Arts book review

“Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air”: On growing up Muslim in America

Six MIT students share their thoughts on belonging, identity, love, and MIT itself

Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air
Afeefah Khazi-Syed ’21, Aleena Shabbir ’20, Ayse Angela Guvenilir ’20, Maisha Munawwara Prome ’21, Mariam Eman Dogar ’20, Marwa Abdulhai ’20
Beltway Editions
June 15

At the beginning of 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic upended our lives, six MIT students began sharing their poetry with each other. They had written about love and loss, about immigration and culture clashes and MIT itself. When MIT shut down in March of 2020, they continued this tradition over Zoom, taking comfort in sharing pieces of themselves with each other via the medium of verse.

And thank goodness they did, because in April of this year, they were able to publish Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air, an anthology of original poetry that serves as a beautifully poignant exploration of what it means to grow up Muslim in America. Authors Afeefah Khazi-Syed ’21, Aleena Shabbir ’20, Ayse Angela Guvenilir ’20, Maisha Munawwara Prome ’21, Mariam Eman Dogar ’20, and Marwa Abdulhai ’20 masterfully capture the feeling of balancing between two cultures, and they do so with humor, compassion, and warmth.

While some of the subject matter may be heavy, the anthology itself is brimming with wit and humor. A perfect example of this is Dogar’s poem “Side effects of summer may include,” which brilliantly encapsulates the atmosphere of summertime. The line “Cherry-stained lips on vanilla cream cones” is especially evocative. Overall, the poem is one of my favorites in the entire anthology simply because of the vivid imagery in every line of verse. Guvenilir’s “Dear My Favorite Memories” features another example of the juxtaposition between heavy and light in this anthology. She recounts notable memories her friends have of her — some funny, some moving — and blends descriptions of the lighthearted moments of life with the nostalgia inherent in watching yourself grow up.

Some of the more emotionally difficult poems in the anthology center around the topics of immigration and belonging. Abdulhai’s “a citizenship,” for example, contains the line “you speak in the language of your colonizers from 1858,” which is a beautifully succinct way of describing the conflict between the various parts of one’s identity. Indeed, that is what the poem itself is about: the difficulty of reconciling traditions and customs from our heritage with those of the country in which we hold citizenship. In a similar vein, Khazi-Syed discusses the difficulties of being both Indian and Muslim in “A Statement for the Confused.” She explains how the 1947 partition, which created the separate nations of India and Pakistan based on Hindu and Muslim religious majorities respectively, had the consequence of denying her a space in which she could freely express both of these aspects of her identity.

Another poem that explores these themes is Prome’s “Welcome Home,” in which she recounts the tangle of emotions she feels when a TSA agent in Boston welcomes her home after landing. She explains, “I have only known a world where I am not welcome.” The poem focuses on the elements of foreignness and alienation holding her back from being fully accepted whether she is in Bangladesh or in America. But the two simple words of “welcome home” promise to be the first step in her feeling that acceptance.

The anthology also does a wonderful job addressing more emotional topics — namely, love. It opens with a section on mothers, specifically immigrant motherhood, and nothing sums it up like Prome’s “Why I Don’t Celebrate Father’s Day.” In the poem, Prome explains how when presented with a card for Father’s Day, her father simply asked her to give the card to her mother. The poem is short — only six lines — but it serves as a profound acknowledgement of the sacrifices women in immigrant families make in raising those families. Khazi-Syed’s poem “Parachute” tackles this concept from another angle; she notes the wrinkles on her mother’s fingers as her mother massages coconut oil into her hair for her, and when her mother asks her when she will start taking care of herself, she finds herself wanting to ask the same question back.

Shabbir’s “‘Aleena’ isn’t what I go by” is another thoughtful piece on what it means to be loved — this time through the different names she goes by. She notes that she very rarely hears her legal first name and catalogs the various affectionate nicknames she has, each of which originates from a different memory. Shabbir does a fantastic job of subtly tying the significance of these nicknames to the deep-rooted love that she is a recipient of.

Ultimately, Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air is a fantastic exploration of identity and belonging. The authors manage to tackle difficult, often sensitive, subjects with uncommon wisdom and insight, making the anthology a pleasure to read.