Interview with Sanah Ahsan, Queer Muslim Poet and Author - 'I cannot be good until you say it.'

Interview with Sanah Ahsan: Queer Muslim Poet – ‘I cannot be good until you say it’

An intimate interview with Sanah Ahsan about her much-anticipated debut book celebrating queerness and Islam.

In this interview, I’m delighted to be speaking to the wonderful Sanah Ahsan about her new book of poetry – I cannot be good until you say it.

Sanah is a dear friend of our foundation, a practising psychologist, liberation psychologist, writer, and a queer poet. Sanah’s pronouns are they or she.

Matt: So we first met in 2019 at Croydon Pride I believe you were filming for Blaise Singh’s film Pride and Protest. Soon after, you appeared in Naz and Matt Foundation’s film My God, I’m Queer and recited your beautiful poem My Dua is Love.

Can you share with our community how that poem came about, and what the underlying message is within that piece?

Sanah: My Dua is Love, which translates as ‘My prayer is love‘.

I think, in many ways, the poem itself is akin to prayer. It’s a call to the holiness and sacrality of being queer.

So often, queer folks who have been raised in constricted religious environments, receive harmful messaging like there is nothing about queerness that is divine, clean or holy — which are some of the words that are used in that poem.

It’s a reclamation poem. To reclaim that holiness, which sits at the heart of queerness. For example, the poem names Zam Zam, which is a reference to holy water in Islam. What I’m seeking to do, is offer a return to the body, to recognise that water, that purity, is actually within us; in our own fluidity and can be accessed even through acts of Devotion, like sex and intimacy.

I’m more and more interested in how we can expand our notions of conversations with God.

So we might recognise sex, for example, or queer intimacy as a conversation between two bodies. And for me, a conversation between two bodies is a conversation with The Divine in each of us,  it is a conversation with God. And so, the poem seeks to highlight queer sex and queer love as a prayerful practice as well.

I often fall back on Bell Hooks‘ work as kind of a thesis of my life, in which she talks about love as an action, love as a doing thing.

We must choose to love – essentially we practice that love in the ways that we show up in a relationship with each other. She also defines love as a verb; it’s not a feeling but more what we’re doing in concrete action. I think those things also help me understand and make sense of God too.

What does it mean to see God as a verb?

What does it mean to practice in-action, for example, some of the 99 names of Allah? So, mercy, compassion, the most loving, the most forgiving — these kind of divine attributes, to practice these in a relationship? I think this returns us to the heart of the poem, my prayer is love. Love is the central practice to any movement of worship or devotion.

Matt: You have performed My Dua is Love a number of times at different public events, and you included parts of it within your TED talk. What has been the reaction from the wider public to that piece?

Sanah: It’s often the poem that’s commonly highlighted or celebrated in my work. Perhaps there’s something about the simplicity and repetition in it that makes it accessible for anybody, even those who aren’t necessarily queer and Muslim.

Perhaps, for many folks, there’s some resonance about desire or sex being a “dirty thing”. I think religious institutions, or often colonial, dogmatic traditions, can make us feel like we can’t access pleasure. Or that we’re not deserving of pleasure or the freedom that comes with that, the liberation that comes with reclaiming our sexuality in all of its fullness.

Being in a relationship with the erotic and the fullness of desire, there’s something almost perceived as ‘bad’ about that. That also sits within the way systems of oppression work, which is to deny us of, demonise, or even pathologise our bodily rights, essentially.

Our right to fully inhabit our bodies, especially black and brown bodies.

That’s also part of why people find some resonance in that poem; it’s so embodied. It really is a reclamation of coming into the body and re-inhabiting the body and delighting in sex as a holy thing. And also as a liberating act of erotic freedom. And so I think that’s why it’s often received well.

Of course, just like everything in the world, there are contradictions, and there will be people who also struggle to receive that poem.

There have been people in my life who struggle to receive that poem, or even receive me in the fullness of my humanity. Often when people find things hard to receive, it may be because there’s something about what they’re meeting that’s unfamiliar, uncomfortable, that tests or shakes the worldviews or beliefs that are held very, very tightly to.

So, ways of being alive, that trouble our constricting societal norms, or confront the beliefs that we’ve got comfortable with – this can elicit discomfort. We tend to reject or refuse what elicits discomfort in our bodies. I think that poem might cause discomfort for people who see sex as only a contractual act between a married heteronormative couple, for example.

To be honest, it’s delightful to me that people find discomfort in reading that poem. Discomfort is a site of generativity, growth and new possibilities. I also try to hold generosity for those who meet that poem with judgement, understanding that perhaps they have a less freeing relationship with sex or desire.

Perhaps they have built very tiny boxes of God. Maybe they are in a relationship with a very small god who can’t possibly imagine the vastness of queerness. I think many of us make tiny boxes for God. But I have come to trust in a god that loves to hide in the margins, a god much greater than the box of my miniscule mind, a god that delights in queer loving and living.

Matt: So, what has the personal journey been like for you, writing such an important body of work?

Sanah: Many of these poems have been birthed from quite a wounded place. I find comfort and inspiration in the work of Bayo Akamalafe, who talks about the wound as a creation event, an opening, a site of possibility.

The etymology of wound is also wonder. And so, for me, wonder was also alive whilst I was living in places of estrangement, severance from family, rejection, sometimes suicidality, real grief, and real loss. Sometimes the poems themselves were a lifeline, and in many ways, writing was a practice to stay alive, if I’m really honest.

There were so many selves involved in making this book, and there were selves that now, looking back on, are quite distant for me. Some of those selves were finding ways to survive, to be alive, to reach and grasp for divinity for God amidst all of the man-made barriers that were created by loveless societies, Whiteness, and certain lies perpetuated by dogmatic institutions, and of course you know, wounded people.

All these man-made barriers kept me feeling distant from The divine that was always there, waiting for my return. A lot of the writing process was also an unveiling for me, a repeated coming back to the realisation that the divine is always close. Right here in this breath, the line in the Qur’an is, “we are closer to them than their jugular vein“.

The divine is right here in my body. All of the other barriers are so often created by wounded beings living within structures of oppression.

I also wanted to write something that I was longing to read. In many ways there were ones in me who wanted to read hopeful poems, kind of rich with praise and light and, you know, joy and pride and all of those things that we deserve and need to receive in our queer bodies.

But that wasn’t completely true to what I had lived. I lived certain violences, suffering and struggle. I wanted to write something that captured all of that messiness that could hold the complexity of both light and dark, sorrow and joy, and to revel in a strange God that dwells holy in the darkness of suicidality or despair.

I also wanted the writing to be permission-giving. Not just for myself, but for the readers who may have touched into those messy experiences too. And for them to maybe feel, just slightly less alone. In witnessing that complexity lived by another, maybe it will give them some permission to meet that complexity within themselves.

Matt: The first line of Prayer version of in your new book is “i am renouncing a lifetime of self-accusation. Can you share with me where this came from for you?

Sanah: Thank you for pulling out that poem. I love that poem, and I also love the first line because it captures the inner critic, the accusatory self, or perhaps the accusatory God that we can often construct from a fear-induced relationship with God.

There’s a well-known phrase that’s often used within abolitionist literature about the cop in the head.

This idea that there’s a cop in the head, always waiting to punish us, is one that we internalise from a society built upon the logic of punishment.

And I think that’s very close to our ideas of God, a punishing God, a cop-like God that’s waiting for us to fuck up. To speak more personally, that was my very early naive and misinformed understanding of God.

Michael Foucault talks about the panopticon as a way to understand this process, this shame. It is the idea that there are many guards standing in prison of our living, watching over it, a bit like a watchtower. We then internalise those watchful prison guards, so that we become our own watchers.

Waiting to accuse ourselves of doing something wrong again, you know That thing – you fucked up again. You did it again. You did that thing wrong. The trance of unworthiness that leaves us constantly feeling inadequate and deficient. It can really rot away at our lives. I think that core belief, that core shame, which is that I am bad or I am unworthy of God’s love, can also make itself known in our day-to-day relationships, in the ways that we show up at work or online, constantly trying to prove ourselves as lovable and worthy of love.

Capitalism thrives from and feeds these lies of unworthiness. No matter how much we produce it doesn’t work to change those feelings – because we have learned to hold that feeling of not-good-enough, so deep in our bellies. We exhaust ourselves to prove otherwise. And, and I, so I think what I’ve come to realise, coming back to that poem, Prayer a Version Of – the repetition through that poem is forgive me, forgive me, forgive me.

The antidote to that shame, is a return to softness, to gentleness, connection with others, to forgiveness, and that recognition of our innate divinity that is untarnishable. That inner sacred, free and wild spirit, that can never be defiled by another, or any system of oppression.

What would it mean to give up on reaching for external validations from the other, or the White gaze, you know? To relinquish being good, when good is impossible in a society built upon hierarchy? All of this, is really central to the title of the book, I Cannot Be Good Until You Say it.

Matt: On the day that we met at Croydon Pride, I don’t know about you, but I felt we connected at a deep level very quickly. Why do you feel that so many of us, myself included, find it harder to connect with ourselves than it is to connect to others?

Sanah: Those two things are conversation, intimacy with the other and solitude. What I mean by that is that our ability to be intimate with ourselves affects our ability to be intimate with another and vice versa. 

I think they’re really in relationship, because we are relational beings. We learn to be intimate with ourselves, to meet ourselves with grace, with compassion, often through our very early life experiences.

Society teaches us through perhaps the maternal-paternal relationship that we are worthy enough of our own love. However, so many of us have lacked those safe relationships, so of course, we internalise these ideas of unworthiness, and intimacy with ourselves becomes, or can be, unbearable.

I also really want to emphasise that we live in a society where distraction is shoved down our throats. You know, we’re in the age of technoference, where we’re basically told that any difficult emotional feeling can be numbed or distracted from with social media, binge-watching Netflix, or having however many pints down the pub, but do anything but stay with yourself.

So of course it’s difficult to fully inhabit our emotional worlds.

I think it’s particularly difficult for queer bodies, for black and brown bodies whose expressions of emotionality have been pathologised, criminalised in society.

Perceived as dangerous.

And so when we’ve been receiving of these messages, we internalise them and become terrified of our own emotions.

We’re terrified to feel, because we’re in a society telling us that our feelings are terrible and terrifying. You can’t have them. And, you know, God forbid in capitalism, it might also stop you from producing and working and being a cog in the machine. So, all of these contributing factors make it very hard to be intimate with our own emotional world.

But I really believe in this fundamental truth: what we practice is what grows.

So how can we cultivate infrastructures of care where we can practice being in relationship with our messy emotions?

A lot of that work is deeply embodied. How can I notice when this grief is here in my body, when it shows up as a turning in my belly or a constriction in my throat. How can I notice that embodied sensation and really touch that gently and give it permission to be there?

Because as I do that, I’m deepening my capacity to hold and witness myself as I am. And the more I can do that, I can also then hold the other in their messiness. And vice versa, right?

That’s where we started. Sometimes, it may feel easier to do that with the other, so we practice holding the other with compassion, but that then becomes very hard to do with ourselves.

So it’s this continual conversation. and relational practice where we are doing that with ourselves and we are doing that with the other. And through that practice we are deepening not only our individual capacity but our collective capacity to be in relationship with not only what’s difficult, our sorrows, our heartbreak, our despair, but we also deepen our capacity for joy, for pleasure, because we are giving ourselves permission to feel the fullness of all our feelings.

And that is the work of intimacy.

You know, when we feel most intimate with ourselves and with each other is when we can be there in the fullness of our humanity.

Matt: So, what, what do you hope, what are your hopes for the future, both for yourself and the world?

Sanah: An end to the occupation of Palestine.

The end to the occupation, genocide, and brutality of Palestinians, and so many oppressed people in the world in this current moment.

These systems of hierarchy are built upon a lie that certain bodies are inferior, less human, less deserving of life, resources, or care. It is a denial of the fundamental truth (which sits at the heart of my relationship with God) — that we are all sacred.

Every life is sacred.

This land, all of our lands, that have been created are also sacred — body and land are so intimately connected. We are denying and destroying that interconnected sacrality when we don’t recognise the land in our bones, and when we deny ourselves of the aliveness that we all deserve.

We all deserve access to care, to resource, to safety and so my, my hope for the future is coming closer to that truth.

How can we practice the futures that we long for right now, in this moment?

An end to these systems of oppression. I often find relief or hope or some guidance in the teaching, which is rooted in black feminist literature, which is – ‘How can we practice the futures that we long for right now in this moment’?

So, how can I, how can We, in this moment, really practice and be with myself as a free, sacred body and you as a free, sacred body, a divine being, and abolish these systems of hierarchy, abolish these ideas of punishment or competition that are actually even just alive in my mind, and really meet you as you are?

Matt: Thank you so much for your time, Sanah. Where can people buy the book?

Thank you Matt. I cannot be good until you say it is available at all good bookshops, including: