Abstracts for MLA Panel: “Negotiating Sacred and Secular in Muslim Everyday Life”

Here are the abstracts for the MLA panel, “Negotiating Sacred and Secular in Muslim Everyday Life,” 5 January, 2013, 3.30 – 4.45 pm, Jefferson Room, Sheraton Hotel, Boston. The panel will be co-presided by Hanan Elsayed, Occidental College & Mosarrap Hossain Khan, New York University.

Abstracts in order of presentation:

Presenter 1: Mosarrap Khan (New York University) – “Subject of Desire and Everyday Life,”

Through a reading of Pakistani author, Moni Mohsin’s The End of Innocence (2006), this paper, “Subject of Desire and Everyday Life,” explores how everyday life makes possible the conceptualization of a new notion of Muslim self that negotiates the sacral and the worldly. Focusing on the technology of film that translates the familiar Punjabi legend of Heer-Ranjha into a narrative of desire, the paper foregrounds the protagonist, Rani’s moral transgression in the form of love and unwed pregnancy. Rani’s desire prods her to negotiate the terrain of worldly love while inhabiting a well-defined religious habitus. Though the novel describes the growth (and premature killing) of an individual who is marginal to the normal everyday reality of her society, the paper will further discuss the emergence of a fictional aesthetics that could be seen to deliberately subvert the trajectory of European bildungsroman.

Presenter 2: Hanan Elsayed (Occidental College) – “Alifa Rifaat’s Challenge: Love versus Death, versus Faith”

How does a pious Muslim Egyptian woman deeply in love with her husband continue on with her life after his death?  Alifa Rifaat’s short story “Telephone Call” presents a widow’s internal emotional world in all its complexity.  Rifaat portrays the workings of a love relationship that transcends death.

This story has been neglected because it does not fit comfortably into the usual paradigm of the unfulfilled and sexually frustrated female character associated with the work of Rifaat.  Moreover, it makes demands on readers and critics that her other stories do not.  “Telephone Call” raises questions about the meaning of piety and faith in Islam: God’s testing of the believer’s faith and perseverance is the ultimate test.

While the protagonist diligently carries out ritual ablutions and daily prayers, and remains bound to her home during the mourning period, she is completely absorbed by the memories of her late husband.  Debilitated by his death, she alienates herself and rejects her own life: “This is the only way to live at present, to turn life upside down, to sleep, with the aid of sleeping pills, during the hours when life is being led […] to be partly dead to it.”

According to Islamic tradition, loss of a loved-one in an integral part of one’s struggle.  Thus regaining one’s faith back and becoming capable for divine love is the ultimate success.  “Telephone Call” seems to remind us of a Sufi interpretation of faith: Total submission to God implies the internalization of the external rituals of Islamic religious life.  How is this possible when love is competing and conflicting with divine love and faith?

Presenter 3: Leila Pazargadi (Nevada State College) – “Mosaics of Identity: Exploring Muslim Americans in Mohja Kahf’s Post-9/11 Fiction”

As a Muslim Arab American writer, Mohja Kahf incorporates her life experiences into her fiction. Though her novel, Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, is a fictional bildungsroman about the life of Syrian American, Khadra Shamy, it bears autobiographical resemblance to the author’s experiences. Yet, by fictionalizing aspects of her life and by using the use of the omniscient 3rd person narrator in her novel, Kahf is not limited to narrating her own story, able to incorporate the stories of the Muslim Arab Americans of her community. By using fiction, she is able to delve into sensitive and somewhat taboo issues surrounding her community, as well as American politics, without having to claim testimonial authenticity. In doing so, she is free to paint a diverse picture of Muslim Americans, without being limited to a non-fictional genre.

In the novel, the protagonist, Khadra, recounts growing up as a Muslim in 1970s Indianapolis while critically engaging the racism surrounding her Muslim community. Through the example of her friend’s rape and murder, Khadra interrogates questions of identity, sexuality and the body, while negotiating her Muslim and American identities at the same time. Published on September 11, 2006, five years after the collapse of the World Trade Center, Kahf uses this fictional retelling of Khadra’s life to complicate American perceptions of Islam, and counters negative images about Muslims in the U.S.

In her work, she further complicates accepted perceptions about Muslim women, by both Americans and the greater Muslim community. Kahf possesses many identities and qualities that are intrinsic to asserting her agency: she is a feminist, she used to write a sex column for a progressive Muslim website, she writes sexy poetry and she’s a scholar of the Quran. In her work, she not only addresses American audiences about their misconceptions about Muslim women, but also forges a more flexible religious identity for Muslim American women. She creates nuanced and complicated characters that represent a multitude of difference when concerning Muslim American identity in a post-9/11 world.

Presenter 4: Justin Neuman (Yale University) – “Reading Islam”

This essay considers the rising popularity and international circulation of global fiction in which Islam constitutes a major theme, and analyzes the reasons why the production and circulation of such books has to date done little to cultivate exchanges between those of different faiths and of none.  In the chapter from which this talk is drawn, I analyze representations of Muslim everyday life in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup, and Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, in an attempt to clarify what, when, and how discourses about Islam circulate in and through global fiction, and to model strategies for reading across boundaries of religious difference.  While popular and critically acclaimed novels propagate visions of Islam compatible with the formal and rhetorical requirements of capitalist democracy, situating novelistic reading practices within institutional sites from the classroom to the courtroom I analyze the ways site-specific literacies denaturalize global discourses about Islam. 

Nadine Gordimer explores the limits of reading in her 2001 novel, The Pickup, in which Julie Summers, a young white liberal in post-apartheid South Africa, asks the young mechanic who fixes her car out on a coffee date—he turns out to be Ibrahim ibn Musa, an illegal immigrant from an unnamed and impoverished Muslim nation who gives his name as Abdu.  When he is deported (for the second time, and with no hope of redress) Julie decides to marry Ibrahim and emigrate; rather than an exposé of the injustice of the Muslim world or a fantasy of life behind the veil, the novel plots how, over a period of months, Julie becomes accepted among the women of Ibrahim’s extended family.  To her surprise, she finds deep satisfactions in the traditional rhythms of Islamic life in a village at the edge of the desert.  In Gordimer’s novel, religious differences do not prove as significant a barrier to relationships as the new economic and political divides of capitalist globalization.  Like fluencies with languages, for Julie, religion is something that can be learned and practiced without the necessity of being something to be “believed” in.  Instead, the novel emphasizes the vast asymmetries in social and geographic mobility between the throngs of sans-papiers like Ibrahim, who constitute the true underclass of the global economy, and migrants of privilege, like Julie, a white English speaker with a South African passport.  By privileging dwelling over reading, Gordimer casts an ironic light on her own project even as she challenges those who see religions primarily as systems of text and creedal commitment.

***

Panel Description: “Negotiating Sacred and Secular in Muslim Everyday Life”

This panel intends to explore the negotiation of sacred and secular in Muslim everyday life at diverse cultural and geographical locations around the world.  By responding to the dominant discursive construction of Muslims as primarily religious subjects, this panel seeks to challenge such a notion by foregrounding Muslims’ complex and varied engagement with the secular in multiple sites. A crucial impulse behind this panel is the production of a counter-point to the binary discourses of religious practice and secular thinking/practice in such influential works as Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005) and Aamir Mufti’s Enlightenment in the colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (2007). This special session intends to deconstruct the binaries of religious practice and secular thinking/practice. For that purpose, the panel will focus on individual Muslim subjectivities that engage with the secular world while inhabiting a well-defined religious habitus in their everyday life. The purpose is to explore how the religious subjectivity engages with the secular world and what negotiations take place within the habitus.

A second thematic focus of this panel will be on how fictional writing depicts the indeterminacy of everyday life in contradiction to ethnographical works on Muslim life in such disciplines as anthropology and sociology. The panelists would explore the gaps, the unseen, the uncanny, or those utopic/transformative aspects of everyday life that are swept under the normality of everyday life. This is to complicate the anthropological and sociological approaches to the study of everyday life. While popular culture tends to see the everyday as a closed system where changes, resistance, transgressions are almost negated, fictional writing can help us in understanding the marginal Muslim subjectivities and psyches.

The practice of female desire constitutes the center of Mosarrap Khan’s presentation. Through a reading of Pakistani author, Moni Mohsin’s The End of Innocence (2006), his paper, “Subject of Desire and Everyday Life,” explores how everyday life enables the emergence of a new notion of Muslim self that negotiates the sacral and the secular. Focusing on the technology of film that translates the familiar Punjabi legend of Heer-Ranjha into a narrative of desire, the paper foregrounds the protagonist, Rani’s moral transgression in the form of love and unwed pregnancy. Rani’s desire prods her to negotiate the terrain of worldly love while inhabiting a well-defined religious habitus. Though the novel describes the growth (and premature killing) of an individual who is marginal to the normal everyday reality of her society, the paper will further discuss the emergence of a fictional aesthetics that could be seen to deliberately subvert the trajectory of European bildungsroman.

The religious subject’s negotiation of the immutable and the temporal forms the theme of the second paper as well. Through a reading of Alifa Rifaat’s short story, “Telephone Call,” Hanan Elsayed’s paper, “Love versus Death, versus Faith,” demonstrates a pious Muslim widow’s complex negotiation of the terrains of ‘worldly love,’ that is, love for her dead husband, and ‘divine love,’ that is, love for God.  The juxtaposition of these two kinds of love is important for understanding how “regaining one’s faith back and becoming capable for divine love is the ultimate success.” Rifaat’s story, “Telephone Call,” is particularly interesting because it resists an easy slotting into her narrative oeuvre that commonly depicts unhappy and sexually frustrated women. It also provides a Sufi reading of faith, one that seeks the internalization of piety versus the externalization of rituals of Islamic religious life.

Leila Pazargadi’s paper, “Mosaics of Identity: Exploring Muslim Americans in Mohja Kahf’s Post-9/11 Fiction,” shifts our focus to the Arab American diasporic Muslim subjectivity. Through a reading of Syrian American writer Mohja Kahf’s novel, Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2006), that she terms a ‘fictional bildungsroman,’  Pazargadi demonstrates Kafh’s multiple identities – a feminist, a writer of sex column for a progressive Muslim website, and a scholar of the Quran. The novel forges a more flexible religious identity for Muslim American women in a post-9/11 world. By fictionalizing aspects of her own life and by using the omniscient third person narrator in her novel, Kahf is able to “delve into sensitive and somewhat taboo issues surrounding her community, as well as American politics, without having to claim testimonial authenticity.”

By focusing on the increasing popularity and international circulation of global fiction in English in which Islam and Muslim everyday life feature prominently, the final paper by Justin Neuman  attempts to clarify “what, when, and how discourses about Islam circulate in and through global fiction, and to model strategies for reading across boundaries of religious difference.” Neuman’s reading of Nadine Gordimer’s novel, The Pickup (2001), demonstrates that religion is something that can be learned and practiced without the necessity of being something to be “believed” in.  Instead, the novel emphasizes the vast asymmetries in social and geographic mobility. By privileging dwelling over reading, Neuman argues, Gordimer casts an ironic light on her own project even as she challenges those who see religions primarily as systems of text and creedal commitment.

Through nuanced readings of various works depicting multiple facets of Muslim everyday life in different contexts, this panel will contribute to debates in Islamic and Middle Eastern literary criticism today: debates on social constructions of religious identity, on the specificity and self-definitions of various cultures, and on the heterogeneity of the Muslim identity.

 

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