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