Filled with a slew of social critiques and riffs on popular Muslim and American iconography, Cihan Kaan’s first collection of short stories, Halal Pork, is decidedly Muslim-American but also conflicted, negotiating the space between assimilation into American society and the rules of tradition.
In Cihan Kaan’s version of New York City, Muslim and Jews eat fake bacon, girls wear headscarves and Uggz, and punk rock Muslim boys dream of stardom. A white man idealizes Lawrence of Arabia and begs authorities to send him to Guantanamo Bay. Absurd juxtapositions like these inhabit Kaan’s collection Halal Pork and Other Stories, a bold and darkly funny debut.
Halal Pork lets loose a slew of social critiques and riffs on popular Muslim and American iconography in five lively stories. Kaan’s characters call Sept. 11 “the New York date rape by Al-Queda” and deem a popular beer “one-dollar Pap Smear Ribbon.” A character mangles the Arabic greeting “Salam wa lakum,” saying, instead, “Salami Legume.” The misfortunately named Jehan receives the new title: “Jeeeehad ‘DO NOT call him Arab’McBaconface.” The stories fire off eclectic references that provoke reflection, especially about what it means to be called American, Muslim or Muslim-American.
Kaan presents critiques through allegory, a strategy reminiscent of Q’uranic tales. These thinly veiled allegories achieve a powerful effect through Kaan’s dark humor. In the second story “Misili Midhib, Punk Rock Hijabi From Another Dimension,” Kaan casts an alien/Muslim as his main character. Misili whirs and spins like a Sufi, chanting Islamic prayers and delivering auguries. Frat boys yell, “Take off that veil and let’s fuck, you terrorist bitch,” and Misili thinks: “They look at me because hiding one’s form in public charges their voyeuristic libidinal drives. These types of minds cannot be quelled without thought rearrangement.” As other Americans project their ignorance about Muslim women on Misili, she becomes a filter through which Kaan lays stereotypes bare. Another character in the story, Ayanda Shiraz, seems a stand-in for the real life activist Ayan Hirsi Ali, who penned an inflammatory memoir called Infidel that exposed the realities of the author’s early life in Muslim societies in the Middle East and Africa. Kaan’s character has penned books about her “alleged victimhood under Islam” called 99 Names of the Hornet’s Nest, Not Without My Freedom, and Allah Forbid. Through this character, Kaan satirizes academics who latch onto activists like Ali. Of his character Kaan writes, “Of course, Ivy League universities and feminist foundations encouraged her to unveil this oppressive religion…” Kaan’s satires expose a reductive way of looking at Islam still alive in the United States today.
While the stories succeed in ridiculing American ignorance of Muslims, Kaan never turns his critical eye eastward. Ayan Hirsi Ali’s perspective doesn’t gain sympathetic treatment in Kaan’s allegorical tale. Instead, Shiraz appears dishonest and conniving in the story. The mockery reads like a defense of Islam, an awkward move by someone who titled his book “Halal Pork.” (Halal means something permissible in Islam. Pork, forbidden, carries the label haram.) Astute readers will pick up on Kaan’s unique perspective: decidedly Muslim-American, conflicted, negotiating the space between assimilation into American society and the rules of tradition.
Rage over the treatment of Muslims in American society pumps through all of Halal Pork, but its most in- depth treatment occurs in “Isa, American Turk.” The story tackles anger head-on, transmitting Isa’s thoughts to readers. “I discover I am also a heathen. In the Stan Lee Marvel Universe worldview, aheathen is what Spider-Man fights against,” Isa says. Other characters in the story so frequently misidentify and misinterpret Isa that sympathizing with him becomes easy. Isa’s mother tells him to change his name to “John” or “Gary” to get a job. His girlfriend sleeps with him for his exotic looks. A man keeps referring to him as the dishwasher. “I’m not ethnic,” Issa proclaims after these repeated acts of racism lead to a loss of dignity. “Violence may be a learned phenomenon, but tonight I want to break shit because of my face,” says Isa, “because I am simply not like the rest of America.” The anger proves justified by the catalog of encounters with “the rest of America” Kaan puts forth.
The stories mix Muslim terminology with twisted stereotypes and will capture the interest of anyone seeking to understand Islam in America. “Hijab, not to be confused with the Burqa, only covers the hair allowing for all types of secular adornments from uggz to rainbow fat laces while still staying modest aka halal,” Kaan writes in the author’s note. The greatest strength of the collection lies in a new, clever writer’s ability to interrogate both complex concepts and commonplace notions while maintaining the book’s punk, intelligence and dark humor.