Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….

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Today’s episode brings together 3 Midlands women, authors Mandy Ross, Abda Khan and Roz Goddard, in conversation about the importance of literature in creating connections and fostering empathy. As members of interfaith organisation Nisa Nashim, Mandy and Abda run a monthly book club that brings together Muslim and Jewish women. In conversation with Roz Goddard, they talk about the intersections of faith and feminism and the power of literature to provide space for exchange and connection.

Show Notes

Today’s episode brings together 3 Midlands women, authors Mandy Ross, Abda Khan and Roz Goddard, in conversation about the importance of literature in creating connections and fostering empathy. As members of interfaith organisation Nisa Nashim, Mandy and Abda run a monthly book club that brings together Muslim and Jewish women. In conversation with Roz Goddard, they talk about the intersections of faith and feminism and the power of literature to provide space for exchange and connection.

The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast brings writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday across the next few months we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions
about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.

Take a look at the rest of this year's digital programme on our website: https://www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org/.
For more information on Writing West Midlands, visit https://writingwestmidlands.org/

Follow the festival on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @BhamLitFest

Credits

Curator: Shantel Edwards (Festival director)
Guest Curator: Kit de Waal
Production: 11C/ Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands

TRANSCRIPT

BLF Podcast Transcription, Episode 12: Roz Goddard, Abda Khan and Mandy Ross 

Kit de Waal 

Welcome to the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast series. I’m Kit de Waal and I’ve worked with the  Festival Director, Shantel Edwards, as Guest Curator of this year’s podcast series. Each Thursday across the  next few months we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions about  writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Today’s episode brings together 3 Midlands women, authors  Mandy Ross, Abda Khan and Roz Goddard, in conversation about the importance of literature in creating  connections and fostering empathy. As members of interfaith organisation Nisa Nashim, Mandy and Abda  run a monthly book club that brings together Muslim and Jewish women. Each month they read a book  written by a Jewish or Muslim woman, finding within the pages, and their discussions, more things that  unite them than divide them. In conversation with Roz Goddard, they talk about the intersections of faith  and feminism and the power of literature to provide space for exchange and connection. 

Sponsor message: Birmingham City University 

This episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast is brought to you in partnership with the School  of English at Birmingham City University. Visit our website at www.bcu.ac.uk/english for details of our  undergraduate, postgraduate and research degree programmes. 

Roz Goddard 

Hello, and welcome to the Birmingham Literature Festival. My name's Roz Goddard. I'm a poet living in the  Black Country and seem to have embraced Zoom as my home office. I'm delighted to be hosting this  podcast from my loft, where I'll be in conversation with Abda Khan and Mandy Ross. They're the founders of  Nisa-Nashim, an interfaith book group based in Birmingham. Nisa-Nashim is also a national Jewish Muslim  Women's Network working to promote interfaith understanding. So first, introductions. Mandy Ross has  written over 60 children's books and also poetry and plays for adults. With Ronne Randall she co-edited [For  Generations:] Jewish Motherhood, published by Five Leaves Publications. This year Mandy is the Tree  Whisperer: Poet of the Woods for the Ledbury Poetry Festival. A member of Birmingham Progressive  Synagogue, Mandy has worked in many interfaith settings and has a longstanding interest in using reading  to explore cultural identity. Abda Khan is a lawyer turned writer, her published novels being Stained (2016)  and Razia (2019). She's currently writing her next novel. Abda is also a project creator, campaigner,  volunteer, mentor and Lloyds Bank Women of the Future Ambassador. Abda was highly commended in the  NatWest Asian Women of Achievement Awards 2017 and won British Muslim Woman of the Year at the  British Muslim Awards 2019, and most recently shortlisted for the Law Society Lifetime Achievement Award.  Welcome to you both. 
 
Mandy Ross 

Thank you. 

Abda Khan 

Hi Roz.  

Roz Goddard 

Hello. To Abda then first of all to get us started. Could you tell us something about the background to Nisa Nashim and how you and Mandy came to collaborate and develop it? 

Abda Khan 

Mandy and I met at an event that we both attended as speakers. So, it was the Writing West Midlands  National Writers' Conference. And we just got chatting. And when we got chatting we just started talking  about, you know, a lot of the issues that we were interested in. And then Mandy mentioned Nisa-Nashim as  an organisation. And she said, 'Oh, you know, we've got this organisation, Nisa-Nashim; I don't know if you'd  be interested in us – just Jewish [and] Muslim women getting together, talking about and dealing with  certain issues'. And I said, 'Oh, yeah, just, just pop me on your mailing list and then that'd be great'. So what  happened then was, Mandy emailed me and said – it was actually Mandy that set up the Nisa-Nashim book  club, I have to say, but obviously, I jumped in. And then she emailed me and she said, 'Oh, I'm setting up this  Nisa-Nashim book club. Would you like to come as a guest author, and come speak about your book, Razia?'  So, I attended the first meeting not as a member of the book club, but as somebody who just went along to  speak about her book. And actually, it was just such a lovely environment. And the women were so, so nice.  And I think that there was just this lovely sort of camaraderie and this exploring of common themes and  common ideas, common issues, common problems. And I just enjoyed it so much that I then joined it. And  then from there it's just been great. It's been developing throughout this year. It's been wonderful getting  together initially in person but, obviously, later on now it's been through Zoom since COVID. So really it was  just this kind of friendship we struck up at an event. I had nothing to do with Nisa-Nashim, which just shows  you how you can just come together when you've got things that you find out are in common. It's just that  human touch, isn't it? It's just that human aspect of talking to somebody and then actually realising that  you've got so much in common – okay, I'm Muslim and Mandy's Jewish but through literature and through  exploring books and themes we just realised that me and all these other women and Mandy together we  actually have so much that, you know, kind of unites us, and we find out so much about each other and  even ourselves. And that's kind of how the book group has developed.

Roz Goddard 

And isn't it incredibly fortuitous when we meet someone as you did with Mandy and you realise that there  is that underlying connection, that rapport that can be developed? And that's the very best way to start.  Yeah, so thank you for that. Really lovely background info there. Mandy, could you give us a flavour of how  the meetings are organised and actually how books are selected?  

Mandy Ross 

Yes, well, as Abda said, we met in person at the beginning and we had a really big attendance: we had about  18, 19 women. And we were careful, we wanted to make sure that we had a fairly balanced group with, you  know, roughly equal numbers of Jewish and Muslim women. And we did. And we took a pause during  lockdown and then have found a way to start by meeting online. And the books are chosen, at the moment  Abda and Karen Skinazi are chairing the group and they've been choosing the books. And I think it's been a  great selection of very different books, a great range of different kinds of books that bring all sorts of  different questions for us. And we find common ground; we find things that resonate sometimes  unexpectedly. We've recently read Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman, an American-Jewish writer. And  she's written about a super-Orthodox community living in New York and spending their summers upstate in  this little town, Kaaterskill Falls. And it's a very, very Orthodox community: there isn't an equivalent in  Birmingham. And for me it was like reading almost a different world from my experience of the Jewish  world that I'm in. And yet when we read it together, we could see that some of the Muslim women were  finding resonances and echoes that were closer perhaps to some of their experience than it was to mine. So  I suppose what I'm finding as we're reading is that there are differences within our own communities, and  subtleties and nuance that you wouldn't be aware of in the other group. And finding out where the  similarities and where the differences are within our communities and between our communities. 

Roz Goddard 

Absolutely. I can really understand that. And I think it's going to be fascinating for us to talk about how you  feel literature can be a vehicle for creating better interfaith and cultural harmony. So it would be nice to, I  think, dig into the text a little more. Would you like to perhaps read us an extract from Kaaterskill Falls

Mandy Ross 

Yes, okay. It's a novel that weaves several family stories together. And I'm focusing on Elizabeth who's a  mother of five children living with her husband, and her children are becoming … the littlest one is able to  walk and they can go to children's activities. And she has, suddenly, a glimpse of freedom and space and  time for her to think about something other than being a mother. And being a mother in both our cultures  is, and in every culture, I guess, is really important. But she's thinking about what else can she do. And what is she able to do within this very Orthodox, very devout community. What will she find that she's allowed to  do and be free to do? She talks about at 34, after all the five pregnancies and babies the constant  responsibility: “it's like waking from a dream, an exhausting, beautiful dream. But on waking Elizabeth  doesn't feel relieved or peaceful. She's ravenously hungry, she needs something to do.” 

And what she decides she wants to do is to open a store to sell the kosher food that the community needs.  But to do that she needs her husband's permission and support. And she needs to go with her husband to  ask the Rabbi, Rav Kirshner, who is the authority, his authority runs the community, really. And so she has to  find a way to persuade her husband, who at first is cautious and uncertain whether this is something that  she should do, that he should support, and eventually he comes round to support her. And she needs that  support from him otherwise it wouldn't be possible for her. So she's discussing with her husband:  

[Extract from Kaaterskill Falls

“Isaac,' she says. 'I can do this myself.'  

She's talking about wanting to open the store. She says the words in anger, knowing they are untrue. She  couldn't go on if he refused. She couldn't oppose him in that way, and of course, the Rav [the rabbi] would  never give her permission for her alone to open this store. He wouldn't even see her if she came to him  alone. The Rav doesn't really speak to women, not women outside his family, not women with business  propositions.’ 

So I think that gives us a flavour of how the book is exploring how women's lives can unfold within the kind  of community that she lives in. And finding a balance really between what women want within a  community of faith. 

Roz Goddard 

Yes, yes, absolutely. And I wondered has fostering a spirit of exploration and curiosity been an important  aspect of developing your discussions around what can be quite sort of tender themes, where people might  have very strong views? Could you perhaps say something about the way that the discussions have  developed? 

Mandy Ross 

Well, I should say that I've been in a Jewish reading group for about 20 years, a really long time. And in that  group we've been exploring our sense of identity by reading our literature and it's really given me a feel for  my cultural heritage. And I suppose when we set up the book group what I wanted to do was to be able to  share that exploration of reading our culture and reading your culture, Abda, and sharing it and finding out where we overlap and where the differences are. And being able to hear each other and being able to ask  the questions that can be difficult to find a place to ask those questions. And as you say, Roz, there are, you  know, there are differences between us. I've said it sometimes feels a bit like belonging to a big family,  where we know that there are differences and very uncomfortable issues between us. And almost like being  in a family where there's a row or a feud or the Yiddish word is broiges. And yet we're finding a way to meet  and to speak and to listen to each other. And to raise you know, the difficult issues around Israel-Palestine,  around how Jews and Muslims are seen in the wider world, and to hear what each other has to say and  feels about some of those difficult issues. And the fact that we can come together and hear each other feels  like a small but very important connection and bridge between our communities. 

Roz Goddard 

Thank you. And so, Abda, say a little more if you would please about what you discovered about your own  faith from the discussions that have emerged in the group. And also, perhaps talk to us about another book  selection that you've recently read, which is Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. Could you say a little about that,  too?  

Abda Khan 

Yeah, yeah, of course. So, Home Fire is the book that I chose and that's the last one that we discussed as a  group. So Home Fire is a really interesting novel, which revolves around a family, the Pasha family. Three  siblings, they're orphaned and the eldest sibling, Isma, looks after the younger twins. And they have a bit of  a difficult history because their father was a jihadi who died in his, you know, cause. And the twins, the  brother and sister, the brother, Parvaiz, is groomed by someone who convinces him to follow his father's  footsteps. So then there ensues the issue of trying to get him to come back when he realises he's made a  big mistake. And his twin sister starts a relationship with the Home Secretary's son. And now, the Home  Secretary is Karamat Lone, who has kind of rejected his Muslim background and his heritage in an effort to  feed in his career. So then, you know, that sort of travels along from there, and it's not a great ending, to be  honest, for the Pasha family.  

But, you know, it's an interesting book because there's so many themes in there that we realise are quite  common to us. You know, first of all, things like your identity, your loyalty – your loyalty to the state or  loyalty to your family. And we found that discussing, you know, even the Israel-Palestine issue: where  should your loyalty lie – to your family, to your state, to your people? And also, and I think I found Karamat  Lone a very interesting character because hadn't really thought about sort of sacrificing your own identity  or your heritage in an effort to do well in the world, do you know what I mean? And I think that, you know,  a couple of the women when we discussed this said, 'Oh, we don't see a Jewish Prime Minister in our lifetime'. And I said, 'Well, I don't really think there'll be a Muslim Prime Minister in my lifetime, to be  honest'. And we all kind of agreed that, you know, this is something that we don't often think about but it's  probably more common in our thoughts then we probably realise. And somebody like Karamat Lone is  probably more common than I realised because I hadn't really thought about it before, about people who  kind of go out of their way not to identify with their heritage or their religion. But when I actually thought  about it, I realised I've met lots of people like that, but hadn't really sort of, you know, picked up on it at the  time. So, you know, it's just really interesting how all these different issues, you know, sort of, were common  between us all; and I actually realised that, you know, going back to Kaaterskill Falls, what Mandy was  saying that, you know, about the super-ultra-Orthodox community that was very insular. And I found that  actually, I could relate to that more than Mandy could because I felt as though the Muslim community and  the Pakistani community that I come from, in the past and even now have tried so hard to hang on to their  culture and heritage and their religious values, that they actually became very insular because they're so  afraid of sort of losing that connection with their own identity.  

So, there's lots of issues that I think came out of this book for all of us. It was a fascinating read, it really  was, and I can read a little extract, actually, that I can relate to, and it's near the beginning of the book and  Isma is leaving England to go study in the States because, you know, her twins are finally grown up, and she  feels that she can leave behind that responsibility. And it's interesting when I used to wear a headscarf, and  every time I used to go through Birmingham Airport I used to get stopped without fail. And I used to get  stopped and asked lots of questions. And then one day I decided that I was going to take my scarf off or just  put it around my neck and see what happened. And I didn't get stopped. And every time after that that I did  that I didn't get stopped. So, when I read this extract it kind of reminded me of my own experiences. So  Isma is trying to fly out to the States and she gets stopped by security. I'm just gonna read a little extract of  what follows. And the perception or the idea that Muslim women can't be successful or can't have  aspirations – it's coming back to a little bit about Elizabeth and Kaaterskill Falls because, you know, there's  all these expectations about what women should do what they should be like. And so likewise in this novel  it explores the expectation of what a Muslim woman is supposed to be like or what she's supposed to do.  So, I'm just gonna dive straight in.  

[Extract from Home Fire

“So the officer finally reached for the designer label down jacket Isma had folded over a chair back when  she'd entered and held it up, one hand pinching it shoulder.  

'This isn't yours,' she said. And Isma was sure she didn't mean because it's at least a size too large, but  rather, It's too nice for someone like you

'I used to work in a dry cleaning shop. The woman who brought this in said she didn't want it because we couldn't get rid of the stain.'  

She pointed to the grease mark on the pocket. 'Does the manager know you took it?'  'I was the manager.'  

'You were the manager of a dry cleaning shop, and now you're on your way to a PhD program in Sociology  in Amherst, Massachusetts?' 

'Yes.'  

'And how did that happen?'  

'My siblings and I were orphaned just after I finished uni. They were 12-years-old twins. I took the first job I  could find. Now they've grown up I can go back to my life.' 

'You're going back to your life in Amherst, Massachusetts?' 

'I meant the academic life. My former tutor from LSE teaches in Amherst now at the university there. Her  name is Hira Shah. You can call her. I'll be staying with her when I arrive until I find a place of my own in  Amherst.' 

So, you see, I think there’s this idea that, you know, she can't possibly believe that this woman is not gonna  to be a terrorist. She must be going over to cause some trouble. Obviously, she can't be going over to study  a PhD in Amherst, Massachusetts so. And that kind of reminds me of my Career Adviser when I was about  15 years old and going in for careers advice. And I remember she asked me what I wanted to do. And I said  I'd quite like to go to university and study law. And she said, she just looked at me and I'll never forget the  look, and she said, 'Girls like you don't study law, do they? Girls like you don't go to university. So perhaps  you might think of something else'. And I think that, you know, this passage struck a chord with me for that  reason. So I think yeah, I think the meetings have proved that, you know, we have so many issues in  common that we can explore through the medium of literature. 

Roz Goddard 

Yes. Just on that point – I mean, I was very struck and moved by Isma's experience of interrogation en route  to Boston, and the many accommodations, you know, that she's learned to make to pacify officialdom. And  what struck me was I don't think I would have been as moved by a news report of that incident. But  somehow through the writing we're invited to step into her shoes and to develop some empathy. And that  does bring us to this question of how both books with their real narrative drive and nuanced portraits of  characters, how they do enable us to step into another's shoes. Have you found that, Mandy, has been a  developing part of the group, this large open-heartedness, this empathy, this quality of listening? 

Mandy Ross 

Yes, I think so. And Abda has talked very, very clearly about fiction as a vehicle to allow you to explore a story. But you do, you inhabit a character when you're reading them, and then you're experiencing or you're  getting closer to experiencing something that you haven't experienced in your own life. So I think it does  give you insight, I think it allows you to imagine how a different life might be. And that's been a real  privilege. And I've also been aware – we've been reading a book by a Jewish author next – and this time as  I've been reading it I've been thinking, I'm reading this, I'm imagining these Jewish characters, and I'm also  imagining the Muslim woman reading alongside me and what they're making of these Jewish characters  that they're reading about. Abda, I'm sure you've got more to say on that? 

Abda Khan 

Yeah, I think it's a really unique experience, isn't it, to actually sit and look at each other as though you're a  mirror, you know? And you're kind of like, you're seeing yourself almost reflected in the Jewish woman  who's opposite you because you see things that are in common. But then you also discover things that you  didn't know before. And you also find a way to kind of like, through the characters, look into issues that you  might never have thought about before: issues that didn't really concern you, or, you know, you just didn't  have the motivation or the inclination to think about or dwell on before. So I think fiction, it such a fantastic  vehicle to bring people together. I am so passionate about this, I feel as though these kinds of community book clubs should become compulsory because I feel as though communities can come together when they  explore things, matters, problems, issues, ideas through fiction. Fiction is a great way because it's not real  so you don't have to talk about reality almost. But, because it's fiction that deals with real issues, it gives  you licence to talk about difficult things without it being really, really personal. So, you know, we have  touched on Israel-Palestine. I mean, you can't ignore Israel-Palestine, that that issue is there, you can't  ignore it. But it just shows you how you can have that friendship despite the fact that there is this massive  issue. And you're sensitive, I am sensitive and I am aware that I mustn't say something that can be  misconstrued and be offensive. And that's quite important. And vice versa. I think feelings of the Jewish  women are really, really sensitive about, you know, the fact that we feel passionately about Palestine as  well. So, I just think that, you know, if Jewish and Muslim women can do this with this massive, huge issue  like Palestine, imagine what other communities can do. We know there's a lot of hatred in society at the  moment. We know there's a lot of hate crime. We know that, you know, there's a lot of infighting in  communities. Community book clubs like this are a real tonic and a real positive way to deal with problems  that we are facing that we can't really hide from. 

Roz Goddard 

I think you touch on there a really important point about the way in which we communicate with each  other. And in the Buddhist Sangha, which I'm part of, which is the spiritual community, there's a strong  precept around 'right speech', that's to say we try to be truthful, kindly and harmonious even in disagreement. So, really, yes, to both of you: you know, have you found that when disagreements arise that  they are handled with tolerance? And how have you handled strong feelings if they arise in the group?  How's that sort of communication angle dealt with as it were? 

Mandy Ross 

I feel as though we're just beginning to find our way with how to hear each other, and to recognise that  there are very different, strong emotions on both sides, and different narratives, and we haven't necessarily  heard each other's narratives truthfully. And so, I feel that it's a long journey that we're setting out on. And  the trust we need, we need to be able to trust each other, to hear and to listen and to bear things that feel  very difficult to bear. And I feel there's another mirror there, which is that I recognise that for both Jews and  Muslims we are held sometimes almost personally responsible for the actions of others who are members  of our faith group, who we don't necessarily agree with. And yet those subtleties are sometimes not  recognised. So again, it's a chance to recognise those difficulties. And to – I keep saying – to be able to  speak and to listen to each other. 

Abda Khan 

And coming back to what Mandy was saying about being held responsible for what people in our faith  community do: I think that's a really important point because being Muslim you always seem to be making  excuses for, or explaining, or offer reasons how you're not part of terrorism and, you know, you do disown  terrorism, you do denounce it. And it feels like you're forever, kind of like explaining to people that you're  not that person. And I feel as though the Jewish Muslim thing, I feel as though we understand each other on  that level because, you know, we don't always agree with what other people and even leaders in our  communities in our faith groups do. But sometimes it's difficult to get your voice heard out there, it's always  controversial things that get heard, it's never the happy, the peace-loving, the positive stories that can  always, you know, make a breakthrough. So it's nice to have our group where we can actually share those  ideas and say, you know, it's great to be somewhere where we can talk honestly about these things and say,  'You know what? Hey, I'm just a Muslim, you know. I'm not part of this or that. I've got free thought and I want to be perceived like that'. So, I think it's just such a lovely safe space in which to do that. 

Mandy Ross 

And I would add as well that there may be conflicted feelings, bonds that you feel despite disagreement  within your faith group, I think. I feel it's a very complicated series of connections that we, as Abda says, we're able to begin to unpick and explore together in the group. 

Roz Goddard

And isn't it absolutely crucial that we're having these conversations, and that these creative conversations  are starting to happen more and more? For example, I'm part of a race affinity group at the Birmingham  Buddhist Centre. And I've found in discussions that we have that sometimes I feel words get stuck in my  throat because I have this fear of causing offence, being clunky, not knowing the right form of words. But  the brilliant thing is that the conversations are happening and we are moving forward. We're being heard  together. And it sounds very much as if that's what goes on in your group. 

Mandy Ross 

Yes, and I was going to say, Abda referred to an incident in South Birmingham in July, where one of our  members spotted a horrible piece of anti-Semitic graffiti. I've never seen something like that close to home.  And she told about it in the group, in our What's App group, and Jewish and Muslim women came together  to stand together beside this piece of graffiti and call the police to remove it. And my rabbi, our woman  Rabbi, Margaret Jacobi, came and our MP came for the constituency. And we stood together against that  anti-Semitic graffiti and we made a new sign that said that we were Jewish and Muslim women standing  together against hatred. And I feel very sure that should it be necessary, and I hope it won't, that if there  were anti-Muslim graffiti we would go and stand together against that kind of hatred. And in these times  when yes, it can feel as though hatred is rising – and there are many groups who are vulnerable to hatred  for race or for their faith or ethnicity or LGBT groups – it's really important that we can stand together  rather than allowing ourselves to be picked off individually. So that's been a very important part of the  group in action. 

Abda Khan 

So you can never underestimate the ripple effect of having interactions like this in a book group so. I think if  anybody's listening out there and they're thinking of setting up a book group based on whatever, you know,  whatever kind of ideas they've got, please go ahead and do it because you can never underestimate that  the ripple effect of everybody sort of going home and talking to their family, and perhaps the child talking  somebody at school. And this is the ripple effect. When you learn something about somebody, a person  from a different community or faith or background or colour, whatever it might be, that you didn't know  before, and that helps you to understand them better; and you know, you're inevitably gonna talk about it  with your work colleagues, your friends, your family, and then that has a ripple effect. And I feel as though  the ripple effect can't be underestimated because that helps, you know, improve relations within society  generally. 

Mandy Ross 

Yeah, definitely.

Roz Goddard 

The 'ripple effect' – how wonderful! I thought it would be lovely for us to finish this podcast with a very  short extract from both books that show Elizabeth and Isma in their strength and dignity. So perhaps, Abda,  if I could turn to you first.  

Abda Khan 

Yeah, I'm just gonna continue with the previous, because I feel like the listeners might want to know what  happened after my previous little extract. So, we just got to the bit where she's explaining she's going to be  in Amherst, Massachusetts. And the reason I want to read this extract, it just shows how dignified she is  even in a situation like this where she's being interrogated and humiliated almost. So, I think I'll just  continue reading that if that's okay.  

[Extract from Home Fire

“'You're going back to your life in Amherst, Massachusetts?' 

'I meant the academic life. My former tutor from LSE teaches in Amherst now at the university there. Her name is Hira Shah. You can call her. I'll be staying with her when I arrive until I find a place of my own.'  'In Amherst?'  

'No, I don't know. Sorry. Do you mean her place or the place of my own? She lives in North Hampton. That's  close to Amherst. I'll look all around the area for whatever suits me best. So, it might be Amherst, but it  might not. There are some real estate listings on my phone, which you have.'  

She stopped herself. The official was doing that thing which she'd encountered before in security personnel:  staying quiet when you answer their question in a straightforward manner, which made her think that you  had more to say, and the more you said, the more guilty you sounded.  

The woman dropped the jacket into the jumble of clothes and shoes and told Isma to wait. That had been a  long while ago. The plane would be boarding now. Isma looked over at the suitcase. She'd repacked when  the woman left the room and spent the time since worrying if what she'd done without permission  constituted an offence. Should she empty the clothes out in a haphazard pile or would that make things  worse? She stood up, unzipped the suitcase and flipped it open so its contents were visible.  A man entered the office bearing Isma's passport, laptop and phone. She allowed herself to hope but he sat  down, gestured for her to do the same and placed a voice recorder between them.  'Do you consider yourself British?' the man said.  

'I am British.'  

'But do you consider yourself British?'  

'I've lived here all my life.' She meant there was no other country of which she could feed herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive. 

The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals,  the Queen, democracy, Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.  After the early slip regarding her Britishness, she settled into the manner that she'd practised, with Aneeka playing the role of the interrogating officer, Isma responding to her sister as though she was a customer of dubious political opinions whose business she didn't want to lose by voicing strenuously opposing views but  to whom she didn't see the need to lie either: 'When people talk about the enmity between Shia and Sunni,  it usually centres around some political imbalance of power, such as Iraq or Syria as a Brit I don't distinguish  between one Muslim and another. Occupying other people's territory generally causes more problems than  it solves.' This served both for Iraq and Israel. 'Killing civilians is sinful. That's equally true if the manner of killing is a suicide bombing or aerial bombardment or drone strikes.'  

There were long intervals of silence between each answer and the next question as the man clicked away.” 

Roz Goddard 

Thank you, Abda. Mandy?  

Mandy Ross 

Yes, I've chosen a passage towards the end of Kaaterskill Falls, which I feel is exploring how to reconcile a  feminism, a woman's wish for independence and the authority – a very masculine authority. And we  haven't talked about that, about how our book group is a place for women's voices both as writers and as  readers in two cultures that have been traditionally predominantly very male run. So here we are, this is  about the Rav's authority, the rabbi's authority in the community. And to Isaac, Elizabeth's husband, it's not  a matter of politics, following the Rav is and always will be for Isaac, an issue of aspiring to the best life.  

[Extract from Kaaterskill Falls

“Elizabeth had been innocent like this but curious. She envies her husband his devotion. She wonders even  now what her daughters will inherit and discover. Whether they will shake themselves and venture out,  even if only to touch the larger world – the city with its thousand neighbourhoods and businesses, its  traffic, its steel bridges pointing to far places. Whether they will take exotic paths, researching in libraries or  entering law school, learning languages; and she doesn't know what else. Or whether, like their father, they  will absorb themselves in the life and turn heart and mind toward the khilh, the community.” 

So that feels to me like the heart of the book, how to balance being part of a devout community with what  women can aspire to.

Roz Goddard 

Mandy Ross and Abda Khan, thank you both so much for being part of this fascinating Birmingham  Literature Festival podcast. And long may Nisa-Nashim thrive! Thank you. 

Mandy Ross 

Thank you. 

Outro message 

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest presents…podcast. If you enjoyed  this episode, we’d love for you to tell us about it – leave us a review or a rating and find us on Instagram,  Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. You can download our latest podcast episodes, every Thursday, from  all the places you would normally get your podcasts and find transcripts of our episodes in the shownotes  and on our website at www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org . Details about our full programme can also be  found on our website. Until then, happy reading! 

The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast is curated by Shantel Edwards and produced by 11C and  Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands.



What is Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….?

The Birmingham Literature Festival Podcast - Welcome to the very first Birmingham Literature Festival podcast, bringing writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.