A recent research paper published in the journal Science put forth evidence about something that I have long believed to be true: reading fiction, experiencing the world by way of another person's point of view, makes us more empathetic than fearful of people not like ourselves, more curious than judgmental about why they live the way they do. Immersed in the life of Khadra Shamy, the main character of Mohja Kahf's novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, I came as close as a person from my own background can come to understanding what it was like for a devout, intelligent Syrian girl to grow up in a small Muslim community in Indianapolis in the 1970s and then move from there into the larger, more complex world of Islam. Khadra never doubted her faith, but struggled mightily to find a place where she fully belonged. Rooting for her along the way, I learned so much about the religion of Islam and those who practice it. Time and time again, I thought, if only people would read this book.
I reached out to Mohja to discuss her own life and the power of this particular narrative. She answered these questions about her enduring connection to Indiana.
NUVO: Whether we like it or not, we are all to some degree made of where we grew up. For better or worse, what part of Indiana remains in you now?
Mohja Kahf: The accent, I think. The ways of speaking that I learned as a child from Indianapolis' African American Muslim community children. It's overlaid now with some New Jersey accent, and some other life experiences, but people tell me it's still there.
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NUVO: I was amused to find the book dotted with subtle references to Indiana, particularly in the names of characters — among them, Riley Whitcomb, Mindy Oberholtzer, Ginny Debs. Why did you do that — and what other references might readers look out for?
Kahf: I did a ton of research on Indiana history while writing the novel, and then had fun peppering the novel with bits of Indiana history trivia, including the history of minority religious communities from the 1800s. There's an added level of pleasure you can have with the novel if you know Indiana history. You can play spot-the-Indiana-trivia with it, if you want.
NUVO: How did you end up living in Arkansas and in what ways are the challenges of living there the same and different to those you experienced living in Indiana?
Kahf: I ended up here for a job. One thing I worried about when I was considering moving here was that it would have the high levels of overt hostile racism that I encountered while living in Central Indiana in the 1970s. One of the first things I asked about while here on my interview is how Black people fared here. I learned that the University of Arkansas integrated voluntarily before the law required integration. This doesn't mean there is no racism. There certainly is, but it is a different, more subtle type than what I knew: white liberal racism that is well-meaning but doesn't know how to follow through on its liberal intentions, for lack of actually listening to Black and brown people, and for lack of deeper awareness of what white supremacism is. I also learned that the Fayetteville area has lesbian communes and a back-to-the-earth counter-culture population dating from the 1970s. So, it's a different mix. Arkansas is a conservative state overall, but I am in a unique nook of it.
NUVO: What advice do you have for Syrian refugees new to Indiana?
Kahf: You come from my country of origin where the brutal state police has absolute immunity from prosecution. Here there is some accountability, but learn from Black Americans what you need to know about the specific realities of police brutality in this country, and listen carefully to their strategies about how to survive. Make alliances with Latinos and other minorities as well, and learn from each of them.
There is little public healthcare in the U.S.; this will be a shock. It is a great country in many ways, but that is a huge gap in it, and there's a huge resistance to fixing it, which will be difficult for you to understand, as healthcare is guaranteed in every country in the Middle East, for all the other glaring flaws of that region.