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

By Anahita Srinivasan

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.

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