The dimensionality of experience: a review of “The Hijab Files”

By Amilee Myson
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Photo by Janko Ferlic from Pexels

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The Hijab Files

Maryam Azam

Giramondo Publishing

In her debut poetry collection, The Hijab Files, Maryam Azam demystifies the literary penumbra of the high school dwelling, jaanamaz spreading, dua uttering, social media scrolling, volitionally devout Hijabi. The determination behind the collection came from Azam’s extensive reading of literature and poetry for her Honours thesis in Creative Writing. Azam has said that she found poetry about Hijab-wearing women typically did not authenticate the, naturally, heterogenous experiences of Hijabis – or even come close to resonating with her own personal experience. To the contrary, Azam found that poetry about Hijabis tends to represent them as servile, and lacking a personal connection with what it means to wear the Hijab. The collection represents Azam’s resolve to generate print-immortalised, authentic incarnations of the variegated experiences, both routine and profound, of a young Muslin woman in Western Sydney.

Duas Like Spells and Praying at School I, launches the first segment of the collection, entitled “A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion.” In these poems, the profundity of the universal Muslim ritual of salat are posited alongside the routine practicalities of performing the prayers at school. Whole stanzas of Duas Like Spells (which is the prologue to the collection) ruminate on the protective power of the supplication.

 

she has not taken a breath

outside of this prism of protection

since her father taught it to her

the invocations surround her,

halo-like and glowing.

 

Immediately following this prelude is Praying at School I, in which stanzas of blank verse wittily represent the practicalities of doing what the title suggests. The poem describes the mission of weaving through the school hallway, “jaanamaz tucked discreetly under my arm”, past bustling computer labs, class mates snacking on chips, ‘stoking my hunger’ to perform her prayers in the school’s sickbay-cum-prayer room. The poems artfully articulate the co-existing experiences of profundity and practicality in the daily life of this poetic persona.

 

The two succeeding segments “Wallah Bros” and “The Piercing of this Place” delve into the vicissitudes of the Muslim fashion, travel and dating scenes. In Fashion Police the persona bemoans the wearing of her white scarf which “washes out my complexion” and laments the reprove of a taxi driver who warns her that her knee length skirt is not appropriate. In the following poem, You Can’t Touch Me, the writer’s pen comes to life when describing the Hijab’s protective quality:

 

The gallery director shakes

my friend’s hand, but steps

back and half-bows to me.

I smile and think to myself

You can’t touch me.

I am as distant and inviolable

as the moon.

Power sizzles along the threads of my scarf.

The Hijab Files enshrines Azam’s authentic perspective as a young Muslim woman living in Western Sydney, granting the reader access to the vicissitudes of her own daily rituals. Authenticity and diversity in literature is utterly important in this country. Not only because it offers a fairer reflection of our society, but also because it empowers and connects the reader to a broader reality. Ambelin Kwaymullina summarised this importance eloquently in a feature piece written for the Wheeler Centre in Victoria: “Literature without diversity presents a false image of what it is to be human. It masks – and therefore contributes to – the continuation of existing inequities, and it widens the gulfs of understanding that are already swallowing our compassion for each other.”

Azam’s poems manage to cover musings as tactile as contemplating the “volume and variety of bodily excretions” while praying in her high school’s converted sickbay; to hope-laden and obsessive sleuthing on Ishqr “a space for Muslims to connect”; and the loving recitation of duas that grant “the protection of seventy thousand angels.” What results is a memorable and enjoyable read  which works to obfuscate the homogenising and disempowering effect of inauthentic literature.

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