Fahmida Riaz: The act of translation as mourning

I invite you to meet Fahmida in the liminal act of translation beyond the wall that divides the living from the dead.
Published January 7, 2019

In an earlier essay for Images, Fahmida Riaz: the woman who decolonised feminism, I paid tribute to the legacy of the late Urdu feminist poet, who left us last year in November.

In that essay, I touched upon Fahmida's engagement with concepts such as the nation, body, home, belonging, culture and the work of translation.

In this follow-up piece, which has resulted out of a renewed interest in her work, I want to build upon an injunction introduced in the first essay — “the best form of mourning a writer is to read their body of work” — and include the act of translation.

Translation acquires a new meaning in this manner for me: of mourning the life of the Other by inhabiting her text, internalising the vision of this text through the act of translation, as though it were my own vision, and rewriting this vision into the language I best know, the English language. To make the vision yours; to transform the dead into the living.

Related: Fahmida Riaz, the poet who lost two countries in one lifetime

It is essential, therefore, that this rewriting of visions does not turn the dead into a static thing, does not take advantage of the fact that the dead can not communicate with us. When this happens, translation becomes violence, and the rewriting, narcissistic: one can recreate Fahmida in any manner one wants, and in doing so, destroy the vision.

For example, Fahmida’s poetry relies on a heavy use of intertextuality and allusion to mythologies: words such as karb, jalal, jamal and maqtal haunt her work. Yet karb is not anguish, because karb is also a wordplay on Karbala: sound mimetic of meaning.

And jamal and jalal cannot be translated as majesty and strength, because they are meant to be read together, and in translation they lose their rhythm.

Fahmida, while she was using them, had felt that rhythm inside her body. For me to access the vision, I have to ensure that these rhythms are kept intact in my own body. Otherwise the vision will be lost. Therefore, in my translation of the following texts, I have let these words remain.

I begin by translating the preface to A Body Torn/Badan Dareeda, which is appearing here in its first ever translation.

Badan Dareeda was Fahmida’s first collection of explicitly feminist verse. The poems were about sex, religion, womanhood, pregnancy, menstruation, spirituality and desire.

They were written in an extraordinary burst of creativity during 1969 and 1974, and upon their publication in 1975, received a series of harsh criticisms, including being labelled as “pornographic.”

For Fahmida, therefore, the form of the preface serves a special political function: to respond to these accusations and to assume the role of the literary critic.

Herald Exclusive: In conversation with Fahmida Riaz

Today, the preface to Badan Dareeda is a cornerstone para-text for understanding the inception of feminist literary criticism in Urdu literature.

It also serves as a cultural history of Urdu literature during the Zia era, and a history from below of the kind of censure and oppression that women experienced during that period for their work.

As memorable as Audre Lorde’s Poetry is Not a Luxury and Gloria Anzaldúa’s A Letter to Third World Women, the letter is nothing short of a Manifesto for Third World women and queer peoples struggling with violent histories of patriarchy.

The translated preface culminates in the translation of five poems from the collection, which has become a hallmark of feminist expression in the Urdu language.

I invite you to meet Fahmida with me, in the liminal act of translation, beyond the wall that divides the living from the dead.


The Preface to A Body Torn/Badan Dareeda by Fahmida Riaz
Translated by Asad Alvi

Drag this body torn of mine through the town
for my self belongs to them: to the earth, and the living
~ Ghalib

My first collection of poetry was published in 1967. The name of the collection was: Pathar ki Zaban. Tongue of Stone. Then, in between 1967 and 1972, I wrote many more poems. They have been collected and are appearing here for the first time in this collection, Badan Dareeda. A Body Torn. These 50 poems are the labourious work of seven long years. You will find them very different from my previous work.

Which is why there are those in this city who are not happy with it. They think the collection is fahash, or pornographic. Then there are those who think that the poems have been deliberately produced to create shock value. These observations have led me to ask an important question: why does a poet write? Let us mull over this question for a bit. Some might say that a poet writes for amusement. Others might say that she writes for fame. The assumption here is that a poet writes for self-interest. Never have there been greater lies.

If, at all, a poet takes an interest in herself, it is because she discovers there the movement of all history: its violence, its paradoxes, its terrible weight. The poet is not alone in feeling this weight. In our modern age, because human life has been commoditised, every citizen feels a karb rising inside themselves: a sense of displacement, an alienation. The citizen attempts to resolve this feeling. Some experience a return to religion. Others seek a sense of the sacred within their own professions.

Think of a kumhar, for example, who comprehends the meaning of the entire cosmos in the rotation of a potter’s wheel. Or the doctor, who roams around frenzied searching for a cure to an important disease. Or the lawyer, who finds in the value codings of the law and its multiple iterations some notion of divine justice. Human beings are driven for a desire to transcend the limitations of their self and aspire to something greater. We do not necessarily blame them for these ventures.

But we seem to take an issue with the figure of the intellectual. Poets, artists and philosophers are not altogether different in their desires for something greater than any other person. If there is one thing that perhaps separates them from these others, it is that they desire the intuition of this transcendence in extremis.

This means that the poet, more so than any of these other people, has to let go of her self-interest. She has to efface her own self in order to transform herself into the figure of the dissenter. Those too locked in their own identities, those who have never produced a single sound of dissent, cannot possibly know how much exhaustion comes with such a transformation. It cannot be done from a vantage point of self-interest or narcissism, as is the accusation against me. This transformation is jigar-kharash. It ruptures the body of the one doing it. In between the silent existence of trauma within one’s body and actually transforming this silence into language upon one’s lips, a lot is to be lost.

It is easy for those who are conjuncturally outside the space of this transformation to denounce it. They will never know the pain of it all. Yes, it is true that the identity of poets is celebrated. Long after the poet has transformed the silence which has been circling inside her body like rings of fire into language, she is hailed into recognition. There is in this period an element of sar-khushi, or self-affirmation in her life. Everyone wants to comprehend her in the complete manifestation of her jalal and her jamal. And yet, one casually forgets the subtext of violence that has led to the making of this jalal: the karb that she has had to endure.

It is the transformation of this karb into language that gives birth to poetry. In the attempt of this transformation, the poet more often than not loses her own head. And there are those poets who came before me. Which poet, indeed, in the workshop of existence, has not faced the hour when she has had to stand before the maqtal and lose her head? Which one of them has not had to pay for her language, her utterance, sometimes with her own life?

If, indeed, I am forced to stand before this maqtal today and face the gallows, I should face them with my head held high. My poems are the trace of a mangled head: emanating sounds even as it is suspended from ropes. In the light of this, A Body Torn has taken the form of a razmia, or the sound of rupture. And if such rupture indeed shocks a people, then consider the poet as having achieved her purpose: she has managed to disturb them.

Fahmida Riaz
Karachi, 1974


Five poems from A Body Torn/Badan Dareeda
Translated from the Urdu by Asad Alvi

Aerophyte/Akaas Bayl

the green akaas-bayl: vine wounded
around my body as a serpent sucking
drop by drop from me the waters of life

boond, boond, from my ang
drying me out as a dried leaf
devoid of water, I am zard:

white as death because of you
my blood fed against my will
to the mouth of your rose

I have inherited the black night
and you are endowed with the sun
I am sucked into a pataal

and you are claimed by the akaash
O akaas-bayl: mysterious, evil
clasping yourself to my breast

and I, with trembling fingers,
untangling your hair.

Give me your Hand/Lao, Apna Haath Lao Zara

Here. Give me your hand. Enter my body and feel
the heart of a fetus beating: beyond the naaf
the umbilical cord. Feel the jumbish, the movement
of my waters. Leave. Leave your hands on my cold
body. I am pulsating in pleasure as you touch me.
I am your Lazarus: the pulse of your wrists give life
to me. And the fetus, beneath your pulse, oscillates
between me and you. Trace the body of this fetus.

I am wincing in pleasure: my hair extending into
the night my face is the moon my lips are red.
I am surprised at all of this. Before you touched
me there was inside of me an aseb spreading
like a sheet of dark. I was longing for a jumbish

Now from my body is bursting forth a light.
And suddenly, I seem to believe in the scrolls.
In scrolls, in prophets, beggars, and madmen
in rang, phool, kalyan, shajar, I believe in them,
believe in the daalian swinging from the trees,
believe in the names taught to Adam and Eve.

Lullaby/ Loree

Hovering above the neck, the kali rayn, nocturnal
this mad body searching in a profusion of darkness
an ang separated from her ang: a part of her body
split from itself by the umbilicus. It is searching
for the mang of her ang: the kali rayn, nocturnal.
Never disappearing, never ceasing its own trace.

I am the morni of this jungle: the ugly peacock
who swallows her own tears and begins a dance.
In the cups of my breasts, a dhara of milk flows
to a rhythm of san, san. The kali rayn watches.

Voh: zan-e-napaak/She: Body Abject in Blood

She: zan-e-napaak.
body abject in blood.

trapped in the heat of time
in the flame of her havas/desire

She: zan-e-napaak. body abject in blood

in the coupling of noor and nar
she the embodiment of iblees.

in the heat of boiling blood
her breasts have split in two

on her body: no trace of shame
on her lips: no sign of prayer
unheard of, unseen.

She: zan-e-napaak.
body abject in blood.


Tapti dhoop: under the blistering sun
my body is a mirror reflecting sunlight.

Come into me. Shatter the mirror.
Witness on your body a wound.


My special thanks to Fahmida’s publisher Hoori Noorani and her publication house, the Maktaba-e-Danyal, for graciously allowing me to translate these poems and joining me in mourning Fahmida in this manner.

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