Je suis Charlie musulmane, or The Art of Liminal Identity

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“I don’t write in a vacuum. I have helpers, guides from both the outer realm like my writing comrades and invisible ones from the inner world. I write in-community, even when I sit alone in my room. Whatever I do I have to put my trust in a deeper order, an unknowable trapo (fabric) of divine and creative plan. I must trust in unseen helping guides, must surrender to the mysterious forces that guide me.”Gloria Anzaldúa

“I am who I am, doing what I came to do, acting upon you like a drug or chisel to remind you of your me-ness as I discover you in myself.” Audre Lorde


“Something happened in France,” a friend says. My stomach instantly implodes. I see a black hole at the sternum, and it implodes, turning the dim stars that winkle with conversation into black. “What happened?” I say, implying, how bad is it? How many people died at the hands of a self-professing Muslim? Cut to details: I’m socially trained enough to already know what happened. Then cut to, “that’s horrible,” and then cancel all plans to be social for a week. No, I don’t have my catharsis down to a science, but this is where it is right now. I take my stink which is not even mine, but nonetheless splayed on my face from the first day I memorized the Pledge of Allegiance, and hide for a few days. And we all deal differently.

I also deal by getting into debt acquiring a Masters focusing on studying the Middle East – scholarly, historicized mental Kung Fu. And a way to touch other lives so vastly different from mine, yet not too different, bound by the modern geography of a region spanning three continents yet geopolitically abstracted from any home, any land, any culture. A meme of a place that itches your mind with loud media, the Middle East of the frontal lobe. It’s where lives like mine, after a terrorist attack that claims Islam, are instantly bound and identified like the Borg in Star Trek, even when the majority screams, “I can feel you!”  Or “I’m not even Muslim!” Or “You are ‘Muslim,’ too, technically, and I am whatever you are: check out this history. I have a Masters in…”

One of the most no-end wells of sinew I carved for myself out of experiences of marginalization is to know what it is to be left for dead instantly, and to still keep on going for those who loved you and those who left you. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, I expected it, the symbolic disownment from America, and the expectation to work my way up to proving my bond with that land again. Although I no longer buy into the master narrative of a minority’s collective culpability for one’s, or a sect’s, violent act, I don’t hide the pain either. The severing, a sudden and silent new bruise on old layers, is now fed with the newfound privilege of being able to ask for alone time, and I milk it with study and monkish reflection.

“My family lives in Paris,” the friend writes.
“That’s horrible.” That’s horrible. Say it again. Repent for being. I figure I went through the shit cycle enough to finally go through it, to come out on the other side with spilt ink. And it’s about to mark out the stench of American Sniper, as if it has not been called out enough. If there is anything deemed culturally harmful that Charlie Hebdo does (a claim I will analyze later), it is nothing compared to the dehumanizing pornography and separatist propaganda that is the Clint Eastwood flick – and he hired one of my favorite actors to do the bidding, to be the collective dreamscape’s face of unapologetic death. A face I smiled to and cried with many times before, even admired as a performer: that of Bradley Cooper, staring at a metaphoric people with a focused gun.


From movie analysts to writers to ex-veterans, the movie has been valorized and debased countlessly. Many loud and clear responses came from Arab Americans or non-white voices overall, yet met with far less press, the usual – might as well add one more. No, I have not watched the movie, although I curiously searched snippets and asked one person who watched it for a description with clenched teeth. But I still find it pivotal to share my pin drop of an experience with the movie, which took place in a public movie theatre, during the trailers. Ten exciting trailers, ten sonorously rich and pulpy features, full of the usual mix of apocalyptic pondering, emotive channeling, and grindingly palpable shift – more like tug of war – in gendered and racialized roles.

The only other visibly Arab and/or Muslim people I see, amid all the shifts of embodied roles and archetypes of hollywood, are a veiled woman and a young boy in the rubbles of war, carrying a rocket within the target-frame of an actor I no longer feel allowed to emote with. Ironically, the role that was most relevant to my life, most palpably close to my lived experience as an Arab American, was a character from the movie I went to see that day. The movie was the Angelina-Jolie-directed Unbroken, and I could not help but see in its hero – WWII American Olympian and soldier Louis Zamperini – the closest person I know to a son. The immigrant. The trouble-maker. The little athlete practicing with an encouraging, older sibling. The competitive athlete. The military man. My little brother, the U.S. Marine and vet, who made sergeant in a mere three years; a beautiful, brilliant, dedicated, young Arab-American Muslim man.

Between one hundred and fifty one thousand to one million Iraqis dead from the war, largely contested as illegal. But in the movie, as a friend tells me when I could not bear to watch it, they are all terrorists or protectors of terrorists (if it was not for the American Sniper trailer, and I was asked which trailer from that day may carry the most transference to the experiences of everyday Iraqis, I would have undeniably advised to watch and engage the movie Selma). I came out of the movie theatre with the usual, silent fear. I was reminded again of the condition of exile, of never being allowed to feel entirely at home in a space. Or never being enough of something to deserve safety. Of being what psychologist David Livingstone Smith brilliantly summarizes as the condition of feeling less than human. This is exactly what so much of the sift and split of American media today does, and especially to our most marked minorities across many institutionalized labels of identity: to be always reminded of your place, your marketable label as victim or vile killer or necessary casualty.

The murderers of the Charlie Hebdo were a million times condemned by Muslims and Arabs, yet are considered collectively culpable “either way.” That’s the misery of it. And if the murders never happened, they would be considered collectively stupid and more worthy of mockery either way. And if they liked the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo and laughed along (as I sometimes did, admittedly), many of them would know that there is a higher cost to the laughter (as I also did). It is exactly what happened months earlier regarding my black friends and the much-needed national response, from Ferguson to NYC. The news demonized black protestors and their allies when they were peaceful, and when they were violent, and when they were violated countless times, and when we all peacefully marched, and when a random gunman shot two cops near NYC.

In the decolonization process of recovering one’s full humanity, people fight for space over where to leave their baggage. People take their bags back from others, sometimes snatch them. People who had no idea how their parents got those bags deem the rest violent fools, or go have a talk with their parents and ancestors, deem them the violent fools. There is a lot of un-covering to be done, a lot of – dare I say – natural inquiry, natural impulse to follow love with getting to the bottom of what’s walling love.

Colonization deems love unnatural, with exceptions. Globalized commercialist media still carries the residual banner of colonization, still makes unnatural the total acceptance of a human being deemed a minority unless proven innocent. Still declares a human subject fixed, a photograph of a subject, a state of consciousness, a body with the name tag of melanin and fat and intact entrails to be grateful for. To me, what happened in the Charlie Hebdo attacks is in part the result of a recent colonial history that has not been made fully conscious yet to the so-called “First World,” and so the militant conservatives on all sides of the power spectrum, from first-world politicians to first-class terrorists, are given the unfair power of playing chess with the pages and the lives.

People, especially marginalized people, can’t always take a joke because they get tired of systemically paying harder for a laugh. Taking France-Algeria history alone, the occupation (between 1830 and 1962) was particularly brutal, ending in an eight-year war to reverse it. Viola Shafik, a German-Egyptian prominent scholar of film, writes in her title Arab Cinema, “In Algeria indigenous culture was excluded by strict measures and regulations. Already in the middle of the last century authorities prohibited the traditional and popular shadow plays. Arab culture was not furthered in schools.”. Censorship comes with a long history of uneven power, and the Hebdo murderers’ crimes keeps the abusive cycle going – and the media ensures the cycle stays uneven. I don’t know what is worse for people, for innocent people everywhere.


There is no clearer a marker of dehumanization of the other in American media today, in the specific context of Muslims and sometimes Arabs, than in its effort to ensure the unanimous association of the word “radical” with violence. Artists, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists of multiple orientations of race or gender or spirituality/state of consciousness can brandish their “radical” approaches to their fields with pride. Radical feminists are cream of the crop of gender activism. Radical self-love is the evaluated appellation of de-morphing the ossified boundaries of beauty, giving iconic space to multiple shapes and sizes of human fat and bone and curve and sway of hair. The beat poets, the slam poets, the queer theorists, the magik wielders, the cut-up artists and occultists and comic-book cataclysm-creators. The Uncle Bill’s. The Soledad Sister’s. The monks. The punks. The radicals. 

A brief example is this interview with the BBC with Maajid Nawaz. While I agree with the interview on so many fronts ( I appreciate his description of the didactic motley crew you find in Egyptian prisons, and the influence of Orwell’s Animal Farm in dispelling him out of his idealism), I also disagreed on multiple fronts (poverty as not a key influence on developing a fundamentalist worldview, as I do thing that scarcity theory can have a legitimate voice here. Or citing hip hop merely as an influence in this process while it has been, countless times, a nonviolent and endlessly inspiring penumbra of community for myself and others, especially when oppressed). Most of all, I disagree with the title, whomever who gets to write it. Associating the word “radical” with murderous only happens when followed by Muslim. And the solution is to like where you are, always statistically tampered and slightly threatened. Come to “moderation,” as the title continues. Choose to be censored just enough to be safe for others, but always hairs away from your safety.

I say this with utmost respect to Mr. Nawaz’s much-needed voice: I don’t know if I can describe the five Muslims out of the last twelve Nobel Peace Prize winners, with all their brazen risks and feats, as moderates (I choose not to place the label “radical” on them either, given both its negative and positive baggage — that is for them to choose). And lord save us if Jalaluddin Rumi is ever sterilized “into moderation,” or Salaadin Ahmed, or G. Willow Wilson (of the new Ms. Marvel), or Najva Sol, or Shirin Neshat, or Ibrahim Abdul-Matin or Michael Muhammad Knight or Rabia or Maz Gobrani or Reza Aslan or Fatima Mernissi or Vilayat Inayat Khan or Lila Abu-Lughod or Dr. Leila Ahmed or Sayyida Hurra or Shadia Mansour – are you serious?! People this different and I just put them in one list?! – Or the countless artists and activists and comedians and ethnographers and mystics and scientists who disagree sharply and converge at times and whom I, personally speaking, would never complement with the word “moderate.”

It is never a moderate act to speak up against terrorism, or colonization, or violence of any kind. It is always an act of brave, brainy, messy risk and love for the lives you know and the lives you don’t. Even the French-Muslim cop who risked his life along with the journalists. Where does this fit in the top-down dualism of radical-moderate? And for the very Egyptian prison where Nawaz read Animal Farm, where Islamist fundamentalists, atheists, and gay men were all arrested with the same breath? 


Later by text, I write,
“I can’t imagine how you feel – although I maybe can. An awful and infamous massacre happened in 2013 really close to my childhood neighborhood in Cairo.”
“It’s surreal,” my friend writes. “I’m overwhelmed.”
“Me too. I’m here for you.”
“Thank you.” And they follow with a text that was the strongest act of solidarity I can think of, one nerd to another: “I have difficulty with the idea that there should be a moratorium on being critical so that all have the opportunity to mourn. They’re not mutually exclusive. It’s quite clear that all who would exploit this tragedy and frame it as another instance of attack on ‘western values/civilization’ aren’t wasting time.”

I agree with them. Yet oddly enough, all I yearned for during those early days of the Charlie Hebdo crisis was to feel allowed to mourn, and to mourn with everyone else who mourns for the journalists. I’m a goddamn artist. Primarily poet. Days after the September 11th attacks, poet Suheir Hammad writes one of the most important pieces I have read for that time in my life, “first writing since.” With all the bountifully mourning lines in the poem, I always pause at this: “can I just have a half second to feel bad?” Can I not be bombarded with neon boxes and American Sniper and mourn, too, even if alone? That line, that poem, is so radical. So radically loving. So radically brave. I couldn’t wield my pen this lovingly, this bravely, this soon. And as I follow the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut lifeblood of a link, I try to retrace my steps to when I stopped holding the mic. When the deadweight of fear got to the artist in me. 

The “clash of civilization” thing was coined by an Orientalist academic dude decades ago named Bernard Lewis, also deserves creative credit for the now-hashtag phrase “Muslim Rage.”It is a very successful damper on the fractal creative nature of dislocated artists, who tend to internalize their condition of exile into the rising of a liberator voice that can cut across borders with uncomfortable honesty (check out Al Ganzeer’s art as an example, whose graffiti is featured in this article). My biggest fear “as a Muslim,” who chooses an ambiguously textual and critical and diaphanous relationship with the faith of my birth, is a most insidious form of censorship: that which lives in the in-between. Radical or moderate, with the plurality or against it!

The in-between is a space for outsider-insiders, the Hermes of tongues and lungs of many breaths, the mouths that spell and negate voice and speech right from the pitched-up tents of liminal life. And when censorship happens there, when that gets occupied, you’d better pay attention before outlawing yourself and others from the power of world-traveling that is the gift of a borderland identity.

“Decolonization,” Frantz Fanon writes in Wretched of the Earth, “is the encounter between two congenially antagonistic forces that in fact owe their singularity to the kind of reification secreted and nurtured by the colonial situation.” And to be straight, the reification doesn’t just happen from the larger commercialist paradigm, either. Who’s with me: being too much of something to fully settle at home where you are, your family name, your spiritual or secular community, your esoteric or scientific colleagues, and it goes on. We reify the ossifying condition across communities.

The mystic-artist David Chaim Smith writes the following on a given point in space: “The clarity of the mirror, free of constraints of individual and collective habituation, does not imply that the mirror is devoid of its appearances. Far from it. It means that what arises is no longer grasped at and refined to obscure and obstruct the sublime aspects of luminosity and basic space.” Seeing “what arises” as the identity of another human being, I find in Smith’s words resonance with the Sufi metaphor of the heart as a “polished mirror,” receiving what may come from the other without attempting to reify it into the temporal victory of the I.

In Attar’s Medieval Persian classic Mantiq ul-Tair (The Conference of the Birds), the Simurgh leads a flock of thirty birds into seven purifying stages of inner evolution before reaching a state of true love with God. By the end of the strenuous journey, the birds realize that their goal, their object of desire, were themselves (Si-murgh translates into “thirty birds”). That is my sensuously mystical way of giving the middle finger to the modern concept of a located identity. And I tell myself: come out as the in-between. The borderland of Gloria Anzaldúa (who also gives us the phrase “spiritual activism”). The mirror. Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel, the shape-shifter. The writer as a gnostic cyborg, as Jeremy D. Johnson would have it: of cross-firing paradigms and words of electric alchemy, putting us-versus-them in its no-place. The Major Motoko Kusanagi, a veil that reveals like an invisibly naked hijabi, chasing the lost on a womb of wet concrete, tearing away at the machine, reborn as the blessed bastard  with the sharpness of unsafe love for every Other from whom she is born. 


In his new book, Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, filmmaker J.F. Martel writes about the two dogmas of today’s artistic globalization, “two idols [which] stand like golden calves demanding worship:
“Pornography, then use of aesthetics to manipulate through desire; and
“Propaganda, then use of aesthetics to manipulate through fear.”

Whether I continue scholastic grounding, or a contemplative tradition, or commitment to ranting in blogs, I am one of the many who wish to remind that desire yearns for more than fulfillment, and fear will not end through demonization. I’m afraid the violence is this senseless, and one’s Other may be one’s only chance at loving this world in its assured and generative ambiguity. As Martel boldly claims, “only the revelation of beauty can save the world.” Beauty, and art, may not always be so radical, not always so loud or privileged with edgy adornment. But the dew of melting snow outside a February window, with the clanking of an-other life’s keyboard drumming to the crooning birds of dawn, sifting through the theories and insights as to whether a war-less (or at least less-warred) human life is ever possible, is nothing moderate. 

Featured image from the Women on Walls graffiti project. Please visit and support

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