READING KAZIM ALI, one is reminded in a way of James Baldwin, whose book The Fire Next Time defined and is intertwined with the civil rights struggle during the mid-’60s. Ali is a Muslim-American poet, essayist, and novelist whose two most recent books similarly will be invaluable to those wanting to know what it means to be Muslim in post- 9/11 America.
Ali writes in his “Poetry Is Dangerous” piece in Orange Alert, a book of literary and political essays, of arousing the suspicion of an ROTC man at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania while innocently disposing of poems from a poetry contest he was judging. The son of Indian Muslims, his “Middle Eastern” appearance was cited, and the police were brought in. He was told that in the “current climate” (the year was 2007, and America was on “orange alert”) he had to be careful about his behavior.
“It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman who was questioning me on the phone,” Ali writes. “It was poetry I was putting out to be recycled.”
Even in Fasting for Ramadan, Ali’s spiritual journal of insights, associations, and revelations jotted down during the 30-day fast, his mind cannot escape menace. He mentions the orange peeled and eaten in the morning, and the sunset, also orange, seen in the evening. That leads to his reflecting: “Orange alert means now is the time for creative expression, for flowering; now is the time, more than any other, to eschew practices of exhaustion and death and turn toward our interior sources of love and light.”
Ali is a contemplative writer happy to contemplate happiness, or its opposite, or to explore the mystery of Hajira (Hagar) looking for water in the desert. (“What was she thinking?” he writes.)
Rooted in Islam, he confounds the stereotypes of an absolutist Islam held by many. He says that the revered Sufi poet Rumi saw no distinction between the destroyed temple of Solomon and the mosque built in its place. His descriptions of eating after a fast, and the mind’s restlessness during a fast, are noted with the bare Zenlike precision that insists you look at the moment itself, its beauty and singularity. (This quality transforms his essay on the poet Jane Cooper in Orange Alert into a work of almost sacred perception, in which the arc of a career is secondary to the light of being.)
When he turns to scriptural mystery, it is with lines like this: “Craig tells me the word for ‘one’ in Arabic is ‘wahid,’ the word for loneliness, ‘waheed.’”
Ali admits in Fasting to having a “hard time” with prayer, as he wants to believe God will see him when he prays, but since he is not sure of God’s nature, he is also not sure how he can speak to God.
In the essay “Poetry and Silence” in Orange Alert, he transfers this state to the very nature of creativity:
As I think about my own ideas about poetry and art, I notice how often I have swerved away from actual content—in either poetry, music, or dance—and toward the idea of “silence”: Rothko’s monochrome fields, Martin’s white fields, the stillness of butoh. In poetry, I lean toward the small, the fraught, the nearly silent.
In the world, Ali plays the role of a post-9/11 Josef K (the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s dystopian novel The Trial) who knows exactly what his crime is, writing in Orange Alert: “My body exists politically in a way I cannot prevent.”
Robert Hirschfield is a New York City-based freelance writer.