Book Review
Iftikhar Arif: The Twelfth Man

By Dr A. Khan
Chicago, IL


In the post-Faiz era Iftikhar Arif has emerged as the most prominent poet of modern Urdu literature . As Urdu literature gets translated into other languages, the beauty of Arif’s poetic message has started to shine all over the globe. Iftikhar Arif is an intellectual par excellence, a noble man. He is a nafees insaan and wrties Nastalleq shairi. He hails from Dabistan-e-Lucknow and presently is the leading poet of Dabistan-e-Pakistan

Iftikhar Arif was born on March 21, 1943 in Lucknow, British India. In 1965, a fter receiving a Master’s Degree in Sociology from University of Lucknow, he migrated to Pakistan. In Karachi he worked for Radio Pakistan, and later joined Pakistan Television where he became a legend through the quiz program Kasauti . The rest is history.

Iftikhar Arif’s first collection of poetry Mehr-e-Do Neem (The Sun [broken] in two halves) was published in 1983. In the foreword of the book, Faiz Ahmed Faiz praising Iftikhar Arif’s poetic eloquence, observed, “… in future if he does not create additional work even then this book will earn him a prominent place in  modern literature.”

Brenda Walker has translated Iktikhar Arif’s Urdu poems into English under the title The Twelfth Man .” Usually it is said that in the process of translation of poetry, emotion and cultural sensitivity are lost. But Brenda Walker has done a fine job and has kept the spirit of Iftikhar Arif’s poetry alive. Commenting on the caliber of translation, Abdullah al-Udhari , in the introduction of the book, writes, “ Brenda Walker has captured not only the emotion, but also the sense and rhythmic beat of the originals. Her sensitivity in these areas has produced some the best translations of Iftikhar Arif’s poetry…”

Abdullah al-Uhari also expounds on the similarity between Urdu and Arabic poetic traditions. He observes:” Modern Urdu poetry draws on the immensely rich Urdu poetic tradition which is deeply rooted in the Arab heritage that forms the foundation on which the Persian, Turks and other Muslim nations built their respective culture. It is mistakenly held that the Urdu verse structure, meters, rhyming features, forms, themes and metaphors are of Persian origin, when in actual fact they are of Arab origin.”

Expounding on the evolution of Urdu poetry, in the preface of the book, Dr Annemarie Schimmel , the prominent scholar of Eastern languages and civilizations, observes:

“Among European peoples, Urdu poetry is one of the least well known areas of world literature. Only a few lovers of poetry realize that the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent has produced in the course of more than six centuries --- beginning in the early 14th century in the Deccan --- a literary heritage of great beauty. When Urdu was first adopted by the poets of northern India, in the imperial capital of Delhi, as the language of poetry (superseding the Persian which had been used as a cultural medium since the days of Mahmud of Ghazna at the tum of the first millennium) a new literature emerged with remarkable speed. The poets of Delhi refined the language, made Urdu more flexible, enriched it with forms and expressions taken from the classical Persian tradition, and, towards the end of the eighteenth century, the language and its literature received its final polish in the city of Lucknow.”

Commenting on the poetry of Iftikhar Arif, in the preface of book, Professor Annemarie Schimmel writes, “He is modern in his use of language, but classical in the way he hides his

burning concerns in allusions, symbols and metaphors - an art perfected by classical Persian and Urdu poets. It allows the poet to voice his deepest concerns, hopes and fears in a form that is not time-bound but valid for every time and expresses (as Ghalib once said) what is in everyone's Soul. I sincerely hope that European and American readers will discover in this volume a new world of poetry, hitherto unknown to them - a world whose fascination may lead ·them to explore further the beauties of Urdu literature and discover both its rich heritage and its promise for the future.”

Evaluating the poetry of Iftikhar Arif , Anna Suvorova , Professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Academy of Sciences, Moscow, writes in the preface of book, “…a newcomer to the galaxy of Iftkhar Arif must take into consideration that his poetry is a multilayed phenomenon. The deepest layer, the Islamic substratum, which gave to the poet the old tragedy of Karbala , where the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed [Pbuh] was slain…the path of Arif leads him past the desolate resting places of his ancestors. Their ‘thirst,’ their ‘deserts,’ their ‘caravans,’ and ‘burning’ tents are the same now as ages agon. The poet contemplates his own identity through a looking-glass of national tradition, gaining strength to face the challenge of mundane existence:


I may be a helpless coward

But I belong to the very tribe

Whose sons laid down their lives

To uphold their pledge. [The proclamation]


"But how is it possible for an alienated man of our days to carry on the lfty precepts of his forefathers? A further aspect of Iftikhar Arif's work may be termed 'existential'. And this is the most universal. Always balancing on the knife-edge between life and death, hope and despair, love and emptiness, his poetry expresses the existential 'homelessness', the 'exile' and 'loneliness' of a human soul in a world loaded with weapons of mass destruction…The final dimension of Iftikhar Arif's poetry is more or less at the surface - I mean its socio-political context. 'Exile', 'homelessness' and 'wandering in the strange lands' are not mere existential symbols or poetic allusions to Mir and Ghalib … To me, Iftikhar Arif is not a rebellious poet. Being a philosopher and a sharp observer.”

One of the common themes that runs deep in Arif’s poems is that fate and power know no limits in breaking the human spirit. Unlike many of other poets who pretend to fight fate and power, Arif exhibits a more realistic attitude. Arif’s poetry emits colors of humanity and love for life, honor and tradition. In his famous poem The twelfth man Arif appears as an observer of what power and fate do to people in their grip, but he is not entirely detached from their sufferings, he represents the dilemma of the modern man; after a long wait before acclaiming the praise or rejection:


In the season of brightness

Countless spectators

Come to spur on

Their favorite teams,

Gather to inspire

Their own idols.

I stand aside


Alienated from it all

Deriding the twelfth player.


How different he is,

That twelfth man!

Amid the game,

The noise,

The roar of acclaim,

He sits alone

And waits ---

For the moment to come,

For the time to come,

For that incident to happen

When he too can play

With shouts of praise,

Tumultuous applause,

Words of support

Just for him,

And he'll be one of them

Respected like the rest of them.


But that rarely happens.

People still say

The bond between game and player

Is for life.

But even lifelong bonds can snap,

And the heart that sinks

With the last whistle

Can also break.

And you, Iftikhar,

You too are a twelfth player,

You wait for a moment,

For a time,

For an incident...


You too Iftikhar

Will sink ---

Will break.


In his poem A Question Arif expounds on the cost of telling the truth:


My forefathers spoke the truth as they saw it,

For the glory of mankind, for honor's sake,

For the eternal light.

This blood became a beacon for all those who stood

against tyranny.

And the blood flowing on battlefields,

On crucifiers, in prisons, declared their existence.

That blood was evidence of man's honor,

Was a symbol of the eternal light.


And here am I, the barefoot man

On the highway of need.

Enchained, and compromised by common comforts,

I find myself watching --- thinking ---

If the blood of these forefathers flows in my veins,

Why doesn't it cry out?


And reminiscing about the pains of migration, Arif observes:


A carefree bird used to fly extremely high, swinging

Between lush-green leafy trees,

But then descended onto live wires

And died. .

An example for all on unknown paths travelling with

never a thought

For possible fates in store.


Trying to qualitatively define the distance between love and lust, in his poem Distance is but a moment, Arif observes:


The distance is but a moment,

Just a moment's distance between the love and the lusting.

The promise of that moment

Is like the dew that will never fail to shower the petals of

every rose upon the branch,

Those words of total submission from the body and the


Need only the grace of prayer to bind them,

Distance is but a moment,

Just a moment's distance between the love and the lusting.


Arif reaches zenith of imagination in his poem Mirage :


Exhausted stars of tired skies ask their partners in destiny,

Who share those flamboyant nights in the deserts of their

passion, in their deep absorption,

How long will it last --- this madness, this flowing stream

of light?

How long this commitment to the demands of love,

This constant urge to answer the call of the heart?

If you want to travel the barren pathways of loneliness

On the crutches of physical desire --- do so,

But for just how long can this body survive?


In his poem Balance Sheet, Arif feels the pain of changing times, and the accountability deemed by one’s conscience:


Who would have believed

That a traveler could capture time

And change the rules of relativity?

Who could imagine

That the flow of time,

Which everyone knows presses relentlessly forwards,

Could be stopped, held fast in a clenched fist?

I believed it ---

I did it!

And for this reason I broke all ties,

And left the city that acclaimed me.

But Inside, the weaker of the two,

Startles me day and night

With the image of what I lost for so little.


And, trying to reveal the truth about the era of political correctness, Arif in his poem To a blind city proclaims:


In every road, street, lane, and alley,

And at every roundabout in the city,

A slogan rings out ---

Freedom for the sun,

Freedom for the sun.

Those who demand such freedom - Are they blind?


The Twelfth Man concludes with a prayer poem titled Postscript, where Arif seeks the strength from God to write the truth:


Lord! Give me that inner strength to write words which

are needed on· this earth,

Needed to stop the barrenness that spreads so fast.

Yet in my heart I remember others whose words have

already sprung to life,

Or at this very moment begin to take root.

Can my words possibly change anything?

Will a few more words make a new man of this ancient

Bard ---

Or will he then discover he's become someone else?


In growing uncertainties and agonies of today’s world, Iftikhar Arif’s poetic verses are very much needed to pacify the aggravations of human behavior. Indeed, Iftikhar Arif has become someone else, he is no longer the twelfth man, he has emerged as the skipper of KaravaaN-e-Urdu.




Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.