After working for years to mend U.S.-Afghan relations through shared language and cultural understanding, UA doctoral student Felisa Hervey had a stroke before finishing her dissertation. She graduates with her Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Literature in May.
The first thing Felisa Hervey did when she landed in Tucson was march straight into professor Kamran Talattof’s office in the University of Arizona School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies in full U.S. Air Force uniform.
“I stood up, welcomed her, and I asked, ‘Have you been settled in Tucson?’” Talattof said.
Hervey had not even made it to the Air Force base. She was eager to learn how she could study Afghan women’s poetry. She has always loved poetry, but came to love this particular kind while living in Afghanistan years before.
Hervey – a poet and author, translator, U.S. Air Force veteran, Pat Tillman scholar, and stroke survivor working to rebuild her language abilities – will celebrate the completion of her doctoral degree in Middle Eastern literature this spring.
For the love of language and people
Hervey was born in California and spent her childhood in Chile and Kazakhstan before returning to the U.S. at 15. She was accepted to the Air Force Academy right before September 11, 2001. In 2003, before completing her bachelor’s degree, which she completed in 2006, she moved to Kabul to work in an orphanage and learn more about what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan.
By her early-20s, she was fluent in English, Spanish and Dari – the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan. She also spoke some Kazakh, Russian and Arabic.
Hervey has a deep love of language, but when it comes to poetry, especially by Afghan women, she can’t get enough, she said.
“I love it. Plain and simple,” she said.
Hervey learned Dari while living in Kabul and was delighted to find that poetry is a central fixture in Afghan culture, where is it regularly sprinkled into conversations.
After a year in Kabul, Hervey returned to the Air Force Academy and completed her degree. Without fulling realizing it at the time, she was armed with cultural understanding and a willingness to bring seemingly disparate people together.
In 2010, Hervey was deployed to Afghanistan, where she met Colonel Tim Kirk. The speech writer for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was deployed on a long-term mission at the time. He also spoke Dari, but when he was introduced to Hervey, “She made me sound like a three-year-old child,” he said. She was so good that the locals could not believe she wasn’t from the region.
Kirk, who earned his doctoral degree in military strategy, felt Hervey's talents were going to waste in her current position, so she joined his task force, commanded by H.R. McMaster. A Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, McMaster would eventually become the 26th National Security Advisor to the President of the United States.
The task force worked for three years to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and support “the Afghan government and people in confronting the complex and severe problems of corruption and organized crime,” McMaster wrote in a forward to Hervey’s 2013 book "Hearts for Sale! A Buyer’s Guide to Winning in Afghanistan," written under the pen name Farzana Marie.
“In a culture where respect and honor are everything, after a decade of Taliban propaganda you start off with two strikes against you if you’re an American,” Kirk recalled. “But Felisa was different... When she walked into a room and started talking like a local, but looked like an American, they immediately respected her. She’d obviously done something to learn the language and understand the culture.”
“Her empathy for the Afghan people and her listening skills invariably inspired positive action among courageous Afghans," McMaster wrote. “Her presence was extraordinary."
Hervey was invited to all kinds of events and appeared on radio and television shows. Millions of Afghans know her name.
“We couldn’t go anywhere without someone recognizing her,” Kirk said.
Hervey was also a walking example of the ideals Americans were trying to sell to Afghans, such as freedom and equality, Kirk said, calling Hervey a “secret weapon” and “national hero.” He knew there was power in a woman leading their engagement efforts. Moreover, her compassion completely defied the anti-American messages the Taliban were trying to feed the Afghan people.
Eventually, military bureaucracy ended Hervey's tour in the task force and her requests for further extensions in Afghanistan were denied. She completed a master’s degree at the University of Massachusettes, Boston, then enrolled at the University of Arizona, where she also made a strong impression.
“She prepared for classes, she listened passionately, she contributed generously,” Talattof said. “How many professors can you find who remember these details? It’s because she really stood out.”
Talattof eventually became the committee chair and advisor for Hervey's dissertation, in which she analyzed and contextualized Afghan women’s poetry.
“Her dissertation is in service of Afghan women writers, and it's unique and wonderful that she helped to bring their voices to the forefront,” said Susan Briante, UA associate professor of English and a member of Hervey’s dissertation committee. “When you consider her work with the Air Force, you realize she’s been using translation to help cultivate cultural understanding for many years.”
Hervey and Kirk eventually returned to Afghanistan in 2015 to continue some of their work. While there, Hervey continued to work on her dissertation at night. But before she could finish, she had a massive stroke.
She was 31 years old.
“It just didn’t make sense. A 31-year-old woman who’s in perfect health and eats well and runs marathons isn’t the one who’s supposed to have a stroke,” Kirk said. “Her impact was light years beyond any other American’s ability to change the game.”
As a result of her stroke, Hervey has aphasia, which is the loss of language, but not intellect.
She can’t yet speak in full, fluid sentences, but she’s found it helps her to say words she gets hung up on with rhythm. She also lost most of her ability to read and write, but she constantly works hard to regain these skills.
“Words and poetry are my world. Ironic, no?” Hervey said. “I can’t talk... But getting better every day.”
Hervey was set to graduate in December 2015. But Talattof and many others stuck with her, she said.
She’s grateful that she was 80 percent done with her dissertation at the time of the stroke and had already translated all the poems. But finishing that last 20 percent was “so hard. So hard,” she emphasized.
Months after her stroke, Hervey stopped by Talattof's office to make plans for finishing her dissertation. He said to her, “You have always been the star of this program and you will continue to be... I wasn’t wrong, because she’s a fighter. She tackled this problem like a lion – like a soldier. It took her a long time, but she did it.”
She composed her dissertation through her self-described “broken English” while friend and anthropologist Beth Furst helped her transfer her ideas to paper. Hervey defended her dissertation in August 2018.
Since her speech is hesitant, she also creatively incorporated other forms of media such as pictures, sound and audience interaction during the public portion of her dissertation.
"I’ve never felt more comfortable handing someone a degree,” Talattof said.
Hervey is driven by challenge, adventure and love, she said. It’s why she joined the Air Force, why she left to work in an orphanage, and why she returned to Afghanistan to incite positive change. She has written books and edited collections of poetry on the topic before her stroke.
Every day she works to regain her ability to read, write and speak fluently. Her first priorities are English, Spanish and Dari. She still loves to read and write poetry, and she’s currently working on her memoir. She is fond of the Dari phrase: “Qatra qatra darya meshya.” It means, “A river is made drop by drop.”
But rebuilding and practicing can be exhausting, she said. She's started a business, Meraki Motion, crafting mug covers to give her mind a break.
“Aphasia is hell. Aphasia is a battle. Aphasia could be a gift," Hervey said, then added in the broken speech she knows she will overcome, "Can't undo; live now."
“Recovery will continue for years," she said in a YouTube video as she read from prepared text, "because I’m strong, resilient and a fighter.”
UANews story by Mikayla Mace