Noor Naga’s debut book of poetry is an intimately written interrogation of female desire and spiritual belief played out in the context of an extramarital affair. Naga dwells in the alternating solace and crisis presented by faith and family, asking difficult questions about what it means to be a good Muslim, a good woman, a woman of faith, and a woman in love.
“Touching” opens with a line that recalls the hadith, a record of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, as told by a chain of narrators: “A man said that a man said that a man said that a man said that the prophet-man said ‘it is better for you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle than to touch the hand of a woman who is not permissible to you’ this thing that the men said the prophet-man said (fourteen centuries ago).”
Throughout the book, the speaker, known as coocoo, negotiates her faith in the wake of her desire, whose taboo is acknowledged by her lover, mohammad. In the poem “Peeling,” her lover admits: “I am already forty! […] khadija my first name is mohammad together we are a sunna [a source of Islamic law] upside-down.”
In “Rioting,” coocoo finds out about her lover’s wife and throws a hardcover book at his face followed by a kettle of boiling water, then a chair that jams in the window, “frighten[ing] the glass into a map.” In Naga’s hands, violence reaches a pitch that invokes beauty and power as much as terror. Although the opening pages don’t quite convey coocoo’s deep and feverish longing, the book grows in intensity as it progresses. Each hinge of a poem’s closing opens the door to another scene. A poem titled “Bargaining” locates its counterpart in the inventive “Summering,” which finds coocoo returning to her Muslim faith.
The tension between fragments of poetry and longer lines of prose that offer the unifying thrust of narrative makes for masterful storytelling. Naga’s prose poems allow coocoo’s secrets to emerge in the silences and gaps, without the need for exposition. These poems glide between scenes of quiet intimacy and smiling friendship. They get to the heart of difficult matter the way good poets do – by admitting awe and honesty.
Washes, Prays is an inventive, genre-defying hybrid that offers a deeply necessary portrait of a Muslim woman. It dissolves stereotypes of saintliness associated with niqab-covered faces and five-times-a-day prayers, making room for female desire, friendship, and the consolations of faith.