Maryam Azam, The Hijab Files. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-925336-65-8
Maryam Azam shares profound and mundane insights on the significance of wearing the hijab as an Australian–born Muslim millenial of wit and gentle humour. This assured debut poetry collection shows the power of ritual observance, her shame and anger in response to prejudice, the vitality of high school friendships and gives fashion advice to the uninitiated. She portrays young Muslims on virtual dating technology and an everyday spirituality that expands into more-than-human experiences in time and space.
The first poem in The Hijab Files, ‘Duas Like Spells’, conjures the power of prayer and ritual observance. Azam writes her body prostrate on her prayer mat and describes the wetness of her skin, palms cupped as if holding water, wiping her hands over her face to finish:
When she stands
the invocations surround her,
halo-like and glowing.
(‘Duas Like Spells’, 2)
Duas was the first of many words I didn’t know as a non-Muslim reading The Hijab Files. According to Wikipedia a preliminary meaning for duas is supplications. Other unfamiliar words were jaanamaz (prayer carpet), naseeb (destiny), saas (mother-in-law), dulhan (bride), dhuhr (prayer after midday), wudu (ritual washing), jadoo (magic), nafs (self or soul). The terms are not italicised or otherwise differentiated in The Hijab Files for a practicing Muslim reader who has lived experience and a nuanced understanding of these words.
To my mind, Azam’s deliberate title, The Hijab Files, may connote a sort of dossier on a hidden group carrying out somewhat un-condoned cultural practices. And you could feel out of place, securing a space to pray in a secular Australian high school:
Sometimes someone would wander in –
when they did, I’d press my hands
to my chest, eyes fixed
on the embossed kaaba
in front of me, muting my mutterings,
and mouthing the prescribed verses,
willing them to go away. I’d imagine
their embarrassment as they looked at me,
bum in the air, forehead to the floor,
shoes scattered next to the mat.
(‘Praying at School 1’, 6)
Azam also feels ashamed when her science teacher justifies her decision to go without a hijab at school:
Miss Khan didn’t meet my eyes
when she said to the group
that from her research,
wearing hijab didn’t seem necessary…
I crouched at my locker,
tears fattening my eyes,
hot-faced and ashamed.
(‘Miss Khan Takes off her Hijab’, 17)
‘Minority, trauma, isolated’, is the title of the cover photograph by Nazerah Moha Zaini, which may partially represent Azam’s reactions of shame and anger to our fear of Islam:
I heard him shout Go and hide behind
your effing scarf as if he was throwing rocks
at my fleeing back…
I sat and trembled from the running
And from the fumes of those words
(‘The Hobbling Bogan, 7-8)
Meanwhile, Azam describes the light-hearted reaction of her friend who is wearing a niqab in public:
At Westfield Mt Druitt
a boy in a white snapback snarled
ninja under his breath as she walked past. No one saw
how she grinned and whispered
to herself, hi-ya!
Another friend on the train from Strathfield Girls High whose father, concerned for her job prospects, recommends she remove her niqab in public:
She gripped the train carriage pole
tightly while she told me
that her dad thought it safer
for her in public, better for her job prospects,
if she didn’t wear it.
(‘That Hijabi from Strathfield Girls’, 19)
but this friend replied that she ‘felt naked’ (19) without it.
As well as praying at school she describes praying regularly in built environments; parking lots, public foyers, a backyard. Often her friends are the ones who screen off an area to enable her to do this.
At the airport, self-consciousness is replaced with an emerging confidence:
Speed praying at the departure gate
At Sydney Airport, while the queue
To board the plane shortened.
Necessity had me shake off
my self-consciousness like a snake skin.
(‘Places I’ve Prayed’, 21)
Over a decade ago, Randa Abdel-Fattah has explained, in ‘Living in a Material World’, her prize-winning memoir on wearing the hijab that
the Muslim woman who wears the hijab chooses the dress code enjoined by a genderless creator, and is therefore immune to society’s fashion dictates. The hijab provides her with a sense of empowerment. It is a personal decision to dress modestly according to the command of a genderless creator, to assert pride in self, and embrace one’s faith openly, with independence and courageous conviction (Abdel-Fattah 2005).
Turning now to the middle section of The Hijab Files, ‘Wallah Bros’ overflows with the adventures of young Muslims who make use of virtual technologies to negotiate modern dating. One poem concerns Ishqr, ‘a [virtual] space for Muslims to connect’ (29) while several take place in built up areas, where the footpaths and expressways built by developers would be covering up ancient tracks. Azam traverses this ancient country via taxi, car and plane, in the company of men as well as by herself.
The final section, ‘The Piercing of this Place’, shows the earth and vast space as interconnected, where Azam is able to discern things that are more-than–human:
starry mist curls
through the black void.
The science professor
Has spoken like a true Muslim.
To not fear passing away,
But the passing
of time’s arrow as it shoots
beyond an abyss filled with stars
that shine like prayers…
The light from the screen flickers like faith.
Some of the later poems have interspecies perspectives. ‘Cat sight’ and ‘I’m Sure He Understands’ both pay tribute to feline intelligence. And in ‘Stone Heavy’ Azam is grieving the death of a member of the brood:
The chicken was beautiful
in the half light, eyelids pressed
together like two block-out
curtains drawn closed…
The other hens huddled together
At the back, trembling
With fear or sadness or anger;
She didn’t know what animals trembled with…
The wondrous of death chilled her.
(‘Stone Heavy’, 47)
Though her scarf may offer some protection, she was still
ignoring the scarf’s tassels
that were brushing the dirt.
(‘Stone Heavy’, 48)
The mysterious ‘Jinns on Mt Kosciuszko’ is set amid boulder, stone and rock. Out of the blue on a family bush-walk, ‘a patch of red’ (49):
In a dirt clearing surrounded by rocks
are scattered two dozen red chillies,
plump and fresh as if they’d been picked
off the plant a minute ago.
The Woolworths down in Jindabyne
doesn’t sell chillies.
The shadows around me thicken …
I catch the eye of the Indian woman
as she leans on the KGB agent.
She smiles and I think of the chillies.
(‘Jinns on Mt Kosciuszko’, 49)
Finally, in ‘We Meet (Again’) notions of prayer, place and time coalesce into what may well be the more-than-human starting point of a relationship:
our memory electrified except we had forgotten
to go to class and felt the piercing of this place
the way that entering into prayer pierces a place.
The edges of our meeting were clouded over
with the rolling mist of ancient memories
so that we could pretend we were standing
on shuddering stars and not on star-shaped leaves
along the cracked cement path to the campus musallah…
Suddenly the pin popped out of my hijab
and the significance popped out of the moment…
This was an introduction of bodies.
(‘We Meet (Again)’, 45).
Finishing the The Hijab Files gave me a sense of fulfilment. It was a joy to dwell with these direct and deceptively simple poems! Before I started reading, the photo of the girl on the cover of The Hijab Files could be likened to the Little Red Riding Hood of childhood fairytale. Now what I see is the profile of a young woman in rich red hijab, alert to the world, making her way in the crowd across any suburban Australian street.
Reading The Hijab Files you will go up mountains, to national parks, islands and Pakistan, into high schools, university campuses, shopping malls in Western Sydney and venues in metropolitan Sydney, onto virtual spaces where young Muslims meet and out into the void. Encounters with (higher) selves and with cultural geographies reverberate through The Hijab Files. I look forward to hearing more from Maryam Azam.
Abdel-Fattah, Randa. 2005. ‘Living in a Material World’, Griffith Review: https://griffithreview.com/articles/living-in-a-material-world/
Sally Denshire is an Anglo-Australian writer living in Albury. She has poetry in fourW twenty-seven, fourW twenty-eight and fourW twenty-nine and contributes to riparianalbury.com. Her auto-ethnographic PhD from the University of Technology, Sydney was on the 2011 Chancellor’s List. In 2016 a case study on crafting fictional tales in dialogue with existing articles on youth-specific occupational therapy was published with SAGE.