Faiz and Anthems of Resistance

Beena Sarwar

I was roped recently into moderating a panel on Faiz at the Left Forum after the original moderator, David Barsamian, well-known radio journalist/producer, couldn't make it at the last minute. The conference in Manhattan attracted some 3,000 leftists and socialists from around the world, including Egypt. 

The Faiz panel, organised by Brian Droulet of Deep Dish TV, aimed to provide a contemporary political context to Faiz. The panel borrowed its title from the book on progressive Urdu poetry and the All India Progressive Writers' Movement co-edited by brothers Ali and Raza Mir from Hyderabad in the Deccan. Ali Mir's lyrical recitations of Faiz's verses set the stage for writer Andy McCord to talk about the political context of Faiz's poetry. 

McCord cited declassified papers that testify to America's fear of Faiz. Warwick Perkins, the US counselor at the time, commented that an intellectual group is a much greater threat to security, and called Faiz the "most dangerous communist" of his time. 

Faiz's arrest in March 1951 was followed by mass arrests of Pakistan's progressive writers, journalists, students, teachers and thinkers, including my father, Mohammad Sarwar, then a medical student. When he was finally released from prison in 1958, many of his old friends avoided meeting him, but younger activists like Sarwar, Saleem Asmi and Haroon Ahmed rallied around him.

Faiz's imprisonment pushed him to resume his productive poetry, the meagre payments from which helped sustain his family. "Faiz always worked," McCord noted, "to put food on the table." 

Faiz's English wife, Alys, got a job editing the children's page of Pakistan Times. The brief editorials she wrote signed 'Apa Jan' inspired a lonely young migrant who missed her home in Pratapgarh, northern India - Zakia Hasan - to whom Alys became a lifelong mentor and friend. (Zakia and Sarwar later met in Karachi and got married; I was their firstborn.) 

Bilal Hashmi, a student of comparative literature of South Asia, internationalised Faiz, focusing on his deep interest and involvement in the struggles of newly independent nations - Palestine, Vietnam, Chile, Africa - "the struggles of my own people and people like me," as the poet termed it in a lecture. 

Writer Naomi Lazard, who translated Faiz's poetry into colloquial English after meeting him at a writers' conference at the East West Center in Hawaii, called him a "fellow laugher". "Faiz told me he was a sufi and had been educated in sufism," she said. The title of her book of translations, The True Subject, came from the writer's comment to her: "The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved."

"Iqbal didn't create any new style of poetry," noted Saiyid Ali Naqvi. "Faiz did - an amalgam of lyricism and politics, classical and modernist." 
He, too, noted the fear with which subsequent governments viewed the poet, even after he was released. "I was working at my office when a fellow entered without knocking and asked if Faiz had stayed with me the previous night. He then wanted to know where Faiz was. I told him that Faiz had left to meet President Ayub. 'Would you like me to find out if he's there?' I asked and reached for the phone. He left rather hurriedly."

Rafiq Kathwari talked briefly about his exposure to Faiz and Iqbal, that had sustained him during his nearly year-long prison term as a student in Kashmir. He closed with a powerful recitation of Faiz's Hum dekhenge... 

Someone asked: What about Faiz's 'silence' on the events of 1971? "A poet's first responsibility lies in his poetry," responded McCord. "But Faiz did address 1971 and preceding events. His poem Hizr karo meray tan se... (known better by its first line, Ab shurooh qatl-e-aam ka mela...) published in 1971, refers to 'the cries of my blood', invasion of 'my body', and slaughter. Later, his Hum ke thehre ajnabi refers to his anguish at the separation and bitterness." 

Today, when there are other curbs on speaking out, Faiz's poetry is emblazoned on banners by groups like Citizens for Democracy speaking out for justice and the rule of law. His exhortation to "Bol" (speak out) has never been more relevant in Pakistan.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2011