Over My Shoulder is a collection of essays (and a few moving poems) by Alys Faiz, the British-born wife of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Commencing with a reverential love poem addressed to her husband, the narrative then proceeds over the course of three distinct sections. The first recounts general memories that centre on her home, family life, marriage, and transition to Pakistani culture. The second section is highly political in tone and aspect, and consists of a series of essays and vignettes that dwell on the couple’s life in Beirut in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The final section, ‘Look Back Gently’ comprises a set of writings on diverse aspects including her garden, her grandchildren, some memories of Britain, and her love of books. This particular section was serialised in She magazine a few decades ago and will thus nostalgically appeal to many readers who are already familiar with its contents, as well as entertain those who peruse it for the first time.
That Faiz and Alys were deeply fond of each other is evinced by how their marriage survived some remarkable challenges. Although she could have married a financially secure Englishman (who had proposed to her when young), the adventurous Alys chose to immerse herself in pre-Partition subcontinental culture and developed as deep a tie with Faiz’s homeland as she did with the poet himself. Her account of life in a joint family makes for amusing yet poignant reading. She notes that as a bride she came with next to no dowry, money or land; however, Alys recounts with joy how much she loved the beautiful banarsi wedding sari that Faiz bought for her with some money sent by her mother. Wearing it symbolised her general embracing of a culture that was vastly different from the one in which she had been raised. The marriage was a happy and successful one, albeit overshadowed by Faiz’s problematic treatment at the hands of the government.
The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case for which Faiz ended up imprisoned for four years in Montgomery Jail grimly underlies much of the narrative of the first section.
Refusing to be daunted by challenging circumstances, Alys took up an editorial job at the Pakistan Times in order to support herself and her two young daughters, Salima and Moneeza. It is a credit to Alys’s own solid domestic upbringing that she brought emotional stability into her children’s lives — both grew up to become noted professionals, the former in the world of art, the latter in the world of media. Moneeza was always a bubbly and irrepressible character, even when rather draconian school officials tied her left hand behind her back in order to encourage her to write with the right one. Her mother notes with amusement and a touch of pride that she remained a left-hander. On a political level, Faiz’s ideologically leftist leanings resulted in the family being kept under consistent watch by the government even when they chose to take a brief period of exile in Britain.
Alys Faiz’s collection of essays sheds light a life filled with joy, turmoil, adventure, and of course, words
Though moving to Britain meant inevitable displacement for her, Alys (always a dedicated worker) decided to apply for various jobs and was finally placed in a school for unruly and troubled children. Despite the fact that she had no previous teaching experience, she did her best at learning on the job. She handled this professional challenge with the grace and practicality that by now constituted a fundamental part of her nature. Always frugal, never extravagant, over the course of her marriage she developed the ability to make limited funds go a long way. Monetary constraints never prevented her from enjoying her life to the fullest and she made the most of her trips abroad with Faiz, displaying a keen interest in travel over the course of their married life.
Very well read, in her own way she was as deeply humanitarian and intellectually inclined as her husband, and accompanied Faiz to several prestigious international conferences, such as ones held by the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association. Always learning, she developed a strong sense of social justice over the course of her life that was honed by her exposure to a variety of different cultures. Her travels took her to places as diverse as Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mongolia and Russia. She admired the Russians’ stoic yet sensible way of life, stating that she was impressed with how they would save determinedly in order to afford an expense that truly mattered to them. Svetlana, one of her acquaintances, saved over the years so that she could purchase a harp for her daughter — a musical instrument that cost the earth in Russia in the 1960s. Since the Russian government took care of all of Svetlana’s basic financial needs, she could focus much of her attention on her daughter’s musical talent and goals. Alys was struck by how the Russians prioritised the arts in their lives regardless of constraint or circumstance.
Displaying a discerning eye for detail, she recounts many moments from her travels that collectively provide a rich historical picture of various cultures in the latter half of the 20th century. In a delightful manner she describes the yurts in which the Mongolians would socialise — yurts simply being shack-like rooms created by covering sticks with gaily painted and festive fabrics. Perhaps her greatest passion, when it came to cities, was reflected in her attitude towards Lahore. Although her tone in the book is generally measured and temperate, she displays genuine anger and grief at the unaesthetic and disturbing modernisation of this lovely city, a modernisation that curbed its greenery and thriving natural spirit.
Yet it was her stay in Beirut in the difficult years from 1979-82 that impressed most vividly on Alys’s consciousness. Faiz was editing the journal Lotus while stationed there, but the country was going through so much national trauma that the couple found themselves more endangered in that locale than they were in Pakistan. Nevertheless, neither of them was faint-hearted enough to make a rapid run for it — Faiz was eventually smuggled out of Beirut only when the situation was beyond redemption. Alys provides an astute political portrait of the country: its tensions with Israel, the plight of the Palestinian refugees that flooded it, its long and fascinating history, the French influence that still pervades, some traumatic assassinations, and the indomitable will of its people who struggled against all odds to live through trying and violent times.
In some ways she was as stoic as the Russians and Lebanese whom she admired — in spite of what she lived through she remained an optimistic and cheerful individual who developed the important skill of looking outside of herself. It was this talent that enabled her to capture the spirit of others in some memorable character sketches. Her portrayal of her competent mother-in-law, Bebe-ji, is written with an equal measure of admiration and perplexity. As a young foreigner there were naturally elements of Bebe-ji’s existence (such as her culinary prowess) that remained unfamiliar to her, but Alys appreciated that things such as familial love transcend cultural differences. Regardless of whether she is writing about someone as intellectual as her strong-willed brother-in-law M.D. Taseer or as humble as her redoubtable and loyal cook, all her sketches and vignettes display a genuine respect for human talent and intrinsic human dignity. One is far from surprised at how much she herself was adored by her family — children, grandchildren, and others.
I would have appreciated reading more about Alys’s relationship with Faiz, but on personal matters she displays an almost Victorian sense of restraint and privacy. Indeed, her grandmother, to whom Alys was close while growing up, was a bona fide Victorian herself. One does get the impression, however, that she could hold her own when it came to Faiz in that she admired, but was never over-awed by his personality. Given the breadth and depth of his genius, while they could not have been considered equals per se, they certainly come across as truly complementary partners, with each benefitting from the other.
Sang-e-Meel is to be commended for this publication; however, a future edition would be enhanced by close and extensive editing. On occasion the narrative comes across as somewhat disjointed and can make for difficult reading, especially for those who are not well-versed in Middle Eastern history or Pakistani culture. Nevertheless, the book is more than just a rambling memoir — it embodies the spirit of not just the spouse of one of Pakistan’s greatest icons, it also consolidates for posterity the voice of a woman who became an indelible part of Pakistani history herself.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.
Over My Shoulder
By Alys Faiz
Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 9th, 2016