Class of 2015: Afghan Doctoral Student Finds a ‘Home’ in French Study

Editor’s note: In the run-up to this weekend’s Final Exercises on May 16 and 17, UVA Today is introducing readers to some of the outstanding members of the Class of 2015. All of the stories, plus other information about Finals Weekend, are compiled here.

Sage Morghan’s life has led her from an idyllic childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan to the harsh winters of Nebraska to small-town life in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia. She’ll graduate Saturday with a Ph.D. from the Department of French, where she focused on French cinema and wrote her dissertation on Agnes Varda, an independent filmmaker and installation artist.

Having spent most of the past two years studying – with fellowships – in Paris, where she met Varda, she’ll return there this summer to teach at the Sorbonne Nouvelle.

One of six children of Kabul University’s chancellor and a homemaker mother, Morghan remembers playing in the huge yards of the family compound surrounded by walls that also held gardens and an orchard. Their home was in the same area Afghan author Khaled Hosseini described in his 2003 best-selling novel, “The Kite Runner.”

“It was a happy place, but I remember something changed. … The mood changed,” she said. After the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, which began in late 1979, her parents stopped letting her cross the street alone to visit friends – or even leave the yard.

Later, in 1984, when her father saw that things weren’t improving, the family fled the country.

Morghan, then 8, said she remembers being bewildered as the family escaped in the middle of the night and joined several other families being smuggled over to Pakistan. Her father left separately, taking an even more perilous journey. He sought asylum for them in the United States and was sponsored by the director of Afghan studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, which is a sister school to Kabul University.

The university had helped about 30 other Afghan families living in Omaha, and they formed a close-knit community, she said, enabling them to continue their culture and values and impart them to the children. Morghan still speaks Pashto with her parents and siblings, who are teaching it to their children. She also speaks Dari, another Afghan language.

Two brothers and three sisters have remained in the U.S., but Morghan’s parents have a home in Kabul, as well as one in Omaha. “They love Afghanistan. It has never left their hearts,” she said.

Her father was invited to return to that country during Hamid Karzai’s presidency to help draft a new constitution and to work in the justice department.

Morghan said she’s “not ready to go back,” although she appreciates her Afghan heritage. Her parents came to the U.S. to give their children the opportunity for higher education, she said. Hence, unlike her mother, she has not led the traditional life of a typical Afghan woman.

Although Morghan majored in French at the University of Colorado-Boulder, she took a detour, pursuing a master’s degree in teaching English as a Second Language from Long Island University, where she was a New York City Teaching Fellow, staying for four years and teaching at a primary school in Brooklyn.

She eventually realized she wanted to return to studying French literature and culture, she said. An adviser at Colorado recommended three graduate programs, including U.Va.’s. “Exhausted from living in a big city,” she said, the size of Charlottesville sounded just right.

“U.Va. and Charlottesville gave me a strong sense of community. The French department is a tight-knit group. Everyone has been very supportive,” said Morghan, who taught preschool in Charlottesville for a year at the International School before entering the master’s/Ph.D. program in 2009.

The department’s graduate program offered an array of topics she was interested in studying, as well as opportunities for studying abroad, she said.

“Of course, Thomas Jefferson’s relationship to France was a historical selling point,” she added.

Focusing on cinema was not at the top of her list. She didn’t see a movie until she was 17 and took only one film studies class in college. But the canon of French film was part of the reading list for the master’s exam, and when she reviewed the work of Varda, she fell in love with it right away, she said.

“She drew me into her film world. It immediately absorbs you,” she said.

Morghan described Varda’s work as “sensual,” “elegant,” “sensitive,” “funny” and “playful.” Varda blurs the line between documentary and fiction, always including herself and the camera in her films. Even though her work is not commercial or mainstream, most of her films can be appreciated by anybody, Morghan said, because of their human appeal.

Her meeting with the filmmaker in Paris was serendipitous. Morghan stopped by Varda’s production company to drop off some copies of a journal in which she had published an article on Varda. One of the workers asked if she’d like to take them to the artist herself. They talked for about a half-hour before going across the street together, where Varda was giving a talk.

“I was nervous because I admired her,” Morghan recalled. “I didn’t want to seem effusive, but it was an honor and a pleasure. I didn’t want it to end.”

She said that Varda, at 86, was sharp and succinct, giving her meaningful responses to her questions. They continued the discussion in email, where Varda answered several more questions that Morghan couldn’t find answers to in other sources. “It enriched my dissertation,” she said.

Alison Levine and Janet Horne, associate professors in U.Va.’s French department, said the filmmaker – who Horne said “has cult status among aficionados of French cinema” – now appreciates Morghan as an astute critic and scholar who really understands her work. The professors praised Morghan’s command of language, as well as her scholarship.

“It is hard to express how moving it is to me,” Levine said, “how elegantly she expresses herself in the two languages that are the currency of our department and our academic work – English and French – while neither is technically Sage’s ‘native’ language.”

Horne said, “She has navigated several cultures, languages and identities and, as a woman, it has not always been easy for her to pursue a path of personal autonomy. Maybe that is how she made a ‘home’ in French – a language and a culture that offered her new space for linguistic and intellectual expression.”

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Anne E. Bromley

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