Picture dated from the 1950s in Cairo of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. PHOTO: AFP

Reading two South Asian poets on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 50th death anniversary

His passing away marked the closing of a chapter in world history, the consequences of which we are still facing today

Raza Naeem September 28, 2020

Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Arab world’s greatest leader, passed away 50 years ago today. He was the leader of the group of Egyptian military officers who overthrew a hated monarchy in the July 1952 Revolution, and presided over the establishment of a republic as well as the departure of the last vestiges of British colonialism from Egypt. His republican coup inspired similar military-led revolutions in Iraq (1958), Northern Yemen (1962), Syria (1966), Sudan (1969) and Libya (1969). Thus the Egyptian Revolution and the rise of Nasser was the most significant event in the Middle East in the 20th century, and would remain so until Nasser’s successors signed a ‘peace treaty’ with Israel and marginalised Egypt’s role in the Arab world on the one hand, and the Iranian Revolution in 1979 on the other.

Though an Egyptian, Nasser worked tirelessly for Arab unity and freedom for Palestine. He enthusiastically tried to unite Egypt with Iraq and Syria for a short-lived United Arab Republic, which could not live up to its promise and split up in 1961. This disaster, together with Egypt’s disastrous involvement on the side of Yemeni republican forces in the Yemeni Civil War in the 1960s, and the devastating defeat of Arab forces in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War put paid to Nasser’s twin projects. Nasser never recovered from these incidents and passed away three years later, a broken but proud man.

To commemorate Nasser’s 50th death anniversary, I have chosen to translate one poem each from well-known Pakistani and Indian communist poets. Habib Jalib is Pakistan’s greatest resistance poet and his poem on Nasser, simply titled Gamal Abdul Nasser forms part of his 1975 collection Ehd-e-Saza (The Age of Punishment). This is an ode to the great Arab leader, and posits him as being immortal in contrast to his physical death as exemplified by the refrain Kon Kehta Hai Tu Mar Gaya Hai. So the reader comes away from the poem with a message of hope and determination. Here is how Jalib ends the poem in the original Urdu:

‘Baat bandooq ki ab zuban main

Kar sake ga na koi jahan main

Aatish-e-gham na bharka saken gi

Bijliyan ab kisi aashiyan main

Ab hain sahme hue saamraaji

Aman se zulm ab dar gaya hai

Kon kehta hai tu mar gaya hai’

Niaz Haider was an Indian resistance poet and theatre activist who was close to the Communist Party of India, which he never joined. He remains relatively little-known in Pakistan despite the fact that 2020 marks his birth centenary. The poem in translation here is titled Khabar-e-Irtihal-e-Nasir (News of the Death of Nasser) which is part of his 1959 collection Shola-e-Awargi (The Wandering Flame). In polar contrast to Jalib’s poem though, it is a classic dirge, the dark mood of the poem illustrated by mourning and lamentation, and the reader is really hard-pressed to feel hopeful. Here is the final stanza in Urdu:

‘Yeh yakayak zameen ka tham jaana

Kis naye saanihe ki khatir hai

Salab hone lagi hai taab-e-yaqeen

Khabar-e-irtihal-e-Nasir hai’ 

It is upto the reader to judge which of the two poems translated below does justice to its great subject. Be that as it may, the passing away of Gamal Abdel Nasser marked the end of an era and the closing of a chapter in world history, the consequences of which we are still facing today.


Gamal Abdel Nasser

The dawn of Arab lands

Who says you have died

O beauty of the nation with your heart’s blood

You have fulfilled the demand of existence

A million storms of untruths rose

But the bud of truth smiled

The night gave its all to stopping the sun

But morning had to follow suit, and it did

Now darkness will never dominate

You have left the morning young

Who says you have died.


Is it less of a favour, that your nation

Knows its enemy

That you were humanity’s masterpiece

The whole world acknowledges you

The curtains which covered the assassin’s face

You left them uncovered

Who says you have died.


No one in the world will ever

Now be able to wield a gun in speech

The lightning will now be unable to inflame

The fire of sorrow in any nest  

The imperialists are now scared

Injustice now fears peace

Who says you have died.



News of the Death of Nasser

One hears a heartbeat

Why is the world so downbeat

Within the tear of blood was burnt and extinguished the light of the eye

Why is the light so momentary.


Everywhere there is mourning and lamentation

Lowered are all the flags of liberation

As if life in relation to its death

Is itself celebrating sorrow in mirth.


The air is lost for beauty

The winds breathe with difficulty.


Why are tears flooding like the monsoon

Sunk in sorrow are the sun and the moon

The torn dresses are in flight

The blue sky has disappeared from sight

Indeed mourning for itself is life

The deserts and the tresses of the Nile, so rife.


What an eye-burning sight

Tresses drenched in dust and blood, alight.


Who seized from the flower its bloom

Who condemned the heart’s moonlight to gloom

Why does the wailing possess grief and despair

Why is desire clothed in black attire.


This earth coming to a standstill suddenly

Is this for the sake of another calamity

Lost is truth’s power

With the news of the death of Nasser.

Raza Naeem

The author is president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and translator. His translations of Saadat Hasan Manto have been re-translated in both Bengali and Tamil, and he received a prestigious Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in 2014-2015 for his translation and interpretive work on Manto. He is presently working on a book of translations of Manto's progressive writings, tentatively titled Comrade Manto.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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