From the Editors
[For my comrades and poetry aficionados: Fawwaz Trabulsi and Mayssun Sukarieh, and for Raza Mir.]
Reading Faiz in Beirut.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984) is one of the greatest Urdu poets of the 20th century. Born in Sialkot, Punjab, Faiz came of age under colonial rule and in the throes of nationalist anti-colonialism. He joined the British Indian Army; he was an integral part of the Progressive Writers Association. He wrote searing poetry about life, and revolution, taking older poetic forms and forging new idioms that chartered the emotions of socialism. When Pakistan was formed in 1947, Faiz went in two directions: as editor of Pakistan Times he was central to the creation of democratic mainstream institutions, as a communist intellectual he was part of the formidable attempt to create democratic culture in the new country. Both tasks floundered as Pakistan entered its unforgiving political grammar: the twenty something families that dominate the economy and polity subverted the democratic process by a turn to the Barracks, backed to the hilt by the United States imprisoned in its own Cold War calculus. Faiz went to prison. Pakistan, he wrote, has been “sold to the neo-imperialist block.” By the 1970s, when the dictatorship of Zia thwarted any democratic possibility, Faiz was put under house arrest. Feigning to go smoke a cigarette, the poet escaped his captor and fled the country. He became the editor of the Afro-Asian magazine, Lotus, and became a resident in Beirut.
Faiz absorbed Beirut. He befriended the radicals (including a young Yasser Arafat), and found himself at the center of the city’s concerns and its imagination. The energy of Lotus reveals some of this, as do Faiz’s poems written in Beirut. Among them is ek nagma Karbala-e-Beirut ke liye (a song for the battlefield of Beirut), written in June 1982 in the throes of the Israeli invasion. Faiz returned to Pakistan in the middle of that war.
Translating Faiz into English.
Faiz joined the British Indian Army in 1941. A communist, he was moved by the anti-fascist war and wanted to be a part of it. His commanding officer, a former journalist from the London Times, told Faiz, “I’ve read your file, and see that you’re an advanced communist. Are you?” Faiz, then thirty, said, “I don’t know what a retarded communist is.” “You won’t let us down?” the officer pleaded. Faiz impressed them with his forthrightness, honesty and decency. These qualities earned him his promotion, and brought him, eventually, to the head dinner table at the Northern Headquarters in Rawalpindi. At a party, an elderly English woman said to Faiz, “I hear that you are a poet.” “Yes, I plead guilty to that.” “How nice,” she replied, “We hope that we’ll listen to some poetry after dinner.” Well, said Faiz, “I’m sorry. I write in Urdu, my language.” She said, “Then why don’t you write in English.” “Why should I write in English,” asked Faiz. “Isn’t it so much easier,” she countered.
In 1938, a young Englishman, Victor Kiernan, left the safe confines of Trinity College, Cambridge for a journey to India. A communist since 1934, he carried in his bags notes from the Communist International to the Indian party. That was his side mission. His primary motivation was to follow the dancer and activist Shanta Gandhi, whom he soon married. Gandhi was a founder member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and it was through her extensive contacts that Kiernan found his own feet among the radical artists whom he came to cherish. Among them was Faiz. They had communism in common, but also they had a deep love for poetry. The friendship flowered till Faiz’ death in 1984. In 1945, at Wular Lake in Kashmir, Kiernan took his remarkable facility with language toward Faiz’ ghazals. It was risky business, as Kiernan was soon to find. The tempo of the Urdu poetry is not the same as that of English verse. “Urdu prosody,” Kiernan wrote in 1955, “rests on a basis too remote from that of English to be reproduced with any exactness.” He felt that his own translations tried their best to give a sense of Faiz’ achievement, without pretending to re-present it as the original. The only way to Faiz, in other words, is to absorb the sounds in Urdu. “We all, it is probable, hear the rhythm of verse far more with an inner ear, an invisible chronometer developed by long habit and familiarity, than with the ear of sense. The best advice that can be given to a novice is to hear Urdu verse recited in the emphatically rhythmic style common in public declamation.” Kiernan first translated his other friend, Mohammed Iqbal, whose verse was more Persianate, more elaborate (Poems from Iqbal, 1955). “Iqbal wrote of the tribulations of the poor majestically,” Kiernan reflected, “as if looked down on them from heaven; he preached revolt of downtrodden peoples, relief of downtrodden classes by wealthier men infused with Islamic fraternalism.” Faiz was different. His poems sizzled with a different kind of hope. “Faiz belonged to a generation that examined poverty at close range, with its dirt and its sores, and he learned its problems in social, economic detail.” Translator and poet had a sympathy in their outlook.
In 1955, People’s Publishing House published Kiernan’s first translations of a selection from Faiz. It was an immediate success. The book, Poems by Faiz, had the Urdu text, prepared by Kiernan’s closest collaborator, Nazir Ahmed, the well-known teacher in Lahore. It also had the Urdu transliterated into English, and then two translations, one literal and the other with flourishes.
“This world knows other torments than of love,
And other happiness than a fond embrace;
Love, do not ask for my old love again.”
(mujh-se pahli-si mohabbat, meri mahbub na mang).
Kiernan is right about the need to hear the sounds. One evening, sixteen years ago, I sat with my friends Agha Shahid Ali and Tayyab Mahmud, and felt the tremors of beautiful words beat against my skin. Shahid was in full form, but so was Tayyab. I listened. It was my lot. My inner ear was in heaven. “Faiz has to be recited,” Shahid kept saying, as if to say that it was not possible to grasp the poetry in solitude, quietly.
Shahid had a magical hold on words, and he gave us his Faiz, sometimes in Urdu, sometimes in English. When Shahid was a little boy, Faiz had come to his house in Kashmir. So had the singer Begum Akhtar. Shahid had a cassette tape of the Begum singing Faiz. It is with this tape that he bribed the exiled Faiz in Beirut to allow him to begin a new set of translations. The impetus for his translations came from a chance encounter with the American poet Naomi Lazards’s attempt (The True Subject, 1987). Lazard met Faiz in Hawaii in 1979, and was taken with his verse. Faiz would give her his rough translation of a poem, and she would work on it. The method is similar to what Aijaz Ahmad did so wonderfully with Ghalib and a group of leading American poets (the result is in Ghazals of Ghalib, 1972). Lazard’s book had some wondrous interpretations of Faiz. It inspired Shahid.
Shahid wrote to Faiz, asking permission to take liberties with his poems as he took them on the long journey from Urdu to English. “I certainly knew your father,” Faiz wrote from Beirut, “and I am glad to have news from you. You are welcome to make your adaptations of my poems which I shall be happy to receive. Also some of your own poems and the tape or cassette of Begum Akhtar which you have kindly offered to send.” In a style that was only his, Shahid went after the poems. His translations are a collaboration with Faiz, but poems that he has truly authored. I hope, Shahid wrote, “that those who know both languages will find some pleasure in my moments of literal fidelity to Faiz as well as in those moments (of fidelity, I insist) when I am unfaithful.” Shahid followed Kiernan’s insistence on the importance of the sounds of Urdu, and in the magic of the imagery. The latter drew its sustenance, as Faiz put it the year before he died, “from the storehouse of classical tradition.” The point was to draw from this storehouse, not to be imprisoned by it. “Farhad of the Persian legend becomes the working class of today,” Faiz wrote, “and Laila of the Arabian Desert the goddess of liberation. The ghazal is a chameleon, mashuq-i-hazar in the Persian phrase, ‘a beauty with a thousand wiles.’ It continues to flourish because of the one quality which is necessary for the ‘survival of the fittest’; adaptability to changing environments.” This is why he was open to Shahid’s glorious adaptations (published in 1991 as The Rebel’s Silhouette).
“There are other sorrows in this world,
comforts other than love.
Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.”
(mujh-se pahli-si mohabbat, meri mahbub na mang).
ek nagma Karbala-e Beirut ke liye.
Below is my translation of Faiz’s Beirut poem (helped at crucial points by Raza’s keen ear). I was glad to offer it as my gift to Beirut in January 2012.
Bacchon ki hansti aankhon ke
Jo aainay chaknachoor hue
Ab unke sitarron ke lau se
Is shahar ke raaten roshan hain
Aur rakshan hai arz-e Lebanon
Jo chehre lahu ke ghaaze ke
Zeenat se siva purnoor hue
Ab unke dhamak partau se
Is shahar ke galiyaan roshan hain
Aur taabaan hai arz-e Lebanon
Har kushta makan, har eik khandar
Ham-paayaa-e-qasr-e daaraa hai
Har ghaazi rashk-e-Askandar hai
Har dukhtar hamsar-e Laila hai
Yeh shahar azaal se qayaam hai
Ye shahar abaad tak dayaam hai
* * *
Beirut, ornament of our world
Beirut, exquisite as Paradise’s gardens.
Those shattered mirrors once were
The smiling eyes of children,
Now are star-lit.
This city’s nights are bright.
and luminous is Lebanon.
Beirut, ornament of our world.
Faces decorated with blood
Dazzling, beyond beauty.
Their elegant splendor
Lights up the city’s lanes.
And radiant is Lebanon.
Beirut, ornament of our world.
Every charred house, every ruin
Is equal to Darius’ citadels.
Every warrior brings envy to Alexander.
Every daughter is like Laila.
This city stands at time’s creation.
This city will stand at time’s end.
Beirut, the heart of Lebanon.
Beirut, ornament of our world.
Beirut, exquisite as Paradise’s Garden.
To learn more about Faiz, please see the two books by Raza Mir and Ali Husain Mir: first, Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry (2006) and second, Faiz Ahmed Faiz: Poet of Resistance and Revolution (forthcoming from LeftWord Books, 2012).
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