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‘It’s happening, Faiz’

February 14, 2011

Faiz Ahmed Yasser Arafat
With friend Yasser Arafat

I met Faiz in 1979 when he was 68. It was in Honolulu. We had both been invited to what was billed as a writer’s conference. We were from several countries, some Americans, and the others from countries lining the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and others. Faiz didn’t fit any of these criteria. I never knew what brought him there. But that question had no importance and never came up. We were guests of the East-West Center, which I understood to be a quasi-CIA cold war institution designed to keep track of Pacific Basin political maneuvers. Within a very short time it was clear Faiz was the group’s vital centre.

At the East-West Center there were lots of meetings, lots of talk about cross-pollination between cultures. We were there to cross-pollinate each other. It was 25 years ago in February; it is now the 25th anniversary of the beginning of our translation project. It was a condensed and intense time. Faiz left after six weeks. Bhutto was executed while we were in Honolulu. Faiz was greatly affected. Bhutto’s trial and execution cast a terrible pall over all our time there.

But beyond politics, national villainy and disasters, what happens when a supremely gifted, immensely endowed, highly articulate artist suddenly appears in the midst of aspiring writers struggling to find their voices and their way? I was there and know the answer. This man from the ancient culture on the other side of the world entered that curious so-called inter-cultural writers’ workshop like a blast of enlightenment in the form of an elderly, soft-voiced, short, rather stout eminence. It was obvious he was eminent. He was also highly amused by the proceedings, given to frequent bursts of throaty infectious laughter.

The proceedings, the venue itself, were, to an objective eye, amusing. The building, sited within a park-like area (it’s hard to get away from the verdant Hawaiian landscape) was without windows. You could not look outside from any room at the Center; the rooms were sealed against daylight. Something else -- we were there during the rainy season. It rained everyday, sometimes hard. Nevertheless, the sprinkler system was never adjusted for the weather. In the intervals the rain abated for a while, day or night, the well-functioning sprinklers caught you, wherever you were, with their drenching spray. It was also clear that his eminence and I shared a keen disregard for the nonsensical proceedings. Every time I looked at him he was laughing too.

So it was laughter that drew us together. It was poetry that sealed the bond. I read the translation of his work by Victor Kiernan. I saw at once his poetry was of the highest order. I compared it to the great contemporary poets of our time, Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Elytis and George Seferis.

The idea took root in me that I must translate these poems into English. This was a voice that must be heard in the West. At that time what was known in the United States about Islam was almost totally negative. I was convinced that this beautiful poetry was needed, not only for its own sake, but as tonic and antidote. Faiz was willing. We started the project that became the purpose and occupation of our time in Hawaii. It could be done because, though I was ignorant of Urdu and semi-literate in the cultures of India and Pakistan, Faiz was perfectly bilingual.

Faiz’s poems had music and a humanity I couldn’t resist. They literally inhabited me, they sang in my consciousness. The quality of truth in his poetry is embedded in the spirit that animates it. It was the truth that hit me with the force of a blow to the heart.

This is the power of art. This is what came out of that writers’ conference in Honolulu in 1979 -- the poems that Faiz and I worked on together; I, finding the contemporary English idiom, Faiz, the control, reading my English and letting me know if I had succeeded in finding the meaning, music, feeling tone for his Urdu. This was a process we developed in Honolulu, surrounded by the parking lot architecture, mainly for four wheeled vehicles, not for the two-legged creatures that drove them.

I believe our translations were the single body of work that emerged from that cross-pollination of souls. For me the four years spent working with Faiz, finding what equivalent I could for his poems, were the most rewarding years of my life. It was an experience I treasure to this day. Faiz didn’t live to see the book of his selected poems the Princeton University Press published in 1987. I called it The True Subject after something he told me he had learnt studying to be a Sufi -- that the loss of the beloved is the true subject of poetry.

Now we come to the crossroads of the present. Immense political upheavals are shaking rulers in their boots. Dictators are falling like ninepins, one after another. It is enough to gladden the heart of even the staunchest of cynics. It’s happening, Faiz, it’s happening. The rotten systems are being blasted away by the will of the people. Yesterday the Tunisians, today the Egyptians, tomorrow..?

--The writer is an eminent American poet who has published several collections of poetry. The True Subject, her translation of Faiz’s poetry was first published in 1987 by Princeton University Press

Be Near Me from The True Subject, translated by Naomi Lazard

Be near me now, My tormenter, my love, be near me— At this hour when night comes down, When, having drunk from the gash of sunset, darkness comes With the balm of musk in its hands, its diamond lancets, When it comes with cries of lamentation, with laughter with songs; Its blue-gray anklets of pain clinking with every step. At this hour when hearts, deep in their hiding places, Have begun to hope once more, when they start their vigil For hands still enfolded in sleeves; When wine being poured makes the sound of inconsolable children who, though you try with all your heart, cannot be soothed. When whatever you want to do cannot be done, When nothing is of any use; —At this hour when night comes down, When night comes, dragging its long face, dressed in mourning, Be with me, My tormenter, my love, be near me.