Zahir Janmohamed | Maine Arts Fellowship - Portland, Maine

  • October 26, 2021

Zahir Janmohamed | Maine Arts Fellowship - Portland, Maine

Artist Statement 2021

What does it mean to be from a country that no longer wants you? This is the central question I explore in my non-fiction book in progress, The Permitted Hours, a journalistic memoir about my conflicted relationship to my ancestral homeland of India.

My family is from India’s western state of Gujarat and moved to East Africa in the early 1900s. After a wave of anti-Indian sentiment swept through Uganda, in the 1970s, my father and mother moved to California, where I was born and raised. It was not an easy transition. My parents felt isolated in America as new immigrants and because of this—as well as their experience of being expelled from Africa—our conception of India as “home” grew stronger, even though no one in my family had ever visited before.

That all changed in 2002. Fed up with the anti-Muslim hysteria in the US post 9/11, I traveled to India to work for an NGO in Gujarat in February 2002. Twelve days after I arrived, deadly anti-Muslim violence broke out, leaving over one thousand dead. The writing sample I am including—which won the Hopwood Nonfiction Prize—is about my experience being threatened on the first day of the riots when a Hindu mob suspected, correctly, that I am Muslim.

When I returned to the US, I committed myself to human rights work. In 2011, after spending a decade in Washington DC, mostly at Amnesty International and in the United States Congress, I went back to India to write about the aftermath of the 2002 pogrom. What I discovered is that the aftermath of tragedy is more tragedy. 

My book explores the rise of Hindu nationalism and the increasing spatial and psychological ghettoization of Muslims. I spent four years living in, and reporting from, the largest ghetto of Muslims in India for outlets like New York Times, Newsweek, and many others. In my manuscript, I explore what it feels like, as Toni Morrison said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.”

By 2050, India will have the world’s largest Muslim population. In fact, there will be more Muslims in India than the entire Middle East combined. And yet despite this, Indian Muslims are rarely heard from in the US and in India, despite being targeted at an alarming rate by the current government. Most books about India tend to be written by upper caste Hindus or white people. I want to change this.

My book is structured as a series of essays, each revolving around a different survivor of the 2002 pogrom who now lives in the Muslim ghetto of Gujarat. Throughout the manuscript, I weave in my family’s history, as well as my experience of race in America. It is nearly finished, and I plan to send it out this fall. I am hoping the book will be out by 2024, when India’s next prime ministerial election will be held.

This is a book I believe will resonate in Maine. I am often asked here, usually by white people, where I am “originally from.” I always say India, which is true, but that answer hides so much. I was never really seen as Indian in India and yet here in Maine—the whitest state in America—I am often viewed as nothing but Indian. It’s a paradox that I think many immigrants, and children of immigrants, relate to here in America.

A few months ago, my wife and I welcomed our first child, a son named Mirza. We named after the great Indian writer Mirza Ghalib. I often find myself playing Indian songs for him, dressing him up in Indian clothes, and telling him Indian folk tales.

One day, someone in Maine might look at Mirza’s skin color and ask him, so where are you really from? That question might lead him to want to visit India. And when that day comes, I hope he will find a more tolerant India than the one I discovered. This book, I hope, will help Mirza on his journey, both in Maine and perhaps one day in India.

If awarded this grant, I plan to spend the funds entirely on day care and weekend nanny support. During Mirza’s delivery, my wife, our son, and I all got Covid-19. It was harrowing. It was also financially draining. The money we saved for day care all went to covering hospital bills for our overnight stays.

I am teaching at Bowdoin this fall, as a visiting professor of creative writing, and this certainly helps. However, because of these hospital bills that I accrued, I have been forced to pick up odd free-lance podcasting and writing jobs to cover costs. This grant would allow me to put aside my free-lance work so that I could focus entirely on my manuscript.

Visit Zahir Janmohamed's website.

Work Samples:

Published Articles by Date:

The divisiveness that permeates Detroit’s communities of color, Guardian, January 10, 2019

Poet Amit Majmudar, Columbus Alive, October 31, 2018

Rising Democrat Ismail Mohamed represents the changing face of Somali politics, Columbus Alive (cover story), October 17, 2018

Saraga is the International Grocery Store of My Dreams, Bon Appetit, June 6, 2018

How Indian-Americans are becoming more vocal on hate crimes, Economic Times, March 11, 2018

Interview: Creating Queer, Intersectional Spaces in Ahmedabad, The Wire, February 13, 2018

'Cool' Christian American millennials and yoga in America, The Print, February 13, 2018

Nikki Halley: Why the US might see an Indian American run for President in 2024, Economic Times, January 14 2018

Coffee Shop Entrepreneur Shows Customers Yemen Is About More Than War, NPR, January 3, 2018

BJP Can't Take Gujaratis for Granted Anymore, The Print, December 18, 2017


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