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Postmodern In-Betweenness: Renegotiating Religious Identity in Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

by Sabrina Khela

“No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind…Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about.”

—Edward Said (1993)

Introduction: The Struggle to Shape an Arab Identity in the Diaspora
As Edward Said has observed, obstructive “labels” such as “Muslim” or “American” are restrictive epithets in the present “post-postcolonial” context (qtd. in Jay 51).1 As such, there is a stronger sense of fluidity in the formation of a cultural or exiled identity. Said also taps into the complicated process of shaping a religious identity in the Arab American diaspora, a process that is very much contingent on negotiating acculturation. Acculturation “differ[s] from assimilation,” as it calls for communication and coexistence (Abdelrazek 5). Acculturation has various connotations, and in its broadest manifestation, refers “to the process by which colonized or dominated native populations adapted to the ways and values of their oppressors” (5). However, the term also “indicate[s] the adaption process of immigrant populations in a new setting” (5).2  Entailed within this adaption process is what Homi K. Bhabha refers to as a “third space,” which exists between the exiled homeland and the accultured hostland (39). The literary productions of Arab American women writers, such as Mohja Kahf, Randa Jarrar, and Diana Abu-Jaber, examine the multiplicity of acculturation processes in the Muslim American diaspora, and they also tap into what it means to live as a hyphenated, hybrid identity in all of its complexity. Such literary productions also propose multifaceted questions of identity, which are compelling avenues for exploration and introspection. In particular, Kahf’s 2006 novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, narrativizes the struggle to reconcile the Muslim religious identity of the Arab homeland and the American cultural identity of the hostland. This essay examines a hitherto unexamined concept in postmodern ethnic literary productions. That is to say, two opposing cultures cannot be reconciled in the diaspora, which is effectively illustrated in the permanency of the third space that exists between the Arab homeland and the American hostland in Kahf’s novel.

As Samaa Abdurraqib has rightly noted, “fiction about immigrant Muslims seem to fall into two categories: fiction that focuses on culture and assimilation rather than religion, and fiction that focuses on the oppressive nature of religion and assimilation” (55-56). However, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf appears to embody both of these pivotal categories pertaining to Muslim immigrant literatures. What is crucial to note about Kahf’s novel is its idiosyncratic ability to amalgamate the tension between the culture and the Muslim faith of the Arab homeland with the culture and the predominantly Judeo-Christian faith of the American hostland. Her novel thus embodies the intricacies embedded within cross-cultural encounters in the American diaspora. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf portrays the protagonist, Khadra Shamy, who moves at a young age from Syria to the United States during the 1970s and grows up in a devout, tightly-knit Muslim family in Indianapolis, IN. Khadra’s parents—Ebtehaj and Wajdy—struggle to raise Khadra and her two brothers—Eyad and Jihad—in accordance with traditional Islamic values while being inundated with issues of a predominantly Judeo-Christian and Caucasian environment. The narration of the novel is orchestrated by an omniscient narrator and many of the principal characters are internally focalized. In addition, the narrative is fragmented through a juxtaposition of frequent flash-forwards to a present temporal space with flashbacks to the past. The fragmentation of the narration thus parallels the fragmentation that the characters experience living as exiled Muslims in America. The novel charts the spiritual and social landscape of Muslims in middle America through the depiction of Khadra’s journey growing up as a Muslim in America and her later struggles to reconcile her faith with her somewhat nonconformist life choices. Khadra is “nevertheless displaced in both [her Muslim identity and her American culture] and [she] belongs completely in neither” (Fadda-Conrey 165). The third space that exists between Khadra’s opposing identities is one that causes her a great deal of inner turmoil and fragmentation.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf problematizes the notion of immigration by illuminating an enduring state of “in-betweeness” for the Shamy family. In this essay, I argue that Khadra’s and Ebtehaj’s state of in-betweeness is a site in permanent transition, and as such, it is a space which is constantly evolving. Ultimately, this state does not lead to a reconciled religious identity, but rather an in-between, fragmented, and hyphenated identity. A distinguished body of scholarship already exists on diaspora, hybridity, and postcolonialism in Kahf’s writing, as well as on the writing of other Arab American women writers. I accentuate some of those previous discussions while directing attention to the way that Kahf’s novel illustrates the inevitability of producing a hyphenated identity in the Arab American diaspora. In my consideration of what occurs in this third space in Kahf’s novel, I examine the initial resistance to the American hostland that is developed in this in-between space. I will also address the failure to reconcile a religious identity with the challenges and persistence of a hyphenated identity in this in-between space.

I associate the process of acculturation in the Arab American diaspora with Bhabha’s concept of “in-betweenness” as posited in The Location of Culture. As such, Bhabha’s theory of the third space between two disparate cultures will provide the theoretical foundation for this essay. As The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf demonstrates, there appears to be a perceived third space that exists between the cultures of the Arab homeland and the American hostland. Kahf’s novel explores what it means to have what “[Amal Talaat Abdelrazek] calls a hyphenated identity and to live in between cultures, in the sense of always being both Arab and American and yet being completely neither Arab nor American” (Michael xiii). The following statement from Bhabha’s reflections on the significance of hybrid spaces underscores the value of the space that bridges between two cultures: “[I]t is the ‘inter’—the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space—that carries the burden of the meaning of culture…And by exploring this third space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves” (38-39). The third space that Bhabha refers to represents the bridge and the struggle to connect both cultures together. This in-between space ultimately “carries the burden of meaning,” and it is thus an enthralling entry point into understanding the hyphen in a hyphenated and hybrid diasporic identity (38). 

Resisting the “Third Space” and the Culture of the American Hostland
As Kahf compellingly illustrates in her novel, the first stage in the movement from the religion and culture of the homeland to a foreign hostland is a profound resistance to assimilate and adopt aspects of the hostland culture. The state of in-betweenness for Khadra and Ebtehaj begins with a sense of resistance to the American culture and the Judeo-Christian influence of the hostland. Ebtehaj begins her journey in Indiana as a devout Muslim woman who refuses to allow herself or her family to assimilate or even assume a hyphenated identity. In the early stages of the novel, the narrative transitions back from the present to Khadra’s childhood growing up in Indiana. The narrator reveals an innocent, playful moment in a forest between Khadra, Eyad, Hanifa, and Hakim (65). However, this rapidly transitions into a moment of fear as Khadra’s parents become overwhelmed with distress when they realizetheir children are missing. Ebtehaj “trembl[es] all over, her pale face ivory face sheen” once Khadra and Eyad return home, “mudspattered, tufts of cobwebs and twigs clinging to their hair, covered very likely with impurities that would require washing seven times” (66). Ebtehaj’s hyperbolic need to purify her children hinges upon her resistance to the American hostland. She pushes Khadra toward a bathtub in an effort to cleanse her of impurities: “With the water running hot and hard even though their father always said ‘The Prophet teaches us not to waste, even if we are taking water from a river,’ she scrubbed and scrubbed her daughter with an enormous loofah from Syria. ‘We are not Americans!’ she sobbed, her face twisted in grief. ‘We are not Americans!’” (66-67; emphasis added,). Ebtehaj’s intense resistance to the American hostland is effectively reverberated through her exclamative declaration that she and her family ‘“are not Americans”’ (67). Ebtehaj physically bathes Khadra to remove the mud on her body and the twigs in her hair. However, this physical bathing is also a metaphor for the cleansing and attempt to obliterate a developing hybrid identity. Ebtehaj scrubs Khadra with “an enormous loofah from Syria,” which suggests that she is forcefully trying to remind Khadra of their Arab origin. Moreover, Ebtehaj is “twisted in grief” because she feels her children are forming hyphenated identities and are thus embracing aspects of American culture. It is also important to note that Ebtehaj’s resistance to her childrens’ assimilation has profound ramifications for Khadra, as her mother exacerbates the fragmentation she feels growing up Muslim “in the context of an American…society that generally misreads such identities” (Alkarawi 101). Despite the fact that Ebtehaj resists this experience of a third space, she nevertheless belongs in this permanent state of in-betweenness.

Like Ebtehaj, Khadra also initially resists life in Indiana following her geographic displacement from Syria. Throughout her childhood, Khadra experiences taunts and harassment by the Lott brothers, which amplifies her resistance to the American homeland. During an earlier juncture in Khadra’s childhood, she falls on the asphalt and Brian Lott appears, threatening her. Khadra’s internal focalization reveals her state of resistance to Brian’s taunts: “She’d kicked him in the shin then, and she would do it again, even if it was a fight she must lose” (emphasis added, 4). Khadra threatens to retaliate, if Brian harasses her further, but she is cognizant that it is “a fight she must lose” (4). In this context, Brian embodies a traditional American Caucasian young boy who is not accustomed to foreigners, especially exiled Muslims from Syria or other Arab homelands. Kahf’s diction compellingly suggests that Khadra’s resistance to Brian’s harassment and, thus, the resistance to a hyphenated identity is a futile attempt to reclaim her Syrian identity. Moreover, Khadra’s state of in-betweenness signifies an inevitable and enduring transition in the American hostland. What Khadra experiences by the Lott brothers, and by Brian in particular, is racial discrimination. As Shakir Mustafa has observed, the “Scarf exposes Muslims’ racism and, by drawing on Islamic religious authority and tradition, condemns it” (283). Khadra expresses her resistance to racism and harassment in the aforementioned passage, and, in so doing, she also asserts her authority. However, images of the racial discrimination of Muslims permeate the novel and Khadra continues to experience racism throughout her adolescent years. This moment in Khadra’s childhood thus foreshadows a later physical exchange between Brian and Khadra at high school, during which  Brian tears a piece of Khadra’s hijab off that previously adorned her head (124-125). Khadra and Ebtehaj initially express a profound resistance to the American hostland and their progressing hyphenated identities, but the borders delineating their in-between third space appear to evolve when they return to their Arab homelands.

Returning Home: Return Narratives and the Shift in a Hyphenated Identity
The enduring third space which exists between the Arab homeland and the American hostland is exacerbated by the return to the Arab homeland. Specifically, this third space is intensified by the return to Saudi Arabia, which is an extension of the Shamy family’s Syrian homeland. That is to say, Saudi Arabia is the Arab country which holds the highest spiritual significance for many Muslims. In her chapter on the nature of return narratives in Tara Bahrampour’s To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America (2006) and Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran (2005), Persis Karim—a scholar of Iranian diaspora literatures—intriguingly observes the nature of the Arab return narrative. She posits that “[b]ecause the return narrative is a confrontation with the past, these authors are engaged with the hope of liberation from a past that haunts them and, in many ways, keeps them tied to an exilic and diasporic consciousness that is suggestive of their outsider status” (106). Despite the fact that Karim specifically refers to the diasporic memoirs of Bahrampour and Moaveni, the aforesaid discussion of the return narrative can be applied to The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf as the novel contends with the problematizations of returning to the Arab homeland. Moreover, while this novel does not constitue a return narrative in its entirety, the story addresses the subject of returning to the Arab homeland on several occasions, including Khadra’s trip to Saudi Arabia together with her family and her return to her Syrian homeland. The novel also draws a distinction between an emotional metaphorical return narrative and a physical return narrative.

Khadra experiences an emotional return home with the memories of Syria that, in many ways, haunt her life in America. The emotional memories of her homeland are still alive in Khadra as she tries to grapple with her in-between, hyphenated identity. The internal focalization of Khadra reveals her nostalgic memories of her Syrian homeland: “Sometimes she had a vague memory of having been on a mountain. Dry sunny days that had a certain smell made her think of Syria, and when she bit into a tart plum or a dark cherry, her mouth felt like Syria” (15). The visual imagery here effectively conveys Khadra’s longing for Syria. The depiction also suggests the gustatory and visual cues that ignite her nostalgia for her Arab homeland. Moreover, this emotional return to the Arab homeland demonstrates that Khadra’s in-between state is a site of permanent transition—on the one hand, she is cognizant that she no longer belongs in Syria, on the other hand, her memories of her homeland saturate her life in America.

In addition to constructing an emotional return home, Kahf constructs physical returns to the Arab homeland. These return narratives which are embedded into the narration suggest that the third space that is bridged between what Carol Fadda-Conrey calls the “ethnic borderland[s]” (193) of the Arab homeland and the American hostland, is exacerbated by the realization that the American hostland is now home. As the plane takes off for Saudi Arabia, Ebtehaj does not feel the same sense of resistance to America that she felt earlier in her journey. Rather, she expresses a sense of sadness at leaving Indiana: “Ebtehaj had a tear in her eye as the plane rose over the city of Indianapolis. ‘Our community is the best ever,’ she sighed, leaning her head on her husband’s shoulder. ‘Those sisters are my best friends in the world’” (158). It is evident from Ebtehaj’s dialogue that she has established a sense of community with other Muslim women in Indianapolis, and, as such, she now regards America as “home.” Moreover, this third space has intensified, and Ebtehaj’s state of in-betweenness is evolving. Nonetheless, the third space is also eternally in transition, for example as Ebtehaj continues to grapple with traditional Islamic values in contrast to the liberalism in American culture. When Khadra returns to Indianapolis in the present narrative, Ebtehaj expresses that her fear is ‘“losing [her] children to America. Having [them] not keep Islam one hundred percent’” (384). Moreover, the fear of losing Islamic values permeates the Muslim part of her hyphenated Muslim American identity.

Khadra, like Ebtehaj, experiences a shift in the third space that separates the “ethnic borderland” between her Muslim and Arab identity and her American identity (Fadda-Conrey 193). Following her trip to Saudi Arabia, Khadra becomes cognizant that this holy place of Islamic worship is not how she envisioned it to be. She learns that it is unconventional in Saudi Arabia for women to pray in mosques, which causes her a great deal of confusion (167). Ultimately, Khadra comes to the conclusion that America is “home”: “Khadra was glad to be going home. ’Home’—she said, without thinking. She pressed her nose against the airplane window. The lights of Indianapolis spread out on the dark earth beneath the jet. The sweet relief of her own clean bed awaited her there—and only there, of all the earth” (emphasis added, 179). Indianapolis now represents “Home” for Khadra, a place she had expressed much resistance towards at an earlier juncture in her journey as an immigrant in America. Khadra’s state of in-betweenness is evolving as she appears to accept her hyphenated identity, particularly her American identity. However, it is important to note that this moment in Khadra’s narration occurs during her adolescence. Khadra nonetheless expresses great trepidation at the prospect of returning to Indianapolis in her adulthood (2-3). Moreover, Khadra’s fluctuating feelings about her “home” in Indiana underscores that the third space between the Arab homeland and the American hostland is a contested site in eternal transition.

The Failure to Reconcile a Religious Identity in the Arab American Hostland
While Ebtehaj and Khadra become cognizant that America is now their home, they ultimately fail in trying to reconcile their Muslim identity with their sense of Americanism to come to fruition in their American hostland. Ultimately, this in-between third space does not lead to a reconciled religious identity but rather a hyphenated identity in permanent transition. In the culminating chapters of the novel, the narrative transitions earlier boundaries as depicted in the flashes back and forward to Khadra’s present return to Indiana. Khadra’s internal focalization reveals her surprise as she witnesses how her mother has evolved: “It was the first time Khadra could recall seeing her mother sit at a mixed-gender table. Her father had done so, many times, through years of Dawah work. But her mother had been reluctant. These were new horizons. You go, Mom, she thought” (387). Ebtehaj embraces her identity as a Muslim who works for the cause of Islam at the Dawah Center, but she also embraces her American identity by evolving and allowing herself to sit with other men, something she would have deemed untraditional for a Muslim woman at an earlier stage in her journey. Ebtehaj thus embraces her hyphenated identity, as she fails to reconcile her Arab and Muslim identity. Khadra’s internal focalization also suggests that Khadra is supportive of her mother and the formation of her hyphenated identity. Moreover, this passage underscores the inevitable nature of forming a hyphenated identity in the Arab American diaspora and the difficulty of reconciling an Arab and Muslim identity that is purged of a sense of Americanism.

The failure to reconcile a religious identity in the American diaspora is also echoed in Khadra, whose state of in-betweenness is a particularly contested site of cultural transition. As I have already briefly discussed, Khadra’s sense of “home” challenges and exacerbates the third space between her Arab identity and her American identity. As Khadra reaches her adulthood, she no longer feels that Indiana is “home” for her. Rather, she feels just as exiled from Indiana as she does from Syria. Years after her failed marriage to Juma, Khadra returns to Indiana. When Khadra drives through the border that demarcates Indiana from other states, she feels a lack of belonging to a place she once called “home” (179): “Here we go. Looking for the exit sign that will lead her back to horrible little Simmonsville. Back where you came from” (7). Khadra’s failure as a diasporic subject is evident here, as the “displace[ment] in both [her Muslim identity and her American culture] [results in her] belong[ing] completely in neither” (Fadda-Conrey 165). Ultimately, Khadra is unable to reconcile her Arab and Muslim identity with her American identity. Rather, she embodies a hyphenated, fragmented identity. In the culminating moments of the narrative, Khadra captures photographical moments of Hanifa driving a race car. Khadra surrenders herself to her hyphenated identity and subtly accepts the failure to completely reclaim her Muslim identity as a diasporic subject: “I’m regrouping too…in that shutter-click instant, she knows where she belongs, doing what she must do, with intent, with abandon. And it is glorious, it is divine, and Khadra’s own work takes her there: into the state of pure surrender” (emphasis added, 441). This passage exemplifies how Khadra embraces her passion for photography. However, the very last words of the narrative subtly reveal that Khadra surrenders herself to becoming a hyphenated identity. Khadra “knows [that] she belongs” in America, and she arrives at the conclusion that she belongs in the Arab American homeland as a hyphenated identity. Moreover, unable to reconcile her Muslim identity and her American identity to fruition, Khadra “surrenders herself” to her hybrid identity and, thus, an enduring state of in-betweenness that has permeated her life as an immigrant in America.

Conclusion: From Resistance to Hybridity
As Said underscores in the epigraph of this essay, “labels” such as “Muslim” or “American” are obstructive (336). Such labels can be damaging as they suggest the need to fit into a restrictive category. In many ways, these demarcating labels do not offer the same kind of fluidity that a hyphenated identity permits a diasporic subject. Negotiating an enduring state of in-betweenness amid opposing “labels” is an eternal site in transition. Kahf’s The Girl Tangerine Scarf  portrays an embodiment of the challenges that exist between the “ethnic borderlands” of the exiled Arab homeland and the foreign American hostland (Fadda-Conrey 163). Equally important in the novel is the discussion of the racism and marginalization that Muslims experience whilst inundated with issues of a primarily Caucasian and Judeo-Christian environment.

This essay has sought to demonstrate that the state of in-betweenness, as experienced by Khadra and Ebtehaj, is a site of a permanently evolving transition. Ultimately, the result of this third space is a fragmented and hyphenated identity. Kahf’s novel thus charts the complex transitions that derive from experiencing the journey of immigration. As I demonstrate, the first stage in this journey is a resistance to the American hostland, followed by the formation and subsequent transitions to a hyphenated identity. The third space is exacerbated by the emotional and physical return to the Arab homeland, resulting finally in a hyphenated identity that fails to reconcile both the Muslim and Arab identity and American culture. Kahf’s novel is a coming-of-age story of Khadra Shamy, but the novel also narrates the complex experience of immigration and the various stages that are involved in establishing a hyphenated identity in the Arab American homeland. Kahf’s brilliant prose suggests that, regardless of futile resistance, the formation of a hyphenated identity is inevitable in the Arab American diaspora.

I thank Professor Maria Assif for her intellectual generosity and for her support during the research and writing phases of this essay.


1.In The Chronicle Online, Mohsin Hamid states that he belongs to a new generation of “post-postcolonial” writers, which includes other current diasporic writers. The “post-postcolonial” is “less interested in foregrounding the persistent effects of British colonization” (Jay 51). Rather, the “post-postcolonial” is concerned with globalization, development, identity, and problematizations of life in the diaspora.

2.Abdelrazak’s scholarship is heavily influenced by postcolonial and diasporic scholars, such as Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and Gayatri Spivak. It is important to note that my attention to Abdelrazak in this opening section is not meant to downplay the well-established scholarship of the aforesaid scholars. Rather, I concentrate on Abdelrazak here as her approach to postcolonial literatures focuses on the diasporic and exiled identities of Arab American women, which is pertinent for my discussion of Kahf’s novel.

Works Cited

Abdelrazek, Amal Talaat. Contemporary Arab American Women Writers: Hyphenated Identities and Border Crossings. Cambria Press, 2007.

—. Foreword. Contemporary Arab American Women Writers: Hyphenated Identities and Border Crossings, by Magali Cornier Michael, Cambria Press, 2007, pp. ix-xv.

Abdurraqib, Samaa. “Hijab Scenes: Muslim Women, Migration, and Hijab in Immigrant Muslim Literature.” MELUS, vol. 31, no. 4, 2006, pp. 55-70.

Alkarawi, Susan Taha. “Negotiating Liminal Identities in Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 101-106.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Fadda-Conrey, Carol. “Arab American Literature in the Ethnic Borderland: Cultural Intersections in Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent.” MELUS, vol. 31, no. 4, 2006, pp. 188-205.

—. “Transnational Diaspora and the Search for Home in Rabih Alameddine’s I, the Divine: ANovel in First Chapters.” Arab Voices in Diaspora: Critical Perspectives on Anglophone ArabLiterature, edited by Layla Al Maleh, Rodopi, 2009, pp. 163-183.

Jay, Paul. “The Post-Post Colonial Condition: Globalization and Historical Allegory in Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke.” ARIEL, vol. 36, no. 1-2, 2005, pp. 51-68.

Kahf, Mohja. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2006.

Karim, Persis. “Returning Home: Iranian-American Women’s Memoirs and Reflective Nostalgia.” Identity, Diaspora, and Return in American Literature, edited by Maria Antonia Oliver-Rotger. Routledge, 2015, pp. 103-115.

Mustafa, Shakir. “Defending the Faith: Islam in Post 9/11 Anglophone Fiction.” Religion and Literature, vol. 41, no. 2, 2009, pp. 281-288.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. Vintage Books, 1993. 

Sabrina Khela wrote this critical essay during her senior year at the University of Toronto. She has since had a second essay accepted for a future issue of Queen City Writers.

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