New York’s ‘Urdu-wallahs’ want to help young Pakistan-Americans rediscover their roots

These New Yorkers are working to promote Urdu reading and writing in the Big Apple.
Updated 12 Jun, 2017 01:43pm

“That day everyone who learnt about the death had reached [our home] immediately.

Naveed, however, was unable to make it back from America. This was a Friday. How could he possibly get a visa on his American passport before Monday?”

These are the loosely translated opening words of Syed Saeed Naqvi’s Urdu short story Sayee Ki Talash [Searching for my Shadow]. Naqvi is presenting his latest at a session of Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq, New York — a literary movement that began in Lahore back in 1939. As the author’s work discusses Diaspora issues, a small audience of mainly middle-aged first-generation Pakistani immigrants expresses appreciation with shouts of ‘Wah! Wah!’ [Bravo!].

An audience member holds Syed Saeed Naqvi's story 'Sayee Ki Talash' as the author reads it at a Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq, New York session.—Hussain Afzal
An audience member holds Syed Saeed Naqvi's story 'Sayee Ki Talash' as the author reads it at a Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq, New York session.—Hussain Afzal

After Naqvi’s reading concludes he is applauded. The floor is now open for the audience to critique his writing. Halqa members take the podium one by one talking about intricate details like the author’s ‘alfaaz ka chunao’ [choice of words] and how it could be improved.

“That’s the Halqa way,” Naqvi — also the organisation’s current general secretary — says. “Some literary work is read and then it is open for critical appreciation.”

As the evening progresses, other authors and poets take the stage. Khalil Ur Rehman, the editor-in-chief of Urdu Times USA photographs them.

The venue for this event is a restaurant called Kabab King, located in the Jackson Heights neighbourhood. As Urdu high literature is discussed inside the eatery, out on the street an elderly South Asian gentleman audibly hurls Urdu abuses at someone over the phone. This locale in Queens is full of Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis. The multilingual shop signs here reflect this diversity. At a storefront, instead of Tag Heuer posters featuring Brad Pitt or Leonardo Dicaprio, Indian adverts of the brand with Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan are displayed.

Right outside Kabab King is a newsstand where a South Asian man is reading last week’s Urdu Times — arguably North America’s most prominent Urdu-language weekly.

Jackson Heights.—Hussain Afzal
Jackson Heights.—Hussain Afzal

Changing times

Things have changed since the 1980s, when Urdu Times USA started off as a New York-based community newspaper. Back then, the paper’s editor, Khalil Ur Rehman, would get copies of Pakistani Urdu dailies from PIA staffers who were flying into New York. After getting the latest scoop, Rehman and his team would start working on their paper. The headlines were calligraphed by an Urdu Times staffer who was the 'lone Urdu katib' in the city.

Thanks to advancements in technology, Rehman’s life is easier in many regards today. Most of his paper's staff is now based in Lahore.

The publication’s footprint has also seen an increase; Urdu Times is now produced from various metros in the United States (US), Canada and England.

A copy of the first-ever edition of Urdu Times USA.—Hussain Afzal
A copy of the first-ever edition of Urdu Times USA.—Hussain Afzal

Yet, readership is dwindling, Rehman laments. “I used to distribute 20,000 newspapers in New York at one point, today only about 5,000 copies reach readers,” he says.

While he recognises that there is a global decline in print readership, he feels all US-based Urdu-language newspapers will die out with his generation. “Children who were born here, or who came to America when they were very young, can speak Urdu but cannot read or write it,” he says. He adds that this happens with immigrants from all over the world, “There were many Spanish newspapers at one point, for example, but today even the biggest Spanish newspapers [in the US] have shut down.”

“My own children read The New York Times... but not Pakistani newspapers,” he says.

Syed Saeed Naqvi similarly shares that barely any youngsters attend Halqa sessions. “There are certain events where they might show up; but for the most part, very few — if any — people who are born here show up to these sessions.”

He is still hopeful and sees people trying to get more New Yorkers interested in Urdu language. “There are efforts to try and introduce Urdu as a second language here. In America, students have to study a second language [in college]… More recently there has been some interest in Arabic and we’re trying to push Urdu as well,” he says, mentioning the Urdu programmes at New York University and Columbia University.

Camera: Hussain Afzal; Edit: Kamran Nafees

The ‘Urdu-wallahs’ at NYU

The description on the Facebook page of NYU’s Urdu programme reads: “We, the Urdu-wallahs at New York University, are working to promote the Urdu language and the literary and social culture it is rooted in.”

Tahira Naqvi, a Pakistani-American academic, translator and author, was hired to teach at and develop the programme back in 2002.

“Urdu has traditionally been taught together with Hindi in the US. That was also the case at New York University,” Naqvi tells Dawn. But this changed after 9/11.

“The programme director, Professor Gabriela Ilieva, saw a need to separate the two languages by creating two tracks,” she says. The Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at NYU now houses separate Urdu and Hindi programmes.

“We hope to create real interest in Urdu language and culture among students,” Naqvi says. To do so, the professor introduces her students to Urdu poetry and fiction. She uses “authentic” Urdu materials to teach and engage the students. Lately, she has been using Burka Avenger to teach language through discussions of the social ills that plague Pakistani society.

A group photo of one of Tahira Naqvi's classes.—Photo courtesy Tahira Naqvi
A group photo of one of Tahira Naqvi's classes.—Photo courtesy Tahira Naqvi

Every semester, Naqvi has about 30 students in her classes. She stresses that this is a “big number” since NYU doesn’t have a South Asian Studies programme. Of these there are one or two ‘non-heritage’ students who are learning or brushing up on written Urdu to pursue research related to South Asia. But most students studying Urdu at NYU are of Pakistani or Indian-origin.

Interestingly, more recently Bangladeshi-origin students are also enrolling in the Urdu classes.

“For the Bangladeshi students, the Urdu classroom provides many things: further connections with the Pakistani or Indian (Urdu-speaking) students with whom they share a commonality as Muslims, a greater exposure to and understanding of Bollywood cinema — which everyone craves and which, along with the songs, keeps Urdu going in the subcontinent — and finally Urdu poetry, which is a big draw for the Advanced Urdu classes,” Naqvi explains.

For many students, opting to take an Urdu course means more than simply learning a language. “The facilities for travel, Facebook, the Internet, the evolving of Diasporas into assimilated communities — all have contributed to a heightened awareness of cultural and linguistic roots among the second generation South Asians,” Naqvi says. “With this comes a need to explore these roots, to develop a relationship with them in order to secure one’s identity.”

Professor Naqvi with her students.—Photo courtesy Tahira Naqvi
Professor Naqvi with her students.—Photo courtesy Tahira Naqvi

The department seems to provide students an environment conducive to such exploration. This is apparent in some of Naqvi’s interactions with her ex-students. Recently, a student from the Class of 2014 wrote to her saying, “I described myself as Pakistani, but your course illustrated what it means to truly identify as such.”

Another student, now heading to Berkley Law School, told her, “I am incredibly fortunate to have learned not just Urdu, but explored my culture more deeply, with you.”

Naqvi explains the importance of the work being done by 'Urdu-wallahs'. “Urdu’s relationship with this generation carries with it the immense and wonderful heritage of culture — tehziib — that includes poetry, prose, fiction, history, music, dance, festivals, traditions, clothing, mannerisms, politics, and so much more. To deprive a child of immigrants of these enriching elements is, in my opinion, a crime. In our own humble way, we who teach Urdu here in the US, try to provide a deterrent to this crime, so to speak,” she says.

The professor also takes pride in the events she organises at NYU. She says, “Beginning with Faiz, we have followed up with Iqbal, Manto, Ismat Chughtai, and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. Fahmida Riaz has visited us, also [Journalist] Saeed Naqvi, Syeda Hameed, from India. We have had events like “Sufi Music and Literature,” “The Urdu Ghazal and its Musical Counterparts,” dastaangoi, mushairas, talks, film screenings. Jago Hua Savera was shown at an event titled “Faiz and Film,” and became a controversial event, to our delight. We must create ripples in standing water. A first international Urdu conference was held at NYU in 2015, the second Urdu conference is scheduled for October of this year.”

Header illustration: Fahad Naveed