Remembering Faiz and Pakistan
By Dr. Zafar M. Iqbal
Pakistan has had more than its share of 'black days'. One was 3 November 2007 when General (retired) Musharraf and his army declared 'Emergency' and threw out the judiciary, which followed mass arrests and violence around the country.
During those days, there were some non-violent protests, and at least one happened to be a literary reminder that had to do with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a renowned Urdu poet. One of his famous poems is titled 'Bol' ('Speak', or perhaps in proper context, 'Speak up'). This one simple word became a 'slogan' on people's clothes, vehicles etc., evoking something familiar in a rather unfortunate set of circumstances, some 66 years. Faiz wrote 'Bol' during the final phase of the British Raj, and included it in his first book of poetry, 'Naqsh-e-Feryadi' published in 1941. See how evocative is it of that era.
you are free.
Speak up, your voice is still yours;
this strong body is your own.
Speak up, your life's still yours.
Look in the blacksmith's,
flames are raging
iron is red-hot,
locks melting, opening up
links of the chain now wide open.
this limited time is long enough,
before you and your voice die.
Speak up, the truth is still alive.
say what you want to say.
[Faiz, 'Bol'; translated by Riz Rahim, "In English, Faiz Ahmed Faiz," 2008, in press]
Faiz's poetry went through a fundamental change around 1940 when he decided to move away from the traditional 'poetry for poetry's sake' to 'poetry with a purpose'. This occurred with one of his most memorable poems, 'Mujh say pahli see muhabbuth, meray mehboob, na maang' ('Don't ask me, sweetheart, for the kind of love we have had before'), and 'Bol' followed in the same spirit.
Quite ironically though, this poem gave voice to the voiceless more than six decades later in a free independent country that couldn't have been more than a dream even for its proponents when it was written -- in totally different times, under totally different circumstances. The sentiments that were quite justified under the British Raj, now expressed so powerfully by a citizenry deprived of basic rights in an independent country. No one could have imagined (I'm sure Faiz would never have in 1941 or on his deathbed) that his words would haunt his country and provide this crutch to the people repressed not by any foreign power but by his own people.
Another aspect of this irony was that Faiz's daughter, Salima Hashmi, was herself arrested during this Emergency while she was attending a Human Rights Commission meeting in Lahore. She resisted arrest passively and she, in a chair she refused to give up, had to be carried out. Imagine what she would have gone through when she saw her father's poem 'Bol' as a silent slogan, so evocative of a different age.
Faiz has been in and out of favor of different Pakistani governments at different times – imprisoned (without evidence) in the Rawalpindi Case during Liaquat Ali Khan’s regime, then another prison-term under Ayub Khan's martial law; favored during Z. Bhutto's term, only to be forced into self-exile when Zia came to power; and returning home just a couple of years before death. His political and personal beliefs and his association with socialist, progressive causes, were mostly controversial in a conservative, Islamic country, but his poetry did survive and is recalled with rare passion.
Faiz has been translated into English, Russian and other languages. It was Victor Kiernan, an old friend of Mrs. Faiz, who first translated in 1971 some of Faiz's poetry in English. Then, there came other translators - Agha Shahid Ali, Shiv Kumar, Sarwat Rahman - among others. Faiz himself helped Naomi Lazard, an American poet/author he met in Hawaii; her book, 'The True Subject', as well as those of others, are still in print. These translations have introduced Faiz to English readers, but their selections were only representative of his work and limited to about 100 poems or less. Dr. Ludmila Vassilyeva, an Urdu scholar and a friend and interpreter of Faiz during his visit to the former Soviet Union, has translated quite a bit of Faiz (reportedly about 150 poems) in Russian, but her book is hard to find in the West.
Now, a more extensive translation of Faiz's work is in press -- "In English, Faiz Ahmed Faiz," by Dr. Riz Rahim -- and the American publishers are scheduled to bring out the book in September-October, 2008.
In this book, Dr. Rahim has translated 270 poems by Faiz in his complete collection, 'Nusqaha-e-Wafa' of about 310 poems, from his first book, Naqsh-e-Feryadi (1941) to the final 8th , ' Ghubbar-e-Ayyam' (1982). Some of these translations were presented in forums on the British newspaper, 'The Guardian'. In addition to the poems, Dr. Rahim has also translated some Urdu prose by Faiz himself (including his speech in Moscow, accepting the Lenin Peace Prize, 1962 and introductive comments in his books) and by others, his friends, colleagues and fellow-prisoners (Sajjad Zaheer, Major Ish'aaq and others). Apart from this there are two well-researched authoritative components: one 'Preface' which covers Faiz's poetry from various angles, including its political, social and literary influence; the other is 'A Word on Translation', which analyzes the problems of translation between philogically and culturally distant languages.
Faiz who has had his ups and down seems to be riding the waves today in Pakistan. The English-speaking world is getting increasingly aware of him and his poetry. The causes he championed still plague his nation with frequent assaults on the freedom of expression and basic rights, on the top of sectarian violence, resurging Talibanisation and terrorism. The West needs to understand this, and its roots, some of which can be found in Faiz's poetry.
That day in November 2007 seems so far away from today (18 August 2008). This morning, General Musharraf announced his resignation as President, under the threat of impeachment.