Word from Asia: Contemporary Poetry from Pakistan

Creative voices from Pakistan have been an important part of the programming at the Asia Society in New York as of late. With the PEN World Voices festival also in full swing last week, the Asia Society presented Modern Poetry of Pakistan, a collection of translated poems from seven Pakistani languages (written by forty-four poets) published by the Dalkey Archive Press. The event entitled Word from Asia: Contemporary Writing from Pakistan

took place on Saturday, April 30 in a sun lit room of the Asia Society on the Upper East Side. Two female, Pakistani poets arrived from Pakistan and presented their work, bringing the event to life with their dynamic, passionate, and diverse written words.

Waqas Khwaja, poet and professor of English at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, opened the event by introducing the anthology of poems, which he has edited. The anthology is part of an international literary exchange between the Pakistan Academy of Letters and the National Endowment for the Arts of the United States. He also provided context for the project: how the poems emerging from Pakistan reflect the beat of the country, specifically as Pakistan continues to remain at the forefront of the global political landscape.

Mr. Khwaja began with introducing the work of Hasina Gul, a Pashto poet from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, who in addition to being a poet, works as a broadcaster at Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. Ms. Gul’s work often represents the adversity she faces for expressing her creativity; for being a woman with a public voice. She has survived the assassination of her younger brother who had served as her escort and protector in light of the risk associated with her work.

He then introduced Fahmida Riaz, one of Pakistan’s most prominent living poets, whose work is inspired by strong feminist ideals. She has led a life of social activism despite aggressive repression by the military regime under Zia-ul-Haq. Ms. Riaz lived in exile for seven years, working and teaching in India, after being incarcerated for “subversive acts” against the dictatorial regime.

Mr. Khwaja, before turning the microphone over to the poets, recited a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, reminding the audience of Faiz’s place in the history of Pakistani poetry. Reminding us, through Faiz’s words, just how much he has inspired and shaped the creative voices emerging from Pakistan today.

Then Ms. Riaz recited several of her poems, giving us glimpses into her life and her perspective on social constructs and different eras in Pakistan’s history.  She began with her poem, Aqleema, based on a Quranic and Biblical story about the object of Habeel and Qabeel’s affection (Abel and Cain in the Bible).  I was taken aback by the hold Ms. Riaz’s recitation took on the room.  Aqleema is a raw poem with vivid imagery. It is short in length and deep in meaning. A complete hush came over the crowd as she recited the final few lines:

“Above the slender thighs,
the intricate womb,
Aqleema has a head too.
Allah, speak sometimes to Aqleema too,
ask something!”*

Ms. Riaz’s poems are a sampling of the voice of the vibrant feminist movement of Pakistan that continues to take shape and evolve with the changing currents of the country’s socio-political landscape.

Then came Ms. Gul’s recitations in Pashto. While, I do not understand the Pashto language, the impassioned tones and the faraway look in her eyes managed to relay the ardor of the words spilling out of her mouth. And just so, the translations affirmed that her words reveal intense emotions and grave circumstances.

The anthology makes apparent the richness of Pakistan’s many cultures, languages, and traditions. It also makes apparent the striking similarities. The one pulse of the poems beats loud and clear, regardless of whether they are written in Balochi, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pastho, Seraiki, or Urdu. The words transcend languages in their conveyance of emotions and perceptions that are more similar than they are different.

It was particularly stirring to hear these female poets with strong voices – strong enough to articulate their perceptions and misgivings in a patriarchal society that continues to favor a male dominated culture.

This form of creative expression is one example and an indication of what Pakistan continues to offer on a global literary scale.

*Aqleema by Fahmida Riaz translated from Urdu by Yasmeen Hameed
Modern Poetry of Pakistan
WORD FROM ASIA: Contemporary Writing from Pakistan

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