Shenila Khoja-Moolji, Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Sociality (Oxford University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Shenila Khoja-Moolji (SKM): This project was inspired by my grandmother. In 1971, she, along with my mother who was twelve years old at the time, had to flee East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) due to civil war. A widow and already ultra-poor, she was working at a restaurant to take care of her five young children and extended family. As could be expected, the war exacerbated their already precarious position.
But when they arrived in Karachi, members of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community formed a web of care around them. They were first taken to a refugee camp at a jamatkhana (an Ismaili space of worship and gathering), where they were given clothing and food. An ad hoc volunteer committee—composed of displaced Ismaili people themselves—came together to help other displaced families, like my grandmother’s, find housing. They even subsidized her rent for over a year and helped enroll my mother in a boarding school. Another Ismaili woman helped my grandmother find work as a housekeeper.
I grew up with these stories of how Ismaili women have cared for their community. But we do not often read about such forms of ordinary care in national or religious histories. It was this potential loss of Ismaili Muslim women’s history—recognizing that these women’s lives and community-building efforts would disappear unrecorded and unarchived—that motivated me to write this book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SKM: The book tells the story of how Ismaili Muslim women who fled East Pakistan and East Africa in the 1970s recreated religious community (jamat) in North America. So, it is a study about their placemaking. However, while most investigations of refugee placemaking focus on how displaced people transform their built environments, particularly public spaces, to reflect their needs and aspirations, I extend the concept of placemaking beyond the construction of physical infrastructure to include the ordinary acts of care that sustain connection among people and to ideas—such as what it means to be an Ismaili Muslim or part of the Ismaili community.
I argue that it is through everyday actions—cooking for a lost traveler, telling a miracle story, passing on heritage food recipes, helping a young widow set up a shop—that my interlocutors stitched together communities, operationalized their understanding of the Shia Ismaili Imam’s guidance on unity and care, and gave themselves (and others) a long cultural memory. Placemaking after displacement then becomes a scenario for me to theorize what an Ismaili everyday ethics of care looks like.
In that vein, I also look at my interlocutors’ practices to illuminate lived Ismaili faith. Since the women I interviewed trace their ancestors to the Sindh-Gujarat corridor, they share language and ethnicity; it is therefore easy to default to ethnicity as the primary frame of analysis. But I wanted to track the role religion plays in their relationship to each other so that we are able to see how Ismailis strive to transcend ethnicity in their aspiration for producing a spiritualized sociality.
In this endeavor, I have been inspired by Amira Mittermaier’s call to scholars to keep God in the picture. The book thus attends to how women’s everyday actions are dynamically linked with divine direction, which in the case of Ismailis, often arrives via the Imam.
In fact, the Ismaili sociality that I describe in the book has a strong collectivist impetus due in part to the central authority of the Shia Imam. Obedience to the Imam is a key tenet of Shia Ismaili spirituality as he is divinely designated and has the knowledge of both the apparent and the hidden dimensions of reality. I therefore read my interlocutors’ practices as expressing an ethic of care for community that is uniquely Ismaili in its motivations, if not necessarily in the service tasks it motivates.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SKM: All of my books are concerned with questions of gender and power in Muslim societies. In my first book, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl, I examined the politics of educational reform campaigns to uncover notions of ideal and failed girlhood; in my second book, Sovereign Attachments, I looked at how gender is a constitutive element in articulations of sovereignty; and in this third book, I write women into modern Ismaili history and draw on their experiences to theorize Muslim ethics of care and community-making. So, each text, in its own way, is my effort to think about the politics of gender in relation to Muslim societies.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SKM: Shia Ismaili Muslims are a minority within a minority: about fifteen percent of the world’s Muslim population is Shia and Ismailis are a marginal presence within that group. Spread globally across twenty-five countries, they are also a numerical minority in the countries where they reside. In “Introduction to Islam” courses, we often do not hear much about Ismailis. I have written the book in a manner that I believe will be engaging for undergraduates in the hope that it is included in syllabi on Islam and Muslim societies.
In addition, my hope is to reclaim care work. As we know, certain forms of care—particularly those linked to biological reproduction such as cleaning or cooking—are often hidden and stigmatized. Africana studies scholar Judith Casselberry insists that women’s labor is frequently not even considered labor because gender influences which labor becomes legible as such. And so, in the book I call for a different valuation for women’s care work.
I emphasize how care work (and care in general) has a reparative dimension, particularly in the context of displacement. We also notice the centrality of care in creating and sustaining religious communities. Care work can further have a deeply spiritual dimension. In recognizing the value of women’s care work, we need not ignore the ways in which power (patriarchy, for instance) is exercised through its allocation and distribution, as Sandy Grande has observed. Our task instead is to highlight the multiple social lives of care and the messy effects that its varying legibility produces.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SKM: I am currently working on a short book, entitled Muslim Boyhood, which is slated to be published by the University of Minnesota Press next year.
Except from the book (from Chapter 5, Culinary Placemaking, pp. 141-143)
When I visited my nani in Karachi during summer vacations, she made me bhel puri. Ten-year-old me did not particularly like bhel puri because I was not allowed to have the tangy and spicy tamarind and cilantro-based chutneys that usually go with it. But even at that age I knew that there was something about cooking and eating with my grandmother that deserved respect. So when she told me to sift chickpea flour for the sev, I sifted. When she said to wash the potatoes, I washed. When it was time to measure and mix the puffed rice with onions, I mixed. I would say her bhel puri was delicious, unparalleled, like nothing I could eat at home in Hyderabad. She would smile— not a full beaming smile but a half-clouded, coy one. She insisted, “Write it down, beta.” For nani, cooking was an everyday practice, its knowledge passed down orally. She did not have any formal schooling. “Write it down” was not something she could do, but something she asked of me, “so that you don’t forget.”
Nani passed away as I was drafting this chapter in the spring of 2021. COVID travel restrictions meant I could not attend her funeral services. I ate bhel puri every day for months afterward. I wasn’t actually planning to eat it; I just ate it, every evening, as if following a Divine plan. Weeks later, as I rewrote the chapter, I could intellectualize my actions. Perhaps this was my way of mourning her? But my body did not await such intellection before plunging into action, before remembering her, before aligning with her through bhel puri. My body has its own memory; it knew how to honor the passing of an ancestor thousands of miles away, how to conjure her into being again through the sensory memory of food, and how to keep returning to her by making and eating again the dishes we had once prepared together.
Bhel puri was first prepared in Gujarat in India but traveled with Khoja Ismailis as they migrated within India and on to East Africa, fleeing famines and wars. It fed my nani and her family through multiple displacements and a life of poverty. When her husband died young, she supported her five children by preparing bhel puri at a restaurant in Dhaka. Bhel puri— typically eaten as a snack by the middle-class customers of the restaurants where she worked— was often the only meal that she and her children could afford for days on end. When the 1971 war between East and West Pakistan uprooted her family, she began making bhel puri in Karachi for a small canteen at the local jamatkhana, run by and for Ismaili Muslims. When nani and I made bhel puri together, she would tell me stories of her past work as a cook, her tin-roofed home in Dhaka, and how she had sneaked her way into Karachi in the early 1970s.
I knew that there was something different about nani, about bhel puri. Bhel puri is still a popular street food in India, but street vendors did not sell it in Hyderabad, Pakistan, where I grew up. I could only eat it in nani’s kitchen or at the jamatkhana canteen in Karachi where many migrant and refugee women from Gujarat (like nani) worked. As a child, I did not understand why nani spoke Gujarati and not Sindhi, my “mother tongue”— or, in this case, my father’s tongue. I did not recognize all the ways that her life was marked by displacement and dispossession, or how her body and her care practices carried remnants of other places. But I took in some of that knowledge along with the bhel puri that back then I was only pretending to like. Much later, as I remembered her life, I remembered it through this dish.
Food, of course, is not only about nourishment. It tells a tale about where, how, and when it was created and about the people who consumed it. It is tied to political economy and social class. Its modifications and fusions reveal encounters between people and places in the diaspora. Its preparation is both an expression of care and subject to exploitation. When I look back on the hours I spent with nani making and consuming bhel puri and writing down recipes of the foods she prepared, I understand those moments as drawing me closer to her then and bringing me closer to her memory now. My recent bhel puri craving, and the time I spent ransacking my suitcases to see if I could find her recipe, are evidence of how food memories get embedded into one’s body at a cellular level. My nani’s bhel puri showed me that food is an archive: it records individual and communal pasts; it transfers memories of women past...
…In this chapter, I consider cookbooks written by three displaced Ismaili women to discover how certain foods crystalize the memory of diasporic encounters and how through food fusions women created bridges with new communities as well as future generations of Ismailis. I am also attentive to how food— its aroma in particular— has been used to mark ethnic and racial differences. Specifically, I examine Lella Umedaly’s Mamajee’s Kitchen (2005), Noorbanu Nimji’s A Spicy Touch (editions published in 1986, 1992, 2007, and 2020), and Yasmin Alibhai- Brown’s The Settler’s Cookbook (2009). In the hands of Ismaili women, the cookbook becomes a memoir, an advice manual, a testimony, and a wish. Through it, they introduce readers to histories of community encounters from East Africa to Canada, memorialize their past lives, pass on heritage food practices, share their Imam’s advice on nutrition, and imagine familial and communal futures. They reframe the trauma of displacement by crafting new forms of emplacement through food: food enables them to return “home” but also to recreate home in the diaspora through fusions and interactions with other foodways. The cookbook, then, is simultaneously mnemonic and aspirational. Like the moujza stories in the previous chapter, it is at once didactic (how to cook) and narrative (cookbooks often tell stories about their authors’ journeys), acting to emplace the younger members within the community’s historic and geographical experience through the habits of cooking and flavors of heritage foods.