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A poetless Pakistan

Updated Feb 14, 2014 02:55pm


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The oppressions of another age seem distant in the shadow of our current pains. In the echoes of talks and counter-talks of missing activists and roaming drones, of continuing blasts and ongoing operations; the hardships of the past seem murky against the degradations of the present. Pakistan has fought wars, has lost wars, has lost a piece of itself and yet, nothing seems as dark, as the arriving age. Its coming; sold as the arrival of “peace” promises a wilful embrace of darkness, a knowing union with ignorance. Those who dread the coming of those times may wonder, will there be poets in the Pakistan of the future?

Faiz Ahmed Faiz asked the same questions and his 103rd birthday, celebrated on February 13, 2014 seems an apt time to consider it again. Faiz’s own wrestling with the question has been poignantly captured in a volume on his life published by Ali Madeeh Hashmi and Shoaib Hashmi through the Faiz Foundation. Entitled “The way it was once” the volume presents Faiz’s own tribulation filled life and political struggles in a way particularly pertinent to the clamor of our Taliban laden times. Indeed, Faiz asked similar questions of his own poetic mentor, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. As is recounted in Hashmi’s biography, he found some direction in Ghalib’s verse;

(if) the River Tigris is not visible in a drop and the whole in a small part; it is but child’s play not a seeing eye.

Borne of this direction, Faiz’s path as a poet thus, was woven inextricably with his politics, he saw the poet as seer, his task to present in verse all the inequalities and injustices, festering in sight. Faiz put his manifesto in the introduction to his collection of poems, “Dast-e-Saba” it is incumbent upon the artist to not only observe but also to struggle. To observe the restless drops of life in his surroundings, it is dependent upon his vision to show them to others.

The drops of life that can be culled from the Pakistan of today are bloody ones. In Karachi and Peshawar where the incipient arrival of the Taliban hangs its shadows over all, we can recount their last coming in Kabul. “Kabul has fallen” wrote one newspaper correspondent in the last days of September 1996. Here in Pakistan, where we await the fall, living poets can tell themselves that the Afghan city was more devastated its historical relics and that its palaces and mosques had all already been destroyed. The poets of today can consider whether this is a sign of hope or of more destruction to come. In places where history still stands and portends to a different future, Faiz foresaw then of the new order that we fear today. In “The soil of my land” he wrote; “Blessings be upon the soil of my land, where they have decreed the custom that men should walk no more with heads held high.” So perhaps it will be once the destruction is done in the cities of Pakistan, when it is time to hang heads low and welcome the victors and the darkness they will bring with them.

In Faiz’s words for the poets of then and now, are the also calculations that are of the greatest concern for the times to come. If the task of the poet is that of presenting reflections of injustice, then an elimination of poets and poetry can present just what the Pakistan of the present moments seems to wish for. If injustice and inequality and want and need, all the things that Faiz saw and made visible are to be denied, ignored and sidelined, then the poet too must go and soon.

The poetless Pakistan that would remain, would be unencumbered by its own reflection, would be a world without a mirror free of the awareness of its ugliness. That dismal dawn too, was presaged by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and when it arrives in the poetless future, pristine and pure we can welcome it with his words from “Subhe Azadi” and murmur to ourselves, “This leprous brightness, this dawn which reeks of night; This is not the one — this long awaited morn” as heads fall and we lose ourselves in the darkness of a poetless Pakistan.

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (23) Closed

JB Feb 14, 2014 04:13pm

This generalization is a way too fanciful.

aa Feb 14, 2014 04:16pm

I dont understand why one wonders about if there would be poets. Art always comes out of pain otherwise it is not possible. Im afraid in Pakistan every street will produce not only poets but artists of all sorts.

asad Feb 14, 2014 05:13pm

Outstanding article... Appreciate the opportunity.

Mirza Iqbal Ashraf Feb 14, 2014 06:03pm

After Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Fraz is the last poet of Pakistan. Three years ago I said a poem in a Mushaira in the vicinity of New York to pay homage to Faiz Sahib. I was surprised to notice the disapproval of the group of today's poets present on the stage as if I was paying homage to an archaic poet while the audience was thrilled and applauding me at each of my verse said for the Great Faiz Sahib. We have forgotten Allama Muhammad Iqbal, but know Faiz Sahib and Fraz Sahib only through the voices of Noor Jahan, Mehdi Hassan, and some other singers.

Mirza Iqbal Ashraf

BRR Feb 14, 2014 06:22pm

The problem is not one of lack of poets in the future, but the lack of poets who dream lack of poets who hold the mirror to society. There will be plenty of poets who march with the victorious barbarians and sing their praise.

Nasir Feb 14, 2014 08:17pm

Nicely written but at least you could write Ghalib's verse in urdu for better taste and then should have done the translation.

M. Asghar Feb 14, 2014 08:54pm

For Faiz Ahmed Faiz's 103 birthday:

"Dar Bagh, shekoufeh shud shekoufaa",

Bar shakh, shafaqi shud saz sazaa,

As aah, akhtari shud souz souzaa,

oura, bidadi shud dagh daghaa.


"In the garden,a bud rose budding,"

On the branch, a twilight tuned up,

From a sigh, a star waxed flaming,

For HIM, the injustice grew hecticly hot.

Nasir Feb 14, 2014 08:55pm

After Faiz came Aleem and his contemporaries like Faraz and so on...however, only Obaidullah Aleem, who is considered as urdu poet of 21st centuary even by Faiz, understood the philosophy on which Faiz established himself, and Aleem enhanced to much further in his poetry, that is why Faiz once said about Obaidullah Aleem that "he is my son".

There are many in our younger generation who are students of these great poets and they continue to bare that mantle although not in Pakustan but certainly in Europe, Canada and the Great United States.

BRR Feb 14, 2014 09:23pm

@Mirza Iqbal Ashraf: Pakistanis in the west, especially their intelligentia, are perhaps one of the most reactionary lot in the world - no wonder they do not want to hear or acknowledge Faiz.

mir Feb 14, 2014 11:16pm

@JB: this generation is the future and is full of poets and brave youth.valentines day to faiz and mir taqi mir

Shahpur Feb 14, 2014 11:44pm

Faiz was the product of its time, new Pakistan will definitely produce new versions of Faiz.

Ahad Feb 15, 2014 02:01am

I just read this in the darkness, on a screen the only bright thing around. Says it all, really.

Rajeev Feb 15, 2014 02:24am

(if) the River Tigris is not visible in a drop and the whole in a small part; it is but child

Danny Feb 15, 2014 02:48am

Nisar mein teri galiyon pe aye watan ke jahan, chali hai rasm ke koi na sar utha ke jiye...

Nisar ..the word does not translate into "..blessings be upon.." The poet is pledging his life, sacrificing it for the nation..for even in this state where no one is allowed to walk with their heads held high..he still feels he owes his all to the country.

Just a minor correction. Otherwise I'm always a big fan of your writing.

Also..lets not forget the ending of this very poem:

Gar aaj tujh se juda hain to kal behem honge, Ye raat bhar ki judaai to koi baat nahi, Gar aaj auj pe hai taala'-e-raqeeb to kya, Ye chaar din ki khudai to koi baat nahi, Jo tujh se ehd-e-wafa istewaar rakhte hain, Ilaaj-e-gardish-e-lail-o-nihaar rakhte hain!

Ishrat Feb 15, 2014 03:39am

More pertinent question is; Do we need poets, more than we need peace, food and stability? One of the great poets himself stated, not so long ago : "Shmashir o sunnan awwal - Taoos o rubab akhir" Roughly translated as : Peace, using sword first, celebrations, the last.

K B Kale Feb 15, 2014 06:18am

Excellent article, madam. But do the Pakistanis at large care? Democracy has returned to Pakistan and awam has to bring good people to PAs & NAs (and more importantly, keep out mullahs and maulanas) to bring in the change. Good luck.

Ali Feb 15, 2014 06:29am

Only for Faiz:

Hosla le kay iss mahaaz pe chal parha hai ek insaan, na khushi, na ghum, na hi jhonpri aur na hi koi makaan, is sub ke saath nikla hai ko manzil kay liay, na koi khushi na hi koi ghum, bus ek ehsaas liay

Anwar Sadaat. Feb 15, 2014 09:45am

Great article. Rafia is a very writer, but she uses very difficult words.

Anwar Sadaat. Feb 15, 2014 09:46am

Great article. Rafia is a very good writer, but she uses difficult words.

Anwar Sadaat. Feb 15, 2014 09:48am

Great Article. Rafia is a very good writer, but she uses difficult words. Even more difficult than Ayaz Amir.

ASHUTOSH MISHRA Feb 15, 2014 01:46pm

A fight for the idea, the soul of Pakistan...

Admirer Feb 15, 2014 04:57pm

Tujhko darya dili ki kasam saaqiya, mustakil daur par daur chalta raha raunak-e-maikada yoon hi badhti rahe ek girta rahe ik sambhalta rahe

 sirf shabnam hi shaan-e-gulistaa nahin
 shola-o-gul ka bhi daur chalta rahe
 ashq bhi chasm-e-purnam se behte rahe
 aur dil se dhooan bhi nikalta rahe

 tere kabze mein hai ye nizame jahaan
 tu jo chaahe to sehra bane gulsitaan 
 har nazar par teri phool khilte rahe
 har ishaare pe mausam badalta rahe

 is mein khoon-e-tamanna ki taaseer hai
 ye wafa-e-mohabbat ki tasveer hai
 aisi tasveer badle ye mumkeen nahin
 rang chaahe zamaana badalta rahe
anil sharma Feb 16, 2014 02:23pm

dear rafia, things may look bleak and the struggle may be long. but please keep faith in human ingenuity. throughout human history of all kinds of oppressors have been at work. but creativity has survived. pakistan would prove no different. the creative spirit would flourish regardless.-anil sharma,bhopal