Jennifer Zobair: When Bigotry Came to My Book Reading: A Muslim Feminist’s Love Letter to Cambridge
It happened. A heckler. At my first solo book reading.
I was promoting my debut novel, Painted Hands, at Cambridge’s Porter Square Books. Though I was an attorney in a past life, I was ridiculously nervous. It’s one thing to participate in moot court, or lead a seminar on contract negotiation. But to stand before a crowd of strangers and read your work–the pages that you have poured your heart and soul into for years? When you’re new to it, it can border on terrifying.
What got me past the nerves was this: As a Muslim woman, I have something to say.
In the weeks since my book released, I’ve heard from many readers, but two stand out. The first was a young, professional Muslim woman who loved my book because she’d finally found characters in a novel she could relate to. The second was a non-Muslim reader who did not believe that characters like mine could exist.
It’s such a broad, sweeping, erasing sentiment. And it is all too common.
I wrote Painted Hands in part because I think the image of Muslim women in this country is so absurdly narrow as to prevent true understanding, and also because I believe everyone has the right to see her experience reflected in literature.
I spoke about those reasons at Porter Square Books, and read an excerpt, and then held my breath to see if anyone would ask a question. A middle-aged woman who’d come early and taken a second-row seat raised her hand. I could have hugged her.
I don’t think she would have hugged back.
Her question began benignly enough, expressing curiosity about why I’d chosen to write about privileged Muslim women in America. Soon, it degenerated. She said her parents had been harmed by Muslims in another country, that she had studied Islam and “quite a bit of the Qur’an.” Islam, she lectured me, demanded brutality and beheadings and the complete subjugation of women.
The stereotypical narrative of Muslim women, it turns out, had a pretty good seat at my reading.
And this is what we face every day. We face those who will impute specific experience to the whole, who refuse to admit that cultural factors are ever at play, who don’t acknowledge that harm has been done by and to members of every faith. We witness reckless pundits on sensational “news” programs who refuse to engage intellectually the arguments of Muslim scholars like Asma Barlas and Amina Wadud and Fatima Mernissi. We wait for the subway under posters calling us “savages.”
And we endure those who will come early to our book readings not to hear us, but to advance intolerant agendas.
I searched for something diplomatic and respectful and, I hoped, eloquent, to say in response to this woman. But I struggled, because these are emotionally-charged, important issues, not shots to be volleyed back at her. And as I struggled, something beautiful happened. The president of a local mosque–who had come to my reading at 7 p.m. on the second night of Ramadan, an hour before his fast would break–stepped in. He spoke about imputing the specific to the whole. He invited her to get to know Muslims. She was undaunted. She argued back, until others asked if we could talk about the book. Someone asked a question, and though this woman talked over us, people kept asking questions, and listening to my answers, until she finally left.
What followed was a thoughtful discussion, and part of me wished the woman could have stayed and truly listened. There is sadness there–in my failure to respond quickly, in her apparent pain, in our inability as human beings to find common ground.
A fellow writer who attended emailed me afterwards to offer support and to say if it had happened at one of her readings, she would have likely been in tears. I actually was in tears, but not for the reasons one might think.
Instead of being upset, I felt embraced by that crowd, most of whom were strangers to me. In a city impacted so enormously and catastrophically by September 11th and the Boston Marathon bombings, consider this: As they approached me afterwards, I learned that the people who had leapt to my defense, who were committed to letting my voice be heard, included Christians and Jews and Muslims.
There is such hope and beauty there for anyone who is looking.