Right: Sabrina Mahfouz. Photo: Simon Annand.
The things I would tell you, an anthology of British Muslim women’s writing edited by poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz, celebrates the diversity of Muslim women’s voices. Published by Saqi books in April 2017, it was described as "important, and timely" by novelist Eimear McBride. Writer Nikesh Shukla meanwhile called it an “exquisite collection… full of energy, experimentation, honesty, beauty, fury, heartbreak and laughs.”
In her introduction, Mahfouz says one of her goals was to “dispel the narrow image of what a Muslim woman — particularly a British Muslim woman — looks and lives like.” To do this, she brings together women whose heritage stretches from Pakistan to Palestine, Yemen, Somalia and beyond. More established writers are included along with new, young talent. There is also a rich range of styles: from short fiction and poetry to plays and essays.
The collection begins with Fadia Faqir’s experimental short story Under the cypress tree, about a relationship between British pensioner Doris and her new Bedouin neighbour Timam. A story of neighbours trying to understand each other in a British seaside town, it is also an exploration of sisterhood and how we come to terms with the ghosts of our pasts. Although set in the present day, Faqir uses flashbacks to explore memory and how Doris is haunted by earlier trauma.
Neighbours are key characters in Kamila Shamsie’s The girl next door as well. Shamsie is one of the collection’s better-known writers and she takes on religious shame in a story about patriarchal power bringing two women together in modern-day Pakistan. I found it both chilling and hopeful — with the suggestion that, through bonds of sisterhood and female friendship, we can fight back against male dominance.
The things I would tell you, London book launch. Photo: Elizabeth Briggs.
Shame and male power are also at the heart of Shaista Aziz’s painful non-fiction essay on “honour killings” in Pakistan, entitled Blood and broken bodies. In it, she looks at the 2016 murder of Qandeel Baloch, a young social media celebrity. Her brother confessed to killing her for “family honour” because she had posted “shameful” pictures on Facebook.
In two short stories, British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh explores romantic love alongside the Israel-Palestine conflict. The first tells of the breakdown of a woman’s relationship set against a bombing in Jenin. In the second, another couple react to the Israeli wall being built around their home. The male character asks his partner to transport him back to 1989 Berlin and describe the moment that city’s infamous wall came down.
People from across the whole city, old men and women, boys, girls, they all came to take it down [....] They grew up under it, families were separated by it, people died trying to cross it and yet they came the people of that city, they came and broke at it with sledgehammers and pickaxes and anything they could find.
It’s a story about hope for the future — for freedom. But it’s also an exploration of how occupation encroaches not just on a family’s physical space (at one point, the woman wonders how they’ll get compensation for the olive trees growing on land that is now behind the wall), but on their emotional space too. There is no escape from the constant oppressive presence of the wall except into dreams and memories.
Several of the collection's pieces explore pressures on Muslim women in Britain today — including an increase in violence and hateful rhetoric in the wake of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union.
Chimene Suleyman’s short story Us tackles Islamophobia specifically in this context. As a woman walks home past a gang of racist men, her mind races with an angry and frightened internal monologue:
Us. She had heard this word so much. ‘Us’ did not come alone. ‘Us’ was paired with ‘They’. They are uncivilised. They are brutal. They are savage. ‘They’ had accomplices: ‘Them’ and ‘Those’. What did I tell you about those people? You know you can’t trust them. This wasn’t racism. No, it was self-preservation.
Aisha Mirza’s non-fiction essay Staying alive through Brexit also looks at the rise in hate crime following the referendum on leaving the EU — and the impact this has had on her own mental health. In the process, Mirza probes the relationship between politics and trauma.
Many of the pieces look at the position of women in society — and the intersection of racism and sexism in Muslim women’s lives.
One of the most startling contributions is Seema Begum’s Uomini cadranno. Written during a workshop when she was just 14 years old, Begum’s poem states:
And within this mist of darkness,
there are flowers desperate to bloom, pure and spirited.
But they are weak. They are fragile. They are a mistake because they are girls.
You men in power have the audacity to prevent a woman from
achieving great ambitions.
Azra Tabassum’s Brown girl meanwhile reflects the silencing of women’s voices:
be quiet, quieter,
yourself down, read less,
don’t think so much
about the knots in your belly.
Through their writing, Begum and Tabassum demand space. They refuse to be overlooked and silenced. In doing so, their pieces reflect the anthology’s spirit and aim to provide a platform for British Muslim women to speak out and be heard.
The issue of identity also features prominently in the collection, including in Samira Shackle’s essay on travelling to Pakistan as an adult, and then choosing to move there from London for a year, “figuring out my place in this complicated land and putting back together the two “halves” of my identity, halves I hadn’t realised were fractured.”
Other pieces reflect the politics not of Brexit — but of international conflicts.
Sabrina Mahfouz’s play records a fictional conversation between an Iraqi plastic surgeon and an undercover British secret service agent. As they reveal more about their past experiences of war and loss, the reader witnesses a power struggle between the two women. The play’s inconclusive ending is perhaps a metaphor for the ongoing struggle for peace and safety in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Shazea Quraishi’s shocking and deeply upsetting Fallujah, Basrah poem references birth deformities that appeared in Iraq and Afghanistan “following bombing with DU incendiary devices”:
Where is my baby girl
the one I dreamed?
I long for sleep
to return her.
[Extreme hydrocephalus. The line running down the right side of the head would appear to show that potentially two heads were forming.]
Her poems are short and stark, mixing the grieving monologue of the parent and the clinical diagnosis of the health professional to illustrate the horrifying impact of war.
One of my favourite contributions is Leila Aboulela’s remarkable play The insider, which tells the story of Fifi and Joseph — two characters in the French writer Albert Camus’ novel The outsider. In this alternative, women-led take on the classic text, Aboulela gives Fifi a life, history and future of her own; a subjectivity she was denied in the original novel.
While in Camus’ story Fifi is an object of male gaze, with little voice of her own, Aboulela calls her by her Algerian name Fatima. She pushes back against stereotypes of North African women under colonialist rule. Aboulela also gives Fatima a life beyond Camus’ novel — showing her grow old with her memories and living with her grandson in the modern day.
Too often, British Muslim women are the objects of media conversations. Repeatedly we see white British men, in particular, discuss issues that affect Muslim women — sidelining their own voices and stories. Worse, studies suggest Muslim women may be more likely than men to face Islamophobic attacks.
In this context, The things I would tell you is more necessary than ever. Bringing together a rich diversity of voices from different ages and backgrounds, Mahfouz tackles this objectification head on.
Exploring love, politics, violence, home, history, family, war, occupation, patriarchy, Brexit — this rich collection paints a vivid and complex picture of the lives, concerns, creativity and realities of Muslim women living in the UK today. The book is indeed important, and timely.