ESSAY: FAIZ, PALESTINE, LOTUS AND BEIRUT

September 01, 2019

Email

Faiz Ahmed Faiz with Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation | Dawn file photo
Faiz Ahmed Faiz with Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation | Dawn file photo

The revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was born in Sialkot, studied in Lahore, taught in Amritsar, married his wife in Srinagar, participated in a conspiracy to overthrow the government in Rawalpindi, was imprisoned in Hyderabad, lauded in Moscow, and lived most of his last years in exile in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. When the military dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq unleashed terror upon the politically active sections of society, Faiz chose to go into self-imposed exile in Beirut. The choice was facilitated by a job offer of the editorship of Lotus, a magazine of Afro-Asian writers. The magazine was funded by the then Soviet Union, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), East Germany and Egypt, and had recently moved its address to Beirut after abandoning its long-standing perch in Cairo. Under Faiz, Lotus broadened its intellectual horizons, breaking away from the Nasserite ideology which had permeated the publication while it remained based in Cairo. In particular — according to Sumayya Kassamali, the author of an essay on Faiz’s stay in Beirut titled ‘You Had No Address’ and published in the magazine Caravan — Faiz introduced South Asian sensibility to the magazine.

Faiz arrived in Beirut in 1979 when the first violent phase of the Lebanese civil war was over. However, the hostilities were to sputter on until 1992 with varying intensity. Like the rest of the suffering population, Faiz, too, experienced the trials and tribulations of the civil war. As he grew closer to the PLO leadership — including Yasser Arafat — and Palestinian poets and artists, his fortune in Beirut became closely tied up with that of the PLO, which had established its base in the Lebanese capital after its expulsion from Jordan in 1971. The presence of a significant Palestinian refugee population, and Lebanon’s proximity to Palestine, was a factor in the PLO’s decision to move its base. It was in Beirut that Faiz fell in with Palestinian writers, artists and political activists such as Mahmood Darwish and Muin Bseiso.

During his years in exile, Faiz also met Edward Said, the towering Palestinian intellectual, through a common friend Eqbal Ahmad — another Pakistani scholar and activist and an analyst of global revolutionary movements. The description of Said’s meeting with Faiz bears quotation in full for its poignant recollection of Faiz’s loneliness in exile: “Several years ago I spent some time with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the greatest of contemporary Urdu poets. He was exiled from his native Pakistan by Zia’s military regime, and found a welcome of sorts in strife-torn Beirut... Only once, when Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani friend and a fellow-exile, came to Beirut, did Faiz seem to overcome his sense of constant estrangement. The three of us sat in a dingy Beirut restaurant late one night, while Faiz recited poems. After a time, he and Eqbal stopped translating his verses for my benefit, but as the night wore on it did not matter. What I watched required no translation: it was an enactment of a homecoming expressed through defiance and loss, as if to say, ‘Zia, we are here’.”

Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s exile in Beirut has been written about. But his contribution to the magazine Lotus still need to be discussed

Faiz left Beirut after the Israeli invasion and siege of Lebanon in 1982. According to Tariq Mehmood, assistant professor of English at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Faiz was whisked out of the country to Syria by the Palestinian poet Bseiso. Faiz’s flight from Beirut also coincided with the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon. As a result, Tunisia became the PLO’s next headquarters. Following the PLO’s relocation, Lotus also moved its domicile to Tunisia.

Faiz’s wrote movingly about his experiences and reactions. In his poem ‘Ek Naghma Karbala-i-Beirut Ke Liay’ he extols the beauty and devastation of the city in equal measure:

Beirut, ornament of our world
Beirut, exquisite as Paradise’s gardens
Those shattered mirrors once were
The smiling eyes of children
Now are star-lit
This city’s nights are bright
And luminous is Lebanon
Beirut, ornament of our world
Faces decorated with blood
Dazzling, beyond beauty
Their elegant splendour
Lights up the city’s lanes
And radiant is Lebanon
Beirut, ornament of our world
Every charred house, every ruin
Is equal to Darius’s citadels
Every warrior brings envy to Alexander
Every daughter is like Laila
This city stands at time’s creation
This city will stand at time’s end
Beirut, the heart of Lebanon
Beirut, ornament of our world
Beirut, exquisite as Paradise’s Garden

**Translated into English by Vijay Prashad*

Faiz being a politically engaged poet could not refrain from commenting on the continuing tragedy and dispossession of the Palestinian people. This is reflected in his poem ‘Mat Ro Bachay’ [Weep Not, Child], a lullaby for a Palestinian child which recounts the collective experience of dispossession and displacement. Faiz’s other poems focusing on the politics of Palestinian dispossession include ‘Ek Taraana Falastini Mujahidon Ke Naam’ [An Anthem for Palestinian Revolutionaries] and ‘Falastini Shuhada Jo Pardes Mein Kaam Aaey’ [Palestinian Martyrs Who Died Abroad].

Despite Faiz’s intense engagement in political and cultural life, he felt lonely and estranged.

His wife Alys Faiz’s letters also touch upon the couple’s days spent in Beirut. Despite Faiz’s intense engagement in political and cultural life, he felt lonely and estranged. The pain of exilic marginality hung upon him. His poem ‘Meray Dil Meray Musafir’ [My Heart, My Traveller] showcases how his period of exile rolled out in an unending cycle of days and nights while his heart and mind remained firmly tethered to Pakistan:

Here they come, all those who seek me
Those with whom I have business daily
But neither my heart nor my gaze can tell
When they arrive, when they depart. All the while
Joyful thoughts of my homeland gush and flow
Holding fast to the mane of the galloping ocean
Holding up against a thousand doubts and suspicions
Holding on tightly to all manner of questions

**Translated into English by Mustansir Dalvi*

Faiz also used to frequent the famous Café Younes in the Hamra neighbourhood, where the Hamra Street — Rue 31 — with its numerous roadside cafes and theatres, was Beirut’s centre of intellectual activity in the 1960s and ’70s. It was not far from where Lotus had its office. My erudite and polymath friend, Usman Qazi, took me there and elaborated on the history of the café and Faiz’s association with it.

There are many academic essays on Faiz’s time spent in exile in Beirut, but no serious book assessing his creative contribution to Lotus, and to Beirut’s rich cultural and political life, has yet been written. Professor Mehmood of AUB is seeking to remedy this; he is at present leading a major research project which focuses on Faiz and Lotus. The project will undoubtedly uncover many new facets of Faiz’s exile in Beirut and his wider contribution to Afro-Asian writing, Lotus and the genre of resistance literature.

The writer is the author of Patient Pakistan: Reforming and Fixing Healthcare for all in the 21st Century

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2019