Introducing Mohja

(Pre-recorded audio remarks delivered at the 18th annual Mikhail Memorial Lecture at the University of Toledo in October 2018.)

Good afternoon. 

My name is Tess Waggoner, and I am proud granddaughter of Maryse and Ramzy Mikhail in whose memory this lecture series is endowed. On behalf of our family, I would like to welcome you all here today. 

Every year in the fall my family puts out a call: Come, learn, and question together. And every year I would hear my mother cry, “Maryse had a plan,” as her arms encircled generations of family-friends reunited at this annual lecture. 

I can’t say when their scheming started exactly, but those familiar with their biographies can attest that here in Toledo, my grandparents built and enacted many plans. They fostered community and pride in heritage while keeping open the gates for new discussions, debates and strategies to destabilize the capital D differences they encountered; or rather, were assumed to embody, as Middle Eastern immigrants here in the Midwest. 

So every fall we keep their plans in motion, bringing community together to consider, to ponder. We ask a friend to offer a story, or in today’s case– many.

In 2004, a year after Maryse’s death, our friend Naomi Shihab Nye stood in this very hall and told us “every act of violence is a betrayal of language.” 

Barely a teenager, I sat and feverishly wrote down those words, and I’ve tried to carry them everywhere I’ve been ever since. Maryse’s plan was working. But the sentiment undergirding that language didn’t prepare me to bear witness almost a decade later, face-to-face with the experiences of “people wanting the fall of the system!” 

There is a cruel and compelling burden faced by those concerned by the lack of dignity shown to their fellow humans who, post-voice-raising, have been met not only with physical brutality, but with violent, murderous silence. 

Many scientists theorize that it is language that makes us human; but, with deference to Naomi Shihab Nye, yes, “Every act of violence is a betrayal of language” however language itself is full of betrayals. As you asked in a 2017 interview with Sukoon Magazine, Dr. Kahf,

“What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it? need all three components: text, sender, recipient – need someone at the other end to hear what someone sends out into the world, to hear responsively.” 

As I wrote this introduction, Dr. Kahf, I kept getting hung up about how you would feel about the characterization of your work as “humanizing,” because such a statement reveals the underlying false assumption carried by too many: that there is an identifiable capital O other which you somehow embody and represent; as though your syntactic arrangements are somehow akin to access to the gallery of an operating room: ah yes, now I see, capital T Their blood is red too. 

In the days after losing هي, many of our friends were moved by the tagline with which she chose to identify herself on social media: “I am a human being.” For me, the most excruciating aspect of that sentence, echoing and ricocheting across the web, was the thousands of betrayals of language that created grounds for the apparent need for such an utterance. 

Shouldn’t it be obvious? 

I think my grandparents made their plans cognizant that, for too many, our collective humanity is not a given. As I’ve tried to understand their intentions posthumously, I’ve identified two key strains in their strategy: First, the provision of information; and second, contact, or exposure. 

Today we are joined by a messenger, a friend who over decades has given voice to the experiences of Those Others weren’t always keen to hear from. Dr. Kahf I am so delighted that my community in Toledo will have the chance to listen to the knowledge in the stories you carry, and be put into contact with your drive to persevere beyond and through language’s betrayals. I want to thank you for your steadfastness, and for the clear voice with which you manage your hypervisibility, illuminating and critiquing and cracking open glimpses of lived truths about the human journey for us all. 

In remembrance of my scheming grandparents and of هي, and in seeking to honor the millions whose hearts still pulse to (capital R) Revolution’s song, I am deeply humbled to welcome you, Dr. Mohja Kahf, to the 18th annual Ramzy and Maryse Mikhail Memorial Lecture series at the University of Toledo. 

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