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DAWN - Features; April 27, 2002

April 27, 2002


Not Irfana’s latest, surely?

IF ANY recent publication has thoroughly disappointed me it is Harf-i-Shireen, the latest (?) poetic collection of Irfana Aziz. The book did not come to me directly, as most books do, but I did manage to see it through the courtesy of a friend.

Now Irfana Aziz is a poet whom I hold in the highest esteem and consider her to be among the front-ranking ones in the country. However, the contents of her new book have surely disappointed me. It seems she has been misguided by someone professing to be her friend and making her agree to have this kind of poetry published. She is a much more mature poet than what she appears to be in these teenage ghazals. Such poetry could have been appreciated at some juncture and under certain circumstances but has now lost its value.

If I am not far wrong, one of the ghazals in this collection, and not a bad one either, was written in 1956. But why have it published in 2002? It appears she has fallen prey to the guiles of some publisher as I am sure she herself must have discarded these compositions over the years.

It is evidently some bright guy who has given them a new lease of life to exploit her name. I am particularly grieved to see this publication because I am sure Irfana has a lot of top class work lying unpublished. Why doesn’t some one ask her to bring her best and get it put into print? I am particularly interested in her nazms, some of which I have heard from her in the past, and which reflect her mental maturity and creative imagination.

Irfana has already produced two excellent collections of poetry — Berg Rez, published in 1971, and Kaf-i-Bahar in 1985. Going through them, a man of the stature of Ali Sardar Jafri was forced to comment: “The titles chosen by Irfana for her books bespeak her exquisite poetic taste”. Another top poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who heard Irfana in her student days, considered her worthy of being ranked among the top-most modern poets. Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi is also on record having said about her that after Allama Iqbal he found the apt, appropriate and spontaneous use of Persian words and constructions only in Irfana Aziz’s poetry. Would any literary stalwart say the same about her after going through Harf-i-Shireen? But, as I have indicated at the beginning of this piece with the help of a question mark, this is definitely not the latest collection of Irfana Aziz but one from her teething days in poetry.

* * * * * * *

IN order to keep the marsia alive in the Punjab, an association of marsia writers was formed in 1998. Syed Wahidul Hasan Hashmi, a recognized authority on the marsia and author or compiler of almost 70 books on ecclesiasticism, literary criticism and other topics, was appointed its convener.

He found that there were 26 poets in the province who wrote marsias. In 2000, he produced a book, Hal Min Nasrin, carrying marsias from nine such poets.

It is totally wrong to say that it is a wayward poet who takes to marsia writing. In fact Maulana Shibli ranked it as the topmost genre in Urdu poetry. It is indeed a formidable challenge for a poet to write a marsia which is solemn in contest, strong in sentiment and fresh in approach. Concentrating on the poignancy of the tragedy of Karbala, the poet has to use appropriate imagery and discover the roots of universal verities and the philosophy underlying the martyrdom of the grandson of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) that changed the course of the history of our faith.

In the book, the compiler had traced the history of the Urdu marsia and considered Sikander Punjabi, a contemporary of Mir Taqi Mir, to be the first from the Punjab. However, he spent most of his life in Delhi and ended up in Hyderabad Deccan where he died in 1800. The next from the Punjab was stated to be Nazim Husain Zaidi who was born in Muzaffarnagar but died in Lahore in 1917. He is followed by Dalu Ram Kausari, a Hindu convert, Hakim Ahmad Shuja, Suhail Banarsi, Johar Nizami and others.

Syed Wahidul Hasan Hashmi has now come up with the second edition of Hal Min Nasrin in which he has presented the works of 12 marsia writers, both men and women. He has also given brief life sketches of the poets.

In the introduction to this edition Hashmi has come up with some information which is fresh, at least for me. Although Dr Abul Lais Siddiqui, in his book, Luckhnow Ka Dabistan-i-Shairi, says that Mirza Rafi Sauda was born in Delhi, Hashmi Sahib contends that his father, Mirza Shafi Sauda, initially lived in Lahore and it was there that Sauda was born. He has also reproduced some parts of a marsia written in Punjabi by Mirza Sauda.

Apart from introducing some others belonging to the Punjab or having lived in the province, Hashmi Sahib makes mention of the renowned artist, Sadequain, who wrote a marsia in the metre of a rubai.

* * * * * * *

SOME time ago, I had written that the chairperson of the literary organization, Adab Serai, Shahnaz Muzzammil, was on a visit to Britain, probably to return a call from the poet and social worker, Razia Ismail, who lives there and was here last year. But now I have been put wiser by Shaista Hasan, the editor of the monthly, Shohar-i-Namdar who tells me that Shahnaz has, in fact, gone in response to an invitation from the Birmingham-based Ladies International Forum for Social Welfare and would be presenting a paper at a women’s international conference under the heading, Urdu Literature and Women’s Issues. —Ashfaque Naqvi

TV REVIEW: Double standards

IT’S ALL right for PTV to have double standards sine it is state-owned. And, cynical as it might sound, that’s something to be expected of a state broadcaster, especially in the developing world. However, it’s another story if media outlets, especially in America or Europe, follow such practices because these countries often like to lecture the rest of the world on human rights, democracy and so on.

Take the case of the referendum. If you support it you can somehow manage to come on PTV news bulletins. Political parties that aren’t all that well-known or large (most have a dozen or so members consisting of the ‘leader,’ his immediate family and household servants) have been coming on PTV. Other nobodies who would not be given a centimetre’s worth of space in the independent print media have become talk show regulars. Some would, however, say that partial credit should be given to PTV for at least inviting opponents of the president’s referendum. However, doesn’t that mean that the ground rules are still being set by the state broadcaster and it is really up to it to call or not call a particular individual. And if a particular individual is called, does that mean that the channel should be thanked profusely for doing a wonderful job of being objective? This is how in general most state institutions — even entities like PIA, Wapda, PTCL or KESC — manage to alter the rules of doing business, obviously for their own benefit. They generally don’t do a good job at all of doing what they should anyway be doing — in most cases, providing efficient and reliable service or attending to customers’ complaints promptly. And, when they do manage do to act in an efficient and cooperative manner with their customers? They expect much credit for it, implying that they are doing all of us a favour.

Ok, now a look at what happens abroad. Countries that like to lecture us on democracy and good governance do not generally have state-owned broadcasters. There are a few exceptions in the case of the BBC in Britain or PBS (Public Broadcasting System) in America or Deutsche Welle in Germany but by and large most broadcasters and newspapers are in the private sector. However, an ironic situation happens here since corporate and sometimes political considerations (as happens all the time in the US) sway editorial decisions except perhaps in the state-owned entities. The reason for this is that corporations have much more influence than the public spirited and politically conscious citizens on whose donations a channel like PBS operates. In any case, private news channels like CBS, NBC, MS-NBC, Fox, ABC or CNN have a responsibility to their share-holders. More often than not, the majority shareholders are huge conglomerates which in turn often align themselves with the main political parties (again common in America where the Republican Party is a particularly large recipient of corporate largesse). Even some of the most influential newspapers in the world, especially The New York Times and The Washington Post, are not immune from this kind of (usually covert) interference.

A good example of this, according to US media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (, is the way the American media covered the abortive coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez early this month.

The editorial boards of several major US newspapers followed Washington in saying that the coup was a great service to democracy. Compare this to what The New York Times recently said about Musharraf’s referendum and how the US government must ask him to take the democratic path. (Such a comparison should not be taken in any way to mean an endorsement of the referendum).

In an editorial on April 13, the Times declared that Mr Chavez’s “resignation” meant “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.” The word “coup” was not mentioned, perhaps deliberately, but its consequences were rationalized by a reference to the fact that the Venezuelan military had intervened and “handed power to a respected business leader.”

Mr Chavez was called “a ruinous demagogue.” The paper said that the country needed a new election quickly so that a leader “with a strong democratic mandate” could emerge. Thus, the fact that Mr Chavez was indeed elected democratically was conveniently ignored and mentioned only in passing with the qualifier that he had been “elected president in 1998.” Lest it be accused of wholeheartedly approving military takeovers, the paper then said that such things were not usually considered democratic but that with “continued civic participation... further military involvement” in Venezuelan politics could be kept “to a minimum.”

The Times didn’t really know what the next three days would have in store for at least its editorial writers. Mr Chavez soon retu-rned to power, crucially assisted by the commander of a major military base who had refused to join the smallish band of senior officers who had ousted him in the first place. It’s worth printing a chunk of the second editorial, printed on April 16, in which the paper tried to absolve itself of its earlier pro-coup stand. It reads: “In his three years in office, Mr Chavez has been such a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer.”

The Chicago Tribune, FAIR pointed out, “seemed even more excited” by the events of April 13. Consequently, its editorial of April 14 said: “It’s not everyday that a democracy benefits from the military’s intervention to force out an elected president.” It further wrote that now that Mr Chavez was “safely out of power and under arrest” he would no longer be free to “toasting Fidel Castro, flying to Baghdad to visit Saddam Hussein, or praising Osama bin Laden.” So, even if you are democratically elected as long as you admire Fidel Castro, visit Baghdad or express a liking for Osama bin Laden you are liable to be removed by force. (As it turns out, according to FAIR which later rang up the editorial board member who wrote the piece, Mr Chavez had never praised Osama bin Laden.)

However the Tribune — perhaps to its ‘credit’ — refused to do an about-turn after Mr Chavez stormed back to power saying that while it may come as “good news to Latin American governments that had condemned his removal as just another military coup... that doesn’t mean it’s good news for democracy.” A sound contradiction if ever there was one.

Newsday, another widely read paper, greeted the coup with an April 13 editorial saying that Mr Chavez was known for his “confrontational leadership style and left-wing populist rhetoric” and that he deserved what had happened to him because of his “incompetence as an executive” and “mismanagement of the nation’s vast oil wealth.”

Three days later, the paper ran a second editorial, coming to, as FAIR points out, the ‘remarkable conclusion’ that “if there is a winner in all this, it’s Latin American democracy, in principle and practice.”

The only notable exception to this were the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. The latter waited until the April 17 and then ran its editorial called Venezuela’s Strange Days. The paper wrote “it goes against the grain to put the name Hugo Chavez and the word ‘democracy’ in the same sentence” but then said “it’s one thing to oppose policies and another to back a coup.” The Post, however, was one of the few major US papers whose initial reaction was to condemn the coup outright. Though heavily critical of Chavez, the paper’s April 14 editorial said that “any interruption of democracy in Latin America is wrong, the more so when it involves the military”. —OMAR R. QURAISHI