Flat Indiana landscape with tree

Indiana as Islamistan: Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

By Crystal Maritta Sam

As a subject of inquiry among geographers, historians and literary theorists (among others), place has a variety of discordant yet non-exhaustive definitions which are constantly challenged and redefined. Human geographers, including Yi Fu Tuan and Edward Relph, insist that place is never merely an object or a specific location. Tuan, in his monograph Space and Place, asserts that places are “centres of felt value” (Tuan 4), as a locus of emotional attachment and significance. Dalia Kandiyoti identifies the “discourse of place” as a “generative source of culture, and, significantly, the role of place in the experience of displacement and immigrant identity” (“Comparative Diasporas” 77). Set in the 1970s and 80s, Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2006) charts the spiritual and social landscape of Muslims in Indiana, in a way that emphasises a shifting understanding of place and with a particular focus on migration. Throughout her life, the protagonist Khadra Shamy encounters various geographies ranging from the flat lands of Indiana to the rich and varied landscapes of Syria. In the novel, Kahf complicates the stereotypical portrayal of suburbia and seemingly homogenous suburban homes through a vivid description of domestic interiors. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf further complicates the idea of home in the migrant imaginary through its Syrian-American protagonist Khadra Shamy. By considering these complications, this article seeks to highlight the role of both material and metaphorical spaces in Kahf’s novel and examine how they inform and affect the private and public lives of the characters, as well as the memories the characters associate with those spaces.

Like many diasporic writings, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf begins with a description of the immediate environment, as the protagonist drives through the “unbearable flatness of central Indiana” (Kahf 1), instantly establishing the narrative’s thematic concern with place. By narrating her story through a protagonist who feels somewhat unwelcome in her own hometown (Simmonsville, Indiana), Kahf explores a religious diasporic, hybrid identity in the United States which is often overlooked, misrepresented or negated in Western representations of the diaspora. Khadra’s description of the Indiana landscape reinforces this sense of diasporic alienation:

There are silver silos and pole barns, tufts of goldthread on the meridian, and the blue day beginning to pour into the dark sky. But it is not mine, she thinks this blue and gold Indiana morning. None of it is for me. Between the flat land and the broad sky, she feels ground down to the grain, erased. (2)

This juxtaposing narration of what Khadra sees and what she feels is an extension of her sense of trepidation as she returns to Indiana— “[a] land so wide and flat that it makes her lonely” (15). For Khadra, Indiana is a repository of unpleasant memories. It is a place that she grew up in, but ultimately leaves not wanting to return: “Khadra returning to this ground that didn’t love her, tries to stave the panic in her gut that is entirely the fault of the state of Indiana and the lay of its flat, flat land to which she had never asked to be brought” (17). Kahf emphasises the complexity of return through the theme of separation/reunion (between a person and land) tapping into the genre of return-home novels, while she also weaves together a sense of inviolable mutuality between a person and their land.  

As Susan Armitage and Elizabeth Jameson note, many place-based narratives in American literature have traditionally dealt with “heroic tales: stories of adventure, exploration and conflict” (Armitage & Jameson 10). According to Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean, such white, male, and heterosexual versions of history have been culturally dominant and have therefore largely formed and defined American national identity (Campbell & Kean 21). Supported by works of popular literature and art which continue to perpetuate such narratives, America is still often glorified as a nation of immigrants and “melting pot of cultures”, a mythology which suggests that anyone could have better opportunities in American society (despite national, religious, or ethnic differences) and it is therefore considered a kind of “promised land” in line with Christian belief. In Christian mythology, the Promised Land of Canaan is a land of excess and abundance. The Biblical story traces the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Israel as a journey from oppression to freedom and opportunity. But if examined closely, the journey to Caanan transpires through many literal and metaphorical deserts, and in the tumultuous 40-year journey, the Promised Land for many people remains a myth. In a similar sense, the flatness and the vastness of a land, both as a physical characteristic as well as in terms of imaginative scope, became a formative image in American literature that often symbolises or alludes towards opportunity and success. However, Kahf subverts this symbolism and mythology, by emphasising how this dream is not accessible to many immigrants in America. This is illustrated as Kahf describes the journey of the Shamy family from the Rocky Mountains to Indiana, which parallels the westward journey of the pioneers. This link becomes explicit as Kahf writes, “He [Wajdy Shamy] had discovered the Dawah Center” and so “they loaded up everything they owned on the luggage rack of the station wagon and set off over prairie and dale like pioneers” (14–15). As the novel progresses, we can see how the Shamys’ home as well as their workplace physically exist in the margins, as the vast expanses of the flat land only exemplify the emptiness and desolation they feel as an immigrant Muslim family in Indiana.

The American writer Michael Martone, a native to the American Midwest, presents an understanding of the idea of flatness in American literature, which we can consider in relation to Kahf’s novel. In his essay ‘The Flatness’, Martone repeatedly affirms the geographical flatness of the Midwest, and yet, even as “flatness informs the writing of the Midwest”, he also suggests that “the flatness of the landscape can serve as a foil, the writing standing out […] in opposition to the background” (Martone 48). He urges us to think of the material environment as a living, breathing being. Martone writes, “the way I feel about the Midwest is the way my skin feels and the way I feel my own skin—in layers and broad stripes and shades, in planes and in the periphery”. In this way, Martone presents the Midwest as “an organ of sense and not power, delicate and coarse at the same time” and as “the place of sense” (48-9). As a native of the Midwest, Martone possesses a sense of intimacy with the land. While Martone admits that the Midwest may lack natural beauty or industrial growth, it is this sense of absence that forces its inhabitants to introspectively look within themselves. A similar trajectory occurs in The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf; when Khadra’s background is elaborated upon in the novel we can see how the flatness of the land is symbolic to the sense of loss and nonbelonging that she feels. For Martone and Kahf alike, the Midwest landscape becomes a place of “deeply dissolved meanings, settings, events, and fundamental particulars of everyday practice and life” (Pred 50). Theoretically, Khadra is a native of Indiana, but the fact that she needs a map of “States of the Heartland” (Kahf 1) to navigate the landscape upon her return to Indiana, as Kawther Othman argues, “alludes to her loss in its social space and her inability to position herself within it” (Othman 82). Khadra is “[l]ike someone holding a small lantern and going out to investigate, a little afraid of what she might find” (Kahf 17), and this trepidation adds to the sense that both literal and metaphorical places exist as a continuous renegotiation rather than something fixed and rigid.

Whether as an imaginary entity in one’s memories or as a physical reality, an individual’s sense of place cannot come into being on its own, and it is largely influenced by memories, meanings and attachments to the specific place. Allan Pred, in discussing the distinction between space and place, emphasises that:

[s]pace and physical features are mobilised and transformed into place through human residence and involvement in the local activities and routines, through familiarity and the accumulation of memories, through the bestowal of meaning by images, ideas and symbols and the establishment of individual or communal identity, security and concern (Pred 49).

Or, put more succinctly, Marcus Doel’s states that “[p]lace is what takes place” (Doel 9). Pred and Doel thereby suggest that, as with memories, “what takes place” in and around a place makes it dynamic and constantly evolving through actions and routines. Owain Jones and Joanne Garde-Hansen further identify memory as fundamentally important to ideas of place and landscape, and vice-versa (Jones & Garde-Hansen878). They insist that memory is inherently geographic in two senses: firstly, as stemming from spaces, places and times that have existed in the past, and secondly, in terms of the prompting and practice of memories in present spaces. In this sense, Kahf uses the flatness of Indiana as a symbol of desolation and deprivation not just to allude to the dislocation of the diasporic community, but also to indicate the struggles of the provincial communities, who have often been deserted by the economic hegemony of urban culture. By telling the story through a protagonist who speaks to and of geography, Kahf initiates important conversations about nation, belonging and identity. As Carol Fadda-Conrey observes, Khadra’s return to Indiana as an adult becomes “an entryway into reassessing the trajectories of belonging to the places and homes to which she has been imaginatively and physically connected throughout her life” (Fadda-Conrey 70). As the novel progresses, there is an evident shift in the perception of what the flat lands signifies for Khadra. She starts to collect pictures and prints of Indiana landscapes, and these visual prompts help her to realise that Indiana is much larger and varied than the immediate surroundings that she grew up in. After she visits her parents who move from central Indiana to South Bend, Khadra pronounces, “South Bend was not really that flat hopeless flatness […] the north was comfortingly off-kilter. Foreign born immigrants, Polish and Hungarian and even Arab, built the industrial cities of north Indiana. People with parents who had accents. It was okay” (Kahf 380).  

As well as considering the Midwest as a sensory place, Martone also describes its flatness as a kind of canvas. He notes, “In the flatness, everywhere is surface” (Martone 49). As the bildungsroman of Khadra Shamy progresses, Kahf can also be said to identify this flatness as a surface or canvas where she is able to demonstrate growth of a place as well as its inhabitants. In the incipit stages of the novel’s composition, Kahf admits that, before settling on the eventual title, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, it was called Henna’d Hoosiers, and then Greetings from Islamistan, Indiana. These previous title ideas might be stem from Kahf’s preoccupation with the visibly Muslim spaces that Khadra comes in contact with. In her childhood, Khadra knows Indiana only for its extremities, either as a place where she is always the ‘other’, or where Indiana is part of an Islamistan, as most of her social interactions include only Muslims. At the heart of Khadra’s life story is the Dawah Center. It is a Muslim communal space where the Muslims of Indiana come together for various religious, cultural and personal events. Khadra’s family, the Shamys, come to Indiana for the work at the Dawah Center. As mission-oriented Muslims, Khadra’s parents are devoted to their work at the Dawah Center, aspiring to spread the word of the Prophet and to help fellow Muslims to perfect their practice of Islam. They are often seen transporting and re-establishing their own ideas of home as they settle in the United States. As a community made up largely of immigrants, the Dawah Center becomes a place where the Shamy family seeks to re-create the cultural and emotional particularities of locations and connections left behind. Not only are their religious and cultural codes incongruous with common practices of American society, but the physical location of the Center is also geographically isolated from mainstream society: “The Center was only a mile from the Fallen Timbers Townhouses at the edge of Indianapolis, but technically lay within the city limits of Simmonsville, a small, economically depressed town” (Kahf 38).  The Dawah Center evidently marks the presence of the Muslim ‘other’ in Indiana. Nevertheless, it plays a significant role in the novel not only in bringing together dynamic as well as culturally varied Muslim families but in understanding the immigrant/exilic consciousness of the Shamys.

Through narrating the Shamys’ lives in and around the Dawah Center, Kahf documents the often-neglected diversity among the Muslim community and uses it to illustrate and work through the differences and prejudices that exist within the community. When Khadra’s childhood friend Hakim says, “You all is immigrant brothers and sisters. ‘We’ is, black people […] African people in the North American wilderness,” Khadra retorts by saying “‘we’ are all one thing: Muslim” (137). Kahf writes, “This was the Dawah Center line: No racism in Islam. Meaning none is allowed; a commendable ideal. But it was also a smokescreen of denial that retarded any real attempt to deal with the prejudices that existed among Muslims” (137). Ebtehaj and Wajdy Shamy often consider themselves morally superior to Americans, but also to Shia Muslims as well as converted Muslims. As Kahf introduces the readers to the individual families who are part of the Dawah centre, she also highlights economic and social class differences. When Khadra goes to university, she unlearns a lot of the Dawah Center’s teachings about Islam. In her German Islamic class, she learns that her staunch beliefs were “just one point on a whole spectrum of Islamic faith” and “just one little corner of it” (232). To find herself being caught in a flux between two conflicting sets of Islamic teachings, “the view of Islam she’d grown up knowing” (232) and the one that “she was catching glimpses of” (232) in her college class is a struggle that many immigrants go through. As Homi Bhabha writes, this struggle is indicative of the pain and awkwardness of a diasporic individual being “continually positioned in space between a range of contradictory places that coexist” (Bhabha 47). Despite the racial, ethnic and class differences that exist there, the Dawah Center is a close-knit community built not only on the basis of common faith, but also on the shared experiences of migration, exile and non-belongingness. Spaces such as the Dawah Center according to Kandiyoti can therefore become “sites of new knowledge and new meanings in which the immigrant and the natives are assembled together so that their buried stories may be told and remembered” (“Our Foothold” 326). By placing non-native Muslims in the neighbourhood, Kahf illustrates the reality as well as possibilities of diversity in a seemingly homogeneous suburban setting. By doing so, Kahf complicates the binary representation of place in American culture which is largely understood either as “rural idyll with its easy, pure, direct but also coarse local cultures” or its counterpart, the abstract urban world of the city in which isolation between people egoism and aspiration of monetary benefits prevails” (Jones and Garde-Hansen 136).  

As a place made up of individuals of different national origins, languages, and social status, where their past lives continued to affect their present experiences, the American suburb is mapped out by Kahf through the interiors of various houses to contradict a popular stereotype associated with the suburbs: homogeneity. Kahf illustrates that even though the exteriors may look the same, the interiors are unique and speak volumes about each family’s history as well as their present position in society. For example, Khadra recollects: 

The al-Deen townhouse was a mirror image of the Shamys’. Where the Shamy’s entrance and hallway were to the left of the dinette, kitchen and living room, the al-Deen hallway was to the right. Instead of a matching country plaid couch set in harvest gold and hunter green, the al-Deens had a beige overstuffed sectional that overfilled the living room. Instead of the Shamys’ big wooden TV with the rabbit ears, the al-Deens had a hi-fi stereo system and stacks of records and eight-tracks by K-tel, from Al Green to the Valadiers. Khadra’s parents ignored this wall of music when visiting Uncle Jamal and Aunt Khadija and didn’t understand why they kept this monument to their pre-Muslim years. (Kahf 22)

The Shamy household is portrayed in stark contrast to the al-Deen household: the interiors of the Shamy household are white and bare—have only a “tacky prayer rug with some faded image of mosques pinned up” (131). Kahf details, “Wajdy and Ebtehaj always viewed their stay in America as temporary. That was part of the reason they were always reluctant to buy many things; they’d just be more attachments to leave behind… who cares what you sat on if this was not home? […] The plan was to return to the House of Islam, ramshackle as it was” (131-2). Kahf characterises the Shamys’ rejection of American culture not only as a rebellion against a homogenising dominant culture but also to emphasise that the Shamys never believed that they belonged in America in the first place. As William Safran observes:

“they retain a collective memory or myth about their original homeland, they believe not to be fully accepted by their host country; they regard their ancestral homeland as their ‘true’ home; and they are committed to a maintenance/ restoration of their homeland” (Safran 83).

Later in the novel, Khadra remarks on the interiors of her childhood home: “Tacky as they were, Khadra couldn’t imagine home without them” (Kahf 257). She adds, “They didn’t tell the whole picture. They didn’t tell anything” (258). Kahf thus refashions the America of exported dreams into a ghettoised suburb of displaced immigrants. It is interesting to note that unlike Khadra, her parents feel alienated by American culture, and not by the land itself. Their sense of displacement is affected by the fact that they are considered “bottom-of-the-barrel untouchable” (Kahf 86). The Shamys, in turn, categorise Americans into very superficial categories such as “nice”, “nasty”, and “ignorant”; and those who lead a “shallow wasteful and materialistic lives” (67).  Young Khadra’s sense of non-belonging is thus further fuelled by her parent’s attachment to their home country as well as their lack of sense of place or belonging in the United States. These conflicted ties feed into how Khadra superimposes her feeling of displacement on to the (flat) Indiana landscape which later transforms into a ground for introspection.

Distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic sense of place, Edward Relph argues that an inauthentic sense of place “is essentially no sense of place, for it involves no awareness of the deep and symbolic significance of places and no appreciation of their identities” (qtd in Pred, 50). This is reflected in Khadra’s character as well as she tries to find her footing in different countries. All her life, she carries within her a “homing desire” (Brah 192–193). She faces an emotional as well as a moral conflict as the Shamy family decide to get US citizenship. Khadra is seen crying into a pillow, “caught between homesick parents and a land that didn’t want her. Not just didn’t want her, but actively hated her, spit her out, made her defiant in her difference, yet at the same time made her unfit to live anywhere else” (391). As Khadra travels out of Indiana to Saudi Arabia (for the Hajj pilgrimage) and later to Syria, she figures out that the lived experiences of those places are much different than how they were in her imagination. However, she also realises that there is a sense of this place embedded in her as she encounters Syria as an adult:

Somehow all the unfamiliarity seems familiar to Khadra. ‘And then we turn here, and there will be a rise in the road, and an arch,’ her mind said—or no, she wasn’t even thinking it with her mind, was her feet, her body moving itself—and there it was. The rise in the road, the arch. (268).

Despite the unconscious connection that she feels with Syria, bodily memory and the physical environment become crucial for Khadra’s embodied sense of place when she realises that “[i]t was in the American crucible where her character had been forged, for good or ill” (313). Upon her return from Syria to “Homeland America,” there is an altered understanding of the place that Khadra had hitherto detested. Her bitter return by the end of the novel turns into a sweet realisation that all along, she’d been a Hoosier—“a henna’ed Hoosier, but a Hoosier nonetheless” (Kahf 325).

The novel’s contrasts are not just between different physical locales but also between the ideas of them and/or us, and between place and time. The novel demonstrates an understanding of place with an added layer of temporality, in a testament to the idea of place “being a multidimensional plane that simultaneously acts as a centre of meaning and the external context of our actions” (Beuka 1). Khadra translates this change in perspective and her relationship with Indiana through her photographs. As she takes the photographs of cheering crowds and racing cars at the Indy race, we see how Khadra’s perspective shifts from only identifying the repeated structures in the landscape to acknowledging its energy and dynamism. Towards the end of the novel, Khadra also finds a glossy poster for a hand-held spray-hose advertised as “Islamic Bathroom Hygiene in America At Last” (Kahf 403).  Despite its triviality, she sees in this poster the possibility of future co-existence between Muslims and Americans in Indiana. As a photojournalist, Khadra sheds light on the history of the local Muslim population, as a “piece of history that no one in America has acknowledged yet: a history of the Muslims in the Indianapolis, 1970-1985” (392).

Kahf traces the evolution of her characters as well as the evolution of place in The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, as she explores how physical and imagined places are tied together in a continuous process of becoming (Pred 51), that places “affect us and that we, in turn affect” them (Berberich et al 1). On the one hand, Kahf’s Indiana engages with an emblematic demonstration of place identity based on stereotypes and hierarchies (natives vs. the other), on the other hand, it also represents a site of constant renegotiation and becoming. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, in Edward Soja’s terms, records “individual and collective reactions to the ordered workings of power in perceived, conceived and lived spaces” (87). Furthermore, by reimagining a typical Indiana suburb into a kind of Islamistan, Kahf represents a varied history of Muslim people from around the world and conveys their complicated relationship with the United States (and the Midwest in particular), moving away from what bell hooks has called models of “assimilation, imitation or assuming the roles of rebellious exotic” (146). The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf’s focus on the individual and personal accounts of memories tied to places not only opens up ways for discussing the attitude of the United States towards racially and ethnically different people, but also allows us to consider a diverse and inclusive mode of cultural transmission of memories, which has the capacity to simultaneously transform ideas of ‘self’ as well as place.


Crystal Maritta Sam, “Indiana as Islamistan: Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf,” Alluvium, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2022). Web 29 April 2022. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.1.07

About the Author

Crystal Maritta Sam (she/her) is a fourth year (part-time) PhD researcher at Kingston University, UK. She is currently writing a thesis on the role of memory in post 9/11 Muslim Women’s Writing. Her research interests include Memory studies, Postcolonial writing and South Asian novels. She is also heavily invested in the literature and films in her mother-tongue, Malayalam. She will be available at crystal.mangalathu@gmail.com

Works Cited

Armitage, Susan, and Elizabeth Jameson, The Women’s West. University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Berberich, Christine, Neil Campbell, and Robert Hudson. “Affective Landscapes: An Introduction.” Cultural Politics, vol. 9, no. 3, 2013: 313–322.

Beuka, Robert. SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth Century American Film and Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 2012.

Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. Routledge, 2005.

Campbell, Neil, and Alasdair Kean. American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture. Routledge, 2016.

Doel, Marcus A. Poststructuralist Geographies: The Diabolical Art of Spatial Science. Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Fadda-Conrey, Carol. Contemporary Arab-American Literature. New York University Press, 2014.

hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. South End Press, 1990.

Jones, Owain, and Joanne Garde-Hansen. Geography and Memory: Explorations in Identity, Place and Becoming. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Kandiyoti, Dalia. “Comparative Diasporas: The Local and the Mobile in Abraham Cahan and Alberto Gerchunoff.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, 1998, pp.77–122.

—. “Our Foothold in Buried Worlds: Place in Holocaust Consciousness and Anne Michaels’s ‘Fugitive Pieces’.” Contemporary Literature, vol.45, no. 2, 2004, pp. 300–330.

Kahf, Mojha. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. PublicAffairs, 2009.

Martone, Michael. “The Flatness.” The Iowa Review, 1988, pp. 46–49.

Othman, Kawthar Yasser Al. “Cognitive Mapping of Migrant’s Identity in Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.” Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies vol. 28, no. 1, 2021, pp. 73-91.

Pred, Allan. “Structuration and Place: On the Becoming of Sense of Place and Structure of Feeling.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, vol.13, no.1,1983, pp. 45-68.

Relph, Edward. “The Paradox of Place and the Evolution of Placelessness.” Place and Placelessness Revisited, edited by Robert Freestone and Edgar Liu, Routledge, 2016, pp. 20–34.

Safran, William. “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1991, pp. 83–99.

Soja, Edward, and W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real and Imagined Places. Blackwell, 1996.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota Press, 1977.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.