Emtithal Mahmoud Shares Her Work Promoting Peace with Poetry


On October 29, 2018, the Schell Center hosted Emi Mahmoud YC ’16, the 2015 World Poetry Slam champion and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. She performed poems from her new book, Sisters’ Entrance, and discussed her activism promoting peace in Sudan and better treatment of refugees and disadvantaged communities around the world.

Mahmoud was born in Darfur, Sudan. In her poem, “People Like Us,” she portrays the violence she witnessed at a young age: “Every day I go to school with the weight of dead neighbors on my shoulders,” she says, and compares the Sahara Desert to “powdered bone.” In 1994, Mahmoud’s family fled to Yemen. They eventually moved to Philadelphia, where Mahmoud attended primary and high school before coming to Yale to study anthropology and molecular biology — in spite of persistent advice against pursuing a double major. She said that her experience refusing to submit to guidance she did not agree with reflects a valuable truth: “All revolutionary things start with a really good idea and a lot of naïveté.”

“I don’t think about my life in terms of resilience or luck,” said Mahmoud, “I think about key moments of my perspective being shifted.” One such moment came on her first mission for the UNHCR visiting refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos. Of the experience, Mahmoud said, “Hearing about a crisis and seeing it is as different as hearing about change versus making it.” She explained that the trip showed her that the refugee crisis, as it was being broadcasted, did not accurately reflect the diversity of the refugees who had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. “It wasn’t just Syrians,” she said. “I spoke Arabic, English, French, and even a bit of Urdu to talk to people around me.” Mahmoud explained that working with the UNHCR has been particularly significant for her because “it’s allowed me to stand on the other side of the same crisis I saw when I was younger.” She expressed feeling a strong connection to the refugees she advocates for. “For most people I work with, the world has truly ended, and that’s what it was like for me and my family,” she explained. “But we came out the other side.”

After graduating from Yale in 2016, Mahmoud went back to Sudan to launch her One Girl Walk and Dreams for Peace Initiative and continue the work her parents had done to promote peace before they were forced to flee Sudan. In 2017, Mahmoud hosted poetry town halls across Sudan, in which she would ask people what peace looked like to them — a question many had never been asked before. Then, in 2018, she walked 1,000 kilometers in 30 days from Darfur to Khartoum, mobilizing thousands of people along the way to advocate with her for peace. She said she pursued these actions to “test the idea that security is peace” and challenge the notion she saw held by many Sudanese people that peace was “not in their hands.”

In these actions, Mahmoud made sure not to affiliate herself with any political actors in Sudan. She called the action the One Girl Walk to emphasize her independence and her unthreatening status as an unmarried woman in Sudan. As Mahmoud pointed out, laughing, “When you’re addressing a genocidal regime, the first question you’re going to get is, ‘Who do you work for?’ but if you’re a girl, they’re more interested in how you’re going to walk that far.” She added that centering poetry in her activism also helped make her seem less threatening and encouraged others to join her.

“The government underestimated me, then they tried to control me and our narrative, and they found out that they couldn’t,” said Mahmoud. This was partly because Mahmoud and her collaborators got their message out through social media, helping to dispel notions that they were affiliated with the government or the rebel side. Mahmoud was overwhelmed with the positive responses she received about the walk, even though, she admitted, “I don’t know if they’re going to stop fighting or if there will be peace.”

At the Schell Center, in addition to speaking about her activism in Sudan, Mahmoud shared work from Sisters’ Entrance. The book is titled for the women’s door in a mosque, but, she said, she does not believe the concept is limited to Islam. “A lot of us see the world through a women’s entrance,” she explained. Many of her poems related to the theme of womanhood and sexism both in the U.S. and abroad; in a poem called “The Bride,” Mahmoud writes, “If you put a girl in a steel corset you never have to hear her scream.” The piece was inspired by a wedding she attended in Washington, D.C., where she witnessed a mail-order bride marry a stranger. The poems she shared also covered themes as diverse as genocide, Islamophobia, and love. They ranged from “#muslimparents,” a lighthearted poem about an imam who plays a trick on two children he catches sharing a kiss, to “How to Translate a Joke,” a searing condemnation of the oppression women face across cultures.

The book also represents a journey through Mahmoud’s life; it begins with poems about her childhood and ends with a poem entitled “Eulogy.” The focus on events from her life reflects her use of writing as a tool to process emotions and experiences. “I write off a feeling,” she said. “Some people write with a thesis — I get angry.” When she is performing her poetry, though, she is careful about how she presents herself. “I’ve spoken in front of everyone from genocidal regimes to the World Economic Forum to poetry groups to students to slams in different countries,” she told the audience. “The thing that I’ve realized is that the most effective way to reach people is where and when they least expect it.”

Mahmoud was adamant that we all have a responsibility to “contribute to a greater dialogue” about pressing human rights issues. When asked about how she derives strength to pursue her activism, given the suffering she has already experienced, Mahmoud responded, “Sorrow can repel you from taking action, paralyze you, and make you stay silent — or it can compel you. Growing up, it was a driving force in my family to take action. If we were not witnessing what was happening in Sudan, it was almost like we didn’t exist. As someone who survived, I felt like I had no right to turn my back.”

Below, watch Mahmoud perform her poems "Sisters' Entrance" and "People Like Us."