Cairo to Seattle and Back Again
Maged Zaher's Poetry Helps Make the World a Smaller Place
Thank You for the Window Office
by Maged Zaher
(Ugly Duckling Presse, $15)
It's impossible to read Maged Zaher's poetry and not be reminded of the two worlds that have shaped him: his birth nation, Egypt, and his current home in Seattle, where he's an information architect. Twenty years ago, when the world was impossibly large and glacially slow, those two lives would have been irreconcilable. Now they're nearly apposite; geography supplies the greatest distance between the two points, rather than ideology or complications in communication. Zaher's poetry collection from last year, The Revolution Happened and You Didn't Call Me, at times rang with a kind of peevishness at the realization that he could see what was happening in Egypt during the Arab Spring, but that he wasn't physically there to take part.
The title of Zaher's new book, Thank You for the Window Office, hints that it's more about his here-life, rather than his there-life. And at first blush, the book does feel more interested in the language of the online entrepreneur, the wealthy nerd, the single man in an expensive suit pecking at his smartphone in the corner of the fashionable bar, trying not to look as alone as he feels. Seattle is everywhere: "This is an imaginary city/It has seven hills/And is always ready for your software needs."
Window Office could be read either as a conveyer belt of short, page-long, untitled poems or—and this is my preferred interpretation—as one long, book-length epic monologue. Zaher's language is lit up with the too-revealing fluorescent glow of corporate culture, even as his self-effacing sense of yearning tries to break through. "There is enough room for all interpretations/And I have to email you again about my feelings/I need two water-cooler conversations a day." The boxy language of tech culture proves inadequate for the most basic of feelings.
But this isn't Dilbert territory, or anywhere near it. Zaher tosses us around in time and space, and his themes cross, to pleasing effect. Early in the book, he writes, "I am in a Cairo coffee shop recording facts... The world has changed and I misplaced the email/Every human-to-human touch carries a probability." While Egypt is far from the mannered green campuses of Redmond, the wizards of Microsoft have made it easier for people everywhere to connect, and every personal connection brings its own special lottery. The chances for insurgency, for change, increase dramatically.
But globalization is very good—too good?—for business, and the chasm between rich and poor grows hungrier and more aggressive every day: "The corporation approved us and advised: step up/We were just drunk not angry/And wondering about all the people/Who can't expense their dinners." The ending of this particular stanza is self-conscious and jokey: "Then God—on a bad day—invented the poets," but it's telling, too.
Poetry is the way that Zaher synthesizes the two halves of himself, the wildly successful Westerner and the patriot aching with a complex passion for an ancient homeland. Even in a time when a video chat can practically bring the sun-smacked dust of Cairo spilling into a downtown Seattle conference room, there's glass between those worlds. Nothing can take that glass away and make those worlds one, except the lyricism and humor of a gifted poet, trying to explain with a self-conscious stammer exactly what he means.