'Tangerine Scarf': A Story of Muslims in America

Mohja Kahf

Syrian-born Mohja Kahf, who was raised in the United States, is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. April L. Brown hide caption

itoggle caption April L. Brown

The Author Reads

Hear Mohja Kahf read excerpts from 'The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.'

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The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, a new novel by Mohja Kahf, is about a Syrian girl transplanted to the American Midwest in the 1970s. Kahf borrowed details from her own life — she moved from Syria to the United States as a child — but she insists that the book is not autobiograpical

Kahf delves into the cultural clashes of Muslim life in America, including racism between Muslims and bigotry by non-Muslim Americans.

"You don't realize when you're in a minority culture that people look at you as if you're this alien thing, you really don't," Kahf tells Deborah Amos.

The author recalls being in a store with her best friend when a group of Amish women came in. "I wonder how they live, I wonder what they do?" the friends asked each other.

"After we got out of the store, we looked at each other and we said, 'Do you suppose people look at us like the way we just looked at the Amish?' And we looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, I guess that's how people look at Muslims, especially [because] we were both women who both wore hijab (the Islamic headscarf), and that was sort of a revelation."

Excerpt: 'The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf'

Cover

"Liar," she says to the highway sign that claims "The People of Indiana Welcome You." The olive-skinned, dark-haired young woman drives west on the old National Road. A small zippered Quran and a camera are on the hatchback's passenger seat in easy reach, covered by an open map — States of the Heartland. Khadra Shamy spent most of her growing-up years in Indiana. She knows better than the sign.

She passes over the Whitewater River, bracing herself. Here comes the unbearable flatness of central Indiana. She has the feeling that the world's been left behind her somewhere, in the final stretches of Pennsylvania, maybe, where the land had comforting curves. Out here there seems to be nothing for the eye to see. Strip mall, cornfield, small town main street, Kmart, Kroger, Kraft's, gas station, strip mall, soybean field, small town main street, Kmart, Kroger, Kraft's, strip mall. All blending into one flat sameness.

There are silver silos and pole barns, tufts of goldthread on the meridian, and the blue day beginning to pour into the dark sky. But it is not mine, she thinks, this blue and gold Indiana morning. None of it is for me. Between the flat land and the broad sky, she feels ground down to the grain, erased. She feels as if, were she to scream in this place, some Indiana mute button would be on, and no one would hear.

And the smell, she thinks, getting out at Glen Miller Park to pray fajr on the grass near a statue labeled Madonna of the Trail. God, what is it? She has forgotten it, living for years away. There is a definite smell to the air in Indiana. It's not pollution; not a bad odor, really — nor a good one; just there. Silage, soybeans, Hoosier hay, what? she asks the Madonna after salah. The stone Madonna in a bonnet, holding a baby in her right arm, a little boy clinging to her skirts, peers stonily into the distance.

"No checks no credit no credit cards." Khadra buys antacid and a postcard of the Madonna of the Trail: Greetings from Richmond. Eyeing the postcard, she thinks: sloppy work. I could do better. Peering into the tarnished restroom mirror, she examines her face. Her forehead is high, with a Dracula's peak, and a bit of grass has matted to it from prostration. She brushes it off.

Gray-black pieces of a busted tire flap in the lane in front of her as she gets back on the road. A faded woman in a backyard adjacent to the highway hangs a large braided rug on a rope. Khadra sees a sign for the "Centerville Christian Church." Isn't that redundant? she wonders. Like "Muslim Mosque?" ". . . of Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic, in war-torn former Yugoslavia. . . ." ". . . traffic heats up as racecar fans converge on Indianapolis this weekend. . . ." And then, finally, some music: Sade pouring out "Bullet Proof Soul."

Khadra glances sideways at fields of glossy black cows. A sign flashes, "Mary Lou and Mother, Rabbit Foot Crafts," but Khadra does not slow. Stimpson Grain Drying Corp. "100% American," a sign advertises — what, she doesn't know. Burly beardless white men in denim and work shirts sit in front of a burned-out storefront. The giant charred store sign, Marsh's, leans against a telephone pole. Possibly their only grocery for miles. The men's loose jowls have the cast of a toad's underbelly. She feels them screw their eyes at her as she drives past, her headscarf flapping from the crosscurrent inside the car. She rolls the windows up, tamps her scarf down on her crinkly dark hair, and tries to calm the panic that coming back to Indiana brings to her gut.

A little girl's face appeared, a girl with dark hair and a high forehead. She peeked out from between the swaying bed linens — vined, striped, and flowered — alive on clotheslines. Tucked in the elbow between two buildings in the Fallen Timbers Townhouse Complex, the laundry corner was little Khadra's hideout. Ruffled home-sewn nightgowns became Laura and Mary Ingalls racing Khadra along the banks of a prairie creek. Quivering calico blouse sleeves brushed against her as train brakes whinnied in the distance. Daddy longlegs moved from crevice to crevice in the bricks of the bordering buildings. Old Father Long-legs, wouldn't say his prayers, take him by the left leg, and throw him down the stairs. Khadra followed them, fascinated. Picked up fat jewel-box caterpillars with white, yellow, and black stripes. Touched a potato bug, which cringed and curled into a ball, world within worlds.

Her mother always ran the laundry twice in the Fallen Timbers basement laundry room with the coin machines. Because what if the person who used the washer before you had a dog? You never knew with Americans. Pee, poop, vomit, dog spit, and beer were impurities. Americans didn't care about impurities. They let their dogs rub their balls on the couches they sit on and drool on the beds they sleep in and lick the mouths of their children. How Americans tolerate living in such filth is beyond me, her mother said. You come straight home.

Sunshine filtered through the fabric forest. Khadra thrilled to its flutter of secrets and light, its shuttering and opening motions. Suddenly it revealed a boy with heavy pink flushed cheeks on a dirt bike, tearing through the hung laundry, pulling down rope, soiling sheets with his tire tread. Khadra ran. Screamed and ran. Fell, scraped her cheekbone on the cracked asphalt. He wheeled and turned. Gunning for her.

"Stop it! Stop! You leave me alone, Brian Lott!" She scrambled to her feet. The back of her head was still ridged from where he'd knocked her against the brick of the apartment wall last time. She'd kicked him in the shin then, and she would do it again, even if it was a fight she must lose. She braced now for the next blow coming at her from Brian and the snout of his bike.

"Khadra!" Three more kids on bikes wheeled around the corner of the building. Her assailant paused to look over his shoulder and she dodged out from where he had her cornered. O thank God. It was Eyad her brother, and his best friend Hakim, and her own friend Hanifa.

"Come on!" Hakim called, slowing for her to get on. Khadra hopped onto his banana-seat and held on to the chrome back as he lifted his bottom up off the seat to boost his pedaling momentum. And they were off.

They were four Muslim children of the heartland — two Arab, two black — flying in the blue-and-gold world on their bikes, right through the middle of the 1970s. Khadra flung her arms out in exultation and Hanifa, whizzing past her at high speed, had a beatific smile on her face from the thrill of the ride.

"Brian Lott, whyn't you go pick on someone your own size?" Eyad yelled at the boy on the dirt bike.

"F—- you, raghead!" Brian shouted back. "We're gonna get all you f———!" He wheelied on "f———."

Before they got to Khadra's street her brother Eyad skidded to a halt and said, "Get off Hakim's bike and get on mine. 'Cause he's a boy and Mama might see you."

Hakim used to give her handlebar rides all the time, but she was getting older now, and her mother said she shouldn't ride with boys anymore.

The Lott boys had been the bane of Khadra and her family since day one. The day years ago when the Shamys moved in to number 1492 Tecumseh Drive, Fallen Timbers Townhouse Complex, Indianapolis, Indiana, on the southern city limits where the sprawling city almost met up with the small adjoining town of Simmonsville. Little Khadra had got out of the wide station wagon, blinking in the sunlight, a pudgy, shortwaisted girl wearing an elastic friendship bracelet.

There was her father, wiry and olive-complexioned, with glasses. He wore a short beard on a thin pointy chin. Her mother was green-eyed and ivory-skinned and lovely. She wore a white wimple on her head, and a long blue robe. The color of sky, it swept the earth. A boy with short, smooth chestnut-brown hair got out last, stretching. Khadra's brother Eyad was ivory-colored like the mother, with the high contrast between dark hair and pale skin that many Syrians have.

Khadra and Eyad were unloading the U-Haul when they heard taunts behind them. Two boys with coarse pink faces, noses broadened in sneers. What they saw spilling out of the station wagon with its fake wood panel was a bunch of foreigners. Dark and wrong. Dressed funny. Their talk was gross sounds, like someone throwing up.

"Hey, Allison-Bone!" one of them called. "Get a load of this."

A thickwaisted white girl with a bowl haircut peered over their shoulders.

Khadra and Eyad were inside calling dibs on bedrooms when they heard the crash of glass. Beer bottles, a pile of brown and gold shards at their doorstep.

Their father went up to the door across the street and knocked. Khadra and her brother sat on the curb, watching as their mother swept up the glass bits with a plastic yellow broom. Skinny little white woman answered the door. Yellow hair like the broom bristles.

"Yeah, that's Vaughn's boys."

Sound of their father saying something. Stiff British textbook English, in an Arabic rhythm. Back of his head bobbing. He believed, he believed in the innate goodness of people, and in the power and sweetness of communicating with them.

"Vaughn!" the yellow-haired woman called over her shoulder.

Burly man at the door now. " — ACCUSING MY CHILDREN — OFF MY PORCH — BACK WHERE YOU PEOPLE CAME FROM!"

The neighbors on the other side were as nice as the Lotts were mean. They were a young couple and each had long hair and wore loose clothes and lots of necklaces. Lindsey and Leslie bewildered the Shamys, because you couldn't tell which of them was the woman and which the man.

"Miso soup for our new neighbors!" one of them said at the door, holding a bowl of something with a potholder under it. If male, he had very cleanshaven soft skin. If female, she had big knuckles and a very flat chest. This unnerved Khadra's mother. If she could be sure it was the woman, she'd invite her in, but if it was the man, she'd stay behind the screen door and be careful not to touch his hand when she took the bowl. What was she supposed to do? In the end, she smiled politely and thanked him or her, wondering what on earth was in the soup.

Khadra peers up now at the passing signs on the highway. "Home of James Whitcomb Riley." "Pecans, We Buy and Sell" (hand-lettered on rough boards). "Merchants and Farmers Bank, your neighbors who care." "Indianapolis Motor Speedway, use 465 to 65." Her family had always avoided that route this time of year, and she now does the same. No sense getting pulled into Indy 500 traffic. "New Palestine Jct. 74." And finally, "Welcome to Indianapolis — City at the Crossroads." Here we go. Looking for the exit sign that will lead her back to horrible little Simmonsville.

Back where you came from.

Excerpted from The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf © 2006. Reprinted with permission by Carroll & Graf Publishers, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group.

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