Published Feb 19, 2017 05:58am

COLUMN: Reading Iftikhar Arif in Persian

Syed Nomanul Haq

Historical rupture is a terrible thing; it throws centuries into the darkness of amnesia. How hard it is for us to imagine today, for example, the vast human network of the Persianate empires. It is all but forgotten that before colonial blockages, Hindustan was culturally and linguistically connected to Iran and Afghanistan, to Khurasan and Transoxiana, even to Iraq.

It is not easy for us now to reconstruct in our imagination all those active cultural nodes that linked Samarkand, Bukhara, Ghazna, and Kabul to Multan and Lahore; Mansura, Makran, Diu, and Cambay to Aden and Muscat and again to Lahore and Kabul. The Persian poet Hafiz was from Shiraz in Iran, but felt in his 14th century world that he belonged also to the distant Samarkand beyond the river Oxus, and equally to Kandahar in Afghanistan, so that he would bestow these two glorious non-Iranian but Persianate cities upon his beloved, if only she would take his heart in her hands!

It was during the Iranian Samanid dynasty in the ninth and 10th centuries when the tide of New Persian — as distinct from Middle Persian or Pahlavi of the Sassanids — began rising. There was much flowering of poetry and of letters in the Khurasan and Transoxiana regions where the Samanids were centred. Bukhara became the cultural metropolis of the Muslim east, claiming such luminaries as the redoubtable Ibn Sina (Latin: Avicenna); the Tus-born Firdausi, who had begun his monumental epic, the Shahnama, here; and Rudaki, the “Adam of Poets.”

But then, cultivation of Persian did not take Hindustan into its fold until the Ghaznavids captured Lahore in the 11th century. At this juncture Persian literature witnessed its formal burgeoning in the whole expanse of eastern Muslim regions. A literary efflorescence it was, ushered in by a Turkic slave irruption, with Lahore soon embodying one of the most gushing waves in this flow. Data Ganj Bakhsh wrote the first Persian treatise on Sufism, the Kashf al Mahjub [Disclosure of the Veiled], in Lahore at this time; and we get from this very city of Punjab the landmark silk-woven poetry of Mas‘ud Sa‘d Salmaan, a beloved of Sana’i Ghaznavi, whom Allama Muhammad Iqbal called Salman-i-Khush Aahang [the melodious Salmaan].

Indeed, the genres Salmaan created — his prison poetry (habsiyyaat) and his exile (ghurbat) poetry — live on as enduring tropes that reverberate until this day in the verse of Faiz ahmed Faiz and Nasir Kazmi, among others. Scholars have also traced the famous “Indian Style” (Sabki-i-Hindi) of Persian poetry — which reaches its high point in Amir Khusrau and Ghalib — to Salmaan. Over the next centuries, Lahore and Delhi acquired a place in the same literary landscape to which belonged Bukhara, Tirmiz, Nishapur, and Sabzvar. Urdu poetry grew in the shadow of this Persianate ethos.

How hard it is today to restitute all of this. With the colonial atomisation of this vast cultural world — unified as it was by a common literary and court language — and with constructs such as “nation states”, the linking nodes of this world were obliterated. The results were drastic — among them is the severing of the literatures of South Asia from the literary world of Iran. In the wake of this rupture, Urdu and Persian have been living separate lives now for some 200 years. So when Ali Bayat disrupts our amnesia and translates Iftikhar Arif’s verse into contemporary Persian, he is carrying out the monumental task of poetic recovery and historical restoration. He gives his translation a title that is so very appropriate: Window to a Lost Garden. His is indeed a search for a garden that is lost, a garden in which many rivers flowed. Sitting at the banks of the Ravi in this garden, Iqbal could see that the river Oxus (Jaihuun) had been poured into his goblet.

Bayat, who has been trained in Urdu language and literature, knows well the lost legacy of the Urdu-Persian linkage; he goes as far as to privilege it over the Arabic sphere in this context. He agonises that Urdu poetry is not being introduced in its fullness to today’s Persian-reading communities. This is not only sad, it is also painfully ironic, given both the historical legacy and geographical proximities. Indeed, not much of modern-day Urdu literature is being rendered into contemporary Persian; efforts seem to be isolated, episodic, and individualistic. Publications such as the periodical Paighaam Aashnaa of the Iranian Cultural Consulate in Islamabad are playing an important role, but the direction here is towards the Urdu-reading world; the cultural traffic needs to move in the other direction too.

There is magic about Iftikhar Arif’s poetry. His rhythms, metaphors, ambiguities, allusions, and, above all, his elegant freshness make him an outstanding poet of our times. The very first poem in his very first collection

Mehr-i-Do-Neem, a lush poem called ‘Mukaalama’ [Dialogue] is a historic departure in the hamd tradition of poems written in praise of God. He begins with the praise of God as is customary, but he also stands apart, standing apart as Iftikhar Arif.

Bayat also begins with the ‘Mukaalama’, and renders it beautifully. The translation throws into sharp relief the cultural dignity of the poet. One begins to realise how deeply he respects the tradition of his elders, so that the symbolism and metaphors render smoothly into Persian, yet the clouds of beaten-to-death notions split open and the sun, the mehr, shines through. But we must remember that here we are talking about contemporary Persian, not the Persian of Khusrau or Hafiz.

And here is another irony: it seems clear that Urdu poetry is still breathing in the air of classical Persian, and this makes sense in view of the manufactured gulfs. So, for example, Iftikhar Arif’s ghazals have conventional forms in their metrical structures and rhyming schemes, and like all classical ghazals, they bear no title. But Bayat brings them into the net of contemporary Persian forms — not only are the structure and rhyming modes made free, the ghazals have titles, too. Then, Bayat has made his selection thoughtfully and creatively, giving us glimpses from all four collections of the poet. Reading Iftikhar Arif in contemporary Persian is, for me, a celebration of magic — magic that must ultimately remain mysterious.

The writer is a professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at IBA, Karachi, and visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 19th, 2017

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