Award-winning poet Noor Naga’s debut was released this spring, launch events scuttled by lockdowns and venue closures. But, at a well-attended Zoom launch, Naga talked about genre, character, parantheticals, and how this book came about:
By Phoebe Bay Carter
On Saturday, May 2, writer Noor Naga spoke on Zoom from her home in Alexandria about her new book Washes, Prays (McClelland & Stewart).
Her debut publication is a novel-in-verse about two “hijabi girls in a non-hijabi world,” Coocoo and Nouf, twentysomething friends from the Arabian Gulf growing up in “Tronno” — as the provincial capital of Ontario, Canada, is called by natives and transplants like Coocoo and Nouf, who have learned the cultural codes of their adoptive city. Coocoo suffers from a chronic loneliness for which she seeks relief in various sources — God, her best friend Nouf, and a romance with a married professor that leads to a reckoning with herself and her faith.
The talk was the latest edition of the NYC Cultural Majlis series, now hosted weekly on Zoom, the newly ubiquitous video-conferencing platform. It was attended by nearly sixty people around the globe — from Alexandria, Egypt to Alexandria, Virginia; Canada; the UAE; and beyond. The geographic range of Naga’s readers speaks to the multiple audiences her work addresses, as well as to her own criss-crossing of space. Born in the US, she grew up in Dubai and studied in Toronto, and now lives in her grandmother’s home in Alexandria (the Egyptian one).
Despite confessing to being a bit “Zoomed-out” after weeks of online readings and book talks, Naga spoke with enthusiasm, eloquence, and tangible gratitude for her community of readers, writers, and friends. In the talk, which exceeded its scheduled hour due to the abundance of questions from attendees, Naga talked about what led her to write this book, the challenges she faced in telling a diaspora story, and her own experience as an eternal migrant, a “third-culture kid” who has never really been “from” anywhere. Her position as constant outsider has made her a keen observer of municipal identities and a quick study of cultural codes, allowing her to slip easily into the many cities she has made her temporary home. “I’m mistaken as a local everywhere I go,” she said.
Categorized under “Poetry” in the publisher’s catalogue and marketed as a “novel-in-verse,” this 67-page text could equally be described as a poetry cycle, narrative poetry, or a novella. Naga said that, if she could have simply called it a novel, she would have. But once you start calling something fiction, “editors tend to get very restrictive and edit all the weirdness out.”
The book has three sections : two in the voice of Coocoo and one in the voice of Nouf, sandwiched in the middle. Coocoo’s sections are in dense one-paragraph-per-page prose poetry with titles like “Beginning,” “Beginning ,” “Meeting” and “Meeting .” Blank spaces within a single line interrupt the flow of each sentence, marking off smaller units of meaning within larger ones. Meanings change as you read on past the break to the rest of the sentence, causing you to then return to before the break to reinterpret what you’ve just read before rushing on to the end of the sentence — a meandros edging around a Grecian urn that must always double back on itself before proceeding forward:
Aside from the single period marking the end of each poem, the main punctuation marks are the frequent parentheses (and occasional brackets, for parenthetical statements within parenthetical statements). Like her intraline breaks, these parenthetical layers challenge the linearity of writing, burrowing further into the center of each thought before moving on. Often they are used to provide further detail or context, reminding you of how contingent understanding is, and how much more is always waiting to be said within each utterance. Like in this brilliant, devastating parenthetical extravaganza in “Setting,” the first poem of the book:
The parentheses let us into Coocoo’s head as she questions, corrects, and rationalized her thoughts. They also allow Naga to provide context for things like Arabic roots and specific tenets of Islam in a way that works within the logic of the text. The question of how much explaining to do, Naga said, was one of the principle challenges. She said that while writing, she was naively unaware of the issue of audience. Only in the editing process did she realize that in writing about a diasporic religious and cultural minority for a much wider Anglophone audience, she had to develop what she called “double vision,” making adjustments to the text as she considered how it would be read by say, a Muslim vs. a non-Muslim, or an Arab vs. a non-Arab.
“I thought of this as a very Arab story when I was writing it,” she said. Only afterwards, in trying to convey to others what the book was, did she see it more specifically as the story of an Arab in diaspora. “This is actually a very Toronto story, this is an immigrant story,” she said, going on to describe how in the diaspora, so much of one’s identity becomes distilled in superficial markers, like the hijab, in a way that does not happen for Arabs ‘at home.’ Of the latter group she said, “They’re allowed to have a much more flexible, fluid relationship with things like their faith and their sexuality.”
By choosing to have her two diasporic protagonists come from cosmopolitan communities in the Gulf (Manama, Bahrain and Khobar, Saudi Arabia), Naga avoided many of the cliches of diaspora literature, which often gets caught up in what she described as “that two-dimensional tug-o-war” between West and East or home culture and foreign culture. The Gulf is already such a nebulous mix of cultures that you can be “picked up and plopped anywhere without experiencing the great shock that most other immigrants would,” she said. Many of the event’s attendees in the Gulf nodded on screen in agreement.
Rather than getting hung up on questions of foreignness and assimilation, the text’s central problematic is understanding faith, both in terms of Coocoo’s internal reckonings and in terms of how to convey these to readers. “That prayer must involve upward dialogue is a common misconception noontime prayer = 4 x (standing + bowing + standing + prostrating + sitting + prostrating + sitting),” Coocoo tells us. “Let’s not get sentimental now some things are done in order not to not do them.” In moments like these, we see Naga’s preoccupation with her role as conveyor of a non-dominant culture. Yet the author’s concern converges with Coocoo’s own attempts to come to terms with her faith, both on a philosophical level (why is it that God has allowed her to be this lonely, for this long?) and on a practical level (what are the rules forward once you have already broken the rules?). The poem “Washing” begins,
Parts of Coocoo’s reckoning, Naga said, came out of her own journey from a transactional relationship with God to one based on gratitude. She had asked herself the question, “if you could distill your relationship with God in one word, what would it be? Are you asking, or are you thanking?” These two orientations are embodied in the characters of Coocoo and Nouf. In “Bargaining,” Coocoo addresses God: “if I wear the thing You told me to wear / do all the good things You told me to do will You cure my loneliness?”
A series of Nouf’s poems also begin with an “if.” Unlike Coocoo’s “ifs,” however, Nouf is not looking to strike a bargain with God. Rather, her hypotheticals express a worldview in which all that happens happens because God willed it: “if mansur repented mansur repented / because God willed mansur to repent.” Yet she never imposes her own version of faith on her friend. She simply removes all the sharp objects from Coocoo’s apartment and listens without judgment as she re-learns to recognize her own humanity.
Just as Nouf listens, Naga writes without passing moral judgment on Coocoo. Neither preachy about nor condescending of her characters’ faith, she takes seriously their relationship with God as a shifting source of knowledge, comfort, and confusion. At once fast-paced and reflective, reverent and irreverent, and infused with sharp-witted humor throughout, Naga’s debut leaves me grateful for all of the weird wonderfulness it has brought into the world, and wondering what bargain I might strike to read more books like this one.
Phoebe Bay Carter is a translator from Arabic and Spanish, and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. She is the Cairo editor of ArabLit.