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Dilruba Ahmed’s debut collection of poems Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, winner of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, selected by Arthur Sze) arrived to my book reviewer’s desk a few weeks ago. It is set to be released in June, but I wanted to make a special mention of it on Harriet during National Poetry Month. As I leafed through the book, I came upon one of the most startling poems I’ve read in a while: “Thinking of His Jaywalking Ticket While Boarding a Plane at SFO”
Years ago, he refused to pay it. He said
city officials painted a crosswalk
straight from police department
to donut shop. His refusal
won’t land him in Gitmo.
He’s not in the slammer.
And this is not the Texan town where
your sister’s called another dirty Mexican
waiting in the ER all night with cold
coffee and a feverish child. Not spray-of-glass-
Ohio where you once
fed stale bread to ducks.
He’s seated at your side,
elbow to elbow, prepared
to grow slack-jawed over books.
Years ago, he’d found no
safe way to walk from that bus stop,
no path for the workers
waiting to dash through traffic gaps,
no end to his disbelief when the officer
issued a ticket for crossing four lanes.
Years ago, and still
you feel fear’s pin-prick
when you hear the words
alien, raid. Detained. Deported.
The plane seats fill and fill
while, in your mind, his seat
empties and empties–as your mouth empties
and your lungs empty each time you hear
we need to ask a few questions.
No one has approached
your aisle, for now. You’re safe
to begin your own
Which swallowed Arabic vowel
will trap him this time?
Which sandpaper Anwar?
Which fish-bone Khalid?
You’d like to tease and say,
Mothers, do not name
your sons Mohammed. But
you do not joke anymore.
You don’t joke about anything.
Ahmed’s poem is culturally and politically post-911, situated in the era where people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent have become targets of an American social anxiety. But instead of decrying such injustices as racial profiling, ethnic slurs and discrimination, she explores the trauma from the point of view of those who internalize terrorist fears and xenophobic attitudes.
There’s so much richness to discuss: how the vocabulary (“dirty,” “alien,” “raid”) that has been applied to the treatment of immigrants from Mexico is now being applied to a different cultural group, but to the same results–entire communities become demonized; how Gitmo has embedded itself into our national social consciousness; how the airport, once a space of American privilege and freedom has become a place to witness those same privileges and freedoms become compromised; and then there’s the complexity of naming–names, like skins tones, like language, are inextricably bound to cultures, nationalities, homelands, and to the prejudices they elicit.
Not all of Ahmed’s poems are this intense, but she does move back and forth between Bangladesh and the Midwest (Ohio) repeatedly, to create a dialogue between countries, generations, and imaginations. A few other favorites: “Translating Tagore” (I have written about the Bengali poet on Harriet once before), the touching poems about motherhood, and “Ghazal” with its mind-blowing couple:
Me encanta cantar, cuando estoy sola, en el carro.
My mother tongue dissolves. I speak in another.
Harriet readers, put Dhaka Dust on your must-have list this season.