This blog was originally published on Dawn.com on May 4, 2013.
I stopped outside a house near Islamabad’s Covered Bazaar.
This is where Begum Sarfraz Iqbal lived. The road is now named after her. And this was where I interviewed Faiz Ahmed Faiz so many years ago.
It was published in The Muslim, Islamabad, on June 28, 1982.
Islamabad was still a small, leafy town with tall pine and Eucalyptus trees lining the roads.
The air was always fragrant with the aroma of seasonal flowers. It rained heavily in the summer. So the evenings were almost always cool. The winter was cold and mysterious.
The inescapable dust which now covers the city from all sides was not there. Green patches of trees crisscrossed the city and a thick carpet of grass prevented the soil from turning into dust.
All things fall apart. Is Islamabad falling apart too? Hopefully not but it has changed. Many people and places that our generation associated Islamabad with are disappearing fast.
Begum Sarfraz Iqbal and Faiz Saheb are both dead. The Covered Bazaar is no more. Half of it has already been demolished and the rest is awaiting the hammer.
But when I arrived at this house back in 1982, all three – Faiz Saheb, Begum Sarfraz and the bazaar – were still there.
“I have been waiting for you,” said Begum Sarfraz Iqbal when I entered the house. I knew she was and I also knew why.
She had arranged the interview on my request but on one condition, she will see and approve the questions. “I do not believe in censorship,” she said, “but you have just started your career and obviously I am not sure if you can handle such a major interview.”
I showed her the questions. She read them, twice. Looked at me and said: “No, there will be no interview. You can have tea with Faiz Saheb and go.”
When I asked why, she said: “These are not questions. These are political statements: Urdu should not be the national language of Pakistan, a state should have no ideology, there is no room in Pakistan for art for art’s sake and religious politics should be banned. Where is there question? And why should a poet get involved in such controversies?”
Her rebuke depressed me. This was going to be first major interview and I was really looking forward to it. I did not try to defend myself against her charges. Did not have to. As she finished, Faiz Saheb walked into the room.
“Bhai, sobah, sobah kis per naraz ho rahi hain (who are you getting upset with so early in the morning)?” he said.
“This cub reporter from The Muslim,” she said. “I promised him an interview with you but his questions are more for a politician than a poet. So I told him he can leave after the breakfast.”
“No, no, no. Don’t get upset. Not with the young people,” said Faiz Saheb and asked me to show him the questions.
I saw a ray of hope, walked to the dining table where Faiz Saheb was waiting for the breakfast and showed him the questions. He asked me to make three cups of tea while he read the questions.
I did. He put the papers down and said: “Bring your notebook. Let’s try to finish the interview with the breakfast.”
We started the interview. He would read one question or political statement, as Begum Sarfraz Iqbal had rightly said, at a time and say: “Let’s rephrase it.”
In the process, he turned each political statement into a literary issue without changing the points I had tried to raise. More than once, he also told me how to channel my emotions into a good piece of writing.
“A good journalist tries to instigate the person he is interviewing to say the things he wants. You do not say it yourself. Be cool-headed, methodical and well-prepared. Being emotional does not help,” Faiz Saheb said.
Thus the interview that appeared in The Muslim, and was also included in Ikram Azam’s book, “Poems from Faiz” (1982, Nairang-e-Khayal Publications), happened only because Faiz Saheb was willing to accommodate even a “cub reporter.” A lesser poet would have kicked me out of the room for wasting his time.
Q: It is said that you identify yourself with the people of the land but you leave them whenever they are in trouble?
Faiz: If you want to say that I disappeared from the political scene, it is something different. I did participate in politics in the past but I have left it. I am a poet and not a politician.
But as far as my love for the people is concerned, I have always identified myself with them. I am proud of my people, my land. I have never left them. I will never leave them.
Q: Then why are you living in Beirut and not in Pakistan?
Faiz: Yes, hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis are living outside the country. One cannot assume that they do not love Pakistan.
I have taken up a job in Beirut. I have been made the editor of a periodical, “Lotus”, and it is my responsibility. That’s why I am staying in Beirut for the time being.
Q: When do you intend to come back to Pakistan?
Faiz: In the near future. I will go back to Beirut, make some alternative arrangement for the “Lotus” and only then I can come back.
Q: What happened during your last visit to Pakistan?
Faiz: Not much. There was some misunderstanding at the Karachi airport, where I stayed for a night on my way to Tokyo where I was going to attend a writers’ conference.
I had to delay my journey for one night. Later, the misunderstanding was removed by Mir Ali Ahmed Talpur and others and I proceeded to my next destination.
Q: It is alleged that you are very eloquent when you talk about Vietnam or Palestine but you are not equally eloquent about Kashmir. Is it true?
Faiz: Who says I am not eloquent about Kashmir? Go through the editorials I wrote about Kashmir in the Pakistan Times and see how eloquent I was.
As far as Vietnam and Palestine was concerned, I did support the cause of the Vietnamese and I do support the Palestinians. I am proud of my stand on these international issues.
Q: Many important events took place in Pakistan in the recent past. Did you reflect those events in your poetry?
Faiz: Whatever I see around me, I read about, I feel for; I absorb it in my memory, which is later reflected in my poetry.
My latest collection of poems, “Meray Dil, Meray Musafir,” is all about Pakistan, its people and their feelings. I am a Pakistani, like all others, and have never considered myself something separate from the mainstream of our national life.
Some of my poetry is “Hekayet-e-dil,” that’s my own personal experience; some of it is about my country.
Q: Poets and writers of our time have become very careful in expressing what they see and feel. Are you satisfied with their attitude?
Faiz: There is nothing new about it. It is an old tradition. Whenever the circumstances are unfavourable, some of our writers take refuge in their own world. They find out many excuses for their utopian attitude, like art for art’s sake and personal aesthetics.
But some people, though very few, do not doge their responsibilities and become more eloquent like Habib Jalib.
Q: What do you say about the art for art’s sake attitude?
Faiz: There is nothing wrong in it if it is genuine. After all, it does reflect the social environment of a particular time and talks about the attitude of a particular group of society in that period, no matter how subjective it is.
Q: Do you think that what is being written now by our writers is genuine?
Faiz: Some of it is genuine and some of it is not. It has always been like that. Some of the literature is written as a fashion and some of it is to articulate the experience of life. All the written words of a particular time are never genuine. Some of it has always been superfluous.
What is important is that a poet or a writer should honestly reflect his experience instead of doing verbal jugglery or imitating others.
Q: Don’t you think that our Urdu literature only reflects the experience, feelings and interests of a particular class?
Faiz: Unfortunately, so far, only the people of a particular class have been well-versed in Urdu and can write literature. So to that extent it does represent a class. But whatever is written in Urdu is not necessarily about a particular class.
All the great poets of the world were not from the working class. It is not important to which class one belongs. It is more important to see what he is writing about and what he believes in.
Q: Don’t you believe that what is written in Urdu is not communicated to the masses?
Faiz: No, this is wrong. Now even the people from the working class are learning Urdu and what is written in that language is communicated to all. Educated and less educated both. Rather, it also reaches the illiterate people.
Q: But what is written in Urdu cannot become as popular among the masses as the poetry of Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif or Rahman Baba. Don’t you agree?
Faiz: Well, there have always been two voices. Not only in our literature but in all the places where there existed a social setup similar to ours. One represented the masses and the other the court. But even in that of the court; the life of the common man is reflected. Only the idiom is different.
Whenever there was a feudal setup and there was a court, the language of the classics was elevated from the spoken language.
Poetry itself is not the spoken language. It is also formalised. Only Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah are not folk. The bulk of folk poetry is unanimous.
The same could be said about other forms of art. The expression of folk art is always different from that of social art. But it does not cross out the community or content of expression. A number of things are always similar and overlap each other.
However, the culture of the dominating class becomes dominant and that’s why we call it classics. Otherwise, folk art is also a classic in its own style.
Q: It is said that what is written by poets and writers is not in conformity with the ideology of Pakistan. What would you say about it?
Faiz: It depends on what one thinks of the ideology of Pakistan. Everyone has a different concept about it.
If one means religion, then there is no difference. We all believe in Islam. However, the difference is of interpretation and not belief. There are many people who interpret Islam in different ways and those who do not agree with their interpretation are wrong in their eyes.
Actually, it is not even the interpretation they are bothered about. It is politics. And when you talk of politics, the difference of opinion is but very natural.
Q: It is also said about you that you do not believe in the ideology of Pakistan. Would you like to comment?
Faiz: Let them say what pleases them. Not only do I believe in the ideology of Pakistan, I think that whatever I write is always in accordance with the ideology of Pakistan. I have never differed from this ideology. However, if my interpretation of the ideology of Pakistan is different from theirs, I cannot help it.
Q; Urdu is said to be the ‘lingua franca’ in Pakistan. Can it really serve the purpose or will it have to be replaced by some local language?
Faiz: We cannot do without Urdu. It is a developed language and has reached this stage after an evolutionary process of about 300 years. Other languages are yet to reach that stage.
However, some local languages can and will reach this stage in future and replace Urdu but not in the near future.
Q: If we need a developed language, then why not English which is more developed than Urdu?
Faiz: English is only spoken by those who come from a particular background and go to particular schools. They are not even 1 per cent of the total population, while Urdu is understood by the majority of the people in Pakistan.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.