Young Muslim poets shine at I-SLAM

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What do you get when you cross Muslims and slam poetry? I-SLAM, that's what. Organized by UBC's Muslim Students Association, the event was one of the main highlights of Islam Awareness Week (Jan. 17 - 21st).

Despite the snow and rain, scores of people showed up to the event at UBC on Thursday evening, mostly Muslim, some not. The event was headlined by Boonaa Mohammed, an award-winning writer with a lengthy list of accolades, ranging from winning the "Best New Artist" award on CBC's Poetry Face-Off to being chosen as a speaker at the 2010 TEDxToronto conference.

The poets were high-energy and thought-provoking, their material running the gamut from school to drugs to discord in the Middle East. Urooba Jamal (whose style pics were in November's Hijab fashion article) was a crowd favorite, belting out clever wordplay and puns on self-acceptance. 

Nadir Keval, editor of Muslim lifestyle mag Candor, recited a heartfelt poem about the ideal fatherhood experience, while Sharif Ali rhymed about "snorting drugs" and the temptation of women (prompting the girls beside me to whisper loudly, "That's not his lifestyle! He's actually really composed.") 

One of the most stirring poems of the night was Ehab Taha's "Three Prophets," which described how Moses, Muhammad and Jesus would react if they could see the blood-spilling and injustice carried out in their name today. 

Boonaa Mohammed, who performed last, gave an inspired show that alternated between goofy humour and steely-eyed seriousness. He alternated between jokes about his religious appearance ("a black guy with a beard wearing a dress") and condemning Muslims for materialistic self-absorption. One of the poems drew on the rich history of heroes in Muslim history, at the same time chiding believers for knowing more about Beyonce and Kanye's biography than the details of religious figures. 

It's hard to believe he's only 23, because his performance revealed the depth of someone a decade older. At some points, he rhymed with knees bouncing wildly, bellowing rhymes like an artist at a rap battle, while at others, he's withdraw from the crowd's cheers and murmur short lines from the Quran in Arabic, as though in private.

While some of his references flew over the heads of the non-Muslims, most of his insights were applicable to everyone: don't expect the world to treat you well just because you're a good person, he warns, because that would be like expecting a bull not to attack you because you're a vegetarian. 

The show was billed as an event for "breaking misconceptions through art," and Urooba Jamal says she came to I-SLAM to do just that.  "The media always portrays muslim women as submissive and quiet and oppressed, and I wanted to show that's not who we are." With her confident delivery, Urooba ended up winning the grand prize, judged by the audience.

Ehab Taha says he made it a point to criticize the violent factions of all three religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), and show that they have more similarities than they have reasons for intolerance. 

Although these kind of events tend not to attract much attention in the mainstream, I-SLAM was worth attending, simply to catch glimpses of ideas and opinions from the people who make up one of the world's largest and most negatively portrayed religions. Hopefully, all of the poets will be back for next year. 

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