Home and the World: Agha Shahid Ali and the Hybrid Politics of his Ghazals

Farhain khan

Research Scholar, Patna university
Bachelor in English from Miranda House , University of Delhi
Masters in English from Jamia Millia Islamia

A student and a feminist, Farhain is a lateral thinker with a deep understanding of cultural and social diversity. She is an avid reader and an active participant in community building activities. She is a bit idealist and finds solace in the works of Kafka and Agatha Christie.

At an exhibition of Mughal miniatures, such delicate
Kashmiri paisleys tied into the golden hair of Arabic.
(Ishmael 24)

In his foreword “The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu poetry”,
Gulzar commences to announce that Urdu Language is a nation unto itself and wherever it travels it creates its own world. The language settles comfortably wherever it reaches, snuggles itself warmly in the echelons of the distant lands. In this manner it becomes a bridge between different cultures, ethnicities and religion. Urdu poetry for that matter is not quintessentially a modern language with neither a distinct writing style nor any claim to a direct link with a root language. Its cosmopolitan ethos and its mongrel roots strike a cord with the common man.It then becomes a literary device that Agha Shahid Ali utilized to bridge the traditions of the east with the modernity of the west. As a Kashmiri-Indian-American Shia -Muslim writing In America, Agha Shahid Ali’s hyphenated identity makes him the perfect ambassador of his cultural and diasporic politics where through his writings of Ghazals he celebrates and embraces his multiple identities.
 Travel has always played a significant role in Ali’s life and work. He was born in his beloved Kashmir and studied in Kashmir and Delhi. He came to America to do his PhD. He settled down in America and took up various teaching posts in various universities across the country. In “A Tribute to Agha Shahid Ali: After You”, Christopher Merrill recalls that Ali claimed he was exiled from Kashmir, from India and from his Mother tongue. Though Ali claimed to be “multiple-exiled” his travels in the Indian subcontinent and America is largely voluntary. He once writes “To be diaspora, writing the exile’s or the expatriate’s poetry, is a privileged historical site.”.He is aware of Edward Said’s differentiation of exile as a forced condition from expatriates but he would call himself expatriate nonetheless for its ‘resonance’. Therefore by assuming an identity for the sake of ‘resonance’ Ali shows a conscious choice of living and writing in a poetic way Having travelled from one country to another has enabled for a major part of his life, the state of ‘exile’ has been a permanent feature of his life and poetry allowing him to adapt, accept and assimilate different cultures. In the words of Bruce King “Ali is one of those expatriate Indian writers who have the ability to tolerate, accommodate and absorb other culture without losing consciousness of being an Indian.” Unlike other diasporic writers Agha Shahid Ali did not lament any cultural alienation or rootlessness. He as pulled nevertheless by the strong bonds and memory of his homeland Kashmir which in fact accelerated his poetic activity.

Ali’s poetic genius spoke with eloquence and wit about the multiple histories that he inherited from his home in Kashmir in India to America where he lived in. His ghazals and his works have sought to celebrate his diasporic

Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals exemplifies a cosmopolitan ethos that also indulges in a critique of power and the oppressions that plagues his beloved homeland Kashmir.

“I’ll do what I must if I’m bold in real time,
A refugee, I’ll be paroled in real time.

Cool evidence clawed off like shirts of hell-fire?
A former existence untold in real time….”

Diaspora in lay man term means to “scatter about”, from their homeland to places across the globe, pollenating their culture as they go. Urdu language though commonly seen as the language of Muslims which is quiet at odds with its multi religious origins.It was the Urdu poet Mohammed Iqbal who bridged the divide between East and the West and tis tradition was carried forward by Agha Shahid Ali who carried the torch of ghazals to America and introduces it as a literary device which was quickly followed by poets such as Adrienne Rich and quickly exploded as a popular literary device. What is striking in his works is the notion of space which he manages to transcend with rare lyrical grace all those national, regional, religious or cultural boundaries through which we always define space. Agha Shahid Ali’s Ghazals exemplifies the form of diasporic writing. His writings of ghazals in English and his use of the form of canzone that requires multiple repetitions is a master stoke of this technical genius. Through his introduction of ghazals in English he also created a neutral space where the diasporic politics of his hyphenated identities played out. This paper seeks to posit that agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals were bridges between his home; that he is in exile from and the World; or America where he was writing from. Through his appropriation of this cultural bridge in the form of ghazal, he was able to accept his hyphenated identities…”
In Derek Walcott’s work the diaspora poetry addresses intersections between racial oppression and exploitation of nature, and reveals how potentially productive tension between an imposed and an inherited culture can create imaginative forms to articulate the Diasporas' cultural in-between. In his poetry there are questions of inherited culture racial oppression and exploitation and also a nostalgia for the future. According to Jacques Derrida all expatriates are bound to be traumatized by questions of identity, memories of homeland and the cultural alienation they encounter on the new geographical land. Diasporic writing thus becomes a cry against the issues of dislocation, nostalgias cultural change alienation and identity. One of the key problems that any diaporic individual faces is the problem of (multiple) identity. Typically in the diasporic literature there is a constant search for identity and the journey is marred with confusion and pain and a constant feeling of dislocation. Jhumpa Lahiri’s book the “Namesake” explores the themes of identity problem faced by the Indian diasporic community living in United States of America. Writers like Monica Ali, a diasporic writer settled in England discusses the sense of rootlessness, alienation, discrimination and survival in her work. Her debut novel Brick Lane looks at the discrimination faced by the Bangladeshi community in London, cultural clash and problems between first and second generation of the diasporic community. Through the myriad facets of his poetry, Ali looks beyond the regular disaporic issues pertaining to discrimination, sense of rootlessness and loss to the issue of memory, recovery and recollection of the memories of his home land which he is distanced from physically but not emotionally and physically. Many of his poems such as “The country without a post office” and Farewell expose the conscience of this Kashmiri –American poet haunted by the images of the strife ridden Kashmir in contrast with the scenic and peaceful past it once had and also the landscape of America that he is currently in.

 “Everything is finished, nothing remains
I must force silence to be a mirror
To see his voice again for directions
Fire runs in waves. Should I cross that river?
Each post office is boarded up. Who will deliver
Parchment cut in paisleys, my news to prisons?”

(A Country Without a Post Office)

The multiple weaving landscapes of America and his poetry continues to foreground a sentiment of compassion across cultural boundaries. For Agha Shahid Ali crossing the boundaries of nation does not imply the breaking away, psychologically or emotionally.The term diaspora embodies a notion of center, a locus, a home from where the dispersion occurs. At the heart of the notion of diaspora is the image of journey which essentially is about settling down, about putting roots elsewhere. Aga Shahid Ali has journeyed from Kashmir to America; yet when he sees the rain in Amherst, he is reminded of the rain in Kashmir. Within the safe confines of America, through dreams and visions, the broken images of his imaginary haunt him. However, one might observe that Agha Shahid Ali was not banished from Kashmir and he could return at his will. To such an observation that poet would reply that though he is not technically exiled, he is ‘experimentally exiled’ from Kashmir. Thus for him the journey is not a rupture but a continuum Shahid Ali refused to be put into a slot or water tight compartments of identity. The hyphenated identities of Kashmiri-indian, Indian-American, Shia-Muslim poet did not appeal to him. According to him a universe, a product of historical forces. He argues that his identity is created by the interweaving of many historical forces and that multiple personality are reflected in his works through references to hindu, muslim and christian myths and imagery. Through his works he highlights the plight of both Kashmiri Muslims as well as the Kashmiri Pandits who are now victims but shared a common homeland a bond that goes beyond hatred. Shahid’s poem ‘Farewell’, which he describes as a ‘plaintive love letter from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit, addresses this issue. The poem speaks eloquently about the ‘othering’ of the two sides in the Kashmiri conflict.

‘You needed me.
 You needed to perfect me.
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.”

These are very profound lines from the poem.


The ghazal is the dominant form of Urdu poetry. It is structured relatively strictly, with a string of shers (couplets), common in meter (i.e. the first and second lines have the same number of syllables). Every second line of a couplet in a ghazal shares a rhythmic continuity with every other second line, through two artifacts know as qafiya and the radif. The qafiya primarily refers to a convention of using certain rhyming words in the course of a verse. The radif is the refrain at the end of the certain line that gives the verse a consistent theme. As Agha Shahid Ali informs us, Ghazal form can be traced back to seventh century Arabic literature. In the eleventh century the canonical Persian form emerged. This Persian form of poetry underwent a huge change when it travelled across India. What is important about the concept of ghazal is the unity that encompasses this universe of Urdu poetry. S.M Faruqi and F.W Pritchett explain, “ The ghazal universe is founded on the figure of the passsionate lover, and faithfully mirrors his consciousness. The lover, while longing for his inaccessible (human) beloved or (divine) beloved, reflects on the world as it appears to him in his altered emotional state. As it is with works of translations, myriad problems of cultural and diction problem are associated with production of ghazals in English. The rich dictionary of words that Urdu has to express multiple meaning is difficult to replicate in English. In spite of these difficulties, Agha Shahid took up the mantle of not only writing ghazals but also persuading other American poets to write ghazals in English too. He explains these reasons himself “What is someone of nearly two equal loyalties to do but lend, almost gift them to each other and hope that sooner or later the loan will be forgiven and they will become each other’s?” Shahid Ali through his ghazals introduces a new idiom in the English poetry but also utilized it into a site where oppositional cultural discourses of diaspora experience could finally negotiate in harmony. Ali’s own achievement was to blend the realm of Faiz Ahmad Faiz with the western versification and thus create a whole new vista of English language i.e. Ghazal.

Memory and Nostalgia

“Memory is no longer confused, it has a homeland-
Says shams: Territorialize each confusion in graceful Arabic.”

Nostalgia and dislocation are the common diasporic features and this is pointed out by Salman Rushdie when he goes on to declare that “Exiles and emigrants or expatriates are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars, of salt.” He proceeds to state further that the diasporic group’s physical alienation means that they will not be able to reclaim, literary or figuratively, the land they have lost behind. In a different nation and timeline they now inherit they can only create, imaginary cites, villages or homelands”. Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals prod the nostalgia and the memory of his beloved Kashmir that he left behind. Nostalgia and memory in his works are an attempt to understand the violence of cultural-national severance and here his individual memory is merged with the communal memory for example his personal memory and nostalgia for his homeland is merged with the Kashmiri public’s memory of violence suffered in the decade of 1990. History here itself becomes a form of violence. As a Kashmiri-Indian –American writer he is also trying to assimilate both his Kashmiri heritage as well as his adoptive culture. There is also a tension between the violence of memory and the violence of assimilation, which is visible in his poetry. Nostalgia and memory in Shahid’s poetry constitutes an attempt to understand the violence of cultural-national ‘severance”. Post colonial memory here merges with the individual and racial/communal memory. In case of diasporic writers, memory becomes a cultural archive of the past. ”India” for example survives as a memory in his ghazals. The theme of belonging, cultural past, displacement, acculturations, and estrangement and history itself are forms of violence.
In the poem “Post card from Kashmir” he talks nostalgically of his homeland
“The half inch Himalayas
…This is the closest
I’ll ever be to home”

There is an overwhelming need to recall and recover the historical and cultural identity associated with rich and musical legacy of Begum Akhtar, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ghalib. Femke Stock, in his essay “Home and memory” states that the act of “remembering is always contextual, a continuous process of recalling, interpreting and reconstructing the past in the terms of the present and in the terms of an anticipated future.” Likewise Homi Bhabha asserts that remembering is painful. It is not an act of introspection or retrospection but a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present. In this context Ali’s attempt to write ghazals in English is seen as re-creating the artistic glory of the past for the joy of the present and to re-capture the essence of his home in the world that he lives in now.

In his work ‘The country without a post office’, Aga Shahid Ali introduces three ghazals. The concluding lines of one such ghazal explain the psychology of his work.
‘They ask me to tell what Shahid means.
Listen, it means ‘The Beloved in Person, witness in Arabic’.
The above couplet exhibits diasporic politics of his ghazals. Being away from Kashmir, he has escaped violence and realized the plight of religions in Kashmir and like Ishmael, who after being marooned in Arabia, became the founder of Islam; the poet too in America, founded a belief imbibing Islamic, Christian and Hindu traditions which is the Ghazal.

In Persian “ghazal” literally means “talking to /of the beloved”. In one of his couplets agha Shahid Ali explains the meaning of his name: “ They
Ask me to tell them what Shahid means - /listen: it means The Beloved in Persian, ’witness’ in Arabic.” Agha Shahid Ali wrote a gamut of ghazal which were tied together in the volume called “Call me Ishmael”. The themes of his ghazal are similar to the concern in the rest of his works; love, nostalgia, longing for life, for identity for home and even for death. However what is different from other of his works is the use and introduction of a completely new idiom of poetry drawn from the Indo-Persian tradition that Ali successfully introduces in English. Interestingly apart from the stylistic features of the ghazal form exploring the theme of love and longing, Ali’s ghazal also show a keen awareness of the world politics. Places are moments of articulation in his network of social relations and these moments take Ali imaginatively through his work to not only the violence ridden Kashmir but also to similar places of discord e.g., Palestine, Sarajevo and Chechnya which locates Ali’s poetry in a more Universal context.

“The birthplace of written language is bombed to nothing
How neat dear America is this game for you?”

Many of his works are entirely imaginary invention with no connection to his life. In his poem “A faith brief memoir” for example is narrated by one of 3 mythological fates (historical backdrop against which Shahid writes The Country without a Post Office). He felt the early 1990s to be a personal turning point, after which he became increasingly preoccupied with the effective war aking place in his distant homeland.
Another concern that Shahid takes a longer view of Empire than simply focusing on the situation of states hurriedly carved up in the post-war period out of bits and pieces of nationalism, by hard-up and harried ex-colonizers. Many of the poems’ epigraphs connect the Kashmir conflict with earlier anti-colonial struggles elsewhere. For example, Shahid quotes W.B. Yeats’ lines, ‘wherever green is worn / A terrible beauty is born’ (24). Yeats employs green, the color associated with the ‘emerald isle’ as a device in his poem ‘Easter, 1916’ to argue for Irish independence from Britain in the early twentieth century. However, green is also the color associated with Islam, so Shahid neatly draws comparisons between Ireland and Kashmir’s troubles — both in large part deriving from colonization by British. He takes an even longer view of Empire, reminiscent of the sweeping argument of Ashcroft et al. in The Empire Writes Back, when he quotes Tacitus at the beginning of Part I of the collection. In his writings, the Roman historian Tacitus reports a British chieftain’s speech, which includes the line ‘Solitudinum faciunt et pacem appellant’, meaning ‘They [the Romans] make a desolation and call it peace’. Like the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, therefore, Shahid gives us a broad view of history, showing that European empires are not the only ones to have existed, and showing impermanence: ‘this too shall pass’. Many societies have had cruel systems of control over others, and Shahid shows that even Britain was once so afflicted, under the Roman Empire.

What sets Agha Shahid use of ghazal as a medium to express his love and longing is the rejection of the dualities that a diasporic writer is often branded with; Kashmiri-American, Shia-Muslim, Indian –American are rejected by him. Instead he declares “There is Muslim in me and there is Hindu in me.” Secondly what makes Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazal relevant in present time of cultural fragmentation and extreme polarity is its contribution in being a bridge between different cultures, religion and language spaces. As a writer who introduced ghazals to the occident, Ali sought to embrace the mire of hyphenated identities that he found himself in. these diasporic expressions were captured in his ghazals which are not only the reflection of the home that he left behind but also a larger world that he occupying then. Ghazals reflected the personal anguish of the poet himself but also merged the personal with the political to bridge the cultures across space and time

“Even things that are true can be proved.” Even they?
Swear not by Art but, dear Oscar Wilde, by exiles.

Don’t weep, we’ll drown out the Calls to Prayer, O Saqi—
I’ll raise my glass before wine is defiled by exiles.

Was—after the last sky—this the fashion of fire:
autumn’s mist pressed to ashes styled by exiles?

If my enemy’s alone and his arms are empty,
give him my heart silk-wrapped like a child by exiles.

Will you, Beloved Stranger, ever witness Shahid—
two destinies at last reconciled by exiles?

(Call me Ishmael tonight 28-29)

Nostalgia and memory loss which in his works are an attempt to understand the violence of cultural-national severance and it is here his individual memory is merged with the communal memory. For example his personal memory and nostalgia for his homeland is merged with the Kashmiri public’s memory of violence suffered in the decade of 1990. History here itself becomes a form of violence. As a Kashmiri-Indian –American writer he is also trying to assimilate both his Kashmiri heritage as well as his adoptive culture. There is also a tension between the violence of memory and the violence of assimilation which is visible in his poetry. In the poem “Post card from Kashmir” he talks nostalgically of his homeland
“The half inch Himalayas
…This is the closest
I’ll ever be to home”

Agha shahid Ali is also a diaspora writer in whose poems one can find that there is a loss of double consciousness; being separated from his homeland and witnessing the frequent and unfortunate transformation of his homeland. The decade of violence was the one Kashmir witnessed in the from 1990’s. From a garden of Eden to a place of sin and suffering. He relies on his matrineal history to weave memory, history, sentiment into poetry of lyrical grace. In poems like “In the memory of begum Akhtar” he returns to the theme of memory and forgetting.

He is credited with introducing and popularizing the Ghazal form in American poetry. Ali’s poetry is autobiographical with allusions to exile and Ali’s identity as a Kashmiri. His work melds the landscapes of Kashmir and America, along with the conflicted emotions of exile, immigration and in his later works, loss, illness and mortality. 
 Ali was a noted writer of ghazals, a Persian form that utilizes repetition, rhyme and couplets. As editor of Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (2000), he described the long history of fascination of Western writers with ghazals, as well as offering a succinct theoretical reading of the form itself. In his introduction he wrote, “The ghazal is made up of couplets, each autonomous, thematically and emotionally complete in itself… once a poet establishes the scheme—with total freedom, I might add—she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master.” Ali’s own book of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight (2001), frequently references American poets and other poems, creating a further layer of allusive tension.

Also very interestingly Ali constantly strives to bring an international dimension to the Kashmir situation. As a Kashmiri-American, Shahid wants to look at Kashmir from a broader perspective than the local geopolitics of South Asia. He achieves this by drawing comparisons with conflicts elsewhere in the world — Bosnia, Chechnya, and Palestine — in an approach that is humanist, but also alert to the sufferings of Muslim peoples in recent history. Shahid can favourably be compared with other “Regional” writers like Seamus Heaney from Ireland, Derek Walcott from the Caribbean and Mahmoud Dervish from Palestine, whose art is surcharged with the politics of their native countries. What these writers share is a rootedness in place and native landscape. The Palestinian critic, Edward Said comments: “this is poetry whose appeal is universal, its voice unerringly eloquent.”1 Ali writes his poetry which pleads of the great loss of his mother and motherland, friends and foreign land, his beloved, Kashmir and his love for life. Throughout his volumes of poetry the image of displacement, loss and nostalgia is resplendent. Interestingly through his poems Ali links the destiny of Kashmir with his own destiny.

 ‘will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain. ‘

Right from his first collection of poems, Bone-Sculpture, we can see the sense of loss and longing in one form or another. Ali’s next collection, A Walk Through the Yellow Pages, lifts the poet from the sense of loss and destruction to enjoy a slightly lighter vein. In the Half- Inch-Himalayas, Ali’s sense of loss and longing takes another dimension of his nostalgic feelings. Here he focuses on a specific situation, when he wrote about the loss and this loss had a name---India, Kashmir and his own clan Agha family in Kashmir.
In The Country without a Post Office, Agha Shahid Ali’s sense of loss and longing reaches its climax, where Kashmir becomes the centre stage of his thoughts. The very title of anthology is suggestive of the complete and all-pervasive sense of loss for the poet. It’s a look on Kashmir that is, current history and poetry in the sense that the people of Kashmir are still for the democracy in real sense. It brings on forefront the feelings of the people their pain, suffering and anguish. They are still waiting for the day when their pain would come to an end, whatever the people of Kashmir have experienced in the past decades, the bloodshed, losing the dear and losing the peace for which Kashmir was known. In the 1990’s for seven months, there was no mail delivered in Kashmir, because of political unrest and violence
In the poem “Post card from Kashmir” he talks nostalgically of his homeland
““The half inch Himalayas
…This is the closest
I’ll ever be to home”

Agha Shahid Ali book ‘Call me Ishmael’ is a book of ghazals. Ali had worked hard to introduce the Persian form of poetry in English and he was successful and is hailed as the first Poet to bring this form of poetic form to English writing prompting may American writers to try this form of writing with its original rules which are applied in Urdu poetry.

Thus the writing of Agha Shahid Ali interweaves the theme of loss and longing for the homeland of Kashmir. As a writer of diverse identities he celebrates his cultural and geographical hybridity through his Ghazals which work as a bridge between his homeland Kashmir and America which is also a home to him. He ends all his poems on a positive note and is hopeful that things will be peaceful back in his homeland.


1) Ali, Agha Shahid, “A Country without a Post office”.
2) Ali, Agha Shahid, “The Veiled Suite”.
3) Ali, Agha Shahid, “The Ravishing Disunities”.
4) Arnold Craig, Reviewed Work: Rooms Are Never Finished by Agha Shahid Ali
5) Benvenuto, Christine,”Agha Shahid Ali”. The Massachusetts Review
6) Ghosh, Amitav,” The Ghat of the only World: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn”
7) Kiernan,.V.J, “Poems by Faiz”. Oxford University Press, 1971/2000
8) King,Bruce “Agha Shahid Ali’s Tricultural Nostalgia.”, Journal of South Asian Literature
9) Mehrotras, Krishna,” The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets
10) Matoo, Neeraj “Agha Shahid Ali as I knew him”; Indian Literature, Vol -46
11) Woodland Malcolm, “Memory’s Homeland: Agha Shahid Ali and the Hybrid Ghazal”.


  1. Dear Scholar Farhain Khan, I appreciate your effort and wish you best of luck for further research and good work.
    Regards and love from Pakistan


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