Reading Faiz in New York

I have heard the poetry of Faiz often and spontaneously recited by my grandfather, my uncle, my mother. Often

encapsulating feelings of melancholy or just an acknowledgment of the injustices in the world. Sometimes an expression of love and of passion. My personal discovery of Faiz’s poetry came more recently as I became committed to exploring Urdu poetry. Being lucky enough to be able to read Urdu, I was able to, albeit very slowly, read the words that so many people of South Asian heritage celebrate and turn to time after time. I, living in New York City, often found myself alone in my longing for an understanding of this poetry that speaks to multitudes.

This year, the celebration of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s centenary reached New York City too bringing together many enthusiasts of Urdu poetry and literature, their eyes gleaming, being taken somewhere with each recitation, a realization that the truth in Faiz’s words transcends time and place. For the first time, I shared Faiz’s poetry with my mother in a more concrete way, as we both experienced a sense of belonging and cross-generational appreciation for one of the greatest Urdu poets.

The Faiz Centenary Celebration Event was presented by the Urdu/Hindi Programs at New York University (organized in large part of Professor Tahira Naqvi) on April 22, 2011, showcasing Faiz’s work through poetry recitations, music, and documentaries. The event opened with a few words from Hassan Abbas, Professor and Quaid-e-Azam Chair at Columbia University. Mr. Abbas highlighted the three primary features that distinguish and underscore Faiz in the history of Urdu literature. First, Faiz challenged the status quo, whether it was in the form of military dictatorship in Pakistan or religious clerics claiming the country for their own. Second, he consistently sought peaceful resolutions to conflicts. And third, Faiz challenged religious fundamentalism and narrow-mindedness. These qualities demonstrate Faiz’s role as a progressive activist who mobilized people through his poetry.

Born in Sialkot, Punjab during the British Raj in 1911, Faiz arrived in Lahore in 1929. Following the partition, Faiz published Subh-i-Aazadi (Dawn of Freedom), on August 14, 1947. It resonated with those who experienced that great migration, a seminal moment in the history of the subcontinent. This poem alludes a sadness and a disillusionment that can be felt even today, after so many years have passed and many of us have pushed this part of history to the back corners of our hearts and minds.  Faiz’s career flourished in Pakistan as a journalist at a well-known publication, the Pakistan Times.  In the 1950s Faiz was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of conspiracy in the “Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case,” which had mostly to do with his communist/“Marxist” ideology. It was during this time that he was able to produce a number of his most well-known and loved poems. After his release, Faiz persisted in his criticism of the government, frustrated and angry with the pervasive poverty, corruption and Pakistan’s increasing political alignment with the United States. All of this is particularly interesting and relevant to the current state of affairs in Pakistan and its relationship with the U.S.  Those who protest against unjust dominance and demand national sovereignty today surely find solace in Faiz’s words, his compassion for the underrepresented, the downtrodden, the repressed, and the disappeared.

During a melodic recitation of Faiz’s poetry in Ghazal form by Romeena Kureishy, the audience listened in silence to Intesaab (Dedication):

“…In the name of the sad lives of clerks; In the name of the worm-eaten hearts and the worm-eaten tongues; In the name of the postmen; In the name of the coachmen; In the name of the railway workers; In the name of the factory workers; In the name of him who is Emperor of the Universe; Master and God’s representative on this Earth..”*

And just as suddenly the room was abuzz as Ms. Kureishy, in a voice and recitation inspired by Noor Jahan, sang Faiz’s classic, Mujhse Pehli Si Mohabbat Mere Mehboob Na Mang (Don’t ask me for that love again*). A poem that demonstrates Faiz’s ability to combine the emotions of a heartbroken lover with those of a revolutionary patriot, unable to separate the suffering of his countrymen with his personal suffering, which is seemingly minor to him in comparison.

It is a true accomplishment for a poet to have such a diverse range in his work and deep impact on so many individuals across the subcontinent and globally – whether it be matters of the heart or matters of the nation. I know that when my uncle suffered through the tragedy of losing his young wife to an untimely and unexpected death, it was in Faiz’s words that he found a voice for his grief. Etched forever on her tombstone, the words haunt and soothe, an expression of love and loneliness.

“Dasht-e-tanhaii mein ai jaan-e-jahaan, Larzaan hai, Teri Avaaz ke saaye, Tere honthon ke sarab.”

“In the desert of my solitude, oh love of my life, quiver, the shadows of your voice, the mirage of your lips…”*

In sharing Faiz with my mother, I reflected on why the experience was so important to me. The reason is simply that the Urdu language and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry are just too beautiful and relevant for me to miss out on.

Tubaah: A documentary in tribute to Faiz Ahmed Faiz
The Rebel’s Silhouette – Selected Poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz
*Translation by
*Translation by Agha Shahid Ali
*Translation by Ayesha Kaljuvee


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