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Review of "Namesake" by NS Nuseibeh: The Power of Writing and Fighting.

Review of “Namesake” by NS Nuseibeh: The Power of Writing and Fighting.


NS Nuseibeh, a British-Palestinian doctoral student, reflects on her identity and the challenges of being a Muslim feminist in her debut book of essays. She draws on her personal memories, historical research, and stories from early Islam to explore these topics in the midst of turbulent and sorrowful times. Despite being born in East Jerusalem, Nuseibeh does not fit into stereotypical expectations for a Palestinian Muslim. With her light skin and American accent, she stands out, and her education on the Qur’an took place in a university rather than a mosque. In moments of doubt, she finds solace in her connection to her strong ancestor and namesake, Nusayba, a legendary warrior, mother, and early convert who fought alongside the prophet Muhammad. Through Nusayba, Nuseibeh delves into her family’s cultural heritage and imagines her ancestor’s strength and determination, even as she sits in her room in Oxford centuries later.

Although Nuseibeh and Nusayba share a name, their differences far outweigh any similarities. Nusayba boldly charges into battle, even after losing a hand, while Nuseibeh is described as studious and apologetic, beginning her book by discussing her positionality. Nusayba is driven by passion and anger, fully embracing her new faith and demanding a role within it. In contrast, Nuseibeh is a contemplative scholar who faces health struggles and feels that modern discourse does not leave space for her Muslim identity. She notes that her Christian and Jewish friends and writers can easily express their religious beliefs without being labeled fanatical or extreme, while she struggles to do the same without being judged.

Nuseibeh and I share many similarities, particularly in our tendency to ask challenging questions. She openly admits to being wary of a group of white men who promote orthodox Islam on the streets of Oxford. She questions their motives, wondering if they are drawn to this particular community as a means of exerting control over women and justifying their actions.

Although she quickly dismisses this idea as unfair and problematic, I am delighted by her confession. Her bold ancestor, whose charm is now becoming clearer, would not have hesitated to entertain such a suspicion. Nusayba represents a desire for an authentic and unrestricted Muslim and Arab feminism. However, as a secular daughter of Muslim parents (that’s where I stand), I am skeptical. I do not believe that any of the Abrahamic texts are in line with feminist principles. Nevertheless, I value staying connected to one’s cultural roots and community history, and I also find Nusayba intriguing.

These essays explore unexpected connections within womanhood, such as the use of traditional homecooked food to convey Arab culture and the harmful effects of disordered eating. They also delve into the physical manifestation of worry and how it is mirrored in our fathers’ use of worry beads. The concept of being a “nasty” woman and the journey of conversion to feminism are also examined, with a focus on gradual personal growth rather than sudden realizations. The idea of a mother sending her children into battle and the societal backlash she may face for it is also explored. As someone who was once forced to wear a hijab for three years, I was intrigued by the correlation between covering up and the cultural value of hospitality. It is noted by Nuseibeh that the boundaries created by the hijab can provide a sense of relief in a home where boundaries are often blurred. It is ironic that this garment meant to create privacy can also bring about so much public attention.

One of the most poignant elements of this collection of essays is Nuseibeh’s drive to write it – she yearns to belong and to demonstrate her understanding of a series of mother figures. She shares a humiliating experience at Specsavers where she struggles with pronouncing a Muslim technician’s name, ultimately coming off as “crazy or prejudiced”. The technician raises an eyebrow at her coworkers, and Nuseibeh desperately wants to reassure her by proclaiming her connection to her community. Later, she fears being perceived as a stereotypical Muslim and wants to apologize to non-Muslims for her interest in her heritage, worried that it will lead them to report her to the Prevent hotline. She desperately wants to prove that she is not the “type” of Muslim they may be thinking of, but rather a “good” one.

Did early Islam have issues with sexism and violence? Nuseibeh responds with poise and rational thinking, but can these inquiries be considered fair? Early Christianity and Judaism also faced similar problems. However, society allows for a modern, secular interpretation of their beliefs. Christian feminists are not held accountable for the actions of the crusaders. Yet, Nuseibeh acknowledges the shame felt by many in the Middle East regarding the treatment of women in the Muslim community. She believes that if Nusayba had lived longer, she would have been disheartened to see her faith become an institution that strictly segregates and oppresses women.

These essays are both searching and honest, taking the reader on a journey through New York dinner parties, seventh-century battlefields, and Jerusalem checkpoints. The author’s shrewd and compassionate mind leads us through alleyways as she follows the footsteps of Nusayba. As we read, we witness the author’s academic persona fade away, replaced by a girlish heart racing with belief in her own courage. This underlying message is what makes Namesake a pleasure to read – the reserved scholar delving into old myths with determination to resurrect her formidable foremother. Will she find a sense of belonging and connection to her ancestors? Will she ever return to Gaza or face scrutiny from the Prevent program? Will she learn to let go of her worries, make peace with overstaying guests and unfamiliar English foods? Can she proudly identify as an Arab feminist without rejecting her Muslim heritage? With vulnerability and intellectual rigor, this book offers a captivating and sharp exploration of Muslim feminism (a term I now understand better, though I still have much to debate). An essential read in the fight against lazy stereotypes, cultural erasure, and all forms of segregation.

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Source: theguardian.com