Agha Shahid Ali

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Agha Shahid Ali
Born(1949-02-04)February 4, 1949
DiedDecember 8, 2001(2001-12-08) (aged 52)
Resting placeAmherst, Massachusetts
Alma materUniversity of Kashmir Hindu College, University of Delhi Pennsylvania State University (PhD) and University of Arizona (MFA)
OccupationPoet, Professor
Known forNational Book Award 2001, Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, US & Canada
Notable credit(s)
The Country Without a Post Office, Rooms Are Never Finished and The Rebel's Silhouette
RelativesAgha Ashraf Ali (Father)
Prof. Agha Iqbal Ali (brother)
Prof. Hena Ahmad , Prof. Sameetah Agha (Sisters) Agha Shaukat Ali (Uncle) Begum Zaffar Ali (Grandmother)

Agha Shahid Ali (4 February 1949 – 8 December 2001) was a Kashmiri-American poet.[1][2] His collections include A Walk Through the Yellow Pages, The Half-Inch Himalayas, A Nostalgist's Map of America, The Country Without a Post Office, Rooms Are Never Finished, the latter a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001.

The University of Utah Press awards the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize annually "in memory of a celebrated poet and beloved teacher".[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Agha Shahid Ali was born in the illustrious and highly educated Agha family of Srinagar, Kashmir.[4][5] He was raised in Kashmir but left for the United States in 1976.[6] Shahid's father Agha Ashraf Ali is a renowned educationist of Jammu and Kashmir. Shahid's grandmother Begum Zaffar Ali an educationist, was the first woman matriculate of Kashmir.[7] Shahid was educated at the Burn Hall School, later University of Kashmir and the Hindu College, University of Delhi.[1] He earned a Ph.D. in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1984, and an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in 1985.[1] He held teaching positions at nine universities and colleges in India and the United States.[1]

Shahid upbringing was absolutely secular. He loved the painting of St Veronica’s Handkerchief, that Zakir Hussain had gifted to his father, Agha Ashraf Ali. In fact, the first poem that he had written was at the age of 12 about Christ. Shahid, and his brother Iqbal, both studied at an Irish Catholic school and in an interview, he recalled that: “There was never a hint of any kind of parochialism in the home.”[8]


Ali expressed his love and concern for his people in In Memory of Begum Akhtar and The Country Without a Post Office, which was written with the Kashmir conflict as backdrop.[7] He was a translator of the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (The Rebel's Silhouette; Selected Poems),[9] and the editor for the Middle East and Central Asia segment of Jeffery Paine's Poetry of Our World.[10]

He compiled the volume Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. His last book was Call Me Ishmael Tonight, a collection of English ghazals, and his poems are featured in American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets (2006) and other anthologies. Ghat of the only world written by Amitav Ghosh is a tribute of friend to Agha Shahid Ali. Ali was the close friend of Amitav Ghosh.

Ali taught at the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at University of Massachusetts Amherst, at the MFA Writing Seminars at Bennington College as well as at creative writing programs at University of Utah, Baruch College, Warren Wilson College, Hamilton College and New York University. He died of brain cancer in December 2001 and was buried in Northampton, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to his beloved poet Emily Dickinson.

Poetry Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals (2003) Rooms Are Never Finished (2001) The Country Without a Post Office (1997) The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems (1992) A Nostalgist's Map of America (1991) A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (1987) The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987) In Memory of Begum Akhtar and Other Poems (1979) Bone Sculpture (1972).

Translations The Rebel's Silhouette: Selected Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1992)

Other Editor, Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (2000) T. S. Eliot as Editor (1986)

Northampton, Massachusetts.[11]


Ali was deeply moved by the music of Begum Akhtar. Several niches in his apartment had photos of the people who had deeply influenced his work - Akhtar's photo occupied one of these spaces. The two had met through a friend of Akhtar's when Ali was a teenager and her music became a lasting presence in his life. Features of her ghazal rendition - the presence of wit, wordplay and nakhra(affectation) were found in Ali's poetry as well. However, Amitav Ghosh suspects that the strongest connection between the two rose from the idea that "sorrow has no finer mask than a studied lightness of manner" - traces of which were seen in Ali's and Akhtar's demeanor in their respective lives. [12]

His love for ghazals was amplified by Begum Akhtar, whose ghazals influenced how he perceived and understood the form. His first meeting with Begum Akhtar was in the late 1960s in New Delhi. However, one of Shahid’s most cherished memories was driving Begum Akhtar around Srinagar in his father’s car. Agha Iqbal Ali, Shahid’s brother, remembers that “one fine day sometime in April, 1969 – it was raining – there was a phone call from Begum Akhtar. We didn’t know her personally but she said wanted to come to our house.” He recalled that her flight was cancelled and she ended up staying at their house in Rajbagh. Late at night, she ran out of cigarettes. “Both of us drove her in our Fiat to Amira Kadal to buy Capstans,” he said, emphasising, “she only smoked Capstan cigarettes”.

During his time in New Delhi in the early 1970s, Shahid never missed an opportunity to go to Begum Akhtar’s concerts along with his friend, historian and translator Saleem Kidwai – who had introduced him to her. Whenever she would come to the city, Shahid and Kidwai would go to listen to her. He would sit right next to Begum Akhtar, recording the concert on his Phillips tape recorder. Not only did Begum Akhtar’s effervescent personality and singing bring Shahid closer to ghazals, but she also brought him in contact with one of the pioneers of the form – Faiz Ahmad Faiz, whose ghazals Shahid had internalised at home while listening to his father sing.

Though Faiz had stayed at Shahid’s house in Srinagar before Partition, it was a rare Begum Akhtar tape recording that brought the two together. Shahid wrote to the Pakistani poet in 1982 for permission to translate his poems. Faiz was at that time exiled by General Zia-ul-Haq and, in the words of Edward Said, had “found a welcome of sorts in the ruins of Beirut”. In the letter Shahid reminded him that he had stayed at his home in Kashmir, and tempted him with rare recording of Begum Akhtar singing his ghazals. Within a month, Faiz replied saying, “you’re welcome to do whatever you want with my poems, but send me the tape”. Thus, the grand translation project began which culminated with the publication of The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Works. Soon after, Shahid would publish his seminal essay “The Ghazal in America: May I?” which would change the landscape of ghazal writing in America forever.[13]


  1. ^ a b c d "A Tribute to Agha Shahid Ali". Jacket Magazine. Retrieved 2 January 2010.
  2. ^ An interethnic companion to Asian American literature. Cambridge University Press. 1997. ISBN 9780521447904. Retrieved 2 January 2010. Contemporary South Asian American writers belong primarily to this middle and upper class: Indo-American Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander, Bharati Mukherjee, Vikram Seth, Pakistani American Sara Suleria, Javaid Qazi, Indo-Canadian Rohinton Mistry, Uma Parameswaran, Sri Lankan Canadian Michael Ondaatje, and Indo-Guyanese Canadian Cyril Dabydeen, among others.
  3. ^ "Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize". Retrieved 18 January 2015.
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ [2]
  6. ^ Sarah Wetzel-Fishman (10 June 2009). "The veiled suite, the collected poems by agha shahid ali". Rattle.
  7. ^ a b "'The Ghat Of The Only World': Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn". Outlook. Retrieved 2 January 2010.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Book Excerptise:Rebel's Silhouette (extended extracts and literary history)
  10. ^ Poetry of Our World (excerpts)
  11. ^ Parveen, Rasheda (2014). "Agha Shahid Ali's English Ghazals and the Transnational Politics of Literary Subversion" (PDF). The Challenge. 23 (1).
  12. ^ Ghosh, Amitav. "The Ghat of The Only World". Amitav Ghosh.
  13. ^

Further reading[edit]

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