Recently, someone told me about an exercise that a professor had his class do during seminary. The professor told the class to talk to someone within their social sphere who they knew but did not really have a relationship with apart from maybe a passing acquaintance. The students had to, before speaking with the person, write down their preconceived notions about the individual. After getting to know the person, the students were then required to write a reflection essay about how their preconceived notions fell apart once they actually communicated with the person.
The individual who told me about this assignment spoke about his own experience with it. He said that he identified a person, his son’s soccer coach, and, while sitting in his truck watching practice, began to list out his thoughts about the coach. The coach was from Mexico, so the person listed things such as “undocumented,” “lazy,” “Catholic,” etc. When the person began talking with the coach, all of these preconceived notions went out the window. The coach didn’t fit any of the preconceived notions. In fact, he was a Southern Baptist preacher and church planter. The person continued by saying that having to write this paper was one of the hardest he ever had to do, especially because it made him come face to face with his own preconceived prejudices.
This assignment reminds me of what I’ve been writing about over the past couple of posts. In those posts, I’ve written about the question, “What are you?” and looked at the ways that Toufic El Rassi and Malaka Gharib address this question in their works. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at a few moments in Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf where we see moments of characters, instead of letting individuals define themselves, define those around them, making them fit into their own preconceived notions of the world.
Kahf’s novel focuses of Khadra Shamy, a Syrian immigrant growing up in Indiana in the 1970s. Khadra’s grows “up in a devout, tightly knit Muslim family,” and she navigates her upbringing, questioning her fait at times and reaffirming it at other times. Part of Khadra’s questioning comes in the form of discovering that her preconceived notions of others and their faith run counter to reality. This occurs at multiple times throughout the novel. One key moment happens during the Shamy family trip to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. During the flight transfer in Amsterdam, Khadra sees the makeup of the flight change “[f]rom white to brown,” but she also notices that “the white middle-aged American couple” she saw earlier remained, heading to Saudi Arabia. During the flight, Khadra constantly thinks about the couple, that the woman should cover herself. Khadra even tells herself, “We’re the majority now.”
Upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, Khadra again sees the “American” couple as they “sailed through the entry gate.” She huffs, “Gimmie a break,” as she rolls her eyes. Wadjy, her father, then begins to prod her, asking if Khadra had noticed the couple earlier. Khadra laments that they probably arrived “[t]o prey on Saudi oil,” to which her father replies that they actually came for the Hajj. This revelation shocks Khadra, and she loses her footing in trying to place the couple within a concept that fits her thoughts about them. Now, she must place them as Muslim, but she still doesn’t grant them their full identity because she sees them as “converts,” not “true” Muslims. Khadra views them as “know[ing] nothing about Islam.”
Wadjy shatters these views as well. He tells his daughter that he spoke to the man in a restroom in Amsterdam. Wadjy “was making wudu” for prayer, and the man asked him how to do it. Eyad, Khadra’s brother, scoffs at this asking, “He’s a Muslim and he doesn’t know how to make wudu?” Wadjy commences to tell his kids that the couple are Albanian and they could not learn because when the communist took over “[t]hey didn’t let Muslims practice” their faith, denying them the Quran or going to mosque. The couple eventually made it to America. The couple didn’t know much, but they wanted to learn. So, Wadjy provided them with a guidebook of prayers and the number to the Dawah community center.
We don’t see the immediate effect of the couple’s story on Khadra. We don’t know how it impacts her own understanding of identity. We do know, though, that during her time in Saudi Arabia that her cousins and their friends push back on her identifying herself as Arab. They identify her as American. Her cousin Afaaf calls Khadra her “American cousin,” and even though she speaks Arabic without an American accent, Afaaf’s friends continue to push her. When she’s with Ghazi, he asks, “So . . . you’re American, huh?” Khadra vehemently replies, No. . . . I’m Arab. I told you, I’m Arab. Just like you.” Ghazi continues by asking, “What kind of Arab?” Khadra simply says, “The Muslim kind.” This doesn’t satisfy Ghazi, and he asks, “I mean, what Arab country?”
The exchange between Ghazi and Khadra, along with Ghazi attempting to sexually assault her because “American” girls are lose, points to the multiple ways that we construct identities. For Khadra, she based her thoughts of the “white, middle-class American couple” on their skin color, not on speaking with them. She thought they were American and not Muslim. However, neither of her thoughts were true. The reality was they were Albanian and Muslim. This realization shocked Khadra.
As well, Afaaf and her friends views Khadra as “American,” denying her any leeway in defining herself. Khadra does not, at this point in the novel, view herself as American. She views herself as Syrian, as Arab, as Muslim. Those identities define her, not where she grows up. In each of these moments, others label individuals, denying the individuals the ability to identify and label themselves. The preconceived notions, based on skin color and nationality trump the ways that the individuals identify.
There is more that could be said, and in the next post I will continue by looking at a few more moments from The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.