The many aspects of Dilruba Ahmed
By Labonno Islam
Dilruba Ahmed has multiple identities.
Every Monday and Wednesday of this past fall semester at Bryn Mawr College, she briskly walked into her Writing Poetry I class, her hands full of papers, ready to help her students write poems and become better creative writers.
But, Ahmed isn’t just a teacher or an educator. She is a complex, multi-faceted individual, and no single word can define her: Professor. Woman. Mother. Wife. Sister. Daughter. Muslim. Bangladeshi-American. Published poet.
She embodies all of these things and much more.
Ahmed was born in the early 1970s in Philadelphia but spent most of her childhood in a rural town in Ohio. Soon after she started high school, she moved to an area in western Pennsylvania about an hour north of Pittsburgh. She attended the University of Pittsburgh after she graduated from high school with a major in creative writing. After finishing her undergraduate career, she got her Master of Arts in teaching at Pittsburgh as well.
She spent the rest of her young adulthood in California, primarily working in education. Later, she worked as a project manager at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an organization that helps teachers to reflect on their actions as educators.
Later, when she finally had the time to focus on her creativity again, she received her Master of Fine Arts in writing at Warren Wilson College.
Now, almost nine years later, she’s in the outskirts of the city she was born in, living in
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.
Ahmed is petite and has big brown eyes. Her dark hair, sometimes down in a bob, is now in a short ponytail. She delicately gestures with her hands when she speaks, the sleeves of her gray blazer slightly falling and revealing her thin wrists. She has a sweet smile that spreads to her cheeks and a laugh that reads across her heart-shaped face. Her voice is not too low or too high, but rises and falls, depending on the subject of conversation.
Ahmed may be a published poet and professor now, but when she first started college, she planned to add another aspect to her identity: medicine.
“As an undergrad, I was planning to major in both creative writing and be pre-med, of my own volition though,” Ahmed says, laughing slightly. “Everyone always assumed it was because my parents were South Asian and that they expected me to be like this, this or this.”
She often responded to these assumptions by stating how she wasn’t being pressured to become a doctor, but that she wanted “to do something that gave back” to society.
She describes how she pursued that track for three years, and was “probably just a few credits away from actually completing…the degree.”
“But in the end…I realized it wasn’t actually the path I wanted to take,” Ahmed says. “The people that I later interacted with loved science; they breathed it, they lived it and a lightbulb went off in my head and I remember realizing ‘Oh, that’s how I feel about writing.’”
Although she realized her passion for writing late into her college career, Ahmed was not a stranger to it.
Lots of letters
“I wrote a lot,” she says. “I grew up writing a lot of letters because my family moved often, and so I had this whole gaggle of pen pals.”
Ahmed used to write “elaborate letters” and she would receive “equally elaborate letters” in return. She also kept a journal when she was younger.
She states that “the act of kind of reflecting on daily life and problems, successes…whatever it was…everything from the mundane to the sort of existential dilemmas of being an adolescent” impacted her interest in writing.
“But the other part that I should mention is, because I moved so often, and because my family was such an anomaly in southeastern Ohio, I always had the sense of being an outsider,” Ahmed says. “People were like what are you? or you must be this or you must be like this because I can tell you who you are based on what you look like and so, I think I was drawn to literature because it was this imaginative space…that gave me a way of creating and expressing who I thought I was.”
An important theme in Ahmed’s most well-known collection of poems, Dhaka Dust, revolves around this theme of being a Bangladeshi woman in a white, Christian-dominated society.
Her interest in poetry, although it is primarily in English, is deeply embedded in her Bangladeshi and Islamic background. She explains how the musical quality of poetry attracted her because of its similarity to the Arabic prayers she would hear growing up.
“I grew up in a household that was speaking Bangla on the one hand, but everyone else was speaking English, and somewhere in the background every now and then was this Arabic that I could not understand,” she says.
Ahmed has memories of being at an Islamic holiday, Eid, function and “hearing this gorgeous recitation of Arabic prayers.”
The music of prayers
“It was so musical and it was so beautiful,” Ahmed says. “So, there was sort of this idea of music as language long before I could articulate that with an idea.”
She also explains how “poetry is embedded in the cultural fabric of [Bangladesh].” Ahmed’s parents grew up in Bangladesh and they were both captivated by poetry. Her mother even recited competitively. She elaborates on how, every once in a while, she would hear her mother recite, record herself and then listen to the recitation again.
“It was kind of in the air in my household,” Ahmed says.
Ahmed draws much of her content in Dhaka Dust, a collection of poems published in 2011, from her Bangladeshi-American background. She touches on why she chose to name the collection of poems Dhaka Dust which is also the title of the opening poem in the collection.
“Sometimes I look back now, and think maybe I should’ve picked a different name for that collection,” she says, chuckling.
The reason why she chose this title for the book lies within the meaning behind the poem of the same name. The poem captures Ahmed’s experience of “landing in Dhaka for the first time and really just taking all of it in at once.”
“I wanted to set up the idea of complexity right away,” she says. “That idea of dust harkens…to that idea of bits of family history and family memory and how they’re still… resonant in our everyday experiences, even though we don’t travel back to Bangladesh often.”
This idea of complexity was especially important to Ahmed because there weren’t many South Asian authors on the shelves of bookstores when she was writing as an undergraduate.
South Asian culture
“The one or two that were really popular were representing South Asian culture in a really simplistic way,” she says. “For example, the idea that someone had to move from being the oppressed, downtrodden, South Asian woman into the…liberal, free western woman didn’t resonate with my experience at all.”
Ahmed grew frustrated with this popular depiction of South Asian women because she knew many “fiercely tough Bengali women who ruled their households and who, frankly, kicked butt at their jobs.”
“I wanted to bring complexity into my poems to speak back to the idea of culture being really reductive,” she explains.
While much of her writing is inspired by her complex cultural background, being a South Asian, Islamic female in the literary world does provide its difficulties.
“I wanted to write about my experiences of American culture,” Ahmed says. “Because, okay, well, I’m Bangladeshi-American and I’m also kind of Muslim and I say ‘kind of’ because my parents consider themselves devout, but they don’t pray five times a day…that’s their identity, that’s also their cultural identity, but they also have plenty of conflicts with parts of Islam.”
Religion is a complicated aspect of Ahmed’s life. Although her parents would never “hesitate in saying they are Muslims,” she does. Still, she considers Islam as an important facet of her larger identity.
In her poem, “Thinking of His Jaywalking Ticket While Boarding a Plane at SFO,” from Dhaka Dust, Ahmed touches on the feelings of Islamophobia she has directly encountered within the United States.
She writes over three short stanzas: “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.”
Post 9-11 world
Ahmed expands upon this poem, and discusses writing as a South Asian in a post-9/11 era.
“That poem was specifically inspired by events my husband suffered through after 9/11,” she says. “My husband travelled a lot for work, so there was this reoccurring incident for him at the airport.”
Her husband has a very Muslim-sounding name, and as she puts incredibly bluntly, “this is a bad time to have a name like that,” especially if one is trying to travel by plane.
“Sometimes he would get stopped at the gate, and they would say, ‘Oh, we don’t have your ticket’ and then they would disappear behind some closed doors for a while and then come back and say ‘Oh, we found it,’” Ahmed says.
She then explains how “other times, he would go all the way through security to the gate and then this team of TSA folks with vests would come out with their walkie-talkies and they would…question him and he would be mortified because then everyone around him would think: ‘Great, I have to get on the plane with this vaguely Middle Eastern guy who just got accosted by security.”
Each time, her husband would be cleared. The security at the airport would then tell him that they had to check him because his name was on the blacklist because “every name he has is a potentially Muslim name.”
During this period of her husband’s difficulties, she realized that “everything had just changed” for the both of them, and all Muslims, in America.
Despite her “utter rage” of having to wait for her husband to be cleared by security during a specific instance when he was actually taken off the plane, Ahmed felt “her so-called American rights completely dissolve” and had a realization that they “had no power whatsoever” and that the authorities could “literally do whatever they wanted…without question.”
“I realized that this was a completely different world I was walking into,” she says when describing how the two of them got back on the plane. “One of terror and loss of rights and utter helplessness.”
These instances of Islamophobia were especially frustrating because Ahmed thinks of herself as someone who “has agency” and someone who will “speak out” against wrongs. She was forced to realize that in some situations, “the danger and the horror of the danger were far beyond anything” she “could’ve imagined.”
“So, that poem sort of came out of that fear and true terror,” Ahmed says, connecting her experiences back to her core emotions when writing “Thinking of His Jaywalking Ticket While Boarding a Plane at SFO.”
Of course, despite the specificities of this poem, Ahmed’s writings are accessible to people who don’t identify as South Asian, Muslim, or even female.
“I want all of my poems to reach a wide audience,” Ahmed says.
Dhaka Dust allows for this type of general accessibility. Ahmed incorporates a number of languages into her poetry—from English to Bengali to Arabic to Spanish, and to even more. But, instead of isolating different types of readers, they invite them to become part of a world that allows for the inclusion of all cultures and ways of thinking.
The collection does not just focus on themes of Islamophobia and cultural hybridity, but also explores the innocence of childhood, romantic love, parent-child relations, and the process of growing up and gaining a more well-rounded view of the inhabited world.
Ahmed’s writings capture what it’s like be a complicated individual who struggles with identity issues, complex relations, and wanting to move beyond the way others choose to perceive him or her.
Ahmed is a professor, a poet, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a Bangladeshi-American, and a ‘kind of Muslim.’
But she is also a voice for all those who defy the simplistic and reductive definitions imposed upon them.
She will continue to challenge the way people perceive her, constantly residing in a multi-cultural space that will allow her to keep growing in many different directions.
A poem from Dhaka Dust:
It’s wine I need. Is it a sin to have another?
No harm in merlot, no harm in another.
In Ramadan, we’ll break our fast with dates and wine —
Must we pray in one room and dance in another?
Crushed blossoms at the end of the summer: teach me
how to coax nectar from the bloom of another.
Burned rice on the stove again: what’s to love
but my imperfections — you’ll forgive me another.
Butter by a kettle always melts, warns the proverb.
Heated, greased, we slip one into the other.
When, inexplicably, you enter my prayers,
I hear messages from one god or another.
Me encanta cantar, cuando estoy sola, en el carro.
My mother tongue dissolves. I speak in another.
Heart-thief, enter the fields like a woman in love,
vase in one hand, shears in the other