Reclaiming Identity: "Halal If You Hear Me" Shatters Stereotypes with Honest Portrayals of Sexuality and Faith
In 2019, Haymarket Books published the third volume of its The BreakBeat Poets anthology series, “Halal If You Hear Me,” co-edited by poets Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo. The anthology comprises poetry and writing by women, gender non-conforming and trans people, bringing to light a diverse, constantly evolving Muslim community.
“Halal if You Hear Me” is divided into five sections, one for each pillar of Islam: Shahada (the profession of faith), Sawm (fasting), Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), Salat (prayer five times a day), and Zakat (charity given to the poor and needy). While the poems all follow each other well, the categories are mostly loose classifications Poems like Aisha Sharif’s “Why I Can Dance Down a Soul-Train Line in Public and Still Be Muslim” are ringing declarations of faith, in ways that sometimes challenge traditional notions of Islam. Sharif writes, “My Islam be universal / cuz black be universal. / It be Morocco and Senegal, / India and Egypt. My Islam / don’t need to be Salafi / or Sufi. It don’t have to be / blacker than your black. / My Islam just has to be.”
Asghar and Elhillo made their own contributions to the anthology as well. Asghar’s poem “If They Come for Us” is an embrace of everyone from the most pious to the most flawed and wayward Muslims, and Elhillo’s “Ode to Swearing” is a seeking of reclamation of the worst profanity in English and Arabic, ironically in the Sawm section.
Some of the pieces talk about the things we as Muslims rarely ever talk about: queerness, sex, desire and many other taboos. Fariha Róisín’s essay “How I Learned to Accept My Queerness as a Muslim Woman: is a particularly powerful challenge to the status quo around queerness and Islam. Róisín writes, “For many years I believed in my self-disgust. I shamed myself for my sexuality, believing that’s what I had to do. That being me, fully me, was demonic, and I hated myself for it. I was lost, I was terrified, and I was unhappy and in a constant cycle of self-hurt. In retrospect, I wish someone could have said: God made you this way, love yourself.”
While the poems and essays in the anthology draw on each writer’s Muslim identity, they do not focus solely on Islam; they also detail other personal experiences, cultural and otherwises. Asghar and Elhillo’s editorial choices come together to create a mosaic of identities and stories, each giving their own perspective on Islam and what it means to be a Muslim. Asghar and Elhillo succeed in providing nuanced explorations of faith and community in ways that challenge many of the Muslim community’s prevailing norms, in hopes of creating a more inclusive Islam.