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BOOKS Inclusive anthology 'Halal' launches at Poetry Foundation
by Kelsey Hoff
2019-04-24

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The Poetry Foundation was packed the night of April 11 for the book launch of Halal If You Hear Me, a collection of poems and essays by Muslims who are women, queer, genderqueer, non-binary or trans.

The book is the third installment of Haymarket Books' BreakBeat Poets anthology series of writings canonizing poetics in the age of hip-hop. Editors Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo spoke and read their work along with contributors Beyza Ozer, Jacinda Bullie and Edil Hassan.

Asghar and Elhillo read excerpts from each other's forewords—Elhillo reading from Asghar's "Finding the Hammam" and Asghar reading from Elhillo's "Good Muslim/Bad Muslim." Then representatives from an inclusive Islamic community center in the Loop, Masjid al-Rabia, shared their mission and spoke about some of their programs, including an LGBTQIA+ Muslim prison ministry, and facilitated a prayer.

"The poems and essays in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me are the Muslim community I didn't know I was allowed to dream of. This is the Muslim community my child-self could have blossomed in—proof of the fact that there are as many ways to be Muslim as there are Muslims," Elhillo states in her foreword. She added that it feels good to have this book as an object representing her community that is invisible but nonetheless exists, and she hopes it will help break down walls of compartmentalization on a community level.

"Let us create a poetics that [re-creates] the hammam, where we can come in our real, naked skin, sit in the water, and talk openly. Where all of us—the hijabis, the haraamis, the uncovered, the gender-nonconforming, the queer, the married, the never-married, the virgins, the non-virgins, the brown, the black, the white the yellow—can just be," states Asghar's foreword. According to her, writing poetry has helped her feel "seen." The hammam is a Turkish bath, and Asghar noted in an interview that it would make the perfect place to read Halal If You Hear Me.

When asked how many submissions they received for the anthology, Asghar replied, "Way too many." This may have been, in part, due to the number of first-time submitters who felt moved to send in their work because the call was so specific to their identities. It was also a first for both editors, neither of whom had ever edited a major anthology; however, they decided to pursue the idea they came up with together at a Poetry Foundation event in 2016.

The readings covered a wide range of topics, including bodies, borders, death, travel, families, violence, tattoos and more. Readers shared a bit about their identity and why they are compelled to write about it. Coming from Turkish, Choctaw, Appalachian, Sudanese, Somalian, Pakistani and Kashmiri backgrounds, they spoke about how their differences from other Muslims and U.S. residents—especially concerning gender and sexual orientation—affected their lives. Many of their poems expressed the beauty and pride they have found in these differences.

The readers adjourned to the Poetry Foundation Library afterward to meet with the audience and sign books. An after-party was held at The Hoxton with music by DJ Cashera, mehndi and tarot.

Because the book was launched during National Poetry Month, it will be available for half off until the end of April through Haymarket Books. A folio of selected poems from the anthology will appear in this month's issue of Poetry Magazine.

See www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1273-halal-if-you-hear-me .


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