Presented at the Faiz event organised by Poet in the City London 17 January 2011
Faiz Ahmed Faiz is not just a poetic genius; he became the voice of the unseen and unheard and the conscience of a nation. As the first half of twentieth century of Urdu poetry belonged undoubtedly to Muhammed Iqbal, the latter half belonged to Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Iqbal even awarded a poetry prize to a young Faiz while the latter was still a student but even Iqbal could hardly have guessed how another son of Sialkot was soon to inherit his mantle and with what distinction. Between Iqbal and Faiz, Urdu poetry developed from being viewed as a language of love to one of action and politics. Iqbal became the poet philosopher urging an Islamic renaissance and Faiz became the poet of the people, irrespective of creed or nationality.
Faiz Ahmed was born in a small village in Sialkot in 1911 during the time of the British Raj and received a traditional Punjabi Muslim education for the time. He was first sent the local mosque to study the Quran which gave him an excellent grounding in Islam which stood him in good stead for the rest of his life.
Faiz graduated from Murray College, Sialkot and later credited his command of Urdu to the teachers of this college and especially Mir Hasan, who had previously also taught Iqbal Arabic. Faiz then completed his higher education in Lahore where he studied for Masters in both English and Arabic Literature.
Faiz’s first published collection, Naqsh-e-faryaadi The Lamenting Image, uses the typical themes of a young Urdu poet – the themes of love, beauty and loss. It is a commonly held perception that a poet creates his best work in youth but this was not to be the case with Faiz, whose first collection begins with what he calls the ‘emotional preoccupation of youth’ – love, a phase which stayed with Faiz from 1928-29 till about 1934.
A pivotal move for Faiz came in 1934, when he took up a teaching post in Amritsar. It was here that he was exposed to left wing writers and teachers who persuaded Faiz to join the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and his outlook and poetic leanings were transformed forever.
Inspired by the PWA, he now began the second phase of his first poetry collection with the now legendary Do not ask of me, my beloved, that same love. This was Faiz’s first experiment with blending love for the ‘beloved’ into love for humanity, of turning the pain of separation into pain for all those who suffered as Faiz wrote, under the ‘dark, bestial spells of uncounted centuries’, in which he declares with his now found empathy:
Aur bhi dukh hain zamaane mein mohabbat ke siva
There are other sorrows in this world apart from that of love
Faiz believed passionately that all art had to have a social purpose; art for art’s sake for him was not worthy of being deemed art. He remained committed to the ideal of beauty, but wanted to translate that into a beautiful society was something worthwhile. As he said, ‘How can one sing praises to the beauty and fragrance of the rose while ignoring entirely the careworn hands of the gardener?’
British colonial rule was now facing a strong challenge in India and Faiz was inspired by his the anti-British sentiment by writing Bol Speak which became seen as the poetical motto of Faiz’s life written immediately upon his return from the first PWA conference in Lucknow in 1936. In it, Faiz captured beautifully the longing of the oppressed people wanting freedom urging people to speak out.
While now a committed socialist and anti-imperialist, Faiz joined the British Army’s propaganda wing during WW2 as he believed that Hitler and fascism presented a greater threat to India than the British.
Faiz longed for freedom and the departure of the British colonial structure but wanted that freedom to be coupled with social change; not just the exchange of the one set of rulers for another. His moving poem ‘Independence Dawn’ in 1947 records his disillusionment, leading to the first wave of official disapproval within the new state of Pakistan.
Now back in Lahore in the state of Pakistan, Faiz became the first editor of the Pakistan Times. Using this position, Faiz took the lead in trying to highlight the rights of workers, peasants and the poor.
His first of many arrests was in 1951 when a group of left wing military officers were rounded up in a failed coup attempt; known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy. Faiz was to send the next four years in jail; facing the possibility of a death sentence. Far from breaking him, the time in jail was to inspire Faiz to even greater literary heights. His second collection of poems resulted in two collections, Dast-e-saba The Breeze’s Hand and Zindan Nama the Prison Journal. Faiz also used his time in jail to help teach the Quran and Islamic education to some other prisoners, much to the confusion and consternation of the jailers who had been told that all the political prisoners arrested were communist atheists!
After his release, as his fame grew, so did the fear of successive governments in Pakistan about what Faiz represented and his growing fame and popularity. This was especially true after he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962. He was warned by the military government not to accept the award since, by this time; Pakistan had become a military ally of the US with membership of SEATO and CENTO, Asian equivalents to Nato. All progressive voices were now silenced or heavily censored. Faiz proceeded to Moscow anyway to receive his award, and his acceptance speech is worth recalling:
Human ingenuity, science and industry have made it possible to provide each one of us everything we need to be comfortable provided these boundless treasures of nature and production are not declared the property of a greedy few but are used for the benefit of all of humanity…I believe that humanity which has never been defeated by its enemies will, after all, be successful; at long last, instead of wars, hatred and cruelty, the foundation of humankind will rest on the message of the great Persian poet Hafez Shirazi: ‘Every foundation you see is faulty, except that of Love, which is faultless.’
His quotation of Hafez was no coincidence as Faiz was now to increasingly fuse the traditional Sufi poetry so ingrained and loved in Pakistan with the revolutionary socialist rhetoric he so passionately advocated. Faiz saw absolutely no contradiction in this; the great Sufi poets who wrote in Persian and Punjabi had traditionally spoken of the need of love, dignity and respect for all men irrespective of wealth and status and Faiz often used Islamic phrases and references in his writing.
Faiz was released by 1955 but then again arrested several times during the martial administration of General Ayub Khan. Faiz faced a dilemma when the India-Pakistan war broke out in 1965. Faiz was a patriotic Pakistani but one who recognised the futility and senseless death of war. Almost the whole of Pakistan was overtaken with the patriotic fervour of an all out war with India over Kashmir; a subject dear to almost every Pakistani heart. He was under immense pressure from even other progressive writers to join in with the composition of ‘patriotic’ songs. Faiz was one never to bow to the popular or the easy; instead, he wrote the haunting Lament for a dead soldier:
Utho ab mithi se utho
Jaago mere laal
Get up from the dust now
Wake up my dearest
The poem made no distinction between Indian and Pakistani soldiers and instead focused on the grief of all families who sons were now buried under mounds of dust while their brides, parents, children and siblings waited in vain for their return. It was a very brave poem for the time; the equivalent of a British poet writing a lament for all German and British soldiers in 1940. Faiz was fortunate not to be imprisoned because of it but was forced to go into hiding for a period following its release.
After the trauma of Pakistan’s ‘second partition’ in 1971 with the bloodshed in East Pakistan culminating in the creation of Bangladesh, Pakistan’s first elected civilian government came to power, and Faiz was appointed its cultural advisor. In that position, he created the Pakistan National Council of the Arts as well as the Lok Virsa, the Institute of Folk Heritage. These are lasting legacies which today are doing much to protect and promote Pakistan’s folk culture. In 1974, he visited the new state of Bangladesh, to repair relations and composed the famous Hum ke thehre ajnabi – We, who became strangers – expressing his sorrow at the events of 1971 though the simile of two former lovers or friends who have now gone their separate ways.
After another military coup of 1977 in Pakistan, Faiz chose to go into exile to Beirut rather than face the almost inevitable arrest. Faiz was now increasingly drawn to international issues such as Palestine, apartheid in South Africa and was in Beirut even as Israel helicopter gunships were pounding the PLO’s strongholds there. Faiz managed to leave Beirut just ahead of the tanks of the Israeli army in 1982, and returned to Lahore where he was able to spend the last few years of his life before passing away in 1984.
Just before he died, Faiz went returned again to his ancestral village. There, in a final act of defiance to his detractors who had branded him an atheist and Russian agent – he led the prayers at the local mosque. Today, outside the mosque is a stone on which is currently inscribed his one and only Persian na’at, or ode to the Prophet:
The rulers on their thrones are slaves to anxieties of land and wealth
Upon the dusty earth, Oh envy of the rulers of the age is thy mendicant!
If proof were needed, however, of the inspiration that Faiz provided to the people of Pakistan when facing military dictators, it came in 2007/9 when Pakistan’s last military ruler, General Musharraf, removed an irritatingly independent Chief Justice of Pakistan. In the mass rallies to restore the chief justice, it was Faiz who provided the inspiration as only he could.
Wa Yabka Wajho Rabbika. This title was taken from a Quranic verse,
Kullu man aalayha fanin,
wayabqa wajhu Rabbika Zul Jalali waal-Ikram.
Everything on this planetary existence is ephemeral,
Only the Majestic and Glorious Countenance of Your Sustainer is Eternal.
– The Quran 55:26, 27
The poem is popularly known in Pakistan as Hum DekheiN Ge We shall see, which became the defiant voice of the lawyer’s movement throughout Pakistan which galvanised civil society behind it. The speakers at rallies the length and breadth of Pakistan would recite one line and the crowd would chant back the next until the end of the poem. With each rally and each recitation, the military grip of power weakened and in 2008 Musharraf lost power and the following year the Chief Justice was restored to his post.
If and when Pakistan does come through its period of turmoil and becomes a country that Faiz had envisaged and suffered so much for, his contribution will have been immense. Through his 73 years he lived through British imperialism, a world war, independence and partition, two martial law administrations in Pakistan, a government position, the separation of East Pakistan and international events which both inspired and saddened him. Faiz did not die a rich man but financial wealth was never his goal. He did not live to see the social democracy in Pakistan he longed for but he left Pakistan a richer and better country. Whatever happens in the future of Pakistan, the only certainty is that poems of Faiz will be the inspiration for all its people seeking a better life. Faiz would undoubtedly have considered that riches enough.
About the author
Historian Farooq Bajwa PhD, author of ‘Pakistan and the West: The First Decade’, (Oxford, 1995); ‘Pakistan: An Historic and Contemporary Look’, (Oxford 1999 and the forthcoming, ‘From Kutch to Tashkent: a history of the 1965 India-Pakistan War’ has lectured at a number of universities and institutions and now practices law in London.