E-mails from Scheherazad by Mohja Kahf

My last post about Pilar Albarracin’s art mentioned Scheherazad but did not discuss the concept behind the stories as feminist. What I find interesting about Scheherazde is the fact that, as a character, she both resists and falls into certain stereotypes about women. For instance, if we were to consider how women were once labelled as manipulators, then she might fall into that category. Her manipulation, if I may call it that, comes in a creative or literary form, where she uses the art of narrative to keep Shehrayar interested enough in her stories to postpone her death. The most interesting aspect of that to me is the fact that her storytelling is oral and not written. It is, in a sense, un-revisable, organic and spontaneous. The art of storytelling becomes an art of resistance, a necessity for survival. Therefore, the way Albarracin used the 1001 nights reference in her work was interesting in the sense that she used and commented on Sheherazde’s story by using a visual/performance stimulation devoid of narrative. More interestingly, Mohja Kahf takes the reference a step further in her collection of poems E-mails from Scheherazad.

What is interesting to me about Kahf’s poems is the fact that she built on the notion of resistance through storytelling by crafting poems that exist on the page.  Kahf’s poems are not spoken, but they are written with and by speech at times. They are lyric and dramatic and colloquial. This is by no means a subtle book of poetry. Its social commentary is straightforward in a manner that attaches the label of political poetry to it. Kahf’s poems explore Arab identity, or more specifically the Arab expatriate experience, feminist politics, and Muslim identity, especially that pertaining to the veil and the scarf. Kahf also recognises the Orientalist heritage of a western commentary on and representation of the east. She uses poetic tools in a manner that is, at times, distortive to the norms of English poetry, such as in Affirmative Action Sonnet, as well as in ways illustrative of the diversity within the identities she is writing.

In the poem E-mail from Scheherazad, where the book gets its title, Kahf writes:


I told a story. He began to listen and I found

That story led to story. Powers unleashed. I wound

The thread around the prin of night. A thousand days

Later, we got divorced. He’d settled down


& wanted a wife & not so much an artist.


I really admire how Kahf utilises the concept of Schehrezad’s resistance to patriarchy and transforms it into a modern day conflict. What had been a form of resistance enacted through that character is not sufficient for modern women now. Kahf did not stop at fictitious old glories of resistance but was able to recognise the significance of 1001 nights and transform it. Oral storytelling becomes written work, which the writer aspires to publish. The resistance does not necessarily stop at the mere survival of the female within a patriarchal system, it transcends that to something all modern women today can aspire towards; for example, a career, if this is what they desire.

The perception of the other is a recurrent theme in Kahf’s book. It is most conspicuous with the poems of the Hijab Scenes, where Kahf undermines the otherness of Muslims, by using the strangeness or unconventional looks of the other. For instance, Hijab Scene # 1 Kahf writes:


“You dress strange,” said a tenth-grade boy with bright blue hair

to the new Muslim girl with the headscard in homeroom,

his tongue-rings clicking on the “tr” in “strange”.


This poem  is delightfully funny in its construction of otherness. The strangeness of the “hijab” is parallel to the strangeness of the “blue hair”. So for one to be questioning the strangeness of the other is comical, not to mention ignorant. The observation that the boy pronounces “strange” by clicking his tongue on his “tr” sound is hilarious considering many non-native speakers of English, specifically those from the Middle East,  roll their r’s as well.

In Lateefa, Kahf utilises a number of poetic and rhetorical devices to create a world of diversity within the Muslim New Jersey community. Her use of direct speech, italics and reflective indented interruptions emphasise a dramatic impulse within a lyric type of imagery and emotion. This results in a multi-subjective representation of a community instead of an objective one. Thus, the diversity offered by the perspective and characters resists the stereotypes usually imposed on the identity of Muslim communities. The narrative interruptions through imagery and speech acts further destabilise the homogeneity that Kahf is resisting in her portrayal. It makes the poem dwell in a space of reminiscence, but also grounds it in a beautiful present bringing the US and Islam closer together.


It’s New Jersey does it, Connie

It’s the Nile and the Euphrates

pouring into Passaic Valley, into the Raritan River

swelling it up sometimes on the spring so the crushed

cigarette packs and Styrofoam cups from Johnson Park

are swept into its eddies, grabbed and dropped

by crawling gulls.

I was born here–BORN!


oh Connie, I

got nowhere to go back to

(Daddy, you can talk to me

all you want about Palestine

And I’ll be faithful to the end

but I don’t know it, never

smelled its rainwater streets, don’t know

its stoops and backyards and chicken coops

and those neighbors standing beside that old Ford

in the black & white photograph. My Aunt Cauthar,

Daddy, I love her—I think of cougar,

sleek, black-haired, and courageous—

but I don’t know her, or the abundant rivers

of what she really means)

My favourite poem in Kahf’s book is Thawrah des Odalisques at the Matisse Retrospective. It is a witty poem that works on two levels in its resistance. A poem overtly feminist in its message, it also works on the level of distorting (or even mocking) the ekphrastic poem. It takes the objectification of the Oriental woman in the odalisques, and enacts resistance through not only the narrative of the poem, but also through the very nature of that sub-genre of poetry. The odalisques become alive, the women are freed from the hegemony of their artistic representation, they are, in fact, emancipated through Kahf’s ekphrastic storytelling.

I have to admit that  my aesthetic poetic preferences do not necessarily match Kahf’s. Some of the poems are heavily narrative and in others content seems to overshadow style. However, as apparent in this review, I do think E-mails from Scheherazad is a valuable book. It is interesting on account of its attention to recording the details of life and a culture, for the awareness of its writer of the historical representations of eastern women by the west, and for its brave honesty in depicting a point of view which is often marginalised.

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