There’s a mistake I often make when thinking about rituals. If I could just manage to maintain them, I tell myself, my days would come out right. If I could, at the same time each day, rise from this chair to stretch; if I could, at regular intervals, look away from the computer’s blue glow and blink water back into my eyes; if I could, at the end of the night, remember to catalogue my daily gratitudes, or end my day in prayer, then I would know better how to live in this body. My stiff neck would soften, my tense jaw relax. I would be less cruel to the people I love, more generous. I would be so certain in my sameness.
Dujie Tahat’s Salat creates a space of ritual and repetition, but denies the illusion that the ritual could possibly come out the same each time. Tahat’s most recent chapbook takes its structure from the prayers that punctuate Muslim daily life, and each poem moves through seven motions: adhan, standing, bowing, prostration, prostration again, sitting, and salam alaikum. But each poem, though its postures are shared, refuses to come out the same as the last.
The first movement of the prayer, adhan, is an invitation to hear. Its etymology is “ear,” a reminder that prayer is speaking, but it is also listening. It is a form of attention that calls the body into relationship with the divine, with the sacred orientation to another living thing, wholly other. But it is not an easy relationship; for Tahat this listening begins in the ear and sticks in the throat. The poem “salat in the name of the father” begins:
The sound of his name starts at the bottom of your throat
where it opens and the air settles the moment
before a word like adhan or allah or akbar floats
into the open dawn.
The repeating prayer form of Salat enables anticipation, as the parts return consistently in the same order, even as the poems might linger or speed up at various moments. Reading these poems is learning to follow a recursive but modulating rhythm, listening for the poems’ elongations and contractions. But Salat also always refuses the anticipation it enables; there is no way to know what emotional depth the next poem will reach for. One day the prayer comes fast and easy, another day labored, another is shot through with anger, another marbled with shame. In the poem “salat during deportation proceedings” the poet watches the hope drain from their father’s face in front of an unyielding judge, a brief moment which reverberates out:
Desperation is the start of grief
is what I learned in a room like this,
watching it form in my father’s fall
from his face to the floor; my mother
and sister unfazed at the sight of shame.
Tahat also refuses to stay in a single linguistic register. They move with defiant ease between the language of a religious service and the language of a service interaction at a gas station, as capable of spitting bars as they are of reciting scripture. In these shifts Tahat creates their own sacred spaces, where holiness can be found in a bag of chips. In my favorite poem of the collection, “salat during graveyard,” the prayer takes place during an overnight shift at a gas station and corner store. As the night wanes, the poet turns their reverent ear toward
in a stroller pulling
Takis out a little
crackling bag, and
that staticky sound
of holiness compels
Always reminding us that prayer can happen anywhere, Salat lingers in places we’re never meant to stay: a gas station in the middle of the night, a train on the way to the airport, a courtroom, a hotel swimming pool, an uncomfortable pew in a house of worship. The collection opens with an invitation and an unexpected refusal, as the bow of the first salat takes place in a Catholic church:
In lieu of communion, Father
crosses my forehead.
has somehow escaped the mouth,
and now we’re discussing sincerity.
The speaker of the poem stands with their arms crossed in front of their chest, a tactful gesture of refusal in Mass which communicates that you do not want to receive communion, but wish to receive a blessing. From the first, Tahat shows that there are ways for the body to participate and refuse, to move in a holy space holding both reverence and its opposite in your arms.
The central refusal in Salat is “salat to be read from right to left,” a poem written in a form called “The Arabic,” which Tahat borrows from poet Marwa Helal. The defining characteristics of The Arabic are its inclusion of an Arabic letter and footnote, and that it “vehemently rejects you if you try to read it left to right.” This rejection of the typical reading practices of written English subverts any expectations we may have developed by the collection’s sixth poem, and requires an effortful, precise giving over to a humbling bewilderment of language. The poem thematizes this experience, hinging on the translation of the phrase “confounded by God,” surrounded by the familiar language of prayer now resisting its own familiarity:
?this say to How
¹ God by Confounded
These refusals have not only linguistic, but material stakes. Though the collection opens by announcing “the gap / between every prayer / is sleep,” the experiences that take place between these prayers are more often marked by microaggression, anti-Muslim rhetoric, humiliation, physical and state-sanctioned violence, suffering, and deep mourning.
While these experiences often produce a sense of isolation in Salat, the act of praying is communal, any Muslim praying alone knows that there are millions praying at the same time, in the same way, at the same moment. Significantly, only one of Tahat’s prayers takes place in a mosque, the sorrowful “salat the morning after a terrorist attack,” a poem blown open with grief:
There’s a baby in a stroller
so I burst into tears.
Another’s beloved’s perfect shoulder. A child on an escalator
asks if there are liquids
in my bag and I burst
into tears —sorry—I mean I’m weeping
Taking place in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, this poem is dedicated to the fifty victims who were murdered en masse during the afternoon salat on Ju’mah, the holiest day of the week. The mass murder was carried out by a white supremacist terrorist who, days earlier, had pretended to pray with worshipers at the Al Noor Mosque, and been greeted like a brother.
On the day of this tragedy, traveling and grieving, the poet arrives at their destination “a stranger in California,” and seeks out a mosque, navigating “by listening / for the weeping.” Surrounded by strangers, the physical postures of the salat occur in unison with other bodies, as the congregation comes into intimate contact with one another:
I touch my people’s knees.
I grace my people’s elbows.
I hold my people’s hands.
My people. My people. My people.
May allah subhannalah accept them.
The salam alaikum section of this poem is elegiac and celebratory, a repetition of the prayer “May allah subhannalah accept them” for each of the fifty Christchurch slain. The call for peace and acceptance overflows the poem, the poet, those dead and living. Tahat’s refrain refuses to resolve the grief contained in “salat the morning after a terrorist attack,” but the poem uses the ritual of prayer to create space to remember, honor, and hold open the possibility for community that can move together. Significantly, this poem reaches out to touch the work of Tahat’s contemporary and friend, Fatimah Asghar, whose poem “If They Should Come for Us” includes the lines: “my people I follow you like constellations” and “my people my people / the long years we’ve survived the long / years yet to come I see you.”
Refusing to resolve grief and celebration, sacred and ordinary, irreverence and sincerity, Tahat’s book gives the impression that it continues past its ending. The sitting, standing, prostrating, worshipping, repeat again and again, not contained to one body, one instance, one page. The point of the ritual is not to provide a monotonous, predictable foundation, but to offer a set of movements that are available in all instances. Salat ends in praise of its unresolved continuation, gesturing finally to the prayer that moves the body in ways that are holy, however and wherever it happens, whether alone or together, in sorrow or in joy: “there is a vanishing / distance between all the ways we have ever prayed.”