An OPEN LETTER From Kishwar Naheed Looking back on a more than four-decade-old friendship with Ahmed Faraz, one of the best-known Urdu poets of Pakistan and of the sub-continent, now battling for his life in an American hospital.
24 Aug 08
We met back in 1964, in the Peshawar office of Yousuf Lodhi (the great political cartoonist who died a few years ago). That night we talked about politics, literature and made small jokes about contemporary writers. That was the start of our friendship. You and my husband Yousuf Kamran grew closer. You were both too glamorous. I know the way girls used to write letters to the two of you. The phone was not common then. Yousuf was presenting PTV’s popular programmes such as “Sukhanwar” and “Dastan Go”. You were being introduced on TV as the Hero Poet. When a famous singer sang your ghazal “Yeh Alam Shouq Ka Dekha na Jai’, viewers still remember you looking like a shy adolescent, the singer with her ring-studded fingers, looking proud of her achievement. Yes, it was a small spark, which was quickly put to ashes by her mother.
Faraz, You were my colleague at the National Centre (a State-run cultural centre, now defunct). I was posted at Lahore and you at Peshawar. You opted for a transfer to Islamabad in 1974. Again, some love spark very intense, very absorbing. But despite being a majnoon, you were conscious that a writer has to be a person with status.
On one side, your popularity was speeding up after Dard Ashob, your second collection of poetry. On the other, you decided to build your own house. You were fortunate that poetry made you rich. As you often claimed, no other poet had been as lucky. You received the highest royalty ever paid to a poet for over 30 years. Your poems were bestsellers. You have roamed the world reciting your poetry, letting people from the crowd repeat lines. An old man enjoys your poetry in the same way as a teenaged girl or boy.
Sense of humour
Once, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, you and I were chief guests. After me, when you started reciting your poetry, the fiery Tahira Abdullah objected. We want poetry on women, she said. Abruptly, Faraz, you said “all my poetry is about women”. Your sense of humour is so remarkable that even eminent humorist Mushtaq Yousafi was impressed by your repartee and wit.
I can never forget 1977 for two reasons. One is the time you recited “Peshaawar Qatilo” (Professional Killers) at a function at Islamabad. Around 2.00 a.m., men in white clothes [I don’t know why they always come in white clothes] entered the house and threw you into an army jeep and drove off. After a few days we consulted with Abid Hasan Minto, the lawyer, and filed an appeal in the Lahore High Court, that for the last 15 days Faraz is missing.
Justice Zullah was in the chair; he ordered the army to produce Faraz in two days and asked me and Saif sahib to bring all the writers we could collect on that particular day. Nobody will believe, Faraz. Right from Qasmi Sahib, every writer of name was in the High Court that day. When I saw you, I screamed; so thin had you gone, so spoiled your complexion. You were brought in escorted by the army. The judge, judges could then still speak like that, asked you “why were you locked up, did you see some warrant?” When you said no, the judge, in a very angry voice, announced that Faraz may be freed immediately. The decision was presented before Gen. Ziaul Haq, who was army chief of Pakistan. It was June 27, 1977.
The General’s words
You remember, Faraz? The General spoke to you to convince you about how important it was to support Bhutto sahib. Less than two weeks later, the same General placed Pakistan under martial law on July 5, 1977. That is, of course, the other reason why 1977 is unforgettable.
Faraz, you told us that during your stay in Attock Fort, you were kept in a dark and dingy basement, where food was given to you in a thali, by a hand whose face you could not see.
During that crisis I talked to Begum Bhutto, as we came to know that your arrest had the approval of Bhutto sahib. She promised to talk to him. Next day when I again rang her, she too was angry; she said Bhutto sahib had said all of us were his supporters. So why had Faraz placed him in such a situation? All of us were perplexed, how to make Bhutto sahib agree to release you? With Masood Ashaar, I went to see Madame Noor Jehan, as she was your admirer. Also we knew that she was a close friend of the “Black Queen” (whose closeness to Bhutto sahib was known to every one). After a lot of discussion, Madame went to Karachi and persuaded Black Queen to request Bhutto sahib to order your release.
Faraz, In 1978, you were reciting your famous poem Muhasra at Karachi. Right there, in the middle of the night, you were made to get up and leave as you had been “exiled” from Karachi and Sindh with immediate effect. You were so dejected that you exiled yourself from the country, stayed with your brother for six years in London. When you returned from England and Fehmida Riaz came back from India, we celebrated with a function at Lahore. Again we were together, but the distribution of government jobs created a new horizon of relationships. You were appointed Chairman Academy of Letters, and Fehmida was made MD, National Book Foundation.
Remember you were earlier made Chairman of the same academy by its founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto? The urge for a job in the government remained in you until Pervez Musharraf got angry because you spoke against the Army and you and your luggage from the residence were thrown out like that of any low man. Despite protests by the press and writers, nothing happened.
Remember when we went together in the processions for restoration of judges 2007-08. Many junior but non-committed writers, following your instructions, joined the processions.
Faraz, You have had a tendency to create controversies about either yourself or about different issues. Remember you spoke against marriage and said this is also a sort of prostitution through a contract on paper. How many newspapers and fundamentalists spoke against you? Another controversy you started was about the Urdu language. You said Urdu is a dying language. The entire Muttahida Qaumi Movement (a party that represents Urdu speakers in Pakistan) and many writers got angry with you. You also spoke against the army but then changed your words saying “I am against the ruling junta, not against a sipahi”.
You have been very popular internationally. You have hardly ever refused an invitation for a mushaira from anywhere in the world, but accept only on your own terms. You made writers conscious of getting royalty from the publishers; you made police crack down on illegal publishers. You made writers realize their self-respect. No one can accuse you of being a munafiq, a hypocrite. You have never been ashamed of your romances, never presented any excuse of your evening drink sessions.
Faraz, You have been the darling of singers, so much so that ghazals by others with the same name as you got popular. In all colleges, the girls who had never read poetry recited your couplets. Each one of them, even in Hijab, wanted your autographs. You, so conscious of your age, have never liked yourself to be called “Uncle”, especially by any women. You are Faraz Sahib for every one. But you did not object when my sons called you that. I, in turn, have been a darling aunty to your three sons and I have not seen any son so much fond of the father as your sons have been. But who is not fond of you and who will not remember you every evening with a glass in hand? Cheers my friend, your innings has never been without grace and glamour, and you are still our darling.