A LANGUAGE FAR FROM HOME

11 Jun 2017

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“THAT day, everyone who learned about the death 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 presented his latest at a session of the Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq, New York — a literary movement that began in Lahore back in 1939. As the author’s work discussed diaspora issues, a small audience of mainly middle-aged, first-generation Pakistani immigrants expressed appreciation.

After Naqvi’s reading concluded, the floor was opened for the audience. Halqa members took 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 — told Dawn. “Some literary work is read out and then it is open for critical appreciation.”

As the evening progressed, other authors and poets took the stage. Khalil Ur Rehman, the editor-in-chief of Urdu Times USA, photographed them all. A South Asian man stood at a newsstand right outside the venue, an eatery in Jackson Heights, carefully reading a copy of Urdu Times — arguably North America’s most prominent Urdu-language weekly.

Changing times

Urdu Times USA started off in 1980 as a New York-based community newspaper. The paper’s editor, Khalil Ur Rehman, would get copies of Pakistani Urdu newspapers from PIA staffers flying in. Having thus obtained the latest scoop, Rehman and his team would start work on their paper.

Today, thanks to advancements in technology, Rehman’s life is easier in many ways. Most of the Urdu Times’ staff is now based in Lahore. The publication’s footprint has also increased, with it being produced from various metros in the United States, Canada and England.

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

While he recognises that there has been a global decline in print readership, he feels that 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 said. He added 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.”

Syed Saeed Naqvi pointed out that barely any youngsters attend Halqa sessions. But he retains hope and sees people trying to get more New Yorkers interested in the Urdu language. “There are efforts being made to try and introduce Urdu as a second language here,” he said, referring to Urdu programmes at the New York University and Columbia University.

Urdu at the 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 and develop the programme back in 2002.

“Urdu has traditionally been taught together with Hindi in the US,” she said. “But this changed after 9/11. The programme director, Professor Gabriela Ilieva, saw a need to separate the two languages by creating two tracks.”

The Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the NYU now houses separate Urdu and Hindi programmes.

“We hope to create real interest in the Urdu language and culture among students,” said Naqvi. To do so, the professor introduces her students to Urdu poetry and fiction. Every semester, she has about 30 students in her classes, most of them of Pakistani or Indian origin.

For many of her students, taking 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 amongst second-generation South Asians,” Naqvi said. “With this comes a need to explore these roots, to develop a relationship with them, to secure one’s identity.”

The department seems to provide students an environment conducive to such exploration. This is apparent in some of Naqvi’s interactions with her former 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.”

“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,” explained Naqvi. “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.”

(A longer version of this article can be accessed at www.dawn.com.)

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2017