, no matter our race, age, or cultural values, we all have special memories of the people we hold dear, and no one can deem which ones are more important or meaningful than others.
So yes ma’am. I am Peter Langmack’s great nephew. I may not look like him, I may not seem like I am related to him, but after all the succulent Long Island corn I ate by his side and the joyous walks along Great Rock Road, I feel more like his grandson than anything else.
Student Model "B"
The minute hand inched towards the nine, the ticking of the clock muffled by the glass and pristine white plastic encircling the numbers on the wall. A group of fourteen hyperactive fourth graders sat with sneakered feet hooked around the metal legs of the chairs, pencils viciously scribbling words like calculate, pensive, and gorgeous in red, yellow, brown, and blue spelling books. I sat at my varnished wood and metal desk, smelling faintly of the cloying lemony scent of cleaning wipes that remove sticky fingerprints and wads of half chewed bubble gum.
The only time I got fidgety was just before nine o’clock. At precisely 8:55 am, our grouchy, wizened homeroom teacher would wake up from where he was dozing in his chair. It happened every single day, like he had some internal alarm clock blaring at him that he needed to have his eyes open to do his job. I think 8:55 am was the only time he actually listened to it. He pushed himself from the rolling chair and set to gathering his thoughts. It took him a few minutes, and he shuffled the papers on his desk, stalling. Finally, he grumbled that we had 45 minutes of reading time and that we needed to stay quiet (presumably for his nap time). He slumped back into his chair, utterly drained from the interaction. All the kids barked in dismay, but he was already asleep. This was my favorite time of day. When the sun started to creep through the windows and illuminate the dust particles thrown into the air by the constant movement of energy addled children. I had my book in hand before anyone had even put their pencils in their desks. The rest of my classmates took this opportunity to make baskets in the trash can with crumpled balls of lined paper, or gather in groups of hushed whispers and secret giggles. I simply sat at my desk and read and read. I had fallen into a rhythm. I had become so used to isolation that I didn’t seem to mind. The odd man out. But I much preferred people made of ink to ones made of flesh. I did not like the people who stared, and glared, and smirked. At some point during elementary school a line had been drawn. I don’t know when exactly, but each year it became more defined, the matching notebooks and ponytail holders seeming to etch a line in the sand with their sameness. I sat on the sidelines at recess when the boys with knee high socks played soccer on the grass. Or when the girls with their training bras stuffed with wads of tissue climbed the jungle gym. I had never been one to partake in frills and gossip and it didn’t really matter until now. Until everyone else was chatting in globs of laughter and exposed teeth, and I was left in the corner with some pages bound together.
Student Model "C"
A Foreigner in my Own Family
2011: Confusion filled my mind followed by waterfalls of tears pouring down my face. My father was shaking with anger. Everyone paused and looked in my direction, the room was silent. I was unable to comprehend that even my own family didn’t accept who I was. Only nine years old at the time and questions occupied my mind, I was wondering if my grandfather still loved me? Why doesn’t he accept who I am? Was there something that I could do?
My father stood, “How could you say those words in front of your granddaughter, you know she’s Jewish dad!” he exclaimed.
Grandpa somehow pushed my father’s comment to the side and continued to tell his story. The whole family watched me carefully to see my reaction as grandpa carried on as though nothing was wrong. I simply pushed it aside despite the fact that I was unbearably upset about my own family member stereotyping my religion and criticizing the path I chose to take.
2014: I sent him the invitation five months in advance, in the hopes that my grandfather would make the trip from Michigan to Colorado to see his granddaughter become a bat mitzvah. After receiving no response three months after it was sent, I called, somehow still hoping that he would come.
I got off the phone more upset than the first time he made a comment about my religion being inferior to his. He said that he couldn’t come because he had a “hunting trip;” however, we knew that wasn’t true. This was one of the biggest days of my life and I had to go through it knowing that I was making a decision that may forever impact my relationship with a pivotal part of my life. I wondered was it worth it? Should I back out? Maybe it isn’t really that important. However, I was eight months into hebrew lessons and my mom and dad had poured everything they could into my party. It didn’t seem fair, this was something so important to me and my identity but a member of my own family is so opposed to it that he won’t even acknowledge me.
2017: Conversation halted, and yet again I felt like the whole room was staring at me waiting for me to cry or yell, but I did neither, I simply sat there in silence. When dad tried to yell at him, I stopped him, there was no need to create yet another family problem. I let it go. He and the hundreds of other people who ostracize and criticize me because I’m Jewish will no longer impact me or my life decisions.
Student Model "D"
What is this fork for?
The evening doesn’t start out as bad as the dinner; it’s quite fun actually. Nerve wracking, yes, but fun. Sergio gives me a ride to our friend’s house, where the entire Winterfest group meets. I enter the house, greeting all the other kids’ parents. Then comes my date, my beautiful, beautiful date. I hug her, give her the 15 dollar corsage I had bought her that morning, and then come the pictures. So many pictures. I don’t usually like taking pictures, but for her I make an exception. But even with the joy I feel surrounded by all my friends, I take a look around the house. I notice the giant glass cupboard filled with wine bottles, each probably costing hundreds. I notice the nice fireplace burning logs, the glass walls all around and see I am not like the people here. I think of my house, the one with the kitchen an eighth the size of theirs, the peeling paint, the beaten up carpet. I think of my suit, the 60 dollar one from H&M. I think of my shoes, the 15 dollar ones from Ross. So then we go to dinner. I try not to think about how I’m so different from everyone else, and I start having some fun. To be seated next to people much “higher” than I am, all of whom think they are, is like being a peasant seated next to the king himself. “This fork is for your salad; this one is for the main course,” they say. “Don’t you remember from cotillion?” No, I don’t. I’ve never felt the luxury of learning what a smaller spoon is for (as if it’s necessary). I’ve never felt the privilege of going to a restaurant to pay eighty dollars for a few pieces of spinach on my plate. As my thumbs coming from palms sweaty enough to fill all of Seaworld fidget, my eyes wander to the roof. “You good?” my friend asks. “No, Yeah, I’m fine,” I reply. But with my shirt collar suddenly shrinking from a medium to an extra small, I want to tell them I want to get out of there. I want to leave this lavish hell, and go to the welcoming home of Wendy’s. But being well-behaved is important. I don’t want to show how uneducated I truly am. So I swallow the awkwardness and stay put. “I might get the filet mignon.” “What’s filet mignon?” I whisper to Sergio. “You think I know?” he chuckles. I feel fortunate to have another person in the same situation as me. But even after the dreadful dinner, my awkwardness persists throughout the night, and spoils any fun that I could have had.
Student Model "E"
The Soft Kid
As a kid I was always been the odd ball out. I was never mistreated for this, but always felt out of place because I had to do things differently from those around me. Simply to follow a weird high fat, low carbohydrate diet, I was the kid who had to eat the strangest foods, such as strawberries at birthday parties while the others ate cake. My food I had to be weighed on a scale to the exact gram, and I took longer time to process things. I was old for my grade because of health reasons, and everyone thought that I had been held back because I wasn’t as smart as the other kids in the same grade. I was the kid who had to go to three hours of church every Sunday while my friends played football. I wasn’t allowed to play football or other contact sports with all my friends because of how sensitive my head was, and I had to wear a dumb looking helmet to protect my highly sensitive head. I was less confident than others and quite a goofball. I was also the size of a woolly mammoth because my high fat diet.
I’ve always tried to fix the problems of those around me and make the right choice, although that wasn’t always possible. I spent time beating myself up for my mistakes while others enjoyed the beauty of the wonderful day. Now, when I’m happy, I let it be known to everyone. I have spent my whole life trying to discover my purpose in life, and the best way that I can improve the world and the lives of those around me. Sometimes I get put down for caring too much about things and never know where to draw the line. I am the soft kid who in tennis loses a match because I play a ball “in” that was actually “out,” as I am too scared to have made an unfair call. Deep down I sometimes feel I am not the person that people think I am. I might be a monster that someday is going to rattle free and destroy everything in its path. I hope I’m wrong. I hope I’m the sweet, kind, and soft kid that everyone thinks I am because sometimes being “soft” can be better than being “strong.”After all, doesn’t “soft” just mean being considerate?
Student Model "F"
Race. A word that is taken so seriously. A word that we hold onto in times of doubt. A word that defines you so thoroughly it is hard to shake. A word that puts many in power. A word that puts many in the eye of death. Race. Something that I know and take pride in. My race. Something that has caused my friends to query and sometimes interrogate me.
“Are you black?” she asked on a scorching hot afternoon in El Segundo. It was the month of March, and I was almost out of the vicious school year known as the third grade. I sat in silence while eating my finely cut crisp apples. My eyes wandered from one corner of the room to the next as I searched for the ‘correct’ answer to a wrong question. “Yes. I am,” I replied thinking that the question about my race was over. “But… are you reallllyy black?” She asked having the audacity to question my answer. Once again I was left to search for an answer that showed the sarcasm I had gained from watching Hannah Montana. But instead I said, “Why does it matter?” while looking at her long brown hair and mucus green eyes. She replied, “I mean I guess it doesn’t, but you don’t look black.” I didn’t respond. I had never questioned my race before, but on that day I began to. Not only did I lose a friend that day, but I was also left with a loss of certainty.
“No way!” she said. I was now in sixth grade and was ready to take on any circumstances that middle school life had to throw at me. “Yes. I am,” I replied to that question about my race. Standing in the hallway with books in hand, raised eyebrows, squinted eyes and parted lips, I listened to the audacity of our generation questioning me once again. She hit me with her elbow as she opened her mouth to try and repeat herself, but before she had a chance to utter a word, I said coolly, “Can you just stop? Is my answer not enough for you? I mean I’ve answered your question the best I know how to. How would you prefer me to reply?” Behind my cool exterior was a livid interior, beyond the point of being pissed. “You’ll tell me the truth someday,” she said as I unhooked her bony claws from my forearm. I walked away in silence and disgust. It wasn’t the fact that she wouldn’t believe me that made me upset. It wasn’t the fact that she was so blindly persistent that upset me either. And it surely wasn’t even that she had asked in the first place. It was because she wasn’t the usual suspect. She was black. If I were unidentifiable to her…then who was I?
Race. A word that binds us to the invisible chains of this gruesome society. A word that invites some and excludes others. Race. A word that so heavily defines me.