Nashville’s current youth poet laureate draws on experiences that few of her peers have ever had to think about, like spending the first few years of her life in a refugee camp.
Mumina Ali is also the first Muslim to hold the title. Before she heads to American University this fall — on a full scholarship — she spoke to WPLN’s Natasha Senjanovic about using poetry to raise awareness about social issues closest to her heart.
Her poem “Refugee Camp” encapsulates her work the best, she says. Here’s an excerpt:
Fifteen years ago
I lived in the largest refugee camp
In Dadaab, Kenya.
Where my people were still licking
Their unjustly cut wounds
From the Somali civil war and Arab slave trade.
Where protesters were only ever seen face down
Muffled by a government that faked sanctuary
Just to kill them off easier.
We called it inhumane.
When it was too late
They finally called us victims.
“When I was younger, I used to write songs a lot,” Ali tells WPLN. “So I’d just be in my room, writing a song, and these words would just come out, and I didn’t know where they were coming from.”
Like her poetry now, her early songs were mainly about her culture, family or struggles as a Muslim woman. “What I could and couldn’t do and how I compared myself. So it just stemmed from that, and it led to poetry.”
Ali’s identity as a Muslim woman is a recurring theme in her work. That includes the shame she says she’s expected to feel — about her body, her sexuality, her very presence. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the poem “Sharmota,” a word with many offensive meanings in Arabic, including “whore.”
Here’s an excerpt:
They call me Sharmota
They tell me my legs should be as closed as my thoughts,
That the only thing keeping me company at night should be my book of Quran and the presence of Allah.
That as a respectable woman my head should be down,
My body covered at all times
At least I don’t have to deal with the judgments of society.
But they call me Sharmota,
Hair wrapped up tightly in a hijab and skirt as long as my morals,
My boobs should be tied down to prevent guys from looking closer
‘Cause as a woman of faith,
I should have ‘dignity’.
Natasha Senjanovic: You dress traditionally. How do see the coexistence between the two things: pushing boundaries, going beyond those norms and traditions, and at the same time being faithful to them?
Mumina Ali: One thing I always say is that what I wear, like the hijab or like my long sleeves, is a choice. So it’s important to have a choice. There’s a difference between choice and what society and religion and culture force upon you. And what I try to do is to get women to make their own choices, especially Muslim women, to step out of the boundaries and make their own choices.
NS: Do you feel … when you’re up there performing, that you’re waging battles?
MA: Of course. Sometimes I wonder if anyone cares, since the things I talk about aren’t really talked about in today’s society, with people who aren’t in my culture. And so when I go in front of people, I wonder, will this matter to them? And so I’m fighting this internal battle with myself, ‘Don’t put yourself through this.’ But there’s a bigger part that’s, like, regardless of if they care or if they’re listening, they need to hear this and need to be aware of these problems.
NS: Which poem do you feel is your biggest battle cry?
MA: I’d probably have to say “An Act of Terror.” It was the most direct poem I’d ever performed. Because usually when people write poetry, they like to sugar-coat things, using metaphors and personifications, and I do that too. But when I wrote this poem, it got straight to the point and portrayed what I was trying to say.
“An Act of Terror” (excerpt):
Just another pretty way of saying that Muslim man didn’t do it,
Pipe bombs sent in different directions,
And for the very first time, not one hand pointed at me,
Not one mention of the birthday society gave me,
I was close to invisible,
It was blamed on the President that blamed me,
And I felt guilty for not being guilty.
I was used to being a slave in my own body,
Blame pinpointed at the girl with the long black hijab,
Hiding away from the freedom that they offered
When she came here seeking salvation.
Used to staying away from firecrackers,
Cause firecrackers make a pop boom sound,
And bombs make a pop boom sound
She said he said “Allahu Akbar”