Occasionally – okay, rarely – the first time you meet someone is indelibly etched on your mind. Meeting Tamam Kahn was like that. It was a few years ago at the Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico (once the haunt of Georgia O’Keeffe and D.H. Lawrence) at the all-women AROHO – A Room of Her Own – writers conference, where I was teaching, taking a break from working on After the Prophet, and generally high on being in high desert.
That morning I was stretched out on a table, doing some Pilates exercises between sessions (on the table, because nobody was going to stumble over me that way, I guess; stretching, because I’d hiked further than I’d intended before breakfast) when Tamam appeared, long blond Rasta locks and all.
She didn’t say hello. She didn’t say her name. She just stood there and began to chant, and I sat upright immediately. This chant commanded attention. It took me a moment to realize whose voice this had to be: that of Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, the woman to whom he fled in terror after his first encounter with the angel Gabriel, who held him and assured him that he was not crazy and that this really was a divine revelation, and to whom he stayed married in a monogamous and extraordinarily close relationship until her death.
“You wrote that poem?” I asked when Tamam fell silent. And I mean silent: all the buzz and chatter around us seemed to have fallen away. She didn’t answer — just kind of half-smiled and began chanting another, this one in the voice of Aisha, the youngest and most controversial of the nine women Muhammad married after Khadija’s death.
It wasn’t just the rhythm. These poems had a fierce, elegant energy, an urgency and passion that seemed to bring these women alive. When I’d written my ‘flesh-and-blood biography‘ of Mary, many people had asked me if I’d felt like I was channeling her. I’d said no way — I’m not into channeling or any of that New Agey kind of stuff. But that morning at Ghost Ranch, it honestly felt as though Tamam was channeling these seventh-century women. By the time Tamam/Aisha had finished, I was officially blown away.
Those poems have now been published in Untold: a History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad – just two of seventy poems in all, embedded in a prose narrative. Here’s me on the back cover:
In a sustained act of spirited research and imagination, Tamam Kahn brings Muhammad’s wives out of the shadows and into the light. The women of ‘Untold’ have at last found their perfect teller, in voices so gemlike and clear that one wants to chant them aloud, dance to them, celebrate with them.
And yippee, publication brings Tamam to Seattle for the next few days, doing readings and a Sufi retreat weekend. So if you’re anywhere near, check her schedule here (I’ll be at the Thursday reading in the chapel of the U District’s United Methodist Church on 43rd between 15th and University), and prepare to be blown away.