Maryam Azam, The Hijab Files (Giramondo 2018)
In ‘Hotel Golf’ in the current issue of The Monthly, Erik Jensen writes that Helen Garner doubts if many people who attend church actually believe – she thinks that’s a myth maintained by non-religious people.
As a non-believer, I understand how Garner herself can participate in religious services without subscribing to the underpinning beliefs, but surely it’s just a failure of imagination to project that lack of belief onto the other participants. To put that another way, Helen Garner doesn’t seem to have met ‘many people’ like my Catholic mother, or me in my teenage years, or – to get to the point – Maryam Azam, the author of The Hijab Files.
The 29 poems in this small book aren’t religious poems, but they are infused with a religious understanding of the world. Many of them focus on the hijab, and it’s hugely refreshing to hear a clear, nuanced, non-Orientalist voice on the subject, sometimes cheerfully practical (‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’, ‘Places I’ve Prayed’), sometimes satirical from an unexpected viewpoint (‘Modestique’), sometimes touching on friendly or hostile reactions from non-Muslims (‘The Hobbling Bogan’, ‘Praying at School’), sometimes addressing difficulties with other Muslims (‘Fashion Police’).
To single out one poem, here’s ‘Fajr Inertia’ (the Arabic fajr is explained in the epigraph):
Come to prayer! Come to success! Prayer is better than sleep! FROM THE FAJR ADHAN (DAWN CALL TO PRAYER) I lie in the knowledge of my failure the way I lie through my chance at success, hip sunk into the mattress blanket over my chin staring at a yellow flower clock with a missing plastic cover that reads six minutes past seven; twenty-five minutes too late. The broken gas canister of sleep slowly clears from my head. I hide under the covers from the light invading my room but I can't hide the fact I'll have to live today outside of Allah's protection.
You don’t have to be a devout Muslim to understand this: the emotion isn’t a million miles from how I feel when I missed my pre-breakfast visit to the swimming pool, and realise I’ll have to live the day without that half hour of self-care. Who hasn’t woken up befuddled by a ‘broken gas canister of sleep’? With a gorgeous lack of portentousness, the poem places Allah’s protection in the middle of this commonplace experience.
Helen Garner’s scepticism about other people’s religious belief is probably typical of non-believers in these secular times. The Hijab Files speak back quietly but definitely to challenge that scepticism.
If you’re interested in getting more of a sense of this poet, you could have a look at a short, 5-question interview with her on Liminal magazine, here.
The Hijab Files is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.