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Unfurl Service: Nimah Ismail Nawwab, who read in San Jose from her book of poetry 'The Unfurling,' has more to say about Islamic culture in Saudi Arabia than most Americans probably want to hear.

The Trouble With Islam-Bashing

Poet Nimah Ismail Nawwab brought her vision of Saudi Arabian Islam to San Jose. But is she too honest to succeed in America's 'bad Muslim' pop culture?

By Najeeb Hasan

TO WRITE about Saudi Arabia—or, more specifically, about the Wahhabi strain of Islam exported from Saudi Arabia—has been in vogue as of late. The topic of most intense scrutiny is women in Saudi Arabia. Since the elimination (at least officially) of the Taliban, whose burka-clad women caught the eye of tsk-tsking American feminists well before 9/11, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the hippest rallying point for those concerned with bathing the backward in the light of modern progress. (It's worth noting that Hamid Karzai's burka-clad women have been, so far, exempt from this largely secular, and sometimes Evangelical, crusade.)

The desire to enlighten those stubbornly yoked to conservative Islam has had some very odd results. Second-rate writers, many of them female and Muslim—Irshad Manji (The Trouble With Islam Today), Asra Nomani (Standing Alone in Mecca), Asma Gull Hasan (Why I Am a Muslim), among them—have transformed themselves into Op-Ed contributors sought by the nation's finest newspapers, and speakers asked to participate in symposiums about Islam held at the country's various universities. With some, such as Manji, whose "trouble with Islam" seems to be Islam itself, there's a sense that the writer has an agenda; with others, such as Nomani, it's apparent that the writer is, at least, sincere, if simplistic. "The modern Muslim community has fallen victim to a slick machinery of ideological propaganda that has been sent out into the world through an empire I call Wahhabism Inc.," Nomani (who, in her quest to better the condition of women in American mosques, unabashedly likens herself to civil rights activists integrating lunch counters in the 1960s) told the Jordan Times earlier this summer.

'Good' and 'Bad' Muslims

Blaming it on the Wahhabis, Nomani's good intentions notwithstanding, is a formula guaranteed to bring acceptance from the forces controlling the national debate; it's a tactic that was perhaps first popularized by the anarchist-turned-neocon-Sufi Stephen Schwartz. Schwartz, a former writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and more recently a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard, has, in his writings, more or less established a criterion for distinguishing a "good" Muslim from a "bad" Muslim: In a nutshell, "good" Muslims are not Wahhabis; however, one's theological distance from Wahhabism doesn't, in itself, guarantee a Muslim place in the abode of the good—they also must not talk politics.

And perhaps that's why Nimah Ismail Nawwab will never be much of a name in the United States. At first glance, it appears she does fulfill the prerequisites to snag a Times Op-Ed or two. She's a woman, a Muslim, a Saudi at that. She's a writer, a poet, whose work is so-so, but she's not shy about criticizing some of the troubling aspects of contemporary Muslim societies, especially her own.

Read her work, however—or, better yet, listen to her work, as a mostly Arab audience did two weeks ago when Nawwab held a reading in an elegant south San Jose living room—and it'll be apparent why she won't be following the path of Manji or Nomani.

For starters, she doesn't blame it on the Wahhabis. In fact, Nawwab doesn't do much blaming at all; rather, she describes: the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, all of it. She takes a page, it seems, from Muhammad Asad's memoir, The Road to Mecca (indeed, Nawwab beams when Asad's name is brought up in conversation). Asad, an Austrian-born convert to Islam who died in the 1990s, is lauded in Muslim circles not only for a still-significant English translation of the Koran, but also for his lively memoir, which describes life on the Arabian peninsula—pre-oil boom—in aching detail. And the problem with detail, of course, with Asad's memories of an untarnished Arabia, with Nawwab's lines that try to document what that Arabia is now, is that it's all so complicated. Not to mention that detail, by its nature, humanizes, something the West is not always interested in doing to people who live in places like Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is a Wahhabi country; what else needs to be said?

English Only

Nimah Nawwab, an Arab by birth and upbringing, writes poetry only in English, and sometimes it shows. It doesn't take long to find clichés in her work: She uses the phrase, "a voice among the voiceless" in the first poem of her book, The Unfurling; in the very next poem, she describes a member of Saudi Arabia's morality police as "a raging bull on the rampage"; and, in her third poem, she declares, "My world is my oyster."

To appreciate her poetry, then, requires the eye of an anthropologist rather than a literary critic.

"Fiery Embrace," for instance, chronicles the 2002 fire at a girls' school in Mecca; 15 students ended up perishing in the blaze and Saudi Arabia's religious police were criticized publicly (a rare event) for preventing some of the girls from escaping the fire because they were deemed not properly clothed. In the poem, Nawwab contrasts the confusion of the fire—"Pile ups begin, / Bodies jamming, / Colliding, / Toppling over, / Falling, / Running figures tread over the fallen."—with the deadly confusion caused by the religious police, who are "enflamed" with rage at the sight of uncovered women and are "relentless in their self-appointed, protective mission."

After this episode with the religious police, it would be easy for Nawwab to talk of "Wahhabism Inc.," but, rather, she chooses to add some gray to the picture. In her poem, "The Imam," instead of linking what the imams, or religious leaders, preach to the actions of the religious police, Nawwab writes of the imam's shoulders being "straight" and his step "confident," of his "gentle smile" and "scholarly eyes"; he runs "his hands through the Book' and he "kneels, reads, and is content."

In her poems about women, two sides are also described.

"Male domination is definitely there [in Saudi Arabia]," Nawwab acknowledges in an interview. "But my father likes to say something. He says women in Saudi Arabia have a power that people don't know about. It's a hidden power. It's because they make the biggest decision in life. They hold the purse strings, and they are the ones who make choices in terms of marriage. The women have a lot of say."

In "Gentleness Stirred" Nawwab describes a woman who is told her head scarf has slipped: "Head cast down, / Eyes to the ground, / Shoulders drooping / She listens." In "Life Imprisonment," she again writes about women: "Better a wife to Henry the Eighth, / Than be buried alive." But, in "The Hidden Layers" she puts a positive spin on the women's black cloak, asking if it barricades her from the world or allows her to explore the unseen.

While not her strongest line, the phrase "voice among the voiceless" is often used to describe Nawwab herself, perhaps not surprising, considering she speaks fluent English and regularly speaks to large crowds—at a reading in Japan, she says, 5,000 people came to hear her work.

"I've been dubbed," she says about the label. "I've been dubbed a pioneer. I've been told I'm the Maya Angelou of Saudi Arabia. I understand that part and why it happens. We are very much unknown and a mystery."

She's also become quite famous within Saudi Arabia itself.

"I wasn't seeking that," she says. "For me, I had to adapt. A lady approached me once; she wore the niqab [face veil]. She said, Thank you for giving us voice. It turned out she was an English professor, that she taught English literature. She memorized—I don't memorize my poetry—she had memorized passages of 'The Longing,' and she alluded to them in our conversation. She stood there for 20 minutes talking about the poems."


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From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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