Saturday, February 24, 2018
The Profile

Students Forced To Choose Between Muslim Voices or Agnes Tradition

Ciel Zhang

Campus News Editor

On Oct. 5, the Thursday of the college’s 102 Black Cat Week, three celebrated Muslim poets arrived on campus for a reading at 7 p.m., the same hour when the traditional bonfire is lit up in front of Alston.

The poets were Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Kazim Ali, and Deema Shehabi, all distinguished in their writing, teaching and anthologizing career. This literary event was preceded by a dinner reception at 6 p.m. that day and was followed by a panel discussion Friday at 1 p.m., both led by Dr. Waqas Khwaja from the English department.

Unfortunately coinciding with one of the biggest campus traditions, this event was moderately attended by professors, students and friends of the English department. A few recent alumnae showed their presence at the event. During the reading, several veiled Muslim students walked in quietly with their class mascot costumes and stayed for the rest of it.

“This was a huge mistake in scheduling,” said Dr. Christine Cozzens on behalf of the English department. “Many people would have come to it; now it is a difficult choice between a campus tradition and a pressing current issue.”

The three poets expressed deep gratitude in having this opportunity to meet each other and read together. As Deema Shehabi saw it, the event was a “festival” for them. Although the three of them paved their own creative journeys, they each shared a poem written in the form of ghazel, an ancient poetic form founded in Arabic poetry and traveled around the world.

“I now remember more English ghazels than Arabic ghazels,” said Hashmi. “It is also popular in Italian.”

During the Q&A session following the reading, the poets were asked what it feels like to be a Muslim poet under the current political climate or, using the wording of the questioner, “in the age of Trump.”

Kazim Ali answered first by clarifying that being a Muslim poet is never a one-time mission, but rather a perpetual one.

“In the long poetic history of Muslim world,” said Kazim Ali, “there had been many difficult times like this, or even worse ones. Our mission is not surviving as Muslim poets in the age of Trump, but surviving as Muslim poets period.”

Deema Shehabi followed him up by stressing Muslim poets’ aversion against the reduction of their poetic identity.

“It is reductionist to see our work through an exclusive lens of Muslim identity, since not every poem written by every one of us addresses issues concerning our faith and its relation to current politics,” said Shehabi.

Although they critiqued the reductionist perspective, Kazim Ali said that their books do sell better in this kind of age, which works in their favor.

Lauren Albin ’12, who will be coming back to teach in the English department next semester, was at the event.

“This time coming back to Agnes Scott and playing a professional role, I feel I am still a student but in a different form,” said Albin. “The pluralism of these poets’ identity is what connects them as Muslim-American writers. They are just like the ghazels they read: each so different, but similar in form and rhythm.”

Lyrik Courtney ’21 sacrificed their first bonfire for this event.

“I really appreciate the opportunity to hear from all three Muslim writers at the same event,” said Courtney. “They offered variations of a similar voice and added so much depth to the current political discussions.”

Kazim Ali (left) reads a currently unpublished poem and
from his book “All One’s Blue,” and Shadab Zeest Hashmi (right) recites from her collection “Kohl and Chalk.” Photos by Joann Lee ’20.

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