In response to President Trump’s banning of refugees from predominantly Muslim states—which he announced, let us note, on Holocaust Remembrance Day—we at Bloom wanted to dedicate a piece to Muslim bloomers. Only by understanding people who are not mirror reflections of ourselves, and only by ensuring the visibility of all beliefs, races, genders, ability, class, and sexuality, will we create a diverse, egalitarian, and progressive literary world.
Below are five Muslim bloomers who have crafted powerful literature and struggled with the place of Islam in their lives. No one wants to be pigeonholed, and these bloomers are no different. But often the areas of our lives where we experience the most ambivalence or uncertainty are the wellsprings from which we create our strongest art.
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Born in 1965 in Kabul, Afghanistan, the eldest child of a diplomat father and a schoolteacher mother, Hosseini grew up middle class and Westernized. His parents did not, for example, believe in keeping women separated from society, but instead hosted parties where women wore makeup and short skirts, and mingled with men.
The Hosseini family moved to Paris for his father’s diplomatic work when Khaled was eleven years old. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Hosseinis were granted political asylum in the U.S. Khaled was fifteen years old, attending high school in San Jose, California, and did not yet know English.
Khaled’s father became a driving instructor, and his mother a waitress—joining the immigrant working class and surviving off welfare. Khaled became a doctor to combat his family’s poverty, completing his residency in 1996. He practiced internal medicine from 1996-2004, while writing and publishing his first novel, The Kite Runner.
The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir, a Sunni Muslim, as he looks back on his childhood. Raised in a single-parent household by his father and a Shi’a servant, Amir navigates living in a privileged social class while his father treats him like the servants, as well as the unstable Afghan political climate of the 1970s.
The Kite Runner became an international bestseller and spent 100+ weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was made into a film and a graphic novel. Hosseini established The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. The Foundation works with the United Nations refugee organization to build shelters, provide economic opportunities, education, and healthcare to women and children.
The heart of Hosseini’s stories is not explicitly Islam but the effect of radical Islamist groups like the Taliban on Afghanistan. He speaks passionately against warlords who threaten the stability of Afghan society and the lack of education for Afghanis, particularly women.
Hosseini was forty years old when The Kite Runner was published. He has released two more novels: A Thousand Splendid Suns in 2007, and And the Mountains Echoed in 2013. Both focus on Afghanistan and the effect radicalization and war have had on the nation.
Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Born in 1948 in Tehran, Iran, Azar Nafisi’s father was mayor of the city from 1961-1963; he was jailed on false charges and quickly bailed out in 1966, with millions of dollars raised by Iranian citizens on his behalf. Her mother wanted to be a doctor, but was instead mainly a socialite in the shadow of her husband, which caused her great bitterness and left the couple estranged. She did serve briefly in Iran’s Parliament.
A brilliant student, Azar attended boarding school in England and Switzerland. She completed her PhD in the U.S. at John Hopkins, writing her thesis on Nabokov. She grew up Westernized and liberal, and not religious. The focus in her household was on literature. Politically, she identified as a Stalinist. Now Nafisi identifies as Muslim.
Returning to Tehran in 1980, she taught at the University of Tehran, but was expelled for refusing to wear the veil. She continued teaching at various universities until, fed up with the restrictive system, she resigned in 1995 and for two years taught seven female students once a week in her home. They read and discussed forbidden Western classics as Islamic morality squads staged raids, fundamentalists seized universities, and censorship stifled artistic expression.
This experience from 1995-1997 is the backbone of her first memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, published in 2005 when Azar was fifty-five years old. The book was a national bestseller and spent 117+ weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It has been translated into thirty-two languages and won the 2004 Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award from Booksense, the Frederic W. Ness Book Award, the 2004 Latifeh Yarsheter Book Award, and an achievement award from the American Immigration Law Foundation. Azar was a finalist for the 2004 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir and in 2006 won the Persian Golden Lioness Award for Literature.
Nafisi has published two more memoirs: Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter, in 2008, and The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, in 2014. She is a Visiting Professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and she teaches aesthetics, culture, literature, and the relation between culture and politics.
Nafisi speaks about Islam when asked by interviewers, believing that just because one lives in a country where the majority of people are Muslim, such as Iran, it doesn’t mean you are limited to one set way to practice. In fact, for her it means the opposite. Islam must constantly reinvent and question itself to survive.
Sumbul Ali-Karamali, The Muslim Next Door: The Quran, the Media and That Veil Thing
Born in 1964 in Southern California to a South Asian Muslim family, Ali-Karamali, a visible and practicing Muslim growing up in an area without many of either, was used to answering questions about Islam. While for some people, being expected to explain the aspects of an unfamiliar belief system or structure can be understandably draining and embarrassing, Ali-Karamali embraced the opportunity to educate. She earned her Bachelors in English from Stanford, a JD from UC Davis, and her LLM from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, in Islamic Law.
While taking time off to raise her two children, Ali-Karamali wrote her first nonfiction book, approaching her primer on Islam for curious non-Muslims from an academic perspective. She added memoir-esque anecdotes to supplement her academic discussion of her faith, learned and practiced while growing up in America. Her treatise was published in 2008, when she was forty-four years old. The book won the Bronze Medal of Independent Publishers in 2009.
Her second nonfiction book was published in 2012. Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam is a chapter book for readers ages ten and up. Ali-Karamali writes, teaches, and gives lectures across the country to raise awareness about American Islam and how she navigates her South Asian, American, and Muslim heritages.
Mohja Kahf, The Girl In The Tangerine Scarf
Born in 1967 in Damascus, Syria, Kahf is an Arab-American poet, literature professor, and author. Her family was involved in opposition politics in Syria and moved to the U.S. in 1971, settling in the Midwest. She earned her PhD in comparative literature from Rutgers and teaches English at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She is a faculty member of the King Fahd Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the university.
Kahf’s only novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, was published in 2006 when she was thirty-nine years old. It was chosen as a Booksense Reading Group Favorite in June 2007, as book of the year for the One Book, One Bloomington Series in 2008, and as required summer reading by the incoming first-year class at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Maryland in 2008.
The novel follows Syrian immigrant Khadra Shamy, a young woman growing up in a devout Muslim family in Indiana in the 1970s. She and her diverse group of friends explore Indianapolis, pushing boundaries and expectations of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and culture. When her marriage fails, years later, Khadra travels to Syria to regain her faith and equilibrium. Upon returning to the U.S., Khadra sticks to the East Coast as a journalist, until she must return to Indianapolis to cover a national Islamic conference, confronting her ex-husband, her family, and the traumatic past murder of a friend by Klan members.
Kahf puts to paper the cultural dissonance and clashes one can experience as a Muslim woman in America, and draws ties between Islam and art. Her decision to have Khadra rediscover her faith in Syria is a bold plot choice for a novel published in a country where returning to a Muslim country can be read as a step towards radicalization. Defying stereotypes, Kahf portrays Syria as more than a land of terrorism and anti-American policies, calling upon the vibrant culture that exists in the Middle East.
Kahf continues to publish poetry and prose (essays, articles), and has won a Pushcart Prize.
Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Born in Okara, Pakistan in 1964, in the Punjab province, Hanif’s father was a farmer. Both his parents were illiterate. The only book in their home was a Koran. Borrowing books written first in Punjab, then Urdu, and finally English, Hanif was able to study both Western and Middle Eastern literature and thought. He enlisted in the Air Force on an eighteen-year contract to escape his tiny town, though he immediately resented the restriction and violence of the armed forces. He was able to leave the Air Force in 1988, three months after a U.S.-backed coup. His father had died, and he was dismissed on compassionate grounds.
Hanif pursued a successful career in journalism and married Nimra Bucha, an actress. In 1996 he was offered a job in London at the BBC’s Urdu-language service, which he eventually came to lead. While living in England, he became obsessed with discovering how the 1988 coup was accomplished, and how Pakistan’s leader, Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, was killed. Unable to uncover a concrete answer, he wrote a satirical novel about the assassination, using one of the wilder theories he had heard: that there had been a bomb in a case of mangoes planted aboard Zia’s plane. Hanif turns Zia into a buffoon of a man, entangles his narrator (the assassin) in a homosexual relationship with another Air Force pilot, and generally criticizes Zia’s regime.
The novel sold to Pakistan’s publishing rival, Random House India, when the Pakistan publishing companies refused to touch it. Random House India agreed to ship several thousand copies into Pakistan.
Just before publication, Hanif and his family returned from England to live in Karachi. A Case of Exploding Mangoes was published in 2008, when Mohammed was forty-four years old. The Pakistani government lauded the novel because it made fun of their predecessors. The book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for The Guardian’s First Book Award, shortlisted for the James Tait Book Award, and won both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel and the 2008 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize.
Hanif still lives in Karachi. His novel has not been translated into Urdu, which means the vast majority of Pakistanis have not read it, though he sometimes gets approached by military personnel demanding his sources. Hanif writes for the New York Times and The Guardian in English, and is a vocal supporter of Pakistani-born Taliban-survivor and activist Malala Yousafzai. His second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, was published in 2011. His third, The Baloch Who Is Not Missing and Others Who Are, was published in 2013. He has also written a film script, plays, and an opera.
Mollie Weisenfeld is an Editorial Assistant at Weinstein Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. She is also an editor at Curiosity Quills Press. Her poetry has been published in Folio and Lilith Magazine, and she has a children’s story forthcoming from Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.