Saturday, February 12, 2011

Faiz, The Exile From Islamabad to Beirut

Faiz, The Exile From Islamabad to Beirut
Saeed Naqvi

On Sunday, February, 13, 2011, one of the most remarkable men born on this sub continent, the great Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, would have been 100 years old – his first birth centenary.

Faiz was not just admired but adored, as much in India as in Pakistan. Indeed there were large circles of his admirers in various parts of the world.

He was not an inveterate traveler like Tagore who traveled to 32 (thirty two) countries, ranging from Argentina to Iran in the 20s and 30s when travel was not easy. Allama Iqbal too traveled but not as much. Faiz’s journeys were not journeys of choice. In most instances his were journeys of an exile, mostly from Zia ul Haq’s Pakistan. Poetry of exile is a strong strand in his verse.

Faiz derived greatly from classical poets like Sauda, Mushafi and, particularly Ghalib. It was from him – and varied sources of Sufis and Marxists – that Faiz derived the art of handling adversity with balance and dignity.

Another kind of exile Faiz experienced was in the 50s, his five years in jail for trumped up charges in what is known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case.

It was this jail experience that became the source for an extraordinary mix of revolution and lyric, dressing up traditional symbols of Urdu poetry in contemporary garb:
Mataa-e-lauho-qalam chin gayee
to kya gham hai
Ki khoon-e-dil mein dubo li hain
unglian maine
Zubaan pe mohar lagee hai to kya
ki rakh di hai
har ek halqa e zanjir pe zubaan
(They have taken away the pen and ink
So I have dipped my fingers in the blood of my heart.
Doesn’t matter if they have sealed my lips;
I have given voice to every link in the chain that shackles us)

Is Faiz the greatest poet of the modern era? In the popularity stakes, he will win by several lengths. But scholars will toss up some other names – Josh Malihabadi, Yaas Yagana Changezi, Firaq Gorakhpuri among others.

Josh’s mastery of diction is like a river in torrent; lightening thunder, a pageantry of words to the accompaniment of a full 100 piece orchestra. But he is not just a wordsmith. He remains unmatched in the range of thought in his “Rubayat”, or quatrains in a specific meter. Faiz doesn’t even claim to be a poet of rubayi.

By universal acclaim, both Firaq and Yagana would be superior poets of ghazal, Firaq for his delicacy of thought and sensuousness, Yagana for his freshness and inventiveness. Some critics would even consider Majrooh Sultanpuri as a more chiseled ghazal writer. Majaz, too, would be in contention but his body of work is thin because he died at 46.

What then in so special about Faiz? Well, he is the most modern of all Urdu poets in every sense of the term. He wrote excellent ghazals but they do not place him with the best.

Where he remains unsurpassed is in free verse. While all the poets listed above were wedded to traditional formats, Faiz got out of the structural constraints which even Ghalib had complained about:
“Kuch aur chaahiye wusat
mere bayan ke liye!”
(I need much more space for my theme)

In this genre too there will be awkward critics who will urge you not to ignore N.M. Rashid!

Josh, Firaq, Yagana even Majaz and Majrooh were intellectually cosmopolitan but were all confined to the decaying feudal ambience of Avadh.

Faiz was conditioned by the virility and intellectual vigour of Lahore. Even though he had early training in Arabic from Maulvis he crossed over to the Government College Lahore, the country’s premiere college where he did his Masters in English literature.

The great Marxist historian, Victor Kiernan taught at Lahore’s Aitchison College at about the same time. This probably explains Kiernan’s translation of Faiz’s poetry.

During his exiles he got acquainted with Edward Said in Beirut and Louis MacNiece in London. These were some of the associations which made Faiz into something of a global citizen – the only Urdu poet to break out of the small town stereotype.

Faiz died in 1984. In his last two years he nursed a deep hurt that Beirut, his favourite rendezvous (when in exile) was occupied by Israel in 1982. How thrilled would he have been at the winds of change sweeping the Arab world. Equally, he would have been shattered at the bizarre spectacle of rose petals being showered on the murderer of his nephew Salman Taseer.

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