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Alaha Ahrar: Poetry from the Place Where God Exists

3 April 2012 8 Comments

Alaha Ahrar reads one of her poems after receiving the World Poetry Youth Ambassador Medallion.

- by Mary Liepold
  Editor in Chief

After graduating from secondary school, working for several international organizations, and earning a reputation as a poet and media personality in her native Afghanistan, Alaha Ahrar won a scholarship to Virginia’s Mary Washington University in 2008. People in Afghanistan who are opposed to the education of women sent emails to the program to stop her from coming to the US  to study. Alaha gathered her courage and came nonetheless. She started classes and made the adjustment to a new culture while fearing for the safety of her family at home, and especially for her father, who was kidnapped a month before she came to the USANext month he will see her graduate with university honors; a triple major in Political Science, Human Rights, and International Relations; and a certificate in Middle Eastern Studies.

What is your first memory of poetry, Alaha―the first time you heard a poem read or recited?

I belong to a family of poets and writers. As soon as I opened my eyes and ears, what I was listening to was poetry. My Dad gets up every morning & recites the 99 Names of Allah and does some other Wazifa. They’re very long and complicated. Sitting at breakfast, two and three years old, I would repeat what he had recited. He took me to his friends because he was amazed. He was shocked! He wondered where it came from at first, but then he realized I had memorized the verses.

We celebrate the birthday of Rumi in my family’s home, and the birthday of another poet, Baydel, born in India but also an Afghan. People would come to our house every week for a gathering of poets. All my relatives, the entire family is poetic. I was never forbidden, only encouraged by my parents, my siblings and all my relatives.

At what age did you learn to read?

Even some women in my country who are considered illiterate, after learning the Holy Quran, can read and write Dari. As a girl, I couldn’t go to school, but I went to the mosque. We learned Arabic first and by the time I was six I could read and write Arabic and Persian. My Dad had a rule in our family. He would teach the oldest and then he would tell him to teach the younger one. So, we all learned from each other. Each one would correct what I wrote and still encourage me. Even if my spelling was bad, Dad wouldn’t discourage me.

I finished all the chapters of the Quran in Arabic quickly and when I was 12 I learned the Persian translation as well. Then Persian (Dari, Farsi) came easily after the Arabic.

When did you write your first poem?

The first poem I wrote was for my mom. I started reciting poems, and I would stand up and recite when big groups came to our home. The earliest one I recited said something like “If you do not have teeth you should not laugh.” My dad’s friends would give me money for ice cream when I recited it. I could move people by reciting serious poetry too. They called me a child with an old spirit.

Is it equally common for men and women to write and publish poetry in Afghanistan?

In our culture men are allowed to write and publish but most families do not allow women to do anything public. Even for someone to know the name of your sister is considered shameful. There are women who know how to write and recite folk poetry, but they don’t do it in public. It is a poetic land where women’s talents disappear. I am fortunate because my family is very supportive of literature.

What are you writing now?

I don’t find much time now, with work on campus and school, but when I am inspired I make notes. This beautiful spring makes me want to write. I’m working on a book called The Golden Birds and the Green Tree, with a moral & ethical message, using language from nature. I’m writing it in English & Dari at the same time, and every word gives me so much joy!

Saadi in a Rose Garden

Who is your favorite Persian poet?

First Rumi, then Hafiz, then Baydel, who I mentioned, and Saadi, from Iran―those four and my Dad. I am always into his poems. He was just nominated for Best Poet in the Persian languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What poets do you admire in English?

I took one literature course on campus, and one in public speaking, but I haven’t had any time to explore English poetry. It is my promise and my goal. I know Helen Adam and Edwin Atherstone. Shakespeare is important, of course. His English is so beautiful, and so difficult!

If I selected poetry as my career it would be something I had to do. I believe the things that I do as fun, I want to enjoy. I will do it as my delight, in my free time.

And after graduation?

I want to go to law school, but first I’ll work for a year to see how people work in the US and learn the office culture. I have enjoyed every second of these four years with the amazing people I have been surrounded by. The president of my university, Mr. Hurley; Dr. Wilder, the Chief of Staff; the professors―each one has been like a family member. When President Hurley told my father I did the work of 14 years in 4, it is because I had so much love and support. I am working on bringing at least 10 students, Afghan women & men, to Mary Washington over the next 10 years to have the beautiful experience I have had. Those are my goals for right now.

One final question, Alaha: What does poetry have to do with peace?

In my culture we believe that the poetic image is from the heart, and the heart is the place where God exists. If you write a message as a poem people will respect it, listen to it. If you write a political message people will reject it, because you are just a politician.

I took one course called War and Politics, and learned how war destroys lives. If I can write a poem for my people they will know that peace is the goal. I already wrote one poem for peace that has been translated into Spanish and other languages and gone all around the world.

This is the inner responsibility of every poet: to correct what is wrong. If we are not powerful enough to correct it with our hands, we can do it with our words.

I dreamed about the Taliban this morning and woke up with my heart beating fast. They were torturing women, running after women. Why do humans go on with war? Why not let each other live our precious lives? What do we get, what do we gain when we destroy a life and a family, create widows and orphans? Why as human beings should we give suffering to each other when we can give love and peace? I will always be a poet for peace.

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email maryl@peacexpeace.org.
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8 Comments to “Alaha Ahrar: Poetry from the Place Where God Exists”
  1. Erik says:

    I’m so proud of you, Alaha! Triple major and a certificate!
    How could you do that?

  2. Riham says:

    This is amazing. I personally know Alaha and I didn’t know many of this information about her. She is truly an inspiration.

  3. Akhila says:

    This is absolutely beautiful Alaha, and thank you for having the courage to share your writing and poetry!

  4. Sear says:

    As always proud of you.
    You have always done great jobs and have made us all proud of your hard works and writings!
    WELDON!!!!!!

  5. Hannah says:

    Alaha Ahrar,
    I love and admire you with my whole heart.
    LOVE YOU,

  6. Sister Rosemarie says:

    You are an inspiration. Congratulations on your accomplishments. Can you share a poem of yours and your father’s?

  7. Ann says:

    love you, Alaha!

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