REVIEW: March 15, 2019, was a rupture for so many people in New Zealand, but initially and most importantly, and most enduringly, for the Muslim community.
“All of my conversations in New Zealand return inevitably to Christchurch,” Mohamed Hassan writes near the end of his book of essays, How to Be a Bad Muslim. “It is like a glitch in time. A rupture in the VHS film that keeps replaying a loop of a memory.”
Hassan, a poet and journalist who was born in Cairo, and migrated to New Zealand at the age of 8, was living and working in Istanbul when he heard about Christchurch. He flew back as a reporter, but joined the large group of Muslim volunteers who helped with the burial of 51 people in four days.
“Fifty-one holes dug six feet deep, aligned side by side in five rows,” he writes. “I imagine they needed an Excel spreadsheet just to figure out the logistics of who would go where. Whose body had been released by the coroner first, washed and wrapped in cotton and readied for the journey.”
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Hassan has a rare perspective, and not just the obvious one of a young Muslim writer at a time when the rest of New Zealand needed to hear from the community – and it still needs to – but because of the duality of his professions. He is both a journalist and a poet, and his poetry collection, National Anthem, was a book awards finalist.
That combination means these 19 personal essays are engaging, beautifully written and light on their feet.
The rupture of March 15 is the subject of at least three of them, and in the background of many others. The burials are described in a piece called “Two Funerals”. The nihilistic online culture that radicalized the Christchurch gunman is outlined in “Subscribe to PewDiePie” which, in a confronting move, opens the collection and takes its title from an in-joke shared on white supremacist forums.
But the third of the specifically Christchurch-oriented essays does something else, which connects with an overall hopefulness that underpins the book.
Hassan produced “A Letter Unsent” as a commission for the Verb Wellington festival in 2020. The idea was to compose the best letter he has never received. Hassan wrote an appealing fantasy about a customs officer whose perspective was permanently altered by March 15.
We met the customs officer in an earlier essay about airports. Hassan was stopped and taken aside at Auckland Airport, while his parents waited outside for four hours.
“I was presented with a list of every location I had traveled to within the last year, and asked to explain each. Why was I in Israel in September? What business did I have in London in January? My phone and laptop were taken to a hidden room and scanned for an hour, and I was asked to explain photos that piqued interest.
“’Why are you standing outside the Dome of the Rock with your finger in the air?’”
He was reduced to a profile, a bare outline of facts: “Mohamed Hassan. Born in Cairo. Moslem. Security threat. Suspect. terrorist. It is a reality magnified for others with darker complexions than mine, with hijabs and kurtas that betray them.”
That was before. In “A Letter Unsent”, Hassan imagines the same customs officer writing a personal and apologetic letter to him. The officer has been transformed, as so many were, by the horror of March 15. He takes his daughter from ella to a mosque. He is haunted by the thought that the Christchurch gunman might have walked right past him at customs, and he had no reason to be suspicious.
The scene is an illustration in miniature of our national ignorance of white supremacist terrorism while security services looked in the wrong direction. Amusingly, Hassan applied for the officer’s notes under the OIA; the man wrote that Hassan seemed “quite angry by the end of the search.”
This kind of personal essay is not a new form, but it has become an increasingly popular one. The form has advantages and disadvantages. But Hassan gets the balance between the personal and the more broadly informative about right, even when the essays are about subjects as commonplace as having strange dreams during lockdown, coping with anxiety or the music that summed up his teenage feelings.
By “broadly informative”, do we really mean educational? There is no question that Hassan’s book could be pitched as providing the non-Muslim majority of New Zealanders with the background reading it should have done years ago. Even the provocative title, which gestures at western media stereotypes, conveys that intent.
After September 11, 2001, which was another rupture, the meaning of being Muslim split. The word “Muslim” was distorted by the War on Terror and became “something darker, more twisted, and further and further removed from how Muslims saw themselves”.
In the western mind, there were good Muslims and bad Muslims, he says. The good Muslims were moderate and blended in. “They spoke fluent English, shook hands with their female co-workers and didn’t force their wives to wear the headscarf.” The bad Muslims were violent and resentful, and hated their adoptive western countries.
Muslims in those years lived in a type of suspension.
“It is a peculiar type of gaslighting, to be subjects of this strange attraction,” Hassan writes. “To be granted citizenry and promised equality but to always be held at arm’s length. To be accused of plotting disharmony when all we have ever fought for was integration, acceptance, peace. To be slandered and caricatured by voices that hold all the power and be expected to show gratitude.”
But again, this is one side of the duality of the Muslim experience as now understood by most non-Muslims. We have finally become familiar with the tensions Kiwi Muslims lived with for decades, and the lack of representation in media and entertainment, but we still know so little about the cultural sensibility.
Most of us don’t know much about the world that produced the poetry of Rumi, or the 10 stages of Arabic love outlined in Hassan’s closing essay, or even the Quran itself. It means that as well as being informed about politics and prejudice, readers should be just as grateful for lines like these.
“In the Quran, God creates the universe with a single word: Be. And it is. A great unfurling energy that expands rapidly and brilliantly through nothingness. A beginning that curls around itself and spins further and further out. Is that where our prayers go?”
How to Be a Bad Muslim by Mohamed Hassan (Penguin Books, $40) is out now.