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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Emi Mahmoud: the poet changing the way we think about Darfur

The 25-year-old recently released her first poetry collection titled Sisters' Entrance and was appointed as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador

Sudanese poet Emtithal Mahmoud. Courtesy Emirates Lit Fest
Sudanese poet Emtithal Mahmoud. Courtesy Emirates Lit Fest

Emtithal Mahmoud was a toddler when her parents fled the war in Darfur, which has claimed the lives of 300,000 people since 2003. They briefly settled in Yemen, before moving to Philadelphia when Mahmoud was four years old. Many of her friends and family were not so fortunate. “When I was very little, I didn’t understand why I was alive and my cousins didn’t get to survive,” she says. “[One moment] you’re playing with them and then, a year or two later, they’re gone. You just think, ‘How is that fair?’

“The only way to honour their existence is to do everything I can to change things. And then also, to live. When your existence is an act of defiance, the biggest rebellion is to live […] It is like saying to the people who tried to kill us, ‘Look at us, look how brightly we shine. You’ve taken so much but you can’t take away our humanity.’”

Mahmoud, who first spoke publicly about Darfur when was she was 10 years old, is now a poet and prominent political activist. She won the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship in 2015, the same year she was included in the BBC’s list of most inspirational women. Earlier this year, she released her first poetry collection, Sisters' Entrance, and was appointed as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in June for her work raising awareness about refugees. Oh, and she has just turned 25.

“It has all come together in this very beautiful, once-in-a-blue-moon kind of way,” she says, although you sense that Mahmoud has always been destined to do something extraordinary. She tells me a story about her school friends, who recently found one of those embarrassing yearbooks in which classmates predict what their peers will be doing in the future. “Next to my name, they had written ‘Inspirational speaker’,” says Mahmoud, before erupting into laughter.

Sisters' Entrance is a remarkable collection of poetry, devastating and angry at times (“Representation is a conversation we are seldom/ invited to”), but also funny and warm. Death haunts many of the pages (“We didn’t stand a chance/ Flesh was never meant to dance/ with silver bullets”). And yet it is, ultimately, a defiant celebration of life. “It’s a story about being a black Afro-Arab-Muslim woman,” says Mahmoud. “I want people to have it because I want them to feel like they can connect with someone who is a sister to them.”

The title refers to the women-only door on the side of a mosque, which Mahmoud and her friends were expected to use as they grew older. “Over time, our lives and our societies start to be shaped by the parameters we’re told to exist within,” she says. “I dedicated this book to anyone who has ever grown up, who has ever had to grow up.”

Mahmoud has had to do a lot of her own growing up in public. She often finds that she is the youngest person in the room. Still, she tells me that she isn’t easily star struck. Actually that’s not quite true. I ask her about her encounter with Barack Obama. “My encounters!” she shoots back, laughing and emphasising the “s”.

“You know you’re star struck when the person shows up and things start to move in slow-time,” she says. “The reason that it was so beautiful for me to be a part of a discussion with him is because I had grown up with him as President. I think I was in eighth grade when he was first elected and that’s when you start really thinking about politics and about your country.

“I met him the first time before he was President. He was speaking about Darfur, so for me it was very personal. Seeing that he was just there to listen was a very important lesson to me. It made me realise that it doesn’t matter what office you hold or what walk of life you’re in, there are going to be things that you don’t know or don’t have access to and one of the most powerful things a leader can do is reach out to people who do have access and say, ‘Teach me.’ That was the most humbling thing that could have happened.”

One of the things that really strikes you when speaking to Mahmoud is her unshakeable belief in her power to make a difference. “The reason that words are really important is because they can change your perspective,” she says. “You can’t change everyone in the world but even if you change one person’s perspective in just the right way, it’s as good as changing everything because it creates the ripple effect. That’s something really beautiful that writing and literature does.”

But this is only one part of it. In her words, you have to “walk the walk” as well. “The reality is that the first thing people do when they like a piece of writing is to look up the author,” says Mahmoud. “And if they find out that the author is a horrible person, they’re going to be like, ‘Nope, that just takes away all the credibility of everything that you’re writing.’

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“I like to say that hearing about crisis and seeing it are as different as speaking about change and making it,” she says. Which is why Mahmoud was on the Greek island of Lesbos this summer working in the refugee camps and why she returns regularly to Sudan. Earlier this year, she walked from Darfur to Khartoum to raise awareness of the continuing plight of the people there.

Our time is nearly up but I want to know what Mahmoud still wants to achieve — at 25, she seems to have done it all. “What, weird question,” she says. But then answers it anyway. “It would be very beautiful to me if people someday tell me that they needed to hear what I had to say. The more that happens, the more I will feel that maybe it was all worth it.”

As she gets up to leave, she pauses, then turns and says: “It was a weird question because I’m a kid. I’m still figuring it out.”

Sisters' Entrance is out now, published by Andrews McMeel

Emtithal Mahmoud is speaking at the Literature Forum, Sharjah International Book Fair, on Sunday at 9.45am. For all sessions and timings, visit www.sibf.com