By Beena Sarwar
I am no great expert on Faiz but his poetry speaks to me, touches my heart just as much as it does every other liberal, progressive, secular-minded person I know. Perhaps his poetry, with its universal messages about truth and justice, sorrows and joys that are just simply human messages, also touches some hearts that are not progressive and secular.
There’s also a personal connection that was put in context last weekend at a discussion on Faiz at panel organised at the Left Forum (formerly the Socialist Scholars Conference that became an annual event starting in 1981). I was roped into moderating it after the original moderator David Barsamian, the well-known radio producer and journalist (and fluent Urdu speaker), couldn’t make it at the last minute.
The conference was held at Pace University in downtown Manhattan, attended by some 3,000 leftists and socialists from around the world, including Egypt. The Faiz panel, organised by Brian Droulet of Deep Dish TV, aimed to provide a contemporary political context to Faiz at a time when the world is in an uproar and slogans of revolution rend the air from the ‘Mid-East to the Mid-West’ to quote from the news website Truthout.org.
The panel borrowed its title from ‘Anthems of Resistance’ (Roli Books, 2009), a definitive book on progressive Urdu poetry and the All India Progressive Writers’ Movement co-edited by the brothers Ali and Raza Mir from Hyderabad Deccan.
Ali Mir’s lyrical recitations of Faiz’s verses set the stage for the writer Andy McCord to talk about the political context of Faiz’s poetry. As he reminded us, Faiz was arrested 50 years ago, almost to the day, when it was spring in Pakistan — March 9, 1951.
McCord cited de-classified papers that testify to how the American authorities’ fear of Faiz. Warwick Perkins, the US Counselor, said that an intellectual group is a much greater threat to security, and referred to Faiz as the ‘most dangerous Communist’ of his time’.
“The Americans may not have been behind Faiz’s arrest but they were certainly pleased by it,” added McCord.
Immediately afterwards the crackdown began mass arrests of all progressive writers, journalists, students, teachers and thinkers, including my father, Mohammad Sarwar, then a medical student and leader of the Democratic Students Federation.
When he was finally released from prison in 1958, many of Faiz’s old friends avoided meeting him but younger activists like Dr M. Sarwar, Saleem Asmi, Dr Haroon Ahmed made it a point to rally around him.
After initially being held incommunicado for three months, Faiz was taken on a special train to Hyderabad (Prisoner no. 13). The journey — being able to see the fields and the sky, as the train made its way south was a source of great pleasure to him — even the food was better (though he may have been sounding more cheerful to give hope to his wife Alys). McCord noted that his imprisonment actually pushed Faiz into resuming his productive poetry. He composed six poems in his head during that train ride, and sent to Alys who got them published. The pittance from the published poems helped sustain their family.
“Faiz always worked, as a editor, and as a poet,” as McCord noted, “to put food on the table.”
Alys too, got a job editing the children’s page of the Pakistan Times, owned by the progressive landlord Mian Iftikharuddin. Writing editorials under the pen name ‘Apa Jan’ on the children’s page, Alys Faiz greatly impacted and helped at least one lonely young girl who had left her home in Pratapgarh, India behind — Zakia Hasan to whom Mrs Faiz became a lifelong mentor and friend (Zakia and Sarwar later met and married in Karachi; I was their first born).
Bilal Hashmi, a student of comparative literature of South Asia, put Faiz in a global context, pulling him out of his ‘national poet’ persona. “Faiz is a poet who transcends national boundaries,” as he put it.
He focused on Faiz’s deep interest and involvement in the struggles of newly independent nations — from Palestine and Vietnam, to Chile and Africa — “the struggles of my own people and people like me” as Faiz said in a lecture on the role of international exchange in cultural development, that Hashmi quoted from. His contribution to international peace discourse earned him the Lenin Peace Prize, the Soviet equivalent of a Nobel (My parent’s romance included a drive to see Faiz off when he left for Moscow via Karachi to receive the prize).
From 1978 till his death in 1984, as Hashmi reminded us, Faiz edited the Afro-Asian periodical ‘Lotus’, one of the most significant magazines of its time. Faiz’s interest in artistic expression as a form of resistance continues to inspire activists today. For writer Naomi Lazard, who translated Faiz’s poetry into colloquial English after meeting him at a writers’ conference at the East West Center in Hawaii, Faiz was a “fellow laugher”, able to see the humour in the windowless rooms of the building they found themselves in. “Faiz told me he was a sufi and had been educated in sufism,” she said. The title of her book of translations The True Subject came from an insight Faiz gave her — “the true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved”.
“Iqbal didn’t create any new style of poetry,” noted Saiyid Ali Naqvi. “Faiz did — an amalgam of lyricism and politics, classical and modernism.”
“Every government that came remained afraid of Faiz,” he mused, noting that even after Faiz was released, they kept tabs on him. On one occasion, after having taken over the government and the newspapers, Ayub Khan had summoned Faiz.
“I was working at my office (at Mangla, overseeing the building of the dam) when a fellow entered without knocking and asked if Faiz had stayed with me the previous night. I said yes, he was my guest. The man then wanted to know where he was. I told him that Faiz had left to meet President Ayub.
“‘Would you like me to call and find out if he’s there?’ I asked and reached for the phone. The fellow left rather hurriedly.”
Rafiq Kathwari talked briefly about his exposure to Faiz and Iqbal, that had sustained him during his nearly year long-imprisonment in jail as a student in Kashmir. He closed with a powerful recitation of Faiz’s Hum Dekhke.nge in translation.
What about Faiz’s ‘silence’ on the events of 1971, asked Pakistani journalist Hasan Mujtaba during the discussion later.
“A poet’s first responsibility lies in his poetry,” McCord responded. “It was very controversial to speak out at that time. He didn’t sign Tahira Mazhar Ali’s petition in support of East Pakistan — but he was in Karachi at the time. But he did address 1971 and the events preceding it through his poem Hizr karo meray tan se (known better by its first line, Ab shurooh qatl-e-aam ka mela) published in 1971, with graphic references to “the cries of my blood”, invasion of “my body” and slaughter. Later, his Hum ke Thehre ajnabi refers to his anguish at the separation and bitterness.”
Today, when there are other curbs on speaking out, Faiz’s poetry is found emblazoned on banners by activist groups like Citizens for Democracy speaking out for justice and the rule of law — for example at their signature campaign urging justice and the rule of law (15,000 signatures in one day), and well-attended Reference for slain Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti. In Pakistan, Faiz’s exhortation to ‘bol’ (speak out) has never been more relevant.
[This was first published in The News On Sunday.]