Emtithal Mahmoud is having quite the senior year at Yale.
In October, she won the International World Poetry Slam Championship in Washington, DC. In November she was named one of the BBC’s 100 Women of 2015. Last week she met with President Barack Obama on his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
And when she's not wearing her poet and activist hats, she's studying biology and conducting global health research.
Mahmoud was born in Darfur, Sudan but her family moved to Yemen when she was a baby, and later to the US, settling in Philadelphia. Darfur exerted a powerful pull though, and Mahmoud's life and poetry have been shaped by the ongoing conflict there.
“The interesting thing about war,” she says, “is that people seem to think there’s a particular start and end to the war, but in reality it’s much messier than that.”
“When Darfur was no longer on the front page of the New York Times every day, when people stopped talking about it in the big media outlets, people thought, ‘Oh, the war must have stopped.’ But the reality is, we’re still living it every day.”
Two of her cousins were killed just last year.
Mahmoud was 7 the first time she went back to Darfur for an extended visit. While she was there, the government stopped paying teachers. She remembers her parents and other grownups going into town to a protest.
“At a protest in the US, you might find tear gas or you might find police with barricades,” she says. “In Darfur, the soldiers shoot into the crowds and they throw grenades and people die.”
She remembers seeing smoke rising from the town and then hearing screams and people running.
“I remember two school girls came and knocked on our door. It was scary. They said, ‘We need to hide! The soldiers are coming!’”
Mahmoud says she didn’t know what to do but she and her sister and cousin and the two school girls all hid under the bed together. When her parents and aunts and uncles came home from the protest, they had blood on them.
“They all looked devastated,” she says.
She didn’t really understand what was happening back then, at the age of 7. All she knew was that the protest was over education and that education was something worth dying for. But as time went on, she realized the reason they were so devastated that day had nothing to do with schooling.
“It was because this government killed people for protesting,” she says. “We realized we were living in a much more dangerous place than we had imagined.”
Mahmoud and her family returned for another visit in 2005. She remembers eating breakfast as war planes flew overhead and how hard it was to hear each other over the din. But she says the atmosphere wasn’t grim.
“It was wonderful to be around your family in that moment, and the faces we would make, and the ways we would communicate when we couldn’t speak over the airplanes, and the jokes my aunts and uncles would make in between the planes. I remember my cousin one time saw me look up. I looked a bit scared. I saw two planes flying overhead — they always fly in pairs — and he was just like, ‘Wow, that guy is still chasing the other guy? I thought he caught him already!’ and made a joke of it and we kind of laughed it off. In that way you try to make stability in such an unstable time.”
“This might sound funny,” she says, “but you would expect people who have gone through such trying experiences to have a very negative view of the world but they have such a positive view of the world.”
Mahmoud won the poetry slam competition last fall with a poem called "Mama." It's a tribute to her mother, and to her grandmother, who passed away just as the competition was starting.
"It's mostly about my mother on the surface, but the reality is that the things I learned from her she learned from her mother, and her mother before her, so I called it "Mama" and made it about my mom. But it's about the women in my family, the women in my life."
Part of the poem refers to that day when her mother came home from the protest:
When I was 7, she cradled bullets in the billows of her robes.
That same night, she taught me how to get gunpowder out of cotton with a bar of soap.
Years later when the soldiers held her at gunpoint and asked her who she was
She said, I am a daughter of Adam, I am a woman, who the hell are you?
Mahmoud seems to channel the force of all those strong women when she gets behind the microphone.
Her performances are spellbinding, which probably explains why the White House came calling recently. Mahmoud was invited to a roundtable with President Obama the day he visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
“My credentials got me into the room, especially with poetry, but I was the youngest person there by eight years. It was terrifying. I thought I would put my foot in my mouth.”
But she didn’t. And she’s happy to be part of a national conversation.
“I’m the kid from Darfur, but I’m also a kid from Philly. That intersection links me to a lot of people. And at the same time, I’m a kid that’s graduating from Yale in a few months. That gives me a platform that a lot of people who have gone through what I have don’t have. It’s very empowering. It’s something you can use to help others get to where you are. I think who I am and what I do have combined in a very beautiful way.”