The poetics of home with Zubair Ahmed

Zubair Ahmed, at age three on his family's farm on the outskirts of Bangladesh. (Photo courtesy Zubair Ahmed)

I begin to sleep.
My body is music.
I will never have a home.

– from ‘Concession’. City of Rivers. McSweeny’s (2012).

Technically, Zubair Ahmed does have a home — in a shiny apartment complex in Belltown. There, the 25-year-old turns few heads as he goes to and from his job at Boeing, where he oversees automated parts on the production line, fresh from an engineering degree at Stanford.

There are many things about Ahmed that you wouldn’t catch on first glance. Last week, he sat down with me as I began to unpeel the layers of the soft-spoken engineer-slash-poet who loves death metal and Rihanna, used to be a test driver for BMW, and is enchanted by rain.

Welcome to Seattle, Zubair Ahmed.

(Photo courtesy Zubair Ahmed)
(Photo courtesy Zubair Ahmed)

Ahmed’s immigrant story bears the familiar tune of a family striving for opportunity, while longing for home. In 2004, his family won the Diversity Visa Lottery (yep, that’s what it’s called), to come to America, part of a randomized system offering green cards to citizens of countries with otherwise low rates of immigration to the U.S.

Their family came from Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, to the small Christian town of Duncanville, Texas, where Ahmed finished high school. They had entered the lottery to escape the political instability and poverty in Bangladesh, not to mention the crowds.

“When you walk down the street [in Dhaka], you breathe the breath of the person standing next to you,” Ahmed tells me, as he extends his hand towards the window of a café in what I’d always considered a pretty densely populated corner of Seattle.

“This, what is this?“ he asks aloud. “It’s so much space.”

After attending school in California and studying abroad in Germany, he arrived in Seattle nine months ago for work, the longest he has slept in one place since he was 18. He doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon.

As an engineering major at Stanford, Ahmed had no intention of becoming a poet. Still, he decided to scratch an itch leftover from childhood, where he fell in love with English after reading about a pound of flesh in The Merchant of Venice in a third grade class in Bangladesh. After taking an introductory class and being told by a Stegner Fellow in the prestigious Stanford creative writing program that he wrote ‘like shit’, he figured it was the end of his short-lived career as an artist.

But a different teacher encouraged him to take another class, where he fell under the mentorship of poet and teacher Michael McGriff, and began to ‘write like a madman’.

“Engineering is great, necessary, for life because it gives us hot water to shower with, but poetry is something a little bit deeper than that,” says Ahmed. “It’s hard to catch”.

His book, ‘City of Rivers’, part of the McSweeny’s Poetry Series, contains striking images and stories of the places and people that make up the patchwork of Ahmed’s home. He writes with a masterful grasp of the English language, an arsenal of gripping imagery, and a profound understanding of loss, aging, and displacement that seem beyond his age.

The poems, which read like short bursts of a wild story, move sporadically between Dhaka, Texas, California, and Seattle, capturing up-rootedness.

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This December,
I could have returned home.
Instead, I chose to stand by the Pacific.
I’m driving a car in the forest at night
And the trees are dressed
In my grandmothers shawls.

-from ‘Inventory’. City of Rivers. McSweeney’s (2012).

Since landing in Seattle, Ahmed tells me that life is still chaos — only of a different kind. He writes about different things now; more about Seattle, nature, lost love, a friend who died last year while getting his wisdom teeth out. He’s trying his hand at a novel.

He explains the writing and editing of ‘City of Rivers’ as a form of catharsis.

“I don’t have any longing for Bangladesh anymore. I miss it as a country, I miss the people in it, but it’s not poetic loss, or deep sadness,” he explains. “It completely reconciled my past.”

Ahmed’s poetry feels like a vessel to explore the boundaries of science and art. Titles like ‘Reaching Half-Life in my Backyard” and “I Am Inside the Mind of a Scientist’ poke at his math and science background, where he says he was pegged by family and teachers from a young age.

His skill set fits the mold of many immigrants in Seattle, where H1-B visas are doled out to skilled, mostly male immigrants from places like India, Pakistan, and China, for jobs in engineering, computer technology, and other left-brain dominated fields.

Ahmed reading unpublished works at the APRIL Festival in Seattle. (Photo courtesy Frances Dinger)
Ahmed reading unpublished works at the APRIL Festival in Seattle. (Photo courtesy Frances Dinger)

Where do you think such beliefs go
After they’re abandoned?
The line I drew
Has become a horse
In some other world.
A gray horse
The exact shade of my grandfather’s hair.

– ‘I Once Believed I Was a Man of Science’. City of Rivers. McSweeny’s (2012).

I asked Ahmed if he still considers himself a man of science, now that he’s a published poet. He says he doesn’t think of it that way.

“When you say science, you put a boundary around things,” he says. “Recently I started seeing the world as just one whole. A system that just is. And that’s what informs me now, the most.”

He says that he’s studying Buddhism, and writes hundreds of poems on numbered notes on his cell phone.

Ahmed lights up when I ask the tired question, “so does the rain get to you?” He asserts he is among the 1% of the population whose mood actually improves with rain. I wonder privately if that’s a real, scientifically proven statistic, but let the thought pass.

For now, Ahmed says he’s happy to make Seattle his home — he is grateful for the opportunities for work, loves the “extraordinary” and “un-ruined” nature, and will soon be joined by his family, moving up from Texas. Though culturally he’ll always be “pretty Bengali”, He’s no longer the Bangladeshi lost in America who wrote ‘City of Rivers’’.

“I know the American way,” says Ahmed, “I have my own unique place in it.”

Ahmed Zubair will be reading unpublished works on June 7 in Portland. Stay tuned for local readings this summer, as well as his second book of poetry, ‘Pink Stone Axe’ [working title].   

All poems copyright © 2012 Zubair Ahmed

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