The Sunday Magazine

Noor Naga on moral decisions, millennial Muslims and modern love

Noor Naga chats with Elamin Abdelmahmoud about longing, loneliness, faith, transgression, writing contradictory characters, and the role of technology in modern love. She is the winner of the 2017 Bronwen Wallace Award and the 2019 RBC-PEN Canada Emerging Writers Award.

Washes, Prays is her new novel-in-verse

RBC Bronwen Wallace Award winner Noor Naga's debut novel-in-verse is about a young woman's romantic relationship with a married man and her ensuing crisis of faith. (Penguin Random House Canada/submitted by Noor Naga)

At the beginning of Noor Naga's new novel-in-verse Washes, Prays, a young Muslim woman in Toronto bargains with God.

"If I am grateful, patient … 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?" she asks.

WARNING: This poem contains language that some listeners might find offensive.

 

After years of asking God for a life that never materializes, she meets a man who seems to be the answer to her prayers. He's also a married father of two.

Coocoo and Muhammad embark on an affair that warps and consumes her. The crisis of faith that follows forces her to reckon with her place in the world.

Naga was born in Philadelphia, raised in Dubai, studied in Toronto, and now lives in Alexandria, Egypt. She is the winner of the 2017 Bronwen Wallace Award and the 2019 RBC-PEN Canada Emerging Writers Award.

Naga spoke to The Sunday Edition's guest host Elamin Abdelmahmoud about longing, loneliness, faith, transgression, writing contradictory characters, and the role of technology in modern love.

Here are highlights from their conversation, which have been condensed for length and clarity.


How loneliness and hunger shape her character's moral decisions

She is hungry for intimacy and for human connection. She's a hijabi woman, and that can be a really isolating experience, especially in spaces like Toronto. People don't really understand what that means, and so they sort of put you in the nun category. People, and especially men, don't necessarily always know how to interact with that, and so the simplest way to respond is just to put up a wall. This is true even in Muslim spaces.

I believe that if you take somebody and you look at their constellation of circumstances, it's inevitable that they will act in the way that they do. [That's] why I wanted to [give] the reader a sense of exactly what led her to this point, where she makes a critical moral choice that you might think of in the abstract as just simply reprehensible. And it might be. But it's also more complicated. 

It's very, very difficult to be so hungry, to have a basic human need that is not being met ... and then to have it come along and be so close, but also not right. I really do believe that anybody in that circumstance would behave as she did. I wanted the reader to step down from the pedestal, and really be in her shoes and also make that choice, and carry on with the consequences and see where she ends up.

I believe that if you take somebody and you look at their constellation of circumstances, it's inevitable that they will act in the way that they do.- Noor Naga

Navigating codes as a millennial Muslim in the diaspora

Within Islam there is sort of a code for so many things. They're not necessarily all rules. But it's preferable for you to put your right shoe on before your left. It's preferable for you to sit down when you drink water, as opposed to standing up. All of these codes can be incredibly comforting, especially if you're somebody who has anxiety or who is looking for guidance or direction.

But once you step outside, certain things become difficult to negotiate. I think this is a very common diaspora problem. You've got this rulebook for how to live. But then it's in some ways incompatible with the culture that you're around. People will find ways to let go of some rules, but then hold on really tight to other rules. So you'll get Muslims who come home from the bar, but then won't have a hot dog because it's pork.

Noor Naga accepts the 2017 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award on May 30, 2017. (Katrina Afonso)

How technology has changed the nature of longing in modern love

I think it's a very new experience that our generation is going through. Before, you used to call people on the phone if you were interested in them. They might not be home, and you might get their answering machine. It was a different relationship to waiting. But now we've got these phones that move with us, and so you are always reachable.

If you've ever had the experience of being attracted to someone or being in love with someone who is not as in love with you, you become hyper-aware of timestamps. For example, you text me and I text back immediately, and then you take another hour to answer even though I can see you online. We've become sort of incredibly sensitive to all of these nuances of communication.

The sound itself can be really haunting, actually. I was once waiting for 'pings' from a particular person. I changed the sound so that he would have a distinct sound, so that when I was in the next room and I heard it, I could come running. This was years ago, and until now, any time I hear that particular sound from somebody nearby, I jump. I'm conditioned precisely like a dog with a bell. I'm conditioned to salivate at the thought of a particular 'ping' from a particular person.

I know how I would hear this, or how my Muslim friends would read this, but how would somebody who has no context or somebody who might be bigoted hear this?- Noor Naga

Her family's response to the book

A lot of the conversations that I've had about this book have been with my grandmother. She was saying, you've got to be aware that there is an Islamophobic narrative and you are feeding into that narrative by giving them a Muslim who is also doing something reprehensible. [She said], "They're going to love you, and they're going to love you for all the wrong reasons. And you're going to hurt your community because you're going to fuel their fire of hatred and xenophobia."

I did go back and sort of edit the piece with double vision. I know how I would hear this, or how my Muslim friends would read this, but how would somebody who has no context or somebody who might be bigoted hear this? I was trying as much as possible not to centre that kind of reader. I don't want to be writing in response to that, because then you end up defensive and you end up didactic.

[But] I changed the ending a bit. I had originally written it in a way that was leaving her in a much more conflicted place. Upon speaking to my grandmother, I realised that if I had left it like that, the narrative would have been subsumed under this larger category of Muslim girl goes to the west, and then has a spiritual crisis and can't recover and realises that her religion is all phoney. It's not that people don't go to the West and think, "I actually don't want to wear hijab anymore," or "I don't want to pray." This is a narrative that exists. But the way that it becomes utilised by Islamophobic groups, I think is really harmful, because it suggests that there's something inherently wrong with being a practising Muslim woman. I find that insufferable. 

Why we need Muslim characters who are not saints

I think Toni Morrison said it so well — "The main function of racism is distraction." You spend so much energy working on proving our humanity that you don't actually get to tell nuanced stories. If you're going into a novel trying to prove that your characters are good people, then you don't really have characters at all. You've got dummies that you're moving around the stage and making talk to each other. It's like Sesame Street. It has no relationship to real people.

There just has to be room for paradox, and there has to be room for contradictions, because this is how we live. For so long, there was this impulse from minority groups to only give you these beautiful, stylised heroes that might be victims of oppression but are never actually bad people or don't make any kind of morally reprehensible choices, which is ridiculous. There's room for something that's more complex and more human.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

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