The Things I Would Tell You: Asma Elbadawi, Nafeesa Hamid, Hibaq Osman and Sabrina Mahfouz, Central Library, 15 October 2017.

Sabrina Mahfouz is a British Egyptian playwright, poet and screenwriter. As the editor of the anthology “The Things I Would I Tell You”, she warmly greets the crowds and introduces the writers Asma Elbadawi, Nafeesa Hamid and Hibaq Osman. Mahfouz introduces the prompt for writing the anthology by reciting the introduction page and the question posed by Ahdaf Soueif in Mezzaterra (which is in the book).

I felt upset and angered by the misrepresentations I encountered constantly and I felt grateful when a clear-eyed truth was spoken about us. And then again, who was ‘us’?

Mahfouz addresses the notion of ‘us’ and reveals the aim of the collection was to dispel the narrative of what a Muslim woman, in particular, British women look like. Furthermore, she informs the audience the main inspiration for the book was drawn from her experience of teaching girls in school. Mahfouz addresses the other three writers and reveals how she has shown their work on YouTube to her students, and as they felt mesmerised and motivated, they sought a list of other writers. This was the moment of realisation as, much to her surprise, an anthology didn’t exist and thus she embarked on a journey to create one.

The close comradery between Nafessa Hamid and Mahfouz is prominent when they chuckle and greet one another. Hamid who was born in Pakistan, is a poet, playwright and spoken word artist from Birmingham. Her work engages with issues of mental health, domestic violence, gender, identity and culture. Sabrina questions Nafessa on her desire to produce a play and the difficulty in getting theatre work off the ground in comparison to poetry. Hamid agrees that with a spoken word background, theatre is new territory she aims to conquer.

Hamid continues to give the audience an exclusive reading from work not included in the anthology. Nafessa reveals the context of the poem entitled “How to tell your parents you’re dating a white atheist” which has the audience laughing. A daughter from a conservative Muslim family, her parents were unaware of her past five year relationship with a white atheist. She explains that she wrote the poem to figure out if she should reveal the truth to her family, and when she recites the numerical instructional poem the crowd and writers on the stage are laughing. To further add to the comedy, Hamid discloses the work wasn’t published in case her parents came across it and the final instruction of the poem resolves not to tell her parents. Hamid continues to recite another poem not in the book entitled “In between dates” and the atmosphere transforms from light hearted to serious with this poem’s intense treatment of intimacy. The room is silent and the audience grips onto every single word. Lastly, Hamid recites work from the collection called “How Men are Made”.

Next Mahfouz introduces Asma Elbadawi, a visual artist and spoken word poet from Bradford. Her work is often a means of exploring her Sudanese heritage. Mahfouz highlights Elbadawi’s activism and recent campaign to lift the ban on Muslim women’s inability to wear the hijab while engaging in sports. Hearing this, the crowd whoops and Asma receives a well-deserved round of applause. She continues to tell the audience how her platform as a poet aided her activism as when she worked in Tanzania for three months: her poetic themes were influenced by giving a voice to the young girls she encountered and their lack of education facilities and exploitation by male teachers. To my surprise, Asma sings the first two opening sentences of her poem “Summer”. The singing is quickly replaced by a sombre tone as she recites bits of the poem in her colloquial language and describes the moment she accidently thought her uncle was her father. Asma discloses the poem was written in Sudan and revolves around the strange experience she felt when returning. As a result, she consistently travels to Sudan to discover more about herself and her family. Lastly, Asma recites a poem that tackles the theme of masculinity. Elbadawi describes the inspiration behind the poem, and how a past relationship made her feel too manly as she played basketball. She makes the crowd chuckle when she draws the conclusion that men and women are just different.

Next, Hibaq Osman is a twenty-two-year old Somali writer born and raised in West London. She currently studies psychology and counselling at Roehampton University. Mahfouz questions Osman and the difference between the publication of a pamphlet of poetry (Silence You Can Carry) versus writing for the publication in a book. Osman describes how performing her poetry was a barrier she could hide behind as when one is performing they could adapt a character. While in comparison, when writing work for publication Osman revealed she wrote differently as she felt more authentic. Osman shows her ‘realness’ by reciting “Matchstick Lips”, a poem about her mother and the confession of her poetic profession. Osman’s next poem continues the theme of familial relations as her poem “The Things I Would Tell You” is revealed to be about her brother.

Mahfouz thanks Osman for her generosity to lend her poem as the title of the anthology and briskly reads extracts of other writers from the anthology; Amina Jama’s poem “Home to a Man”, Seema Begum’s Ticking Poem “Uomini Cadranno”, Shazea Quraishi’s poem “Steps”, Aisha Mirza’s essay “Staying Alive Through Brexit.” Lastly she finishes the readings by reading an extract from her play “Battle face” about a spy attempting to recruit a cosmetic doctor specialising in facial rejuvenation. Mahfouz makes the audience laugh as she apologies for her attempt at the spy’s Northern accent.

To my dismay, as I was enthralled in the readings, the time for questions signalled nearing the end. So immersed in the collection, and my desire for the readings to continue, I plucked up the courage to ask about the possibility of the production of another anthology after its success and sold event. Furthermore, as a Muslim women writer from abroad (Ireland), I posed the question of opening the anthology to Muslim women writers outside the UK. While Mahfouz enjoyed the “beautiful success” of the anthology, she announced no further anthology would be produced. Instead, Mahfouz hopes other countries will create their own journeys as she points out there is no American equivalent of the anthology. She encourages the repetition of the success of “The Things I Would Tell You” and allows the title to be re-used in the process.

The final question of the event resolves around the writers drawing on family experiences in their work and if the anthology is valued by their families and communities. Hibaq Osman takes to the mic and makes the audience laugh as she reveals her mother’s delight at engaging with her Muslim heritage and other Muslim writers. Similarly, her younger sister admired the work as it gave her a sense of validation. The other writers agree on the pride they feel on the achievement of the anthology. Mahfouz ends the evening with her final remark and how she desired a mix of emerging voices alongside prominent established writers like Kamila Shamsie and Leila Aboulela. When she approached the heavy weight wrtiers, they were thrilled as they were feeling more positive in being labelled/using the term ‘Muslim’ writer.

Last year, when conducing my undergraduate dissertation, my topic concerned the representation of Muslim women in literature. At the end of the event, I told the writers of my disappointment of the lack of anthologies when they kindly signed my copy of the book. Now, however, after the event I’m proud to see the progression in the literary field and the revolutionising of the label ‘Muslim’ in a positive perspective. Though Mahfouz does not desire to produce another anthology, the readings from the event will motivate and inspire writers, including myself, to pursue the dream of producing an anthology of prominent Muslim women writers from various corners of the world.

The Manchester Literature Festival continues until October 22 in venues across Manchester. This piece also appears at Chapter & Verse, the Manchester Literature Festival blog.

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