Poet Zubair Ahmed, the Outsider’s Insider
My Ghost Sits in a Chair Near the Jamuna River
His face looks
Like an animal stretched by pulleys.
He must be the type who knows
The value of a bent needle
Placed on the coffin of a weaver.
I could sit here all night,
And chances are I will.
The moon lights the ocean on fire.
I watch the waves repeat themselves
Until they become a house
With soft lights and no furniture.
I begin to sleep.
My body is music.
I will never have a home.
City of Rivers is the first poetry collection of twenty-four-year-old Zubair Ahmed, a Stanford engineering student born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated cities of the world, where life pulses daily with the smells, tastes, sounds and heat of so many pressing, chanting, dancing and bleating bodies, in a marketplace at once ancient and industrial. From this rich cultural swirl of history, heritage, and family, poems have emerged, each one a dance in itself with memory and myth, a celebration of the author’s birthright in the age-old tradition of story-telling.
INTERVIEW WITH ZUBAIR AHMED
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Let’s start with your name, which, being the diminutive of ‘Zubrah,’ means,’ small piece of iron, a brave and wise person.’ Would you say that is a rather accurate description of you?
Zubair Ahmed: That’s an interesting question. I’ve not introspected on my bravery or wisdom, so I can’t say how well those terms describe me. But I resonate with small piece of iron for some reason. The image I get from reading those words is so pure and simple – a small piece of iron in someone’s hand. That’s so beautiful to me. I aspire for simplicity, so I would say that describes me quite well.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Coming to the United States for the first time must have been quite a culture shock. Do you remember what surprised you the most? Are there some things you’re still having a hard time getting used to?
Zubair Ahmed: I found the vast openness of America be to quite jarring at first. My first memories here are of the highways of Texas disappearing into the horizon at dusk.
Our uncle graciously hosted us the first few months we lived in Duncanville, a small town south of Dallas. I thought the town was ghostly. Few people walked in the streets, Arm Strong Park right by our first apartment was wide and mostly empty, and visible life was quiet and mysteriously private.
Zubair Ahmed: I was also shocked to find that tap water is drinkable, there are no power-outages, it’s easy to afford a car, the price on the Doritos chips at the gas-station doesn’t include taxes, Popeye’s spicy chicken is at best very sweet for the Bengali palate, bananas, and most any industrially produced fruit, taste funny and not as great as locally, especially tropically grown ones, public school is free and yellow buses pick us up, the humidity is almost always less than 100%, unlike in Dhaka, roller-coasters are really fun, and marshmallows can be addictive (I ate two whole bags when I discovered them).
But I’ve adjusted to life here very well. Most people I meet don’t even guess I’m an immigrant and assume I’m American, which I find pleasantly amusing. When a friend of mine in college found out – after three years of us knowing each other – that I’m not from the U.S., his response was a sincere and loud, “What?!” That’s not to say I blend in completely. I have, though, found a very happy and peaceful existence in America.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What are some of the realities of life in Dhaka that would likely be rather mind-blowing to those who have never ventured to that part of the world? What understanding or values do you hope to bring to your Western readers via your poems?
Zubair Ahmed: Life in Dhaka is a blend of crowded streets, vendors, rickshaws, crows, kidnappings, rain, dogs, power-outages, political unrest, spices, fruits, floods, murders, festivals, farmers, fairs, and an unstoppable expansion into the applications of capitalism (Bangladesh is one of the world’s emerging markets). The city rests on soil that’s heavy with thousands of years of history, and with that history comes a deeply evolved and evolving culture, an existence of hundreds of rituals, ceremonies, dances, and beliefs. Growing up in Dhaka was my life’s first blessing.
For seven years
My father drove me to Ashulia every evening
To watch the sunset.
Back then, Ashulia was nothing,
A long stretch of dirt road
Cutting through a wide river
Which passed us on both sides
Like someone lost within us.
I remember his gray hair,
His missing teeth and spotted skin.
His laughter gave birth to the softness of my skull
And the uneven beating of my heart.
He told me to fold a muslin sari,
Throw it into the river
And watch it float away.
I asked him about God,
Under which rock he hides his mansion.
He told me he found God
On the corner of his cigarette.
Twenty years later, his body floated
Through all two-hundred-fourteen rivers of Bangladesh.
Zubair Ahmed: Everyday life in Dhaka involves paying attention to details most Westerners take for granted. A blackout during one’s favorite TV show would be unacceptable in the U.S., but the rhythm of life in Bangladesh accounts for daily “load shedding,” which are one-hour blackouts that begin randomly at any point during the day. Tap water back home isn’t drinkable and must first be boiled to make it safe. Water is also in short supply. Our landlord, in the flat we lived in our last few years, had to ration water, making it available to his residents for only an hour a day. With that limited water, we had to cook, clean, shower and drink. When I first realized we can drink water from faucets in America, when I took my first one-hour shower, when I spent my first month without any blackouts and watched TV to my heart’s content, I realized the shear abundance of basic resources the Western world enjoys and understood how blessed I am to find myself here now.
Zubair Ahmed: But there is a particular reality of Bangladesh that doesn’t exist in the U.S.: the yearly monsoon rains and floods. I’ve walked to school through waist-deep water, and I’ve been in the streets surrounded by people whose homes were destroyed by the rising rivers. Every year with the monsoon season, the city floods and life goes on. We live with the water and sustain ourselves with its life. We rebuild what’s lost and give our sincere respect to the over 800 rivers that cut through our motherland.
I found a picture of you
Standing on the roof,
Hands crossed behind your back,
The black sky.
It was a hot night.
You talked about your mother’s death
Softly, as if she’d hear you
Saying something wrong.
You told me you believed
You were becoming the strokes of a boatman
Crossing the Brahmaputra at dawn,
His hands moving up and down,
Trying to become water
You smiled and believed
That your eyes would refuse
To let light in.
You believed a small breeze,
Small like a child’s coffin,
Would prove your body was made of moths.
And all you believed
Ten years later, I look at your picture
And can only think of rain
Falling over Dhaka,
Flooding every street,
Even the ones that go nowhere,
Flooding the now-empty roof
Where an old song is slowly ending.
Zubair Ahmed: What makes these rivers extraordinary are their shear scale; Texas, by itself, is about 5 times larger in area than the whole country of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the size of Ohio.
With my poems, I hope to create a unique blend of Eastern and Western perspectives of the world. I’m not sure how to achieve that goal, but I know I’m going to follow my instincts and keep writing. I’m not sure what understanding or values I’ll bring to my reader, but I hope it’ll be beautiful, raw, and meaningful.
The Water of Lake Tahoe
The sound of water repairs my skin.
I stand inside the wind,
Breathing in the tips of waves
And the branches coated
In pre-dawn ice.
I’m afraid to go anywhere.
I’m afraid of the empty rooms
That await me,
The photos on my table
That must be sorted,
The heaps of paper being folded
By the ghosts who refuse to haunt me.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What makes a great poem?
Zubair Ahmed: I think a great poem can create a world the reader can touch and experience. A great poem takes me to a place where imagination guides feelings and emotions. I believe imagery is the essence of poetry. I feel the strongest poems can take the reader on a journey that’s unexpected, dotted with new experiences, and familiar in a way that’s deeper and more meaningful than everyday experience. The great poem can tell a story that reaches further than the words themselves. Great poems achieve much more, and I’m excited to find more and more of them in the contemporary poetry landscape.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Mechanical engineering and poetry seem at first to serve polar opposite needs. Are there some ways they satisfy you in similar ways? What is the greatest gift poetry has given you?
Zubair Ahmed: My engineering and poetry don’t often intersect. I pursue engineering, because I find it fascinating and challenging, and I pursue poetry because I love writing and storytelling. The one place they meet is in the imagination – both disciplines involve bringing abstract ideas to reality. But they are very different in the process of that realization. I find engineering and poetry to be beautiful disciplines, and I know they can both deeply impact people’s lives.
Zubair Ahmed: The greatest gift poetry has given me is the ability to connect with others in ways that are not possible through everyday language. The relationships I’ve formed through poetry are full of an energy I don’t understand, and it brings me a joy that’s pure and unbounded. This deep connection with people has greatly improved my life.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you think all of us ultimately feel like outsiders in one way or another? Visitors to a foreign land?
Zubair Ahmed: I believe feeling like an outsider is very easy these days. The ability to travel, even on a whim, to anywhere on our planet, combined with the new cyber existence that’s now integral to our lives means that it is simple to leave home, in more ways than one, and experience the outsider’s perspective. I think being an outsider is very fun; it allows us to look inside new places and discover what makes each of us tick.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do surrealism and mysticism play a larger role in Bangladeshi life and culture than here in the West?
Zubair Ahmed: I find the U.S. to be more grounded in harder realities than Bangladesh. The overwhelming culture here is dominated by science, technology and the church. The wildly heterogeneous population of America means there are undoubtedly micro-cultures here that have beliefs I have no clue about.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Can you tell me about your poem, “Self-portrait with Glass Bottle and Kite,” and specifically the ending line, “The blood-stained window that gave birth to my country”?
Zubair Ahmed: This poem captures the juxtaposition of simple daily life with casual violence, a co-existence I grew up with in Bangladesh. The poem explores the magic of a childhood among the tropical clouds and the culture of flying kites. During a portion of my childhood, a series of cinema hall bombings hit Dhaka, and these show up in the poem as everyday conversation over food.
While writing these poems, I found myself subconsciously writing about the war. The last line shows that a part of my identity is rooted in the Liberation War of 1971. However, after writing the poems in City of Rivers, I find my identity wandering away from my homeland.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What do you miss most about living in Dhaka?
Zubair Ahmed: I grew up in a joint-family atmosphere. All around me cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents would spend time together and grow from each other’s company and wisdom.
I pick up an earthworm
And you shoot it with a rifle.
Mom screams at us,
But we don’t listen.
She fed us expired milk this morning.
Sometimes in these Bengali summers,
When dust sticks to our skins
And the crows shit on our heads,
We bond like hydrocarbons,
Set mosquitoes on fire,
And eat berries whose names we can’t remember.
We ride our bikes like metal antelopes,
Like drunken sparrows.
We play cricket under the monsoon clouds
And you bowl a perfect leg-spinner.
It starts to rain
So I shoot down a cloud.
We take it back to Mom
Who kisses our ears and pokes our eyes—
She does that.
We get ready for bed
With our usual battles,
And you fall asleep
Not knowing I slid the alarm clock
Under your pillow
Set for 3:17 a.m.
Zubair Ahmed: We ate together, cooked together, and watched TV together. We rarely missed eating meals with each other, and the food in Dhaka is the best food I’ve had anywhere – both at home and at restaurants. From endless kinds of tropical fruit – star fruit, jackfruit, mangoes (oh the many kinds of mangoes!), bananas, and many others – to dozens of native spices and grains, Dhaka has everything necessary for a food culture. All these items combined with local river fishes and grass-fed livestock means the food in Dhaka is fresh, flavorful, and creative. I miss the food back home. The first sixteen and a half years of my life, I spent with family and food. I loved it! I don’t have anything like this in America, but I recently started living in a co-op near Palo Alto called the Dead Houses (after the Grateful Dead band), and it is the closest I’ve found to such family environment! But the magic of my family and our food in Dhaka is certainly lost.
I’m stronger than the memory of sand
Hidden in my hands.
It will be years
Before I return home.
Are hollow as the center
Of a horseshoe—
Let me sit in them
And light a small fire.