In September of 2019, a group of MIT undergraduate women hanging out in a McCormick dorm room discovered that they all loved writing poetry but rarely found the time. They decided to pick a prompt and, a week or two later, meet to share a new or previously written poem that fit the theme—and choose their next prompt.
Later that fall, the friends attended a talk by a Harvard film professor who said that he focused on telling one person’s story to keep his writing authentic. And that cemented their commitment to viewing each poem as an opportunity to tell one story that was true to themselves and their experiences—as immigrants or children of immigrants, as Muslim Americans, as women in STEM, as MIT students, as unique individuals. They called it the “One week, one poem, one story to tell” challenge.
Despite their heavy course loads and hectic schedules, the women met five or six times on campus, sharing smiles and tears along with their poetry. “Everything was just very contagious,” recalls Afeefah Khazi-Syed ’21, a Texas native who majored in biological engineering. “Everybody felt everything.”
Then the pandemic hit, and the poets scattered across time zones from California to Bangladesh. Craving social connection, they’d gather every Friday on Zoom, catching glimpses of each other’s pets and families as they shared their lives through poetry. “Everyone had moments where they were going through something,” says Khazi-Syed. Online, they processed them together.
Though an outsider might label all of them the same way, the women were struck by the diversity of their experiences. To showcase that, six of them collaborated on a poetry collection, Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air, published by Beltway Editions.
“For me, working on this project and being part of the group was realizing that my experiences mattered and that they were worthy of the spotlight,” says Khazi-Syed. “This was the first time I felt like I could be my own main character.” —Alice Dragoon
Prayers You Whispered
Maisha M. Prome
You wore those saris until they softened like butter
Steamed in tarkari spices, simmered in summer
Dusted by loose earth when the courtyard was swept
Hand-scrubbed and line-dried before
the monsoon clouds wept
And when winter came, you sewed them together
Stitch by stitch with your still agile fingers
Those yards of well-worn cotton with their faded motifs
Into this blanket I hold tight around me as I sleep,
Wrapped in your love and the prayers you whispered,
Thousands of miles away.
*Tarkari is another word for curry, usually one containing vegetables. It is a common part of South Asian cuisine.
you and i, we are not that different
the color of our skin traverses across
the same paint palette at Home Depot
october sky to dark camel
and every shade that falls in between
you wake up to the warmth of sunshine
i wake up to the warmth of sunshine
but yours fights through the Kunlun Mountains
and mine through the Boston Skyline
we both know the smell
of the air just before it’s about to snow
but you know other smells too
of sweaty crowds
chanting in the streets
of mortal shells
dissolving into thin air
losing its meaning beyond this nationless land
in the moments before i go to sleep at night
the breeze of my ceiling fan reminds me of my
and the coolness of her morning terrace
somewhere in the middle of the night
it hits me that i have such fond memories
of a place that takes away yours
it leaves me with nightmares of
patterns of electric fences striped borders
so held up on the You and I that they forget
azadi is what keeps Us alive
i am suspended in the paradox of my homeland
the sun sends to you its warmth
from 92.96 million miles away
we have forgotten how to do the same
from a stone’s throw away
* In Fall 2019, just weeks after the Kashmiri lockdown went into effect, Afeefah attended a talk by Kashmiri filmmaker Musa Syeed. This poem was written shortly after as an ode to the people of Kashmir. The narrative, identity, and rich culture of the Kashmiri people are often shadowed by the ongoing conflict between India, Pakistan, and China. Syeed’s film Valley of Saints is a beautiful reclamation of the Kashmiri story.
does it not sound strange
coming from my mouth?
people say that i am arab
but the streets of rain
aroma of freshly made idli
glow of the sea
flow through my soul
there are many languages spoken amongst neighbors
tamil, kannada, telugu, urdu
5 times of salah are heard
we are made of many colours
but how would you know?
when people would like to make this land
just for the hindus
Allah created us of different nations and tribes
so that we may know one another
can someone tell me
where the peace of our nation has gone?
*This poem was originally written in Urdu (see below) and translated into English. It references the following verse as translated by Yusuf Ali: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other…” in the Qur’an (49:13).
Lately I’ve been starting to feel my soul instead of my body
Like that day on the beach with the rocks and the sunset
Footsteps so faint I could almost levitate
With the horizon speaking into my ear: “Be content”
Or when I sat at the dinner table in the center of the forest
A citrus spread and the smell of durian between us
When he leaned forward and whispered
That he could feel his ancestors in the air
Or when I pass a tiger lily and feel a touch on my arm
Tracing the outline of the last day she could stand upright
When we walked in the garden and I painted her toes
A bright orange that decorated her feet on her deathbed
Or when my knees knock against a stranger’s
And I remember us in the back of a sedan with a broken AC
Sharing secrets for hours in the delirious glow of the desert
Giving me inconvertible proof that you did exist
See I’ve come to the conclusion that I am not quite literal
I am memories transcribed without my knowledge
Like the passive rise and fall of my chest
Or the tears that slip from my eyes when I laugh
In this brilliant orchestra I collect these moments
Undeniably alive and imperfect and sentient
I am congruent with the hearts I’ve met before
And those He bids me to meet again
Maisha M. Prome
August. 36 hours of flying, and I’ve finally landed in Boston.
The TSA agent finishes checking my bags and hands them
back. Just as I am about to step into the final stretch of
hallway between me and freedom, his voice stops me.
I turn. “Yes?”
I have never heard that before.
Not even when I land in my jonmobhumi,
the place I was born
Where the immigration officers glance at my passport
and wave me through the gate
Where the dusty Dhaka air whispers hello
and the humidity wraps me in a hug
The smiles on my parents’ faces when they pull up in the car
The sweetness of the mango milk my mother hands
me to last the drive home
My siblings’ bubbling voices when I step through the door
All these things whisper, affirm, assure
The words I’ve never needed to hear aloud.
Words I’ve never heard once in my life
For the countless times I’ve stepped out of planes into
Boston Logan or JFK
Where the dry air of the air conditioning hums to
the beat of my heart
As the blue-uniformed officer frowns at my passport
Trying to match it to my hijab-framed face
In his eyes I see the cold steel silent distrust
While I try to hide the agony in mine
“You’ve been selected for a random security check.”
“Walk through the scanner again.”
Ice in their voices. Alarms, handcuffs, gunshots just a button press away.
“Did you pack these bags yourself?”
They comb through my things. The clock is silent, but I hear the second hand tick away.
They never find anything of issue, yet the guilt is always mine to carry, zipped away into the spaces between my carefully folded clothes.
Breath held, I rush through the last checkpoints
And exhale only when I’m out the door en route
to the safety of my college dorm
I am stopped by two words.
For a minute I am lost
Stilled by the crash of a wave that breaks into small ripples
Stuttering I thank him, in my head I am dazed
And a few minutes later, as the car races over the highway,
I am surprised to find a tear run down my face.
This should not mean anything.
Home is home whether you’re welcomed or not,
As the States has always been for me
It shouldn’t make a difference, and yet it does.
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent years always on guard
Holding on my tongue the comebacks to the
“Go back to your country” they will shout at me
Like they’ve shouted at my parents
And how I’ve spent years on long haul flights, lying awake all
15 hours thinking
About everything that could/might/will go wrong
When Uyghurs disappear and Guantanamo Bay pricks the
back of my eyelids between wisps of clouds Rohingyas fleeing
houses burned to the ground and smoke is still awash over
It is never the turbulence that agitates my stomach
I have only known a world where I am not welcome
So when I hear this
From a blue-eyed blonde-haired TSA officer
I find myself at a loss
Acknowledgement can hit like a ton of bricks
Two thoughtful words can sink in
And replay themselves
Every time I see the Boston skyline reflected in the Charles
River on the car ride back from the airport.
* Jonmobhumi (Bengali) means country of birth
Dear My Favorite Memories
Jumping onto the car roof because you are not walking home in the cold from this restaurant where i only had goldfish and for some reason it’s a problem that i (supposedly) never finish my food in fact it’s funny too you say i care about your day and i do and i’m touched that it touches you see me from across the room and you scoot your way over and i haven’t a clue about this lab report but we put our sweaters on backwards so at least we’re warming up this room with book clubs and 320 struggles that you got me through the night when i just wanted this presentation prep to end I’M SINGING down the hallways where you find me, always.
The warmth you feel radiating from me really comes from all of you don’t you see formulation and catalyzation that night across the Charles you talked about building while flying i didn’t know you appreciated the first time we met i thought you thought i was annoying essays written while making arepas you kept me company.
Reminiscing memories do mean so much to me i don’t know how to process so you put on headphones over your earbuds as you backed out the room i’m laughing at the singular mango party of four isn’t it obvious that i too am Muslim like you see me as a mentor i’m just lucky getting to
all of you.
* 320 is short for 20.320 Analysis of Biomolecular and Cellular Systems, a course required to complete the biological engineering undergraduate degree at MIT. The poem is a tribute to each person who recounted a memory to Ayse during a surprise Zoom call on her birthday.
i started sixth grade hijabi
framed with a white chiffon
inspiring all kinds of creative ask aways
no, i do not take a shower in this
no, the bun in the back is not an alien antenna
yes, i do have hair,
in fact a whole head of thick, dark hair
Sirens blare in the near distance as the air fills with smoke.
i answered all kinds of questions
in sixth grade
where did i find this
unwavering belief and confidence in my deen?
where did i find the stamina
to be okay with singularly defending an entire faith
in sixth grade?
and why did it all come much more easily
back in sixth grade?
Children’s playground burns to the ground at the local masjid.
i notice the incriminating looks
taken left to right up and down
find myself fatigued from the elongated
routine of flying home
feel the stickiness of my looks
when i encompass a new space
you areOff beat
A prosecution of post-9/11 attack against Muslim Americans begins.
there are days when it feels like my imaan
is hanging on by a single thread
and there are days when the connection to God
is felt so deeply into my bones
that tears fall down
to the ground
A year passes before the man is sentenced for a hate crime.
i have even more work to do than
a work in progress
and so again and again
i find myself folding my palms
in the exact same way my
grandmother taught me to
praying for the belief and confidence and strength
in sixth grade
* In 2011, the playground of Afeefah’s local masjid—a place she and her family often visited—was burned to the ground in an act of arson. This is the first hate crime Afeefah consciously remembers experiencing. While her decision to wear hijab had nothing to do with this incident, Afeefah often looks back at the parallel narratives of her middle school years—a time in which she turned to hijab as an embracement of everything that she was. However, this was also a time in which Afeefah began to realize that not everyone in her community was accepting of who she was.
how much is enough
for me to believe?
just with my eyes that can see
the clouds moving in tandem with the trees
or tiny creatures surviving the coldest of seasons.
it’s in the stars forming and colliding and collapsing
Insan* created with language and will and feeling
a perfect design for life with probability of one in
you say everything serves a purpose
even the grains of sand placed along the sea
do they too feel Your presence?
stronger and closer to You than me?
i wonder at those previous
with patient fears and faith so resolute
could they tell me the secrets to the righteous path
we all seek?
* Insan (Arabic) translates to mankind
Maisha M. Prome
Rain drums, thrums on the rooftop
To a beat that overtakes the one that keeps me alive
And then slowly sings me to sleep at my desk
Tomorrow maybe, I’ll finally get up from this desk
Still can’t go outside but we can go to the rooftop
To look at the sky and remember that it’s good to be alive
All those years when the city was alive
And yet we sat still and studied, glued to the desk
Only the rain knows reason as it rinses the rooftop
* The last words of each line in the first stanza (“rooftop,” “alive,” and “desk”) are taken and repeated in a different order in the remaining two stanzas. This is an example of a Tritina poem, a shorter version of the Sestina which contains six stanzas.
“Aleena” isn’t what I go by
when you ask about my day and wish me goodnight
when you kindly request my help or want to talk
when you laugh at all my antics and jokes
when I do something that slips your eye
when we encourage and uplift each other
when you’re comforting me through pain
when you announce breakfast
when I sass you
And endless more
When I pause
I haven’t heard that very often
* All these words are in Urdu. Jaanu means sweetheart. Pyaari means pretty or cutie. Chalaak means smart in a clever, slightly cunning way. Meri zindagi means my life. Mera dil means my heart. Pagal means silly, nonsensical. Behta is an affectionate term for a child. Larki means girl.
Maisha M. Prome
I was taught this language by my father who
tended these fields as did his parents before him, taught
that this backbreaking labor day after day
is what feeds a newly born country through war and
genocide (that Pakistan wrought). Perfect long white grains
fall into a bowl, glistening multitudes like the
multiplication tables my mother made me memorize at six
Just like my parents did as did their parents before them.
Because with the grain that gave my ancestors sustenance
through the famine (that the British caused), came
the need for careful calculations of impartial portions
and so embedded within the genes they passed down to me
is a binding obligation that I never fail a math test.
Rice, painstakingly multiplied and cautiously divided,
is what has kept us alive.
* The poem references the Bangladesh Liberation War and the atrocities of the 1971 Bangladesh genocide committed by the Pakistani military. Many elders in Maisha’s family fought in the war and her parents grew up in a nation rebuilding itself after independence. Decades earlier, the Bengal Famine of 1943 had killed more than 2 million people in the Bengal region (comprising present day Bangladesh and the Indian province of West Bengal). The famine arose not out of drought, but due to wartime policies imposed by the British colonial rule upon the region. (Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
How Are You Doing?
i am finding it difficult to sleep at night
between hours of trying to
capture my existence into words
in hopes that someone else will see me
and the tears that i have tried crying but have yet to
over a life that no longer exists in my life
and the dread of not knowing when this
waiting period of mundanity will end
and the feeling of always needing to be
all i want is
to be able to walk into a
cafe with my knapsack backpack in hand
surrounded by friends i can stand
feel my feet on land
i am lost
afraid of loose waterfalls
oceans that don’t reach the shoreline
flowing rivers that never meet
i am not sure
how i am
“Great! And you?”
In the drawer by my bed
I keep the scent you wore to Eid prayer
An unmarked bottle
Not intended for refills
Screwed so tightly
I will never use it up
But twice a year, I let myself drink it in
The scent of money and coins and
sweat on henna-stained hands
The rush of half-second kisses and last-minute zakaat
The crackling of knees mixed with loudspeaker takbeers
And of course, the sight of your smile
Like the sugar syrup we poured
On microwaved gulab jamun
But was it heavy or light?
Crystal clear or blurred?
I don’t think I can tell
I can’t bring myself
To eat them that way
All I want
To always be
I don’t use the perfume you wore to Eid prayer
It’s an unmarked world I can’t refill
I bottle these memories to keep them potent
So that twice a year, we say Eid Mubarak
In the drawer by my bed
* Central to this poem are the feelings, imagery, and nostalgia surrounding Eid-al-Fitr – a celebration of the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. It is one of the two large holidays in Islam. On Eid, Muslims traditionally dress in fancy or new clothes, congregate in masjids for prayer, wish each other “Eid Mubarak,” give zakaat (charity), and eat food and desserts together. The Oud referenced in the poem is a fragrance that is warm, sweet, and woody and is used widely in the Arab world and elsewhere. Oud is usually very expensive, and is sold in small vials. Mariam’s mother would save it for special events, such as Eid.
you waited to pick me up before the bell
bringing leftover snacks from your preschool party
we sat in the parking lot
i ate the last doughnut while
you listened to my day in a language
you did not completely understand
you earned your first paycheck at forty
the hope of a new journey in your eyes
asking me to print pages upon pages of colouring books
for the kids who adored you as much as we
you always know where to find
the hijab tangled in piles of laundry
keys hidden in clutters of pockets
you told me to say
inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un
when asking Allah to return that which belonged to Him
you remembered the day of every exam
a bottle of zamzam in your hand
i always wondered how it lasted
till the end of senior year
the alarms always begin at three in the morning
your heart in prayer for the dreams of others
your motivations have never been for this earth
you are a tranquillity
i feel the ےتشرف around you, ammi
* ےتشرف (Urdu) translates to angels.
inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un: transliteration of verse 2:156 of the Qur’an, translating to “to Allah we belong and to Him we shall return”. This is said when you misplace something and would like to find it (as in the poem), as well as more frequently, when someone passes away.
The Ending Does Not Exist
when i was seven years old
my mother would take me to the nearby library
where i would pick out seven new books
for the seven days
ahead of me
i have emptied and filled bookshelves
young adult novels, physics textbooks, haitian ethnographies, and everything in between
i never came across the perfect final chapter
left to search for solace
in midnight dreams
i cry when i leave a place
and i’m not very good at goodbyes
because when the essence of being
meets its fate
the sun rarely rises with a cry
will this be my last time
i have lost too many
to imperfect farewells and many a nights
it makes my head feel some kind of fuzzy
i try to remind myself
we were not built for endings
we were built to pull each other up
and pave our paths
to reunions of the afterlife
when i think sunshine
flying barefoot, barely being able to catch a breath from all this chasing, laughing, the nights seeming to last forever until they ended and it was a new day and we were fasting. sun blazing, we went outside anyways, playing until we could eat and it would be never-ending night once again. maybe this time, there were no man hunts, but always some sort of game, certainly a feeling of having to pee constant until it was over and back home, my feet were washed of the grass stains left behind and to cool the blazing of the sun. a new day so heavy, it felt like we were the ocean, swimming we were instead of running and i never did get to jump into the pool with my shoes on. it was once, but the rain was burned into the memory of my three-layered skin. every day, something new or old—riding bikes, dodging balls, shooting hoops, exploring forests. running like time did not exist. summer was on fire, even if it was raining, and we were invincible until we were no longer nor was it summer—
and Real Life starts up
dreams of never-ending night
when i think sunshine.
* This poem was written in the haibun form, a combination of a prose poem and a haiku.
Live Thoughts As I’m Skydiving
I love the adrenaline
The thrill of adventure coursing inside
Scared out of my mind
I’m all over the place
Impulsive decisions are my strongest vice
Up until I’m actually out of my comfort zone
Arms flailing, deeply sinking
The wind whipping in my face
The lakes beneath me
Blue so beautifully different from the sky’s
I never imagined I’d find it so ugly from here
“I hate this” while “I’m having the time of my life”
“Talk about a panorama” but “Did I just swallow a fly?!?”
Time seems more meaningful up here
I feel like I’m looking at a board game
Everything a tenth of its size
We get closer, the distance between us smaller,
but my fear, more real
What looked so tiny, now giant, daunting
I push my legs out, ready to come back and it’s
The “ass landing” that grounds me again
And I’m thankful to the sky
I see things differently now
A Thousand Places
Maisha M. Prome
Yellow earth between my toes,
chasing chickens through the yard.
The slip on mosaic tile before
the crash and the permanent scar.
A strip of airplane carpet
miles above the gleaming sea.
Gritty greyness of the schoolyard
scraping raw against my knee.
Polished floor of marbled tile
like ice in the winter chill.
Dorm room carpet brown and warm
with a history undistilled.
Treading through pearlescent snow
and through monsoon-flooded streets,
I’ve walked a thousand places
and found home beneath my feet.
Each time the plane descends
I can feel the air lift my mother’s face
And widen my father’s smile
Peace shining in their eyes
Free rides in Joyland instead of Playland
Fried Chicks, not KFC
Filling both heart and stomach
With calories that last a lifetime
The airport, crowded
The crowd, lively
The yelling of different travelers
All coming home
My mamu always there to pick us up
Holding cold, fresh Shezans
A sweetness that can only be tasted
Back in Pakistan
* Shezan is one of the best distributors in Pakistan for mango juice. Not completely biased in Aleena’s opinion or anything. Absolutely not at all.
every time i settle at your feet
with a bowl of coconut oil in hand
swirled and warmed
for exactly fifteen seconds
in the microwave
i feel generations
the hands of each and every one of them
must have also moved like yours
working through knots of
carelessness and exhaustion
the wrinkles on your fingers
must have been passed down
through hidden battles
i will never know of
and this massage routine
must have grown in perfection
through centuries of
Ammis and Nanis and Dadis
when you neatly fold my hair
into your signature braid
something tells me
these words have been said before
“when will you start taking care of yourself?”
i answer by asking you the same.
* This poem is named after Parachute hair oil—a staple to the many tel massages Afeefah grew up with.
These poems from Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air, published in 2022 by Beltway Editions, are reproduced here with permission from the publisher and the authors. The poets—who are now all graduate students at universities across the US—still try to meet monthly online to share their stories.
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