Arab American Literature

Discrimination in the Arab-American Experience

Mohja Kahf

This lesson examines several short poems by the contemporary Syrian-American poet Mohja Kahf. In these poems, she explores a series of experiences in which Americans react to an Arab-American woman wearing a veil. In the poems, a woman is continually frustrated by the inability of those she encounters to treat her as an equal human being—she is stereotyped by how she looks, her ethnicity and her religion, and is denied the ability to fully participate in society. She is marked as strange, foreign, perhaps even a terrorist, because of her dress and background.

In this set of poems, discrimination is sparked by a visual cue—the headscarf worn by the speaker. The headscarf marks the speaker very obviously as different from the “norm,” so that she is seen as foreign in her environment, although she is American. Culturally, she is in most ways a part of the society around her, but visually she stands out, so that her obvious affiliation to groups that are suspect to some Americans—Arabs and Muslims--occasions treatment that betrays both ignorance and hostility. [It is worth noting that for many Americans, Arab and Muslim are indistinguishable terms—although one is an ethno-linguistic and one a religious identity, and although most Muslims are not Arab and a sizable minority of Arabs are not Muslim.]

Since well before the tragic events of 9/11, many Americans have felt an antipathy toward all Arabs and Muslims—blaming all members of these groups for the actions of an extremist few. Those who have been most vulnerable to hate crimes or discrimination are those who fit the common visual stereotypes of “the Arab”—men with olive skin and beards, those wearing “traditional” Middle Eastern dress, and women who cover their hair and/or face. 

The sequencing of the poems’ titles, Hijab Scene #3, Hijab Scene #5, and so on, emphasize that a woman wearing a headscarf in American society is frequently subjected to various kinds of on-sight discriminatory reaction by strangers on the street, in her professional life, as a parent, and as a citizen. [Note: the poems in the handout are presented in the order they appeared in Kahf’s book E-mails from Scheherazadalthough they were not consecutive in that text. There are no poems entitled Hijab Scene #4 or Hijab Scene #6 in the book.]


  1. Students will be able to read and analyze poetry, including form, voice, tone, and stylistic devices.
  2. Students will be able to write poetry on a specific theme.
  3. Students will be able to analyze and discuss the social, economic, and emotional costs of discrimination in society.
  4. Students will be able to relate experience described in poetry to the broader experiences of groups discriminated against in the United States historically and today.

Also see California State Standards for History/Social Science and English/ Language Arts at the end of the document.


  1. Hijab: headscarf worn by some Muslim women to cover their hair.
  2. Free verse: Poetry in which the lines are written without adherence to a particular meter or rhyme scheme, often following the rhythms of normal speech.
  • Scheherazad: Legendary storyteller of the Arabian Nights who postponed her death at the hands of her husband the king each night by telling a series of fantastic tales.
  • Assalam-O-alaikum: A phrase in Arabic meaning, “Peace be to you,” used by Muslims to greet one another everywhere.
  1. Pink collar: Analogous to the terms blue collar and white collar, referring to work in fields traditionally considered to be women’s work, such as secretaries, nurses, telephone operator, day-care workers, etc.


1. Poetry in Context

  • Ask students to read the poems by Mohja Kahf in the handout.
  • The poet focuses on discrimination faced by the speaker. What sparks the discrimination she faces? How do you know?
  • Reading these poems all together, what can you intuit about the speaker? Do you imagine that it is the same speaker in all five poems?
  • In each of these poems, the speaker runs up against the ignorance or prejudice of someone else. What do you think the daily life of a Muslim woman who wears hijab is like? How might it vary from one place to another? What factors might influence how a Muslim woman is perceived and treated in the United States? (what she wears, what part of the country she is in: rural/urban, more/less diverse, external events like 9/11)
  • In one poem, Hijab Scene #5, the headscarf actually creates a positive reaction. For whom does it do so? Why do you think this is? How do you think the speaker feels about the reaction of the African American Muslim men to her headscarf? What does this poem imply about relationships among American Muslims, and between Americans of different races and religions? [Students might benefit from a brief introduction to African American Muslims.]
  • These poems were all written in the mid-1990s. Do you think the experience of a woman wearing hijab in America today would be different? How?

2. Who is Mohja Kahf?

  • Have students research the biography of the author. [Born in Syria, Mohja moved to the United States as a child and grew up in the Midwest. After earning her PhD in comparative literature from Rutgers University, she moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to teach at the University of Arkansas. She has written many articles, in addition to her poetry and novel, on both academic subjects and on being a Muslim and Arab woman in the United States today.]
  • What experiences in Mohja Kahf’s life story do you think she might be bringing into her poetry?
  • After students have read the poems, have students break into pairs and act out an interview in which one student retells the stories in the poems at the prompting of the other student, acting as a television interviewer. How might the speaker tell about these events in that setting?

3. Poetry: Analysis and Empathy

  •  Try to imagine each poem from the other side, from the perspective of the person the poet is railing against. Can you articulate their perspective? What do they see when they look at the speaker in the poem?
  • The poems are in free verse. What is free verse, and why do you think the poet chose this form for her poems? Do you think this was an effective choice? Why or why not?
  • Have students write a series of short poems in free verse, connected to one another through the theme of discrimination. The poems might reflect scenes in which they felt that they were misunderstood, or might deal with discrimination in a different environment(s), contemporary or historical.


Further Reading

Kahf, Mohja. E-Mails from Scheherazad. University Press of Florida, 2003.

Kahf, Mohja, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Carroll & Graf, 2006.

Neil MacFarquhar, “She Carries Weapons; They Are Called Words,” New York Times, May 12, 2007.

Evelyn Alsultani et al. Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes. Arab American National Museum, 2011.


Handout: Selected Poems by Mohja Kahf

Published in E-Mails from Scheherazad


Hijab Scene #3

“Would you like to join the PTA?” she asked,
tapping her clipboard with her pen.
“I would,” I said, but it was no good,
she wasn’t seeing me.
“Would you like to join the PTA?” she repeated.
“I would,” I said,
but I could’ve been antimatter.
A regular American mother next to me
Shrugged and shook her head.
“I would, I would,” I sent up flares,
beat on drums, waved navy flags,
tried smoke signals, American Sign Language,
Morse code, Western Union, telex, fax,
Lt. Uhura tried hailing her
for me on another frequency.
“Dammit, Jim, I’m a Muslim woman, not a Klingon!”
–but the positronic force field of hijab
jammed all her cosmic coordinates.
Can we save the ship we’re both on,
can we save
the dilithium crystals?



Hijab Scene #5
“Assalam-O-alaikum, sister”
“Assalam-O-alaikum, ma’am”
“Assalam-O-alaikum” at the mailbox
“Assalam-O-alaikum” by the bus stop
When you’re wearing hijab, Black men
you don’t even know materialize
all over Hub City
like an army of chivalry,
opening doors, springing
into gallantry.

Drop the scarf, and (if you’re light)
you suddenly pass (lonely) for white.



Hijab Scene #7

No, I’m not bald under the scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where  women can’t drive cars
No, I would not like to defect
I’m already American
But thank you for offering
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
Off your assumptions,
They’re going to blow you away


Hijab Scene #1

“You dress strange,” said a tenth-grade boy with bright blue hair
to the new Muslim girl with the headscarf in homeroom,
his tongue-rings clicking on the “tr” in “strange.”


Hijab Scene #2

“You people have such restrictive dress for women,”
she said, hobbling away in three-inch heels and panty hose
to finish out another pink-collar temp pool day.



Mohja Kahf is a Syrian-American poet, novelist and academic whose literary work explores issues around being Arab and Muslim in America. She earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Rutgers University, and now teaches at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Born in Damascus in 1967, Kahf grew up in America. Her writing as an American Generation X Muslim confronts and confounds expected roles and aspirations of Arab and Muslim women. She recently published a highly regarded novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (Carroll & Graf, 2006). She also writes an earthy blog on issues of sexuality in the Muslim community.


Mohja Kahf's first work of poetry, E-Mails from Scheherazad, brings together a number of poems she wrote over the last decade and a half, bridging the watershed September 11 events and continuing aftermath. The poems offer a set of vignettes of Muslim-American and Arab-American life. One poem--Fayettteville as in Fate--poignantly addresses her own role as a cultural bridge, trying to burn through the fog of stereotypes and cultural misunderstanding to show that Middle Eastern and Appalachian cultures have a great deal in common (see her online reading here). Other poems challenge the reader to understand and accept the diverse experiences of Arab and Muslim Americans, especially women, who are usually quite different from the common stereotypes would suggest—not oppressed, not odalisques, not silent, not foreign.

E-Mails from Scheherazad was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize in 2004.



History/Social Science
11.10.5 Discuss the diffusion of the civil rights movement of African Americans from the churches of the rural South and the urban North, including the resistance to racial desegregation in Little Rock and Birmingham, and how the advances influenced the agendas, strategies, and effectiveness of the quests of American Indians, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans for civil rights and equal opportunities.
11.11.1 Discuss the reasons for the nation's changing immigration policy, with emphasis on how the Immigration Act of 1965 and successor acts have transformed American society.
11.11.7 Explain how the federal, state, and local governments have responded to demographic and social changes such as population shifts to the suburbs, racial concentrations in the cities, Frostbelt-to-Sunbelt migration, international migration, decline of family farms, increases in out-of-wedlock births, and drug abuse.

English/Language Arts

Common Core Standards English/Language Arts
Standard 10: Range, Quality, and Complexity of Student Reading 6–12
Range of Text Types
Includes classical through contemporary works and the subgenres of narrative poems, lyrical poems, free verse poems, sonnets, odes, ballads, and epics by writers representing a broad range of literary periods and cultures.

Reading Standards for Literature Grades 6-12
4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text,
including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word
choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language
that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

6. Analyze a case in which grasping point of view requires distinguishing what is
directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or

English Language Arts: Listening and Speaking
1.9 Read prose and poetry aloud with fluency, rhythm, and pace, using appropriate intonation and vocal patterns to emphasize important passages of the text being read.

English Language Arts: Reading
3.1 Identify and analyze the characteristics of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction and explain the appropriateness of the literary forms chosen by an author for a specific purpose.
3.4 Define how tone or meaning is conveyed in poetry through word choice, figurative language, sentence structure, line length, punctuation, rhythm, repetition, and rhyme.
3.3.6 Identify significant literary devices (e.g., metaphor, symbolism, dialect, irony) that define a writer’s style and use those elements to interpret the work.
3.3.7 Analyze a work of literature, showing how it reflects the heritage, traditions, attitudes, and beliefs of its author

English Language Arts: Writing
1.1.3 Support theses or conclusions with analogies, paraphrases, quotations, opinions from authorities, comparisons, and similar devices.
2.2.2 Write responses to literature:
a. Exhibit careful reading and insight in their interpretations.
b. Connect the student’s own responses to the writer’s techniques and to specific textual references.
c. Draw supported inferences about the effects of a literary work on its audience.
d. Support judgments through references to the text, other works, other authors, or to personal knowledge.






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