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June 10, 2018


Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s Ghazal Cosmopolitan: The Culture and Craft of the Ghazal, is an indelible and highly recommended read for those seeking to appreciate the art and culture of the ghazal through the ages. The book centres on the acquired hybridity of the classical form of the ghazal through its variance and transmutation across the Arabo-Persian-Urdu canon and its eventual adaptation and evolvement into English in the United States. The multi-genre book, divided into four sections, spans a series of lyrical, craft and critical essays on language and the history, heritage and transformation of the ghazal, as well as essays on the culture and craft of its parent form, the qasida, and Hashmi’s original ghazals in English.

Born in Peshawar and based in California, Hashmi is the author of two award-winning poetry collections: Baker of Tarifa and Kohl and Chalk. Her work probes the exchanges at the crossroads of the distinct cultures she inhabits through heritage, memory and the present, be it her own exploration of life in America, the lost inter-cultural harmony of Muslim Andalusia, or the multiplicity that characterises her Pakistani identity. Her broad canvas and grounding within the literary cultures she writes from, and towards, renders her work as deserving of promotional value to readers in both the East and the West.

The same can be said of Ghazal Cosmopolitan, which is a project far from a monolithic attempt to inform Western readers about the Eastern poetics and culture of the ghazal. Instead, Hashmi probes through cultural history, her rooted knowledge of the form in Urdu, through her poetic career and her years of engagement and experimentation with the form in English. The project is spurred by a devotional voice and a deep longing to articulate and reconcile — through an understanding of the ghazal — a composite and pliable literary identity formed through Hashmi’s own divergent literary heritage.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s latest book pushes the traditional notion of the ghazal to espouse a broadened scope of concerns in its definition

At the heart of this heritage lies Hashmi’s commitment to both English and Urdu. ‘Silk Road Sherbet’, the opening chapter which relays a series of gorgeous lyrical essays, is a panegyric to the finesse of Urdu and the confluence of languages from which it was born. The tribute sets up a comparison to English, no less polygenetic and born out of a cultural exchange and nonetheless a language of an empire. Refreshingly, Hashmi pushes against the redundancy of “post-colonial angst” to embrace a more flexible, heterogeneous and grounded approach that binds her love for Urdu with her practice as a poet in English. Like Urdu, Hashmi explains, “English is both burden and treasure.” Moreover, she notes, both languages as “cultural gifts of empire are counterbalanced with the angst and the equalising forces of democracy in the lexical make-up of language.” If anything, Hashmi’s words would resonate deeply among emerging writers writing at a similar crossroads of languages and cultures.

The democratising force within language — its ability to encompass contradiction, diversity and expansiveness — Hashmi proposes, is one which the ghazal has upheld throughout the ages. From its fruition into Urdu by the 14th century Sufi poet Amir Khusro and through its transformation from the pre-modern to its contemporary aesthetics, through the words of eminent and noted poets across the East and West, the ghazal embodies a cosmopolitanism that cuts across polar historical realities and cultural traditions to encompass plurality in its spirit and form. Cosmopolitan, as Hashmi defines it, “is necessarily an active appreciation of disparate identities, a rejection of narrow constructs of identities, in fact, a rejection of all strictures; it is ownership as well as a divestment. It celebrates pluralism as fiercely as it forges an autonomous voice. The ghazal in its structure as well as its sensibility, not only allows contraries to cohabit, but in the best compositions it makes a demand to frame polarity in the same space.”

It is inspiring to read Hashmi’s exploration of the cosmopolitan sensibility as it transpires Khusro’s ghazals to the contemporary American poet Marilyn Hacker’s poems, be it the former’s penchant for moulding tropes from folklore with his sophisticated literary technique or the latter’s commingling of the historical and the personal; Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s characteristic use of paradox or, as Hashmi indicates, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Agha Shahid Ali’s ability to express political tension as romantic tension. Hashmi’s is an understanding that is contemporary and relevant as it pushes the traditional notion of the ghazal to espouse a broadened scope of concerns in its definition. Love and loss, though, remain at the heart of its cosmopolitan spirit. And in the best of its adaptations, the pursuit of harmony will be no less fervent than the ‘cry’ or ‘constant longing’ for the beloved of the traditional ghazal.

Despite the cosmopolitanism it enjoys with its classical and modern variants from the East, Hashmi reminds us that the ghazal in English raises its own unique challenges and failures. One of the book’s most engaging discussions is on the merits and complications of adapting the ghazal from Urdu into English. Personally a sceptic of the American ghazal — or the ghazal in English — Hashmi’s deliberations are convincing. They resolve an understanding of the ghazal in English by placing it under the aesthetic frameworks of each culture from which the Urdu and American ghazal emerge. The manoeuvre is necessary. Reading the ghazal in English from the contemporary American craft perspective, in which thematic unity is valued for clarity, one may appreciate the features carried over from Urdu, such as its thematically autonomous couplets, which create an effect of disunity. It is of equal value to discern the measures poets such as Hacker and Shahid Ali exercise to avoid the defining intensity of the Urdu ghazal, which, in a culture where restraint in expression is sought, can be read as sentimentality of hyperbole, as Hashmi elucidates.

As Hashmi rightly puts it, few ghazals, though, adapt well enough while retaining the original flavour. Her original ghazals and qasidas are a treat that close the collection, ‘Ghazal: Tangle’ and ‘Qasida of 700,000 Years of Love’ being among my favourites. Ghazal Cosmopolitan is a heartfelt and humane endeavour that seeks to bridge a vast network of cultures that may be divided by politics but remain united by the ghazal. A truly necessary work of literary scholarship and creativity, it deserves to be studied by every lover of literature for its celebration of a pluralistic poetic literary tradition that is rife with generosity and creative possibilities for the future.

The reviewer is a writer and lecturer based in Lahore

Ghazal Cosmopolitan: The
Culture and Craft of the Ghazal
By Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Jacar Press, US
ISBN: 978-0936481227

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 10th, 2018