During fajr namaaz
wrists turned in
toward my diaphragm
I carve my hands
pry open ribs
get close to my heart
warm it in my palms,
and calming hiccups.
match arteries to lifelines
tell it: we were always meant
to meet like this,
on the seam of day
when crickets give way
to dawn chorus
proclaiming we’ve survived
You’re the only girl in the muhallah that rides a bicycle and you do it with joy and intense pleasure. Your papa taught you to ride when you were five years old, taking laps around the apartment complex. Later he taught you how to change a flat tire and repair a broken chain. By age twelve you could build a bicycle yourself with a handful of tools, a frame, two wheels and a handlebar. You are your papa’s only child, a daughter, the only pair of hands that could embrace the lineage of permanently greasy finger nails. Your ami grew tired of scrubbing your salwars to no avail, re-braiding your unruly hair, and attempting to make you presentable. You, you grew restless whenever you weren’t riding.
Today is a day like any other day. You wake at 5 a.m. and can’t wait to greet the brisk air and the empty streets. Before the daily errands, before delivering the parcels to the post office, getting milk for the day’s chai, before going to the sabziwala for okra, potatoes, and green mirchis, you take a ride to witness the rare stillness. You visit Victoria terminus, no taxis lining the station’s entrance, no rickshaw drivers rushing to usher arrivals to their hotels. It’s a pink silhouette in this light, the perfectly shaped stone stacks an architectural feat amidst the cracking Bombay foundations. Immense, ornate. Triumphant. Every detail exuding grandness. Every detail measured and intact. Delicate circular windows tucked under rosy cobbled arches, verandas that stretch from one ear of her calculated smile to the other, two seated lions with luxurious manes and mouths agape, domes and peaks with spires piercing the soft flesh of sky, and in the very center a woman cut out of white marble declaring benevolence and superiority at once. Precise and symmetrical, you can’t help but see what others found so endearing in this building and its builders. But you like mess. You like frenzy and chaos and unpredictability. This relic is too pretty. You hear your papa’s words, tinged with mock gratitude, “Us Indians would still be riding elephants if it weren’t for British trains.” You bring your eyes back towards the horizon, towards where you live, where the earth meets the sky.
And where the sky meets the sea. You coast along Shahid Bhagat Singh Road towards the docks. The Gateway of India. A doorway big enough for a fleet disguised as two British royals with polished bones for crowns and scopes for eyes. Why did they need a gateway, you think, why the formalities when they never thought twice about ceremonious invitations? When they landed. When they dropped anchors on every shoreline. When they imprisoned your people in their own Lal Qilas (Red Forts) built to house rebellion. Homes turned hostage. You wonder how they turned your hands against you. Took the long sinew-flinging fishermen’s arcs and the powdery touch of red sandstone and forced them to carve a welcome and an allegiance into their own chests. You jump over the barrier and run to the very center of the archway. You run your fingers along the latticework, poke them through the Islamic floral cutouts and stand back to watch the sun slits invite the sea into the cavernous space. Just like Jama Masjid, you think. Their hands found a way to build a lasting image of something bigger than the British. And bigger than you. Grace.
You ride along the stretch of Marine Drive towards Haji Ali. Lovers flock here when the sun tones down its harsh judgments, sleepily tucked into the covers of the sea or setting into a sky now reigned by distant suns who can’t be bothered to throw light on illicit kisses. Taxi drivers pulled to the side of the road, chewing the first paan of the day, gathering the sweet, bright red juice in the pockets of their cheeks. Neither the road nor teeth can be scrubbed free of the stains. You peer at drivers flipping through copies of the Mumbai Mirror past the new action thriller that unites megastar Amitabachan onscreen with his son, the many questions the Sexpert fields about maintaining an erection, and a leopard on the prowl, yet again, on the Powai campus.
You pick up speed toward your final and most favorite spot on your morning pilgrimage: Haji Ali. The green chiffon orni you tied at your hip flies loose and gets churned into the spin of your gears. Oh shit, you think. Ami is going to murder you! This is the third orni this week. You pry out a shredded end, tear at the cloth with your teeth and wrap the remainder twice around your waist with a secure knot. You watch as Haji Ali soaks in the glow of sea and sky and blossoms warm sienna. The sun pays respect, positioning its praise behind the call of the minaret, now a lighthouse for travelers drenched by storm-risen waves. You lay down your bicycle at the beginning of the footpath, almost entirely bare of the constant current of seekers. You unroll your salwar legs, brush the city dirt off your kurti and take the long walk towards the dargah. The fragile thread of land lined with a few vendors spreading their wares, juice Kakas setting up displays of chikkees and mangoes, and beggars hoping to stir ir-Rahim. You think of especially windy days when white foam readily swallows any trace of this path, sand gathered from ocean bottoms built to connect the profane to the sacred. Like a vein returning again and again to its Source to be purified, exchanging depletion for oxygen. The longing is deep in this city for Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs alike, to escape duniya, even for a few hours, and step into the middle of the Sea into the arms of the Beloved. You stop in front of your favorite juice stall and ask for juice the color of the sky. The juice Kaka takes a massive blade slicing a watermelon in half, opening its fuchsia belly. Coral chunks of cantaloupe crushed into the blend, pressed through a sieve. Coolness floods your insides, carves out an inlet from your throat to your stomach. At the entrance to Dargah Sharif you buy a basket of gulab petals from the caretaker sheikh, smooth your orni over your hair, and rub a hand over the silky, marbled doorway. And immediately you’re surrounded, you’re overcome. Every window is an invitation for the believer to call upon, to be, to live one of the virtuous ninety-nine names of Allah. Colored glass shards sewn together spell: Al-‘Ali … Ash-Shafi … Al-Qadir … Al-Akhir …You stand fixed in front of Al-Rashid, one on an illuminated path. And you look down at your hands and see them glowing green. There is no separation, you think. Allah is my guide and I am my own. I am all these selves patched together, messy but whole.
Naazneen Diwan is current lead instructor for the Baldwin House Urban Writing Residency hosted by Twelve Literary Arts in Cleveland, Ohio. She is founder of Kalaashakti healing arts and meditation workshops with Muslim women. Her poems have been published in several publications, including Kohl, Project As[I]Am, SAMAR, and MOONROUTES, and have been performed in venues such as Tuesday Night Cafe, The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, Khmer Arts Academy, Other Books and The Last Bookstore. Her poetry manuscript was a semi-finalist for the University of Wisconsin Press Poetry Prize.
SEX, DESIRE, AND INTIMACY
Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research
Vol. 3, no. 2, Winter 2017
Artwork: Amy Chiniara
Sex, Desire, and Intimacy
Bio:Naazneen Diwan is a poet, storyteller, performer, social justice educator of Arabic and Gender Studies, and lover of bicycling. She has organized with South Asians for Justice, LA, INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color Against Violence, and is an advocate/ally for the Palestinian liberation struggle and struggles for justice and dignity for immigrants. She received a PhD in Gender Studies from UCLA and has most recently taught classes at Calstate LA. She’s a transnational Activist-Scholar who builds dynamic, vibrant community wherever she goes: from working as a translator at an underground human rights publication in Damascus, Syria, to co-founding a transnational feminist, 10-day convening in Berlin, Germany. She’s worked in Gujarat, India since 2011, facilitating creative arts and healing workshops with Muslim women, called Kalaashakti, and studying the 2002 genocide against Muslims. Currently, she is working on a book collaboration with her artist father called 99 Names, featuring her poetry and his ink sketches, and is co-creating a transformative education project called Bab al-Nafs which weaves together intellectual and spiritual wisdom to orient the spiritually colonized towards freedom.
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This is the story of my clit intact. Of how I escaped the butcher mother, aunty, family doctor. Of how I sought pleasure, felt pleasure, unflinchingly. Of how pleasure was extracted from my five year old self; how I too am a survivor of patriachy’s efforts to cut us down, but not of the knife. This is the story of an almost circumcision and the confusion that surrounds how I was spared. This is part story and part letter because violence never happens in isolation; it is a dialectic. And I exist and survive with some scars and missing others because of all my relations. The only daughter and youngest child. The first born in the U.S. When I was born eight years after my brother, reinforcements were called from India; I let out my first scream with a full head of thick, black hair in October and by November, my Dadi and Jiji had moved in.
I grew up in a household of three watchful mothers. A father who insisted I keep my hair swinging below my waist. An older brother who I never shared a school with and endlessly followed around until he moved out. And still, with all those eyes, they couldn’t protect me. Age five was the first time a white boy-soon-to-be-man bullied and lunged at my malleable self-esteem and body. I tried to speak the pain but my family of eyes hadn’t yet grown ears adept enough to hear me. It wasn’t until I began college that I could string together accusations and they sent me to a psychiatrist. BBC and NPR tell me khatnah is performed from ages 6-8. I wonder, if they had known, would they have vowed to defend me from others’ desires and channeled their guilt into slicing apart what he was after? Will our bodies always be found to blame for men’s heedless, reckless grasping?
And it is here that the relentless stream of questions takes over. Was it my dad, my ally and best friend, who calmed the scalpel out of their hands? Did not getting cut secure my seat around the kitchen table as an honorary son, one who could talk politics and poetry, enthusiastically sharing my subscription of The Economist and devouring every Khalil Gibran book he lent me? Did the exclusion of the women in my family, one I participated in, make me an agent of patriarchy? Did I help erect a pardah between intact and fractured? Did I enjoy being an exception?
Or was it merely logistical blunders that saved me, the dizzy of new immigrants trying to find ground? Was it because my mom was working 40+ hours a week and taking night classes, and couldn’t find a moment to schedule the cutting? Was it that I was born with my father’s temper, super strength tantrums, and they didn’t have enough people to restrain me? Was it that they knew I’d end up with a trans man, no chance of disgracing them with a pre-marital pregnancy? All I have is speculation, guesses, made-up reasons that diverted me here. With the clit I was born with. Having sex without pain and wondering how and when that became a luxury.
My biggest questions of all are for the women who survived, the ones I never sought out until now because I never knew this practice existed. It wasn’t until I was well into my 30’s that I found out about khatnah in the Dawoodi Bohra community, though I didn’t need more fuel for my resentment towards the religious leadership. When I read now in media interviews that khatnah is “common,” I want to gather and grab all the women that grew me, elders and ancestors, who declared I will inherit this smile, this gift, all the ones I never met but especially my mother. And the sisters I grew up with who also inherited secrecy, just as I did. Secrecy so tightly woven into our genes that we have to resuscitate our vocal chords to even whisper the truth. Even as I write this, I think of how much I have been told to keep, hold in, and with every sentence I fear I am betraying my family. But it is worse to betray what can heal me – my voice. Women are too good at holding secrets, most of all from each other.
Mothers, was there even a bit of pleasure when you conceived us or did you pray that it would be over quick? Sisters, does it become easier to follow our mothers’ orders to clench and tighten our legs, in our foolish hope the wound will one day close? Do you wish it closed and to not exist at all? Does every other part of your body become numb to guard you from the injury that we non-consensually inherited? Are all dangers averted now, after the cutting? Does the woman who strapped you down in her living room, donned gloves and stocked up on gauze, become your pediatrician? Are you forced to call her aunty? Are you saved now from sin and critique or will they find more ways to surveil and charge you? Is this your final punishment or initiation? Do you ask yourself when screaming into your mother’s neck and being carried to the car, if this is the consequence for stealing that nail polish from Clare’s or refusing to finish the Quran with your dadi? The next week at school, do you wonder if anyone feels the agony of loss oozing from you, a part of you you never fully knew missing? Is it age 25 until you finally look at it again and 27 until you talk about it with sisters of the knife? Do questions ever end their torrent and do any witnesses to the crime against you offer answers to soften the swelling? How has this trespass fortified you for the task and joy of raising your own daughters? Does it ever get easier to forgive?
I couldn’t tell the story of my exceptionally loving, enlightened family, because all families love and all families hurt. I love my family and this love can exist in complexity, in disappointment, small and large betrayals, oaths of loyalty that stuff the truth in childhood trunks. Even though they chose to not pass on this tradition to their only daughter, only granddaughter, they did choose to stay in a community that perpetrates and validates misogynistic violence. I could fault them, but what choice were they given by white supremacy: to be ostracized in every direction? We all need some place to belong and sometimes, after traveling continents with blisters and vertigo, we settle in imperfect company.
And there is a mandatory epilogue that must follow. I find it sad that I cannot critique my Bohra Muslim community in peace. Without the fear that predatory Western media and imperialist voyeurs might sample a sound bite to bolster their case against the formerly/currently colonized, the Third World, Islam. I find it sad that Dr. Nagarwala, who was an adult-sized pawn of patriarchy and misogyny, one that runs deep and can still carry on with one minion down, will be the scapegoat. I am enraged that girls, mostly young, are the ones caught between pious Bohra men and triumphant Western saviors, with neither capable of seeing them as human, as whole.
I don’t know what healing looks like but I do know it has nothing to do with the rituals burned into my body when I die or where I’m buried. Maybe healing begins when we cease judging ourselves, blaming ourselves, fixing and measuring ourselves long enough to let maghrib fall in a blaze of magenta and crescent moons and jasmine fill in the cracks of our memory. Maybe healing begins with the next generation. Or maybe it begins with this next breath.
 Grandmother and Paternal Aunt.
 A community that adheres to the Ismaili branch of Shiism and lives in western India, Pakistan, Yemen, and some Eastern African countries.
 Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician in Detroit, Michigan, was arrested in April 2017 and charged with practicing FGM, Female Genital Mutilation, on young girls ages 6-9.
© 2017 Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research كحل: مجلة لأبحاث الجسد و الجندر.
Web by khalilantoun.com
I am working on a collection of poems and illustrations with my father, Shabbir Diwan, who is a trained fine artist. 99 Names is a series of 99 poems, each corresponding to one of the 99 divine aspects of Allah. The collection seeks to blur lines between sacred and profane, between pious and blasphemous, and between spiritual and corporeal. As a queer, Muslim, woman, a feminist and a runaway academic, I take the religion I was raised in and reclaim it. I infuse themes of heartbreak, illness and disability, sexual pleasure and transcendent love into these poems. At its core, this collection seeks to uncover the empowering truth that humans were made to imperfectly embody these divine aspects and to queer Islam and dogmatism in the process.
Making magic in my dad's basement studio in Ohio. Modeling for our book project collaboration, 99 Names, featuring my poetry and his brilliant ink sketches. Its precious to work on this Sufi poetry project with the elder who loaded my arms with stacks of my very first books of Rumi, Gibran, Hafiz and Krishnamurty. My favorite person to wander through art museums with and be swept away by mystery and imagination.