In a few days, I’m finally receiving my “doctorhood” towards which I have been working relentlessly for years. Of course, I’m ready to confront such questions as:
Exactly what are you a doctor of?
A doctor of literature? A doctor of philosophy?
A doctor of words? Sounds bizarre, but it seems like a good definition of a literary critic.
If I’m being specific, however, my work focuses on diaspora literature and the notion of Muslimness. My project “Transitional Spaces, Transnational Narratives, and Representation: Muslimness in Contemporary Literary Imaginations” intervenes in debates surrounding Muslims, Islam, and the representations of Muslimness in the Global North.
So, it goes without saying that I’ve been quite excited about:
- The Year of the Middle Eastern Reading Challenge launched by Reading Between the Dunes
- Unapologetically Muslim Reading Challenge that The Perks of Being Noura Blog has started
I find these two reading challenges critical in the current sociopolitical climate–at a time when Muslim Middle Eastern identity is perpetually viewed through the lens of cultural exclusion, defamation, and constant surveillance.
You may remember that in 2017–
Following the U.S. administration’s executive order on the travel ban that restricted immigration from seven Muslim countries, more than fifty literary agents from various agencies in North America issued a collective open call for submissions from Muslim writers.
“Like so many of you,” their statement read, “we are gravely alarmed by the present administration’s recent broad ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries.” They added:
Our hearts ache for the innocent people affected. We also fear the message sent by these bans to people within our country and to those outside of our borders. But we are also heartened by the immediate and widespread opposition these bans have met.”
The literary agents openly acknowledged the impact of the market forces on cultural production, consumption, and circulation:
“Literary agents are in a unique position to help contribute to bringing more empathy, compassion, understanding and tolerance into this world through books.
We seek out unheard voices so that others can hear them […]
We all agree that the current political climate demands a need for a greater presence of authors of Muslim heritage in the book marketplace. We are taking action to help make that happen.”
The collective statement is also aptly paired with a symbolic Mari Andrew drawing.
Andrew’s artwork houses a strikingly enormous grey torch with vibrant bursting flames spluttering from its fire. The word, “Hope,” is inscribed on the torch in capitals. The torch is surrounded by three smaller human figures which Andrews labels as respectively, “Musician,” “Artist,” and “Writer.” The figures carry their own miniature torches in hand and ladders that would evidently allow them to reach out to the torch of hope.
The artwork points to the ways in which hope and resistance can be cultivated in the face of cultural ostracism and the rise of global nativist movements.
This may all seem too idealistic to some but nonetheless conveys a crucial message about the role of the artist and what cultural and literary representations can offer in the ongoing debates about the so-called “problem” of Muslims in the Anglophone North Atlantic.
Both the Year of the Middle Eastern and Unapologetically Muslim Reading Challenges play a pivotal role in shifting the discursive focus from the perception of Muslim and/or Middle Eastern identity to the ways in which writers of Muslim/Middle Eastern origin are reclaiming what it means to be Muslim.
So, I have decided to combine these two challenges.
Every month throughout 2020, I will write about authors of Muslim Middle Eastern origin and their works.
I will also take the opportunity to explore the terms “Muslim” and “Middle Eastern.”
In Between the Middle East and Americans (2013), Alsultany and Shohat use the term “the Middle East” to “echo this common usage of the term, however inaccurate, to include North Africa as well, since within the public sphere ‘the Middle East’ does tend to ‘cover’ the region of North Africa, including in academic organizations, for example, The Middle East Studies Association” (21).
Alsultany and Shohat’s use of “the Middle East” alludes to the idea of the Middle East as signifying a broad geographical spectrum, while acknowledging that it is a problematic rubric. They add:
“In this sense, while South Asia might appear to be outside the scope of a volume dealing with Middle Eastern / North African diasporas, the current cultural politics make it necessary to address the ways in which Islamic Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Indonesia, etc.) and the Middle East become conflated” (21).
As I write about a wide range of books from Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home (2008) and Elif Shafak’s The Saint of Incipient Insanities (2004) to Saleem Haddad’s Guapa (2016) and Ali Eteraz’s Native Speaker (2016), I will explore if and how the books offer alternative visions of Muslimness and Middle Easternness.
April 2020 may almost be over, but it’s never too late to join a reading challenge!
Again, you can read more about these challenges here and join if you’d like:
Do you have any recommendations? Do let me know!