Agha Shahid Ali was born into a very highly educated, multilingual, and liberal Muslim family. In his introduction to The Rebel’s Silhouette, he recounts how his paternal grandmother quoted John Milton, William Shakespeare, John Keats, and Thomas Hardy in English; Hafiz and Jall al-Dn Rm in Persian; Faiz in Urdu; and Habba Khatun, Mahjoor, and Zinda Kaul in Kashmiri. While he was growing up, his immediate family lived in New Delhi, India; Srinagar, Kashmir; and Muncie, Indiana, where his parents (Agha Ashraf Ali and Sufia Agha Ashraf Ali) both completed their doctorates in 1964. English, Urdu, and Kashmiri were all spoken in his home. Ali considered English to be his first language (it was the only language in which he wrote) and Urdu to be his mother tongue.
As a child, Ali was educated in Roman Catholic schools, but he attended an American high school while his parents were in graduate school. Ali earned several degrees: a B.A. from the University of Kashmir (1968), an M.A. from the University of Delhi (1970), an M.A. (1981) and a Ph.D. (1984) from Pennsylvania State University, and an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona (1985).
Ali lectured at the University of Delhi from 1970 to 1975 before moving to the United States to teach, study, and write. At Pennsylvania State University, he served as an instructor from 1976 to 1983, and at the University of Arizona, he worked as a graduate assistant from 1983 to 1985. Ali became the communications editor in the marketing department of the JNC Companies from 1985 to 1987 in Tucson, Arizona.
Ali was assistant professor of English and creative writing at Hamilton College from 1987 to 1993. Subsequently, he became an associate professor of English and director of the master of fine arts in creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Ali also taught in the master of fine arts and doctoral programs at the University of Utah and the master of fine arts program at Warren Wilson College. He attained full professorship at the University of Utah in 1999. He held visiting appointments as professor or writer-in-residence at Princeton University, New York University, and the State University of New York, Binghamton.
Ali visited his parents in the summers in Srinagar, Kashmir, where they remained even after all their children had moved to the United States. However, Ali’s mother, accompanied by his father, came to the United States for brain cancer treatment in 1996. She died in 1997. Ali also died of brain cancer four years later.