Noor Naga’s debut novel-in-verse, Washes, Prays, is a story of unrequited love and adultery. The protagonist, Coocoo is struggling to reconcile her love affair with a married man Mohammad while her best friend Nouf offers her companionship. The lovers’ predicaments are set to music by a familiar sensuality inherent in traditional Islamic love. Naga’s careful romanticism of Islamic sensuality is characteristic of contemporary Islamic poetry which can be interpreted as a radical reaction to rampant Islamophobia in the post 9/11 English speaking world.
Washes, Prays is a lyrical novel that opens with a fierce ontology of its self-contained world of poetics—an introduction fit for an ancient Arabic love poem. Naga beautifully navigates ancient culture with a startlingly fresh contemporary lens. Her poetry pays homage to tradition but is not afraid to criticize it as well. Washes, Prays is devoted to its own ideology, while actively dissecting concepts prevalent in Islamic desire. For example in the poem “Bargaining,” Naga writes: “if / I wear this thing that you told me to wear and it hides my fuckability i.e. femininity i.e. desirability i.e. existential relevance vis-a-vis other people / I walk into the room and the room walks out.”
Naga acknowledges the gaps in the Islamic education of desire, especially for women, and showcases the self-paved paths that each Muslim lover takes to their beloved. We see the main characters exchange names with major figures of the Islamic faith, Nouf exchanging names with Khadija (the name of the prophet Muhammad’s wife) and the beloved is called Muhammad. An example is in the poem “Meeting 2”: “eg Khadija and Khadija meet but one of them is bearded / calls himself mohammad.” And by switching these names, Naga contextualizes the love story through an Islamic idealist lens.
Washes, Prays depicts the power-play between a married man and a mistress: like in the poem “Rioting 2” “when your face is that close to another human’s you have to choose one eye to look at / if you change your mind (about the eye) he’ll know.” As well as the masochism of remaining a mistress till the end in the poem “Springing”: “for a mistress it is always winter / everything funny is also sad.”
Lover and beloved aside, Naga explores the beauty of homosocial love in Islamic communities and the segregation of genders that creates intimate friendships in homosocial circles. The character Nouf in the novel is a prime example of such homosocial care and love. Naga demonstrates the sensuality of Islamic theism, and the beloved (be it erotic and non-erotic) as physical manifestations of God: for example in the poem “Nouf”: “when she lies / still not breathing I watch / the ends of her hair tremble to / the tremble in my blood // ’wherever you turn / there is the face of god’.”
The book ends with an implicit metamorphosis of the narrator from human to dog. A dog, while being an increasingly revered animal in the western world, is treated as lowly and filthy in the Islamic mythos that credits their genesis to the spit of Satan. By metamorphosing into a dog, the main character Coocoo admits full submission to the beloved and no longer poses a sexual threat to the wife upon meeting her: in the poem “Meeting” we read: “and when you are gone there are no witnesses / just her looming over me saying God you are so young // enough now baby enough coocoo / can I call you that? coocoo enough.” The dog transformation completes the cycle of devotion and self-sacrifice and takes away the agency of Coocoo. She becomes a literal pet, loyal and submissive.
Overall, Washes, Prays is a brilliant debut, containing one breathtaking poem after another; however, while the ending is quite poetic and moving, it may be confusing to some, since the metamorphosis is nuanced and can be easily missed by an untrained eye.
Khashayar Mohammadi is an Iranian-born Toronto-based writer and translator.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.