Review: Shades of Islam by Rafey Habib

Rafey Habib’s reputation in literature is built more in criticism and translations because, until now, he’s been hoarding his own poems to himself. The closest we’ve been able to get to the poetry of Habib is his translations of N.M Rashed, The Dissident Voice. Now in Shades of Islam, he is finally offering up a look at his own work.

First off, I should disclose that Habib was a teacher of mine 20 years ago. I took his Literary Criticism and Non-western Literature classes at Bloomsburg University (he now teaches at Rutgers University). I also credit him (or blame him) for encouraging my own writing back in the day. So while I know Habib as a teacher and friend, it’s a pleasure to get to know him better through these poems.

It would also be disingenuous of me not to comment on the timeliness of this release. As I was reading this book, the furor over Park51 (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”) was (still is) raging. Right-wing news commentators and politicos were scratching lines in the dust and raising the pitch of Islamophobia while I sat in my backyard reading this book. People who a year ago had never heard the word Sharia, knew what an imam was or what actually happened at Cordoba, were suddenly posturing themselves as experts while calling their bigotry patriotism.

Into this fray drops Habib’s book, a seemingly simple book of mostly lyric poems, many of them devotional, some of the political and all of them irenical. One of the intentions of this book is clearly to present to the Western world a more accurate portrayal of the modern Muslim-American culture than can be gleaned from cable news. It does that, but it also portrays an individual Muslim, one with a multi-layered voice, full of conflict, torn between cultures, allegiances, loyalties and loves. There is great grief, longing, passion and hope in these poems, but no rhetoric or cultural clichés. Unfortunately, the people who most need to read these poems are not likely the hands they’ll fall into.

The opening poem, “Islamic Hymn”, is a straight-forward devotional poem, though with suggestions at separateness the poet can’t overcome, something that is emphasized by the grandiose nature of the language.

The pavilions of Night wear Your perfect Form;

From East and West Your lanterns rise:

Light upon light

Well, of course when put that way God is unattainable. He goes on to say, in another poem:

Many have fainted, hearing aloud these sounds.

Yet he wants to faint too. There’s a lot of searching, struggling with conflict in the religious poems. But what about the speaker’s relationship with God causes so much conflict? It’s not until the poem titled “Prayer” in the book’s second section, that we get a clearer sense of what the speaker’s struggles are all about. Finally, he tells us, by way of asking God:

but please focus on me,

Let the universe, with all its laws

And universal order, somewhow, favor

Me. This is our curse, the rising thought

From below, that will not rise

The biggest struggle then, is not a struggle with God, but a struggle with himself—between selfishness and selfless devotion. It’s fitting then that the sections that follow deal with love (of wife, children, parents) and politics.

In Habib’s poems you won’t find much in the way of contemporary American poetry convention. With a few exceptions, these poems do not rely on the tightly wrapped images, stacked similes or ponderously minute anecdotes that populate the work of today’s mainstream poets writing in English. In fact, Habib’s work is more in line with modern Urdo writers like Faiz Ahamad Faiz or N.M. Rashed. The restraint in the poems, a talent considering the magnitude of the subject matter, seems practiced, and its root is even hinted at in the poem Repression:

I am weighted down

Under centuries of

Prohibition, religion,

Repression; I abide by

The laws, I lower my gaze,

He does veer off this triack a few times, most notably, and successfully, in my two favorite poems in the book: “Tsunami I” and “Tsunami II.” These recount the speaker’s experiences watching a tsunami devastate a landscape. From the vantage “from high stories of hotels,” he manages to escape harm, yet internalizes the might and malevolence of the storm: “Now I know,/All of my life I have been hearing you … One day, I know, you will come for me,/ Tsunami.”

In “Tsunami II”, an even more intimate poem, absent the grand landscape of destruction, we find the poet at the shack of a storm survivor a month after the fact, feeling humbled by a family who has lost everything, though still willing to offer the poet the last things they have.

Curiously, those two poems come at the end of the section Recitation and Revelations, which is filled with very spiritual poems of doubt and inadequacy. Those are two themes the poet struggles through continuously in this book. Many of the poems reveal a speaker grappling with his own faith. The poems are filled with references to uncertainty and unworthiness—ideas that Christian readers will be familiar with. In fact, in a different context, many of these poems could just as easily be recast as Christian faith (or Jewish for that matter) poems with only a few word changes. This religiously generic nature may be intentional, a way to show similarity between cultures, or if not, it still has that effect.

It’s likely the most important poems in this book, the ones that have the greatest chance of reverberating with a larger audience outside either a Muslim readership or a typical poetry readership, are the political poems. In the section subtitled Political Musings, Habib gets right down the meaty subjects: suicide bombers, Iranian protesters, Palestine and even the building of a Mosque in Voorhees, New Jersey. In these poems the language is stronger, more direct and assaulting:

from “To a Suicide Bomber”

Because of you, I am reviled;

Because of you, your own people suffer;

Because of you,

Oppression speaks louder.

Because of you, my religion reels in shame.

These are poems that are both seeking empathy and action. In his elegy of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian girl who’s death became a symbol in 2009 when she was shot by the militia during the country’s election, Habib accuses Iran of betraying its people, but he also accuses those

who watch from afar,

In fear, who flirt,

With freedom’s name

Who smile unashamed

As tyrants old or new

Play your card for you.

I’m reminded a bit of the poem “To Those Palestinians Martyred in Foreign” Lands by Faiz Ahmad Faiz:

Sweet earth of Palestine,

wherever I went

carrying the burning scars of your humiliation,

nursing in my heart the longing

to make you proud,

your love, your memories went with me,

the fragrance of your orange groves went with me.

Other poems in this section even more directly address the Muslim/American experience. In “The World Does Not Hate America”, “To the Muslims of the Twenty-First Century” and others, Habib tries to both straighten out misconceptions and offer reconciliations to the future. These observation may be a bit overly simplified, but he makes his point that the two different worlds are not really so different.

Here’s a video of Habib reading “To A Suicide Bomber.”

Buy the book here.

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