Pakistani-American Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s Poetry of Food Memories

Last weekend I interviewed my dear friend and poet, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, at her home in Southern California. We first met at an event in Chicago’s Sabeel Center designed to bring together both the poetry and food of Al-Andalus and the Ottoman Empire. Shadab read poetry from her book, Baker of Tarifa, and I helped to create the guest menu that included marzipan-stuffed dates (a nod to the convivencia where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together peacefully), and I spoke about my experiences visiting the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and my travels throughout the Black Sea region in Turkey.

Shadab has published four books (see all below the video, with descriptions and how to purchase). In this interview we take a deeper look at her most recent book, COMB, which includes the poetry of her other books and is a soulful look at childhood memories of life amidst her second-hand view of war at home in Pakistan, the aromatic culinary memories of Ramadan, the love of her family, and moving abroad and experiencing painful Islamophobic sentiments as a university student, as well as the fear and isolation of being a Muslim mother to small kids post 9/11. Her work is a cultural and natural treasure in that it bridges the gap of understanding for those on either side and elicits the emotion and compassion necessary for true empathy that the world so desperately needs right now.

Baker of Tarifa Poetry. Middle Eastern Studies. Asian American Studies. “Al Andalus—a unique cultural convergence in human time where myth hovers the way moths are drawn to lampshine, and in her luminous, spare language, Shadab Zeest Hashmi catches its essence: attar of memory, the perfume of peace, sweet rising dough of dailiness; at the end, smoke rising, the reek of war, useless keys, exile, sorrow distilled and deepened by the presence—in these deeply felt, lovely poems—of what feels newly lost.”—Eleanor Wilner

Kohl and Chalk Poetry. Middle Eastern Studies. Asian American Studies. Winner of the 2014 San Diego Book Award for Best Published Poetry. The bride who contemplates her half paralyzed face on the eve of marriage (in the opening poem, “Facial Palsy”) is emblematic of the larger story of Pakistan: an ancient culture fractured by new and divergent identities. The poet, like the bride whose face is divided into “lit” and “dim” halves, gazes into the mirrors of history and politics to make sense of the disjunctive parts that refuse to come together as a whole. The very multiplicities of culture that the poet celebrates (“Socrates / mangoes cut in cubes,” “Iqbal’s poems on marble construction paper,” “rouge from Paris, coconut oil from Orissa”) are also the cause of dissonance (“War cries of the Greeks / in plume red / Mongols / in horse-leather red,” “Gunga Din’s ghost lifted from the tennis courts / of Peshawar Club”)—dissonance that is further amplified in the post-9/11 wars to which a Pakistani-American response in poetry has thus far been absent. KOHL AND CHALK is that response in the voice of a daughter, a mother, a global citizen.

Ghazal Cosmopolitan: The Culture and Craft of the Ghazal

COMB is the story of a girl “under the spell of history,” growing up in the shadow of the legendary Khyber Pass which is both a bridge between disparate civilizations and an impassable divide. Shadab Zeest Hashmi reveals the tangles of empire and language, history and myth, exile and belonging — from the lens of childhood, integrating memory with the history of one of the most significant geopolitical and cultural thresholds of the world. This is a book that honors thresholds in a time of closed doors, written with a poet’s conviction in the regency of love.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi, a Pakistani-American poet and essayist, the winner of the San Diego Book Award and the Nazim Hikmet Prize and has been nominated for the Pushcart multiple times. Her books include Ghazal Cosmopolitan, Kohl and Chalk and Baker of Tarifa, and COMB. To read more about Shadab and her work, you can visit her website: www.shadabhashmi.com and www.womensvoicesforchange.org

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